“American democracy works because America makes it work at the local level.”
The moment I heard Joe Biden utter these words in his Electoral College victory speech on December 12, 2020, they became my rallying cry for the next four years. This statement suggests to me that whatever we can do locally to foster the democratic principles and values that have come under such terrifying assault in the last four years, is precisely what the Biden Administration needs us to do in support of its quest to restore American democracy—who knows, maybe even bringing it closer than ever before to living up to its best and highest potentials.
Given how corrupted nearly all the language has become that we used to use for civic discourse, it’s become nearly impossible to talk about democracy. What do we even mean by “democracy”? I doubt that verbal agreement is possible in the current climate, maybe even among relative like-mindeds. (We could use a “Civil More Institute”!)
So, our Visions of Democracy now may have to be expressed in the language that speaks louder than words: through our actions. It may be more productive now to show what we mean by democracy than to try to explain it in words that either put people to sleep or set them on fire. It’s not likely to be a very worthwhile conversation either way.
It may be time now to do fewer protests and more demonstrations—“demonstrations” in the literal sense of showing people “how to do” something. Demonstrate lots of different ways of “doing democracy.”
Just as we often understand another language better when we hear it than we’re able to speak it ourselves, we can probably all recognize and point out examples of “doing democracy” even when we can’t exactly explain why we think it’s democracy. I’m going to give you some examples and you can decide for yourselves if they sound democratic or not. I can tell ya what, though—they’re all amazing and curiously uplifting!
It’s dangerous to start a list because inevitably you’re leaving out so many outstanding candidates, but here goes:
The Adams County Food Policy Council, a broad and deep coalition of local, regional, state and federal entities and resources, was featured in a January 19, 2021 Penn State Extension webinar on Food Access and Covid-19. (Available for viewing and well worth it at https://psu.mediaspace.kaltura.com/media/1_6h6x9a6k ) One of the things that impressed me most in this panel presentation was that the Food Policy Council has found that its needs assessment efforts in the most food insecure communities over the years have served a dual purpose: data collection and relationship building—and that the relationship building is actually the most important thing (beyond the stated and successful mission of extending food security). And it sure seems to me like this kind of relationship building, especially with people who live closest to the edge, is an essential component of “doing democracy.”
@Home in Adams County. This fairly new coalition, launched over three years ago to address issues identified in another community-wide needs assessment, describes itself as “partners from local businesses, the faith community, education, social services and healthcare [that] have joined together to find solutions that support local families and strengthen the fiber of our community.” Currently the coalition’s task forces are focusing their efforts on affordable housing, employment, transportation, and soon, expanding broadband access throughout the county, in order “to educate, advocate and develop solutions to ensure all Adams County families have the ability to work and live well locally.” Check it out at https://www.homeinadamscounty.org/
Another impressive coalition I’m just beginning to learn more about is the South Mountain Partnership, whose January 29, 2021 “Power of the Partnership” webinar (not yet available online, but you can learn a lot of other good stuff about SMP at https://southmountainpartnership.org/ ) blew me away every bit as much as the Food Access webinar for its demonstration of the “power of partnership” across a wide spectrum of governmental and non-profit and private entities—in this case, focusing broadly on environmental and cultural landscape conservation. In this webinar, as in the Food Access webinar, there was a refreshing emphasis on connecting across disciplines and building relationships—including some that were quite unlikely but extremely beneficial.
Did it ever occur to you that “attention” is a form of energy? That it is a very real power-booster and force- multiplier? Have you ever regretted laughing at a child’s silly joke because you then keep hearing it with mounting hysterical intensity for the next whole hour?
See? What you pay attention to, you get more of. Think about it.
So, if we wanted to see more local democracy in action, we would…pay more attention to it, maybe even go out of our way to look for it, and celebrate it when we find it.
Another force multiplier is “appreciation,” which has several meanings that have to do with recognizing value and adding to it. What you “appreciate” is likely to grow and flourish.
I guess you could say attention and appreciation are forms of energetic fertilizer. And they’re about the most readily available, generative, and self-renewing forms of energy there are. You feel more energized when you use them! And you can help democracy thrive by applying them strategically.
The common denominator in the examples I’ve given of living local democracy is that they are all excellent models of “systems that work.” Whatever they set out to do, they git ‘er done. Given Heather Cox Richardson’s observation in her Facebook blog, Letters from an American (1.22.21), that “we are in an uncomfortable period in our history in which the mechanics of our democracy are functionally anti- democratic,” these “systems that work” would appear to be absolutely vital to the restoration and ongoing evolution of democracy.
Hari Kondabolu, a comedian, concurred with this on NPR’s “The 1A” (1.27.21): “Democracy is…about actually making the system work the way it’s supposed to work.” (Comedian or not, I don’t think he said it as a joke. And he thinks functionality is more important than unity right now.)
And this from a website I recently discovered, community-wealth.org, “Owning the Future”: “…the present crisis [Covid pandemic] is our last best opportunity to change course and build a more local, generative, social and democratic economic system.
“The Covid-19 pandemic could become a moment of crystallization, with citizens and governments working together to build a new social contract and a genuinely inclusive economy.
“Building this new economy will require a combination of macro-policy actions from the top down and also a groundswell of democratic strategies from the bottom up.”
Speaking of “democratic strategies,” here’s one I bet you never heard of before: “Legislative theater.” I only learned of it very recently myself, from one of the few twenty-somethings I’ve met here. Here’s how it’s described at https://beautifultrouble.org/tactic/legislative-theater: “Legislative theater is essentially a forum theater performance—a short play about a particular issue or set of issues that ends in a crisis, which the audience is then invited to help solve by taking the place of one of the characters on stage—but with a key difference. The difference is that the audience interventions are followed by a brainstorm and discussion of policies or laws that could help solve some of the problems that came up in the performance, or that could help bring about some of the solutions “spect-actors” (the engaged audience) had offered during the performance.”
I don’t know about you, but this sounds to me like a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down!
Okay, and one more thing: Pennsylvania Heart & Soul Communities: https://pahumanities.org/initiatives/civic-engagement-grants “What role can the humanities play in community development? [Since we’ve already taken a step in that direction with Legislative Theater.] A powerful one! The Pennsylvania Humanities Council works with residents across the Commonwealth to incorporate the humanities into community planning processes.” Sounds enough like “doing democracy” to suit me. Near us, there are Heart & Soul Communities in Dillsburg, Mt. Holly Springs, and Greater Carlisle, so it wouldn’t be too hard to learn more about how this project is enriching these communities’ development efforts.
And lastly: If the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of 56 lawmakers in both houses of Congress, were a political party in its own right, I’d join today! Just the fact it exists gives me hope for democracy. There’s apparently a Common Sense Coalition in the Senate, too. Back to “attention as energy,” NPR said recently that the Problem Solvers Caucus isn’t getting much national attention—but don’t you think it should? They were instrumental in getting the last (pre-Christmas) stimulus approved after seven months of gridlock. Their solution didn’t please everyone (probably didn’t please anyone, truth be told). But back when the Senate was called “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” everyone understood that nobody ever gets exactly what they want and no legislation passes without compromise. It sure seems like Biden’s democracy- restoring agenda would be strengthened by our support of anybody in Congress—or running for Congress in the future–who even attempts to solve problems and use common sense, as opposed to merely amassing and wielding power for private gain. I’ll be following the Problem Solvers Caucus more closely from now on and talking it up to anyone who will listen!
So, let’s hear it for living local democracy: Do, Be, Do, Be, Do!