Recentering Democracy   Framing The Discussion
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Recentering Democracy Framing The Discussion



Opening comments at the Recentering Democracy Around Citizens conference, February 16, 2010, Cantigny Conference Center, Wheaton, IL. Conference organized by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, ...

Opening comments at the Recentering Democracy Around Citizens conference, February 16, 2010, Cantigny Conference Center, Wheaton, IL. Conference organized by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, hosted by the McCormick Foundation.



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  • Thought I’d try to frame the discussion over the next few days by showing a few slides and telling a few jokes
  • A visioning session – a nuts-and-bolts planning meeting – or a cooking class?
  • I can tell some of you don’t watch television – this is very sad – I need to put Julia Child here so you’ll know what I’m talking about
  • We know language is a big problem in the field – we could spend a whole meeting talking about that – I don’t think that’s really where we want to go, but we do need to clarify at least a few terms. Last one first because it is easiest: citizens are residents (yes, there’s a big discussion to be had there; please let’s not have it now). So we’ve dealt with the word citizens, that brings us to democracy…
  • “Nation…”
  • We know there are dictionary definitions (“a system of representative government,” “rule of laws not men,” …) and those aren’t very helpful to our conversation here. We know there are popular perceptions (“a country where people vote for the rulers”) but those aren’t helpful either. What I think we’re talking about here is the combination of governance and community.
  • …and when we think about this in terms of the kind of democracy we want, we might add in a number of other adjectives…
  • …and if we try to explain what people are actually doing in a democracy that fits those adjectives, we might come up with something like this.
  • Participation, democratic governance, and about ten other civic synonyms For the sake of clarity, important to point out how Knight is using it – different from what many of us in this room are used to
  • These are elements commonly found in good involvement projects; not always all apparent; you will hear some variations in a few minutes when we talk about involvement in different issue areas. People often don’t have these elements in mind going in – this is a field where people continually reinvent the wheel, and this is basically what they reinvent. These elements also aren’t all that new; you can find them in various parts of the world and historical epochs, and in ancient tribal traditions and processes that are still going on today.
  • (Whatever benefits there are) Involvement happens in a very piecemeal way Temporaries: bunch of people get involved, deal with an issue, and it is done – study circle programs, 21 st C Town Hall meetings, National Issues Forums, Deliberative Polls, etc. Permanents: neighborhood councils, recurring planning processes, local school councils, tribal decision-making processes This is a huge generalization, and Terry has argued that there’s a third form that is kind of a hybrid of the two, but this all gets very complicated and it seems easier to leave it at that
  • So then this word “recentering” – one assumption I’m making here is that recentering democracy may mean using at least some of the lessons and strategies of “involvement.” When someone asks whether involvement “works,” it seems like there are two logical responses to that question. One is to ask “Work for whom?” But even if you delve into that question and you decide that it can work for all kinds of people, the other basic answer to the question of whether involvement works is “Sometimes.”
  • Here’s the third possible response.
  • Certainly some great examples of involvement that reaches a broad array of people – and I would argue it is a much broader array than politics as usual – but still, current formats are going to favor the better educated, wealthier, whiter residents. Still a tall order to get all kinds of people to the table, to frame the discussion in ways that allow underrepresented voices to be heard, and so on. Recentering holds promise of greater equity.
  • I remember when Roger Bernier, this Centers for Disease Control official, was trying to figure out how to get input on a federal policy decision. This was about ten years ago, and I was giving him my normal stuff about recruitment and process, and he said ‘No, I can’t possibly assemble all the people I need – I need to go where the people are already assembled.’ And that’s a problem, because people aren’t normally assembled in any sort of way that makes it easy for a state or federal decision-maker to get to them.
  • Soul of a Community research, as Katherine is going to tell us, finds that there is a strong correlation between what they’re now calling attachment (how people feel about their community) and economic growth and vitality. It is important to say here that the factors they have found so far that drive feelings of attachment are aesthetics (how the community looks), social offerings (are there fun things to do?), and openness (does the community feel welcoming to a broad range of people?). Engagement as defined in the Gallup survey used more traditional measures – they asked if people voted, if they attended a public meeting, and so on – and those traditional kinds of engagement did not make people feel more attached to their communities. In fact there may even be a negative correlation – which, having been to lots of terrible public meetings, wouldn’t surprise me. In any case, we shouldn’t assume that involvement as we’re talking about it here automatically leads to community attachment, and therefore to economic vitality. However, this research does encourage local leaders and others to think of themselves as community-builders, and I think a lot of us in this room would argue that ‘involvement’ has the potential to drive community attachment – both in and of itself, and for the instrumental reason that involvement is commonly used to help generate the resources for public goods – such as aesthetic improvements, social offerings, and so on.
  • This is often the most obvious thing you find when you talk to people who’ve participated in some sort of activity that gets them talking with their neighbors, deciding what to do about something, and doing it: they like it. They usually didn’t expect to like it, but they did. Typical involvement efforts only provide this feeling temporarily, in the context of a particular issue or decision. When John Adams wrote about it in 1787, he described it as a more ongoing, everyday aspect of community life: “Wherever men, women, or children are to be found, whether they be old or young, rich or poor, high or low, wise or foolish, ignorant or learned, every individual is strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him.”
  • But here’s another definition that may be more appealing to you.
  • In other words, how has this discussion changed recently? Citizens have less time, but bring more to the table; feel more entitled, but have less faith and trust; less connected, but better able to affect – governing-governed Not that everything suddenly goes online – but that online and face-to-face communication and connections complement and build on one another Not just citizens, or democracy weirdos like me, who are frustrated: one of the big differences is that local leaders are deeply frustrated and feel unable to do what they were elected or appointed to do.
  • Back to Rachael Ray again Could be others: Donna and Taylor lobbied for libraries; civic grantmaking (didn’t put it up because it seemed like a means to these ends rather than end in itself); youth seems like an obvious missing one We’ll delve more deeply into all of these this afternoon

Recentering Democracy   Framing The Discussion Recentering Democracy Framing The Discussion Presentation Transcript

  • Recentering Democracy around Citizens McCormick Foundation Deliberative Democracy Consortium Cantigny Conference Center Wheaton, Illinois February 16-18, 2010
  • In other words, he thinks he’s Stephen Colbert
  • In other words, he thinks he’s Stephen Colbert Rachael Ray
    • What is recentering?
    • What is democracy?
    • What are citizens?
    Recentering Democracy around Citizens
  • …which brings us to tonight’s word
  • Democracy = Governance + Community?
  • Democracy = Just, Equitable, Deliberative Governance + Inclusive, Intensive Community?
  • Democracy = Discovering, Deliberating, Deciding + Dining, Drinking, Dancing?
  • Quick, stop him before he has an alliteration overdose
  • “ Engagement” and “Involvement”
    • Often used interchangeably – along with many other terms
    • Definitions always fuzzy
    • Knight/Soul of the Community definition somewhat broader
  • I will use “involvement” to mean:
    • Large, diverse critical mass of people (or sometimes a representative sample)
    • Size (of group) matters
    • Process matters – facilitation, guides, personal experience, range of views
    • Different levels of action: volunteerism, small-group change, organizational change, policy change
  • Two contexts for involvement
    • Temporary efforts (the benefits are enjoyed by a large number of people but for a short period of time)
    • Permanent structures (the benefits are enjoyed for a longer period of time but by a smaller number of people)
  • Humor him – he only has control of this meeting for ten more minutes
    • Reason #1:
    • Because current practices of involvement can “work” – but are usually not sustainable
    • ( So recentered democracy = sustained involvement)
    Why even try to “recenter” democracy?
  • “Works” = Matt continues to have a job
    • Reason #2:
    • Because current practices of involvement are inequitable
    • ( So recentered democracy = more equitable involvement, with more equitable outcomes)
    Why even try to “recenter” democracy?
    • Reason #3:
    • Because current practices of involvement can’t easily be ‘scaled up’ to state and federal issues
    • ( So recentered democracy = national democracy)
    Why even try to “recenter” democracy?
    • Reason #4:
    • Because community attachment has benefits – and ‘politics as usual’ may reduce attachment
    • ( So recentered democracy = more proactive approach to community)
    Why even try to “recenter” democracy?
    • Reason #5:
    • Because people want political legitimacy
    • ( So recentered democracy = public happiness)
    Why even try to “recenter” democracy?
  • “Public happiness” = How you felt after the third glass of wine at the reception last night
  • Why talk about “recentering” now?
    • Changes in what citizens want and can do
    • Changes in technology
    • Increasing inadequacy (due to 1 and 2) of “politics as usual” – frustrations of leaders as well as citizens
  • Potential ingredients of robust, ‘recentered’ local democracy:
      • Strong tradition of involvement in decision-making and problem-solving
      • Legal, governmental structures, support, and legitimacy
      • Thriving online community that is connected to geography
      • Abundant social/cultural/political offerings