Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home, by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (2012 Chelsea Green Publishing), is about a process known as “deliberative democracy.” This is a type of direct democracy in which community members play a genuine role in local governance decisions.
The book is mainly about the growing number of communities (in New York, Chicago, Washington State, Oregon, Maine, Gloucester Massachusetts, Boulder Colorado, Austin Texas, Canada, India, Eastern Europe, Australia) that have incorporated deliberative community meetings into decisions involving planning, governance, and budgeting. In the US, the 2008 global meltdown has led to ongoing state and municipal budget deficits. Cutting services is always unpopular. Thus there is strong motivation for local officials to involve the community in tough budgeting decisions.
Clark and Teachout see three alarming trends occurring in industrial society. Both public resources and governance decisions are moving towards increasing centralization and privatization. Increasingly private corporations usurp resources that rightfully belong to the public, while simultaneously making governance decisions that used to be made by elected officials. Meanwhile the public response to the corporate takeover of society has been apathy and disengagement from public life.
The authors see the deliberative democracy movement as the ideal prescription to counteract these destructive trends. The process goes by different names in different areas – study circles, charettes, meetings in a box, Who Decides, Portsmouth Listens, Living Room Conversations. Yet all seem to operate by the same underlying principle: a commitment to identify potential solutions to community problems through a public process based on good information and respectful relationships.
The New England Town Hall Meeting
Clark and Teachout begin their book with a description of the New England town hall meeting, in which residents themselves serve as the legislative branch of government. Hundreds of towns in six New England states still govern themselves via town meetings, as they have done since pre-revolutionary times. This type of direct democracy was hard to transplant to the sparsely populated settlements of the Wild West, though it was revived briefly in the Populist and Progressive movements of the late 19th century. Outside of New England it virtually vanished with the massive expansion of federal government that occurred with the New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War. Between 1945 and 1990, hundreds of thousands of federal, state, and municipal workers gradually took over decisions that were previously made in public meetings.
Slow Democracy’s Track Record
The most dramatic success Clark and Teachout describe is when the residents of Gloucester Massachusetts ousted Suez, the French multinational that ran their water supply, and galvanized the community to start their own water company. Through a similar process, the residents of Boulder Colorado replaced coal-based Xcel Energy with their own renewables-based electric company. Slow Democracy also describes the multiple successes of the local sovereignty movement in which the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has helped communities in the Northeast and on the West Coast pass ordinances banning hog farms, toxic sludge, fracking, GE crops, and aquifer depletion for bottled water plants.
For me the most valuable chapter was about the Yale Law School Cultural Cognition Project and other tools to enhance effective deliberation among groups with opposing political views. The authors begin by dispelling the myth that the US is hopelessly split into left-right ideologues. In 2007 the Cultural Cognition Project interviewed a random sample of 5,000 Americans. As predicted, the interviewees didn’t self-select into neat left-right or liberal-conservative camps. Instead their core beliefs could be plotted on a two dimensional grid depending on their views about hierarchical authority vs egalitarianism and individualism vs collective responsibility. The study results are available at Cultural Cognition Project.
It turns out that living in the same community causes residents to share many of the same concerns, despite profound differences in their worldview. Clark and Teachout give examples of successful community conversations between groups with opposing views on climate change, the Israel-Palestine conflict and abortion. All were successful in finding some areas of agreement, while simultaneously discovering the media was playing a major role in fanning the clash between them.
The book includes valuable appendices on ground rules for local officials and ordinary citizens seeking to set up effective “study circles,” as well as organizations willing to help facilitate the process and publications offering additional tools.