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S U S a n C L a r k and W O d E n T E a C H O U T
Fo r e w o r d b y F r a n k M . B r y a n
Rediscovering community, bringing decision making back home
What is understood . . . in the United States is the slow and quiet action of society upon itself. It is a regular state of things really founded upon the enlightened will of the people. It is a conciliatory government, under which resolutions are allowed time to ripen, and in which they are deliberately discussed, and are executed only when mature.”
—Alexis de Tocqueville
The decline of democracy in America is best marked by the decay of its very definition. Calling America a democracy is like calling football tennis. In truth democracy is a construct so thin that its meaning has been reduced to flagrant ambiguity. Like love, its meaning has become wholly dependent on its adjectives. Worse, the word “democracy,” in one form or another, has migrated into strange oxymorons. Consider, as in America’s case, “democratic republic.” Oxymorons like “Fox News” (found inside the locket on Sarah Palin’s neck) and “voluntary mandate” (found inside President Obama’s health care law) can be funny. But like “democratic republic,” they may cry warning: mischief is afoot; disaster awaits. This book has no definitional ambiguity. It is about face-to-face deliberative democracy. Postmodern culture, says the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner, is increasingly caught up in disasters. In his recent book, he calls this the “ideology of catastrophe.” Fueled by a capitalist media that sells doomsday scenarios with impunity, the ideology of catastrophe has itself become catastrophic. Hyperactive fear leads not to reasoned action but to paralysis, writes Bruckner. It shuts off oxygen to the brain. I tend to agree with this unfortunate diagnosis but would add a friendly (and age-old) amendment: The greatest danger of apocalypse baiting may have been forewarned in the fifth century B.C. by a Greek slave named Aesop. Sometimes the wolf is real. What then? Trust me. It is with appropriate humility and extreme deference to both Bruckner and Aesop that I now cry warning: The American center is
viii | slow democracy
collapsing. It is nearly brain-dead. The Republic, so resplendent in hope and promise a mere century past, now gasps for air, its parts panting along but its heart (a mosaic of local democracies throughout the land—Jefferson’s “schoolhouses” of democracy) beating ever fainter. The sound of democratic oxygen beating upward to sustain our national citizenship has become but a whisper. This accelerating calamity is made more tragic still by the presence of a solution that lies right under our noses. Why can’t we see it? Why can’t we embrace it? Fortunately, Susan Clark and Woden Teachout can and have. Even better, they chose to share it. You have their blueprint for an American redemption in your hands. Their prescription calls for oxygen, and the oxygen of our representative Republic is and has always been democracy—real, face-to-face democracy. Even the “father of representation,” John Stuart Mill, recognized the essential role democracy plays in sustaining the kind of government he so wisely envisioned as the solution to the fall of monarchy. Mill proffered not the oxymoron he eschewed (a democratic republic) but a representative republic sustained by democracy—by democrats reared and trained as citizens in human-scale communities. Mill’s genius is in part found in his recognition that the presence of homegrown democrats is essential to the proper functioning of a distant representative republic. “All politics,” a famous New England Democrat once said, is “local.” Tip O’Neill, the congressman from Massachusetts, might well have added: “That is why all democracy is local, too—or at least it had better be.” Bottom line? Face-to-face democracy in the parts is essential to a representative republic for the whole. It is because the latter—our splendid Republic—is so critical to us (and to the world) that a renaissance of what the authors of this book call “slow” democracy is now so critical. We need to take back our localities, reacquaint democracy with place (and vice versa), and, by governing these places ourselves, give the center the space to breathe again. By doing this, three good things will happen. First, much of our public policy (both left and right now agree) will be much better designed and (thus) much better implemented. Second, the Nation will be freed to do those things it must do much better. Third (and most importantly), democracy will be restored—where it belongs. Representation will be dramatically improved because those who represent and those who are represented will be trained
foreword | ix
in the art of democracy, the product of face-to-face tutorials in deliberative and humane decision making. Briefly: how did we get into this mess and what are the chances we can pull off the fundamental changes needed to get out of it? In truth we need not be hard on ourselves. America came of age in the teeth of the urban-industrial revolution. We were captivated by it—body and mind. Hierarchy, authority, symmetry, and centralism were more than the natural outcroppings of the machine age. They were causal. That our social and political institutions followed suit is neither surprising nor actionable in the jurisprudence of history. The world has changed but (quite understandably) our behavior has not. We, and our political leadership, are still trapped in the vacuum of purpose created when new behavioral opportunities (and in some cases mandates) are caught in the reverse momentum, the ebb tide, of a bygone age. Our collective behavior still is drawn backward by the habits of hierarchical rigidity. What is needed now is a smart, holistic, and most importantly courageous reassessment of the options available to us in terms of governance. The potential for such a new calculus of democracy is immensely enhanced by the passing of the second-wave urban-industrial model, driven by steam and then gasoline. In its place we find the ascendance of a third wave—a new paradigm—for today’s electronic age. It’s a paradigm that is nonhierarchical, community centered, and fundamentally (and uniquely) democratic in character. At its core one axiom prevails: the third wave is as centrifugal as the second wave was centripetal. This new model has been recognized and indeed explored for some time. In fact, it dominates marketplace culture and is thus rapidly transforming the way we live, the way we think, the way we buy and sell, the way we read and educate and play and dream. Only one constellation of human activity seems relatively untouched: the way we govern. Worse still, to the extent that the electronic revolution (especially the information and communication technology associated with it) has informed our politics, it has driven us further into the morass of enhanced second-wave behavior. Our political system has become faster, more centralized, more homogeneous, more predictable. Thus it has become more inhumane. As for our more and more centralized (thus counter-paradigmatic) representative “democracy,” it grows thinner, ever thinner. And it grows dumber, meaner, and, yes, more and more abhorrent.
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Everywhere we need smart, young, creative scholars and activists who are unattached to the old framework and brave enough to commit their precious personal resources to a postmodern democracy project. We need a new generation of democrats who look at the times into which they were born and say: We can fashion a fresh, unique world of human-scale politics and reinstate the citizen as the center of a humane republic of democratic governance. Enter Clark and Teachout. They have several things going for them. One is that they are gutsy. They are willing to look both liberal and conservative mantras straight in the eye and call them to account. Mind you, they know their audience. Still, they don’t flinch. They’ve seen enough of the “buy local,” “sell local,” “think local,” and “be local” along with “Vote Obama” bumper stickers and seem to be just itching to sneak up and slap on a “govern local” bumper sticker for good measure—if only to call a bluff or two. They are democrats, you see. Real democrats. Their brand of “slow democracy” is perfectly situated on the nexus where traditional “local control” conservatives and newer “small is beautiful” liberals meet. In today’s America, with the marketplace capitalist/ social-conservative Republicans and the mega-state/centralized-planning Democrats soiling themselves and each other with their incessant, inane yapping, Clark and Teachout are a breath of fresh air. They are also in sync with a new and hopeful movement in academe—and on the ground in communities across the nation—that uses real-time application of deliberative democracy as both a laboratory for and a means of disseminating the results of deliberative democracy. Deliberative democrats argue that face-to-face interaction is of critical value in a democracy for its own sake. The authors of Slow Democracy are in many ways, therefore, radical decentralists. Some argue that citizens can be drawn from a national pool to participate in face-to-face deliberation, the results of which are then ratcheted upward to inform national policy. Others prefer to concentrate on enhancing face-toface deliberation in more natural settings, such as local deliberative forums or even formal institutions like councils and boards, with the results to be used for the immediate purpose of influencing local jurisdictions directly. But most significant is the existence (at last!) of a cadre of thinkers and doers at large in the country who truly believe in democracy. It is this last group who might find the authors’ provocative vision most intriguing.
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Moreover, Clark and Teachout are, to borrow a phrase from Megatrends author John Naisbitt, “riding the horse of history in the direction history is going.” Americans are (and have been for some time) returning home again. The ascendant techno-electronic paradigm is making this journey both natural and easy. Finally, the politics are lining up in a way favorable to slow democracy. We have known for some time that the dehumanizing effects of centralization, hierarchy, and authority have been bending the extremes of the classic left-right ideological continuum downward and inward toward an inevitable rendezvous with a new dichotomy. The right (properly) fears big government. The left (properly) fears big business. The shift began with Eisenhower, who saw danger in the creation of a new and all-too-powerful “military-industrial” establishment. It took shape slowly for the next half century, gaining momentum in the last decade. Most recently it appeared in the congruence—which seemed at first a bit weird—between the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street protesters. But more and more, we are realizing that the commonality is not weird at all. The “sector”—public (government) or private (industry)— matters less than the dynamic. The undemocratic, indeed the antidemocratic imperative of both traditional sectors was centralism, hierarchy, and authority. Now it has become (blessedly) apparent that the fact that one is somehow “public” and the other is somehow “private” matters not. Slow Democracy is a book apart. Its courage permits it to be honest. Its honesty compels us to think of community and democracy as one—inseparable in concept as well as practice. Its vision commands us to make good on our professed faith in each other by practicing collective action face-to-face. Its hope is that we can learn to accept that properly understood, democracy needs no adjectives, that the title of the book, while perfect for the authors’ generation, becomes a redundancy for the future. Its wisdom suggests that their hope will be fulfilled. As for the rest of us, we should join in that hope. The future of the Republic depends on it. Frank M. Bryan May 2012
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