From DAVID SWANSON
New. Clear. Vision.
Susan Clark and Woden Teachout’s new book, Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home (Chelsea Green, available Oct. 10, 2012), offers the civil equivalent to slow food. The goal of both is not slowness for its own sake, but quality, health, sustainability, and the pursuit of happiness.
We all know that the federal government ignores us most of the time, state governments nod in our direction once in a blue moon, and local governments listen to us quite often. So, there is an argument to be made for moving decision-making powers to the local level and engaging there.
The focus of Clark and Teachout’s book is on how to engage with local democracy, and toward what ends. Adversarial campaigning may not work. What gets you on television at a Congressional “town hall” could just alienate your neighbors at a real town hall. A deeper understanding of democracy than just the desire for Washington, D.C., to follow majority opinion once in a while involves the realization that we are all better off if all of our viewpoints are considered. We all know that in small discussions the result can be greater than the sum of its parts. The same is true in local politics. New ideas can arise through exchange and disagreement; a synthesis that considers the needs of more than one group can be better for all, longer-lasting, and strengthened by the depth of its public support.
Seeking to engage with others and involve those who disagree with us looks like a disastrous approach to those who work on political advocacy at the national level (except Democrats, to whom it looks like a brilliant innovation guaranteed to work on the very next attempt). Treating national officials like friends will usually get you sold down the river. When we were occupying Washington, D.C., last fall and holding consensus-based eternal dialogues in the shadow of the Capitol, we were excellent and improving at the skill of deciding which building we would shut down tomorrow or who was going to help make dinner. But saying just a few words out loud, no matter how politely, in a “public” hearing on Capitol Hill would only serve to get us thrown in jail, and often did.
Worse, however, than trying to take slow democracy national may be trying to take national politics local. A town hall in a small town in Vermont can be ruined by following the proper conduct to get yourself on Fox News or CNN. Shouting and name calling don’t usually advance discussions outside of politics. Why should they be helpful within it? Slow Democracy looks at numerous examples from around the country and outside of it in which local governments are finding ways to more deeply involve residents in deliberations and even decision making. The results are not just decisions that carry broader support, but also in many respects better decisions.
Why can this be done locally and not on a larger scale? The right wing fears big government and the left big corporations, the two of which have merged. Both fears are very well placed.