Friday, February 20, 2009

DIY Democracy - It's Not Just Voting Anymore

There is a lot more to democracy than just voting. For some, that feels like an important part but it cannot be the only. I believe that to create change and create a true democracy requires the active participation of all of its citizenry. We need to create the neighborhoods that we want to live in, the infrastructures to get good food, make sure that everyone's basic needs in our community are being met and we need to make this a democracy.

We cannot wait for the government to fix problems for us. No matter what your political leanings, it is clear to a growing number of us, that our government equals a power structure whose vested interest is to maintain this power structure. People tend to care about and watch out for those they know and those they spend time with. Our elected officials rarely live in our neighborhoods, instead they reside in gated communities; they don't play at our parks, they have country clubs; they don't eat at the local buffet, the sit at tables clad in tablecloths and eat with silverware, not plasticware; most often their children do not go to our schools, instead preferring private institutions. Who do they fraternize with at these locations? Certainly not me, and probably not you. Instead their days are spent surrounded by other people who also have a financial incentive for things to stay the same.

Therefore, if there are things we'd like to see change, we are going to have to make those things happen. This should be no surprise. History seems to bear this out with little exception. Women were not graciously given the right to vote, they created a situation where it was untenable for anything else to happen. The civil rights act did not come about by people sitting at home drinking beer and watching TV. It only happened after a hard struggle and lots of grass roots support. And on and on.

Luckily for us there are lots of resources to facilitate democracy.

Blogging/Internet - the internet in general provides lots of information gathering opportunities and community building. It is an easy and fast way to disperse information to membership or would be membership. Blogs allow anyone to express their opinions and to be watch dogs of government and corporations. You can use it as community building, also, finding people with similar concerns or needs. It is only a part of this process, it is a tool. I encourage people to find as many opportunities to meet in person as you can and do your community building, when possible, in person.

Run for Public Office - we need more and more of our neighbors in positions where they can help watch out for our communities. Start small - a local school board or city council member. This is where a lot of changes come about that affect us on a local level. Most cities make it fairly easy to get your name on the ballot. Some signatures and some paperwork is enough to often get the process started. There is no better way to feel like you are making a difference than to help someone you believe in to run for office.

Transition Towns - This is a comprehensive grounds up approach that is in response to peak oil and climate change. The goal is to create towns and cities that are sustainable and along the way real participatory democracy is happening. Transition towns are a huge social experiment that is based on the premise that if we wait for the government to respond to peak oil and global warming it will be too late. And that if we act on our own it will be too little, but if we act as a community, we may have the chance to do enough, in time. Trainings are taking off all over the world, and according to the website over 140 cities have already been designated official transition towns. This is an exciting movement and one that bears looking into. The website is here. There is also a great handbook called The Transition Handbook written by Rob Hopkins.

Community Groups - throughout the United States community groups have been formed in response to all kinds of needs, whether it's environmental degradation, police brutality, schools, or people needing good food and housing. Community groups have been a tremendous avenue of change. Join one in your area or start one if there isn't one already addressing things that concern you.

Democracy Training and Groups - Frances Moore Lappe, of Diet for a Small Planet fame, has turned her sites on democracy. She's written two books directly related to creating more democracy. I'm currently reading Getting a Grip. It is set up perfectly as a self or group study book on participatory democracy. It has questions for further thought for each chapter. I haven't read the other but have it requested from the library. It is called Democracy's Edge. Groups across the country have used this book as a guide for them to learn participatory democracy. The Small Planet Institute formed by Lappe, is a treasure trove of information to learn more about this. It also contains lots of success stories of community groups that have used this format to make changes within their communities.

I know there are lots of different ways we can create DIY Democracy and would love to hear your ideas. I hope to make this an ongoing discussion and a continuing column on this blog.


  1. Amen! I would add the following tactical points:

    1. Information Visualization. Merely dumping Federal information online won't be much help in empowering the American People. 500 pages of spreadsheet data is not going to help people understand America's problems, but clear, quality infographics will. Promising projects include the campaign finance data at OpenSecrets, the Pork monitoring of Visualizing Earmarks, and the resources listed at Datamob. Another inspiring example is the Wallstats project "Death and Taxes" which examines military spending is beautifully
    understandable detail. (We should also be seeing interactive visualization programs for CDC, USGS and Census data.)

    2. Leverage the Global Mandate. US policy affects the whole world, and if We the People expect to compete with international corporations, we've got to think bigger, too. Google Trends has shown us that "Barack Obama" is one of the most popular searches coming from Africa. Obama himself has explicitly acknowledged the world beyond the US borders -- it doesn't get much more clear than "People of the world, this is our moment."

    Take those words at face value. Think in terms of maximum benefit - what kind of changes will improve lives around the world? Where is there a real consensus, not just nationally but around the world?

    3. Be Professionally Prepared. This is the most difficult part. Already, people are complaining about Obama's picks for his Economic Transition Team and his candidates for certain Cabinet positions. I am one of those people, and like all of them, I didn't present the Obama staff with a detailed, carefully prepared list of potential candidates. The Big Donors did. They were ready to go no matter who won on November 4th. We don't need to operate with the same mentality, but we absolutely need the same levels of preparation.

    4. Nothing Beats Ground Game. All the social networking in the world can't save a movement without feet on the ground, nationwide. This is the most critical factor, especially since the Campaign money is no longer flowing to support overhead expenses. Mounting a DIY version of the election blitz will involve tremendous demands for time and money. Significantly, these demands scale down as the size of the movement scales up - the bigger our consensus, the lower our expenses.

  2. what a wonderful response, i couldn't agree more. i applaud those, like, who give us our information in a usable, searchable manner. We definitely need to have more resources like that. You have another great point about being professionally prepared, i think that is where some of the democracy training will come in handy. There are just too many of us working in veritable isolation and it's hard to have all your ducks in a row or to make much noise. When we are able to work as functioning groups I think we are more able to be prepared and have things well thought out. I think there is too much top down democracy currently. Someone comes up with a plan and you either decide you want to be part of it or decide you don't. I'd love to see groups of people learning how to plan and work together creating agendas and workable solutions. I think this whole process needs to be learned, we are not trained for it in school and i have been involved with too many well intentioned groups that didn't know how to consensus build or group plan.