Local Democracy

Fresh Ground for Ideas and Action – Local Democracy

Fostering democratic relationships in everyday life is necessary to keep a democratic society.

When most people hear the term “local democracy” they imagine getting involved in local politics, such as electing mayors or serving on citizen committees. We use the term “local democracy” to mean something more local and more every day. What we are talking about is democratic relationships in everyday life - being included in decision-making, being listened to, and being treated as an equal in our families, our workplaces, our schools, & our faith communities. There is no one-size-fits-all way to foster such democratic relationships but there is tremendous value in finding ways in our contexts. When we learn the skills of everyday equality & deep inclusion we are able to better our own lives and of those around us while also helping to foster democracy in our society at large. 

Some common themes we have been exploring include:

  1. Listening as Love - People are often surprised when they realize that people who loved them have not always listened to them. The “benign dictator” paradox is the strange reality of people in our lives who genuinely care for us but who don’t listen to us - or at least don’t listen to us well. Local democracy is an invitation and challenge for us to recognize listening as a primary way we can care for each other in our families and in our communities.
  2. Inclusion as Wisdom - We often begin with a hunch that including people in decisions that affect their lives is the right thing to do. We often end by realizing that this kind of inclusion is not only right it is also wise. In including the people affected by decisions, we gain a wider understanding of critical situations and this helps us act more intelligently. By not listening, we risk making foolish decisions. 
  3. Context as Critical - There isn’t one way to do local democracy. Democratic relationships in everyday life are as diverse as the people and situations that make up these relationships. To impose a one-size-fits-all democratic relationship would not do justice to this diversity. Context is critical in living out democratic values.
  4. Learning as Interdependence – Elders such as Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich teach us that the hierarchical structure of education disempowers democratic citizenship. Can we explore ways where everyone is a learner-teacher and where personal life experience is given equal weight to theoretical reflection? To practice democracy, we have seen we have to democratize learning. 
  5. Size as Surprise - We ponder the unexpected insight from the decentralist tradition that size is a key factor in a society being democratic or not. In the direct democracies of ancient Greece, for example, democracy could only exist at the scale of a city in order to allow all citizens to meet regularly to make laws. Representative democracy, a relatively recent invention, allows democracy to exist in societies bigger than a city-state. How can we take seriously the idea “that to all societies, and every aspect of society, there exists an appropriate size” (Ivan Illich) when it comes to living out democracy? 
  6. Democracy as Sustainability - A key challenge that is arising in our society is how do we respect individual freedom, make decisions together, and live sustainably at the same time? One school of thought warns us that if we can’t transition to a sustainable culture democratically we run the risk of tyranny or collapse. Our own experiences, on the other hand, have shown that putting the right kind of trust in human freedom and democratic process might actually be the most effective means of living more gently on the earth. Hierarchy is far less helpful than we sometimes believe.

Resources to Explore:

Ken Westhues, Building Relationships Where People Are Real: This article appeared in Good Work News in September 1998 and has described for The Working Centre a way of thinking and acting that is not about bureaucracy and status but is about reciprocity and the benefits reaped by society of engaging in meaningful work through dialogue and cooperation.  https://www.theworkingcentre.org/good-work-news/2384-building-relationships-where-people-are-real

Isaiah Ritzmann, Bigger is Sometimes Worst: Why is the Cost of Bigger Bureaucratic Structures not Taken into Account:  A major critique of larger bureaucratic structures is that as an organization becomes larger, the structure becomes a barrier to dialogue. Citizens often bear the brunt of structures that are unresponsiveness, wasteful and ineffective in contrast to the goal of creative, cooperative dialogue that all democratic organizations should strive for.   https://www.theworkingcentre.org/sites/default/files/article_files/june2019%20gwn%20%28for%20website%29%20%281%29.pdf

In his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer explores the habits of the heart that we need to build to find democratic relationships.  This link is to his website at the Center for Courage and Renewal and has a bunch of resources that explore this topic.  http://www.couragerenewal.org/democracy/

This fun and influential essay from 1926 by JBS Haldance, teaches us that size really does matter.  He makes his point by describing the laws of physics and biology that determine the size of animals and then briefly reminds the reader that human institutions are also subject to these same kinds of laws that limit size for the interests of the common good.  http://www.phys.ufl.edu/courses/phy3221/spring10/HaldaneRightSize.pdf

Activities to Join:

  • We will be hosting a Diploma in Local Democracy starting in September.  Stay tuned for more information or email freshground@theworkingcentre.org to express interest.

To join the conversation, to register for activities or for more information, send us an email at freshground@theworkingcentre.org

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