Letting Go
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Letting Go

Graphics by Renee Shuey

Can Real Participation Save Liberal Democracy?

A series exploring ideas for re-engaging citizens in the democratic process

By Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey

The future of democracy should never rest on the results of a single election. But for a few days last November, it sure felt like it did.

When the networks called the presidential race for Joe Biden in the late morning of November 7, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. The cathartic celebrations in the streets had as much to do with the improved outlook for democracy as it did enthusiasm for President Biden’s candidacy.

Democracy won, if barely. For those who care about the future of liberal democracy, it felt good; but the sense of finality around that vote has distracted from the fact that many of the root causes of democracy’s decline are still deeply rooted. It’s a form of self-denial that has led to a broad misperception among the political class about what it will actually take to head off further attacks on democracy.

The bitter election cycle of 2020 did nothing to diminish the disconnect that tens of millions of Americans feel from their government. Four in ten Americans say they feel lonelier than ever; a majority of American communities feel misunderstood by outsiders. Trust in government remains near an all-time low. As January 6 made clear, the potential for demagogues to exploit this feeling of disconnect has not diminished.

There’s an emerging network of pro-democracy activists who argue that one way to save liberal democracy is to return to democracy’s roots: to encourage public participation in the democratic process. And that means looking beyond elections.

Meet the Democracy Beyond Elections project, led by the Participatory Budgeting Project, the People’s Action Institute and others. Josh Lerner, one of the project’s creators, explained the name: “We’re in a crisis of democracy, but our responses to this crisis have mostly been confined to sit within our dysfunctional political process.” He advocates for a more expansive view of reform. “Yes, we should make voting more accessible and expand civic engagement. But no, this alone will not fix our democracy.”

Lerner’s solution is something called participatory democracy — delegating decision-making authority directly to citizens, rather than the elite political and professional class. The thinking is that if want to restore faith in government, we will need to take a more Athenian approach to the how of democracy: by encouraging direct participation by citizens in the political decisions that affect their lives.

That will take investment. It means investing in new civic spaces — physical and virtual–where deliberation can take place on the federal, state and local levels. As well as investing in the nonprofits that cultivate them, and that are building a movement for participatory democracy.

That investment is still lacking. In 2016, Americans spent more than six billion dollars in contributions to US presidential and congressional campaigns. That same year, foundations spent one percent of this amount — $74 million — on all non-electoral public participation programs combined.

In this series, we’ll share three examples of participatory democracy. Our first post is about participatory budgeting: a form of direct democracy that hands decision-making power over taxpayer dollars to the people who pay them. Our second is about policy juries, and our third is about legislative theater — two other democratic exercise that can help restore trust and faith in our democracy.

Read them below.

Restoring democracy is a bigger project than reorienting philanthropy and impact investing. But it rests on the same principles: equity, accountability, and space for new voices. It relies on the assumption that when people feel that they have agency over their future, they will bring their best selves to the process of building a better world.

Letting Go is written by Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey. You can read more excerpts, learn more about participatory funding, and order a copy of the book at lettinggobook.org. Click below to learn more.

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