American Democracy doesn’t need saving — it needs creating
This article is co-authored by Jennifer Brandel and Aria Joughin
Whether you’re looking at challenges to the legitimacy of the electoral process, financial corruption, voter suppression, disinformation, or threats to freedom of the press, it’s clear: American Democracy is not going well.
These crises and their widespread repercussions have led to proclamations that “we must save our democracy!” In recent years newsrooms and journalists have taken up this call with the formation of new democracy beats and democracy desks to cover democratic backsliding in the U.S..
While more and better coverage focused on democracy is certainly a positive thing, more democracy beats and more democracy coverage won’t make a democracy.
We believe that newsrooms have another critical role to play in strengthening American democracy: amplifying and modeling opportunities to practice democracy beyond the ballot box.
Let us explain…
Democracy has never meaningfully functioned for many groups in the United States. Look no further than the continuous, systematic disenfranchisement of Black and African American communities, and the many moments throughout the last century in which the government took action against majority public opinion and popular vote. It’s no wonder that more than half of the people polled by the Pew Research Center in 2020 were neither satisfied with the way democracy was functioning in the U.S. and nor were confident that the system could be changed for the better.
Most people in the U.S have no direct experience participating in democratic processes beyond periodic voting (if that). Hierarchical processes are so dominant in the U.S that it can be hard for people to imagine deliberating and working together to make things happen for their collective well-being. How can we expect to sustain a national pattern of democracy if it’s not practiced at a more basic level?
In the U.S., democracy doesn’t need saving as much as it needs creating and cultivating.
The crises we’re experiencing today are not the result of a functional democracy gone awry, but of the absence of deep cultures and practices of democracy beyond the ballot box. And it is exactly these cultures and practices that are needed to form a foundation for the diverse “E pluribus unum” to come together and collaborate in the production and maintenance of a society that works for all.
Under the framework of saving democracy, the solutions Americans are offered can be limited to “vote harder!” (a call that is disparagingly critiqued on social media), or in some cases may be extended to include protest, calling your officials, or changing voting laws. In newsrooms, this can translate to “cover democracy harder!”
But when we shift our perspective and begin to see our task as creating and cultivating democracy, more accessible and meaningful options become available to ordinary people and the institutions that represent them and are meant to serve them. We need only to turn to the many examples and experiments in deep democracy that are being explored around the country and across sectors today.
Below, we highlight a few of the models, processes and solutions that are being advanced by champions of everyday democracy in hopes that they can inspire you to reconsider where and how we can act for our collective well-being, as they’ve inspired us.
In Local Government: Participatory Budgeting
What it is
As articulated on the Participatory Budgeting Project’s website, “Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget. It gives people real power over real money.
PB started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, as an anti-poverty measure that helped reduce child mortality by nearly 20%. Since then PB has spread to over 7,000 cities around the world, and has been used to decide budgets from states, counties, cities, housing authorities, schools, and other institutions.”
How it works
“PB is an annual cycle of engagement that is integrated into a regular budgeting process. A typical PB process follows five steps, usually over the course of a year. In order for PB to be successful communities need a dedicated source of public funding, an agreed-upon process and schedule, a staff to mediate the process, community volunteers to facilitate the process and outreach to the neighborhood to get people to attend.”
Benefits and impact
- Increased civic engagement: Participating in PB leads to more civic engagement overall, including participation in elections.
- Stronger relationships & increased trust: PB leads to more collaboration between people, government, and community organizations and enables active participation, especially from historically marginalized communities.
- Leadership development: Participants gain valuable skills including public speaking, negotiation, facilitation, etc.
- More equitable and effective spending: Public funding is more responsive to expressed public needs and contributes to the creation of more innovative solutions.
- The Participatory Budgeting Project
- Participatory Budgeting: Next Generation Democracy
- Video: PBS POV Documentary: Public Money
In the Workplace: Worker-owned and managed cooperatives
What it is
Worker cooperatives are values-driven businesses designed to produce financial and social benefits for workers and communities.
While worker coops create and sell goods and services on the market like traditional businesses, members of worker cooperatives use democratic processes to run the business and make decisions about what to do with profits.
How it works
Worker cooperatives operate on the principle of “one worker, one vote” (one of Seven International Cooperative Principles). This stands in contrast to traditional businesses where power over decisions is based on your role or the amount you have invested in the business.
The kinds of decisions worker-members participate in making depend on the business. Some coops are organized hierarchically but unlike traditional businesses, the worker-members vote for the board of directors and/or participate in hiring processes. Others employ a more horizontal model where decisions are made by whichever group is going to be most impacted by the decisions being made, or by everyone in the coop.
Benefits and impact
- Creation of better jobs: Worker coops provide higher wages, better benefits, and increased feelings of satisfaction and dignity at work
- Opportunities for community wealth-building: Worker ownership provides access to ownership and assets with wealth-building potential that would otherwise be inaccessible, especially for members of marginalized communities
- Stronger local business ecosystems: Workers coops create more secure, resilient, locally-rooted jobs and demonstrate increased productivity over traditional businesses
- Increased civic engagement: Participation in worker coops contributes to increased civic participation beyond the cooperative
- U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives
- Democracy at Work Institute Worker Coop FAQ
- Video: Workers to Owners: The Story of A Child’s Place
In our cities and neighborhoods: Participatory Planning
What it is
Participatory planning is an urban planning and community and economic development methodology in which the communities most likely to be impacted by a planning decision participate in the planning process in some manner. While there is no unified approach to participatory planning, many advocates are informed by Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation, which outlines and evaluates various institutional-citizen relationships from institutional manipulation to full citizen control.
How it works
What exactly this participation looks like depends on who is leading the process. At their most democratic, participatory planning processes are informed by community-generated proposals and shared decision-making. In the event that technical experts (city or development staff, researchers, developers, designers, etc) are a part of these processes, they are often positioned as a partner rather than a director who are there to enable the realization of the people’s vision.
Benefits and impact
- More equitable and effective plans: When the community participates in the planning process, there is a higher chance that the plans being implemented will create a significant impact and get community buy-in for implementation.
- Stronger relationships & increased trust: When cities, policymakers, and developers act as real partners to communities, helping to advance their goals and meet their needs (as opposed to technical experts who “know best”), relationships of trust are developed.
- More community self-determination: When participatory planning is deeply democratic, communities are able to come up with solutions to their own problems and exercise more control over their lives.
- Participatory Approaches to Planning Community Interventions
- Āina Aloha Economic Futures
- The Bronxwide Plan
- Jackson People’s Assemblies
In our newsrooms: Public-Powered Journalism
What is it
Public-powered journalism is a growing field of participatory practice within the news industry that includes the public in the processes of decision-making and reporting. In effect, it decentralizes the assignment desk, and in some cases, decentralizes the various functions of reporting processes as well.
How it works
The public is given real decision-making power at the various stages in which decisions are made in newsrooms. This can include what to report, why to report, how to report and who is centered in the reporting. Journalists call the news they report “budgeting” which makes this another way to practice participatory budgeting as we described above.
Benefits and impact
- More representative, inclusive narratives: By repositioning the public from news consumers to content partners, new and important story ideas are generated, reporting becomes more representative and inclusive, and new narratives enter the public consciousness. In short: more diverse inputs into what can become a story creates more diverse story outputs.
- Increased trust and media literacy: Engagement with the public in the process of creating news also humanizes journalists to communities, and demonstrates the rigorous process of reporting, supporting media literacy and showing they have the training and skills necessary to provide accurate information that is trustworthy.
- The public is more likely to invest in the newsroom: When people are engaged in and have a say in the content that gets produced for their behalf, they are between 2–5x more likely to become a paying subscriber to the newsroom.
- Boosted morale and creativity of reporters: The shift in process breaks calcified journalistic norms and news judgment and generates content that is more original, thoroughly reported, and oftentimes, more popular than newsroom-generated story ideas. Journalists who use this participatory process report feeling more hopeful, fulfilled and excited to listen to the public in their course of work. This process can generate every type of coverage: from award-winning investigative pieces to community-events.
This story is part of a project called Democracy Day, in which newsrooms across the country are shining a light on threats to democracy and what action is needed to protect it.
Jennifer Brandel and Hearken are proud collaborators on the first ever U.S. #DemocracyDay initiative. We believe that creating everyday democracy helps create democracy every day.
Interested in exploring how to create and cultivate democracy beyond the ballot box in your community? Reach out!
Jenn Brandel has been applying participatory practices to a variety of sectors including: journalism via Hearken, Democracy SOS, Election SOS and Democracy Day; entrepreneurship via co-founding Zebras Unite C3 and Coop; co-working via Civic Exchange Chicago; and women’s bodily liberation via Dance Dance Party Party. Twitter: @jenniferbrandel and @wearehearken
Aria Joughin is the founder of MakeWith, a collaborative consultancy providing research strategy and design for a more just and democratic future. They are also a founding member of Zebra’s Unite Coop and Oregon New Economy Project. Twitter: @acjoughin and @makewithco