Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Participatory Democracy

This weekend I'll be at the Green Party of Texas state convention proposing an amendment to the party bylaws to change the wording of the state version of one of the Ten Key Values. Specifically, I'd like to change to formulation Grassroots Democracy to Participatory Democracy.

First, the phrase "Grassroots Democracy" doesn't really carry all that much meaning. Second, I believe "Participatory Democracy" does mean precisely what I believe Greens have in mind when we talk about democracy as a key value. Third, by adopting the phrase we would be establishing an explicit connection to certain ideas and movements that came before us, but don't always get the recognition I feel they deserve in Green circles.

Take a look at the phrase "Grassroots Democracy". I'm sure we all remember that "Democracy" is derived from the Greek roots demos and kratia and means "rule by the people". Just about everyone in this country supposedly believes in democracy, so what does the word "grassroots" add? Nothing, really — who are these grassroots if not the Demos, "the people"?

As a matter of fact the phrase "grassroots democracy" in the statement of the Ten Key Values originated as a translation of the German word "Basisdemokratie" from the Four Pillars of the German Greens. It's a reasonable translation — "die Basis" is the party base, the membership or the "grassroots" of the party. But notice we're not talking about "the people" as a whole any more. I'm oversimplifying a little here, but the German Greens in large part intended the word "Basisdemokratie" as a critique of intra-party governance in other political parties in Germany, which they believed were dominated by elite insiders.

In the United States we have a different political system, and our parties are much more loosely organized. It's not that intra-party democracy isn't a good thing, but it's not such an important issue by itself that it deserves to be enshrined among our Key Values. We want all of society, not just our party, to be organized democratically.

By contrast, the phrase "participatory democracy" has quite a bit of intellectual history and depth, and I believe it accurately reflects what Greens really hold as our ideal. In fact if you look at the explanatory statements most Green groups use to elaborate on this Key Value you'll usually see the word "participation" or even the exact phrase "participatory democracy". Historically the phrase is probably most closely associated with the (recently revived) 1960s student radical organization Students for a Democratic Society, especially its Port Huron Statement of 1962. The expression was allegedly coined by philosopher Arnold Kaufman of the University of Michigan, and the concept has been further developed by people like political scientist Carole Pateman at UCLA and Japanese author/activist Muto Ichiyo, among many others.

The fundamental idea is that every citizen has a right and a duty to take an active, ongoing part in the political life of his or her community — not just lining up every couple of years at election time to pick between two choices put before them by the Powers That Be. Politics today has become a sort of spectator sport that people are invited to consume through the mass media, not to be an active part of. Ordinary people are kept separate from real power and information. In participatory democracy, politics would be a public process by which members of the community gather together to determine their own destiny.

A lot of these ideas have a sort of "lefty" feel to them, and it's true that much of the thinking has come out of movements and organizations that were either explicitly or implicitly associated with the Left. But I feel very strongly that there's an aspect to them that genuine conservatives can also embrace. Really this is all about people getting together to take responsibility for their own situation instead of waiting for "the government" to take care of them — "the government" being some distant, powerful, and vaguely threatening entity "out there" somewhere. Together with the Green Key Value of Decentralization, this is a big part of what distinguishes the Green approach from stereotypical "liberalism".

In fact, one of the more attractive things about the concept of participatory democracy is the implication that change doesn't depend on capturing control of the apparatus of government through victory in an election, or even a revolution. Instead, it implies that change can take place through people and communities organizing themselves and taking direct action to deal with the challenges that face them. I saw some of this happen in the groups that spontaneously came together after Hurricane Katrina and managed to get food, medical care, and shelter to people when the government and established emergency response organizations weren't accomplishing much of anything.

To sum up, I'm asking the State Convention of the Green Party of Texas to change the formulation of this Key Value from Grassroots Democracy to Participatory Democracy. "Grassroots Democracy" is a fairly shallow platitude, while "Participatory Democracy" more clearly elucidates the principles we believe in. It also establishes an explicit connection to the ideas of our predecessors in the struggle for justice and freedom and lends historical context to the work we're doing today.