Prospects for Participatory Democracy in the U.S.A

December 1, 2008
Ben Manski

Location: Barcelona, Spain Presented at the International Seminar on Participatory Democracy "Participatory Democracy. Political Actors and Social Movements" Abstract Diagnosing Democratic Collapse The U.S. political system suffers from a potentially fatal condition, a malady that can be diagnosed as "Democratic Collapse." The causes of this collapse are known: First, the consolidation of corporate control of the establishment political parties. Second, the sacrilegious enshrinement of corporations as persons under law, entitled to constitutional protections against citizens and governments. Third, the deliberate and systematic disenfranchisement of Black, American Indian, young, and poor voters resulting in two stolen presidential elections. Fourth, the corporatization of the mechanisms of the electoral system itself. Fifth, the corporatization of public education, the necessary foundation for any modern democratic society. Sixth, a remarkable political centralization in the federal government as against state and local governments. Seventh, a concurrent destruction of local power, especially municipal power. Existent conditions for participatory democracy are radically different in the U.S. than Europe and Latin America. On the one hand, American experimentation in participatory democracy occurs beneath a low constitutional ceiling, and that ceiling is lowering all the time. At the same time, progressive forces are fast losing their illusions about the potentials of federal power, and their faith in electoral democracy. The one result: Participatory democracy in U.S. is less alternative and more oppositional, and potentially revolutionary, than perhaps it might be in other industrialized nations. Toward a Democracy Movement Today, U.S. progressives are engaged in active discussions regarding the commonly perceived need for an aggressive democracy movement in the United States. The perception of this need is broad based, and not limited to movement elites. The perception is reflected in the way in which the recent Ukrainian experience, complete with orange colors, was recently adopted (mistakenly) by election protesters in the U.S. At the same time, the perception has translated into more than reaction and discussion. There is also movement toward organizing. Liberty Tree has begun to engage our fellow organizers along the following lines: Our first priority is to broaden and deepen individual commitments to democracy, which is to say, to create more democrats. For this reason, we support "democratization struggles," waged within particular sectors such as education, local communities, elections, defense, and of course, the workplace. We see such democratization struggles as our best means for creating the conditions in which individuals learn about, adopt, gain a thirst for, and come to demand, democratic methods and goals. We also see democratization struggles as having the added benefit of producing non-reformist reforms. That is to say, winning structural gains that advance movement toward democracy by changing the rules to the movement's advantage. Finally, we describe these struggles as being entirely indigenous to the United States of America. The new democracy movement can be - and we argue should be - seen as the living voice of the American revolutionary tradition, whose greatest, yet unfulfilled, promise is democracy. The American Revolution was not defeated in 1789 with the enactment of the Constitution. Instead, U.S. political history should largely be understood as the product of struggles between those who followed in the revolutionary lead of Thomas Paine, and those who followed the reactionary line of Alexander Hamilton. To understand U.S. history in this frame is not simply to attempt to vaccinate ourselves against the charge of weak patriotism. It is to rightfully put the opponents of democratic reforms where they belong: On the wrong side of American history, together with their forbears, the segregationists, the imperialists, the robber barons, the Slave Power, the nativists and nationalists, and the monarchist Tories. It is to rightfully put the proponents of democratic change where we belong: Carrying the revolutionary banner hoisted by the abolition, labor, suffrage, civil rights, youth, feminist, treaty rights, ecology, and anti-imperialist movements that precede us. Local Democracy Democratization, non-reformist reforms, and democratic revivalism: These are the broad contours of the democracy movement we hope to foster. Based on an analysis of current U.S. political conditions, Liberty Tree has identified three initial areas for our programmatic work. These areas are addressed in our, "Local Democracy," "Democratizing Education," and, "Democratizing Elections" programs. Local government, particularly municipal government, remains a locus where U.S. progressive forces are strong. Over the last several years, at least 346 municipalities have declared their opposition to the treasonous "PATRIOT Act". Hundreds of cities, including New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, and virtually every other major metropolis, have declared their opposition to the occupation of Iraq. And progressives have recently succeeded in implementing a raft of reforms including local living wage and municipal minimum wage laws, immigrant voting rights laws, municipal ownership of cable and energy, community support for local agriculture, pesticide and fertilizer bans, and the like. At the moment, local government serves as the base - our only base in government - in the United States for building democracy. No surprise, then, that as progressives use local government to democratic ends, the followers of Hamilton work to undermine local power. Across the United States, state legislatures, federal courts, and Congress are working together to lower the ceiling on local power. The conservative doctrine of preemption is being imposed across the nation. Every and any municipal progressive reform is sure find itself the subject of lawsuits, state and federal preemption legislation, and similar challenges. My own home of Madison, Wisconsin's capital, is at this moment defending itself again lawsuits and legislation designed to preempt our municipal minimum wage law, living wage law, pesticide regulations, and smoking regulations. At the very same time, state and federal governments have teamed up to short-circuit initiatives Madison - among many other municipalities - had in the works for municipal cable, municipal wireless service, and publicly-owned power utilities. Americans have woken to a new political reality. We have witnessed a realignment in the U.S. such that today, federal power is championed by the right, and local power by the left. This realignment represents a return to pre-Cold War political realities, in which capital owned federal power, and the labor farm coalition championed municipal socialism, the cooperative commonwealth, and local democracy. This political realignment is a renewed American reality, and it is vital that all progressive actors and allies understand it. Some municipalities already know it. The City of Arcata, California, has not merely gone on record in opposition to the PATRIOT Act. The people of Arcata have effectively nullified that Act, and have informed city officers that they are not to comply with its implementation. In this, Arcata follows in the footsteps of cities and states that nullified the federal slave-catching laws in the decade preceding the U.S. Civil War. Although not completely alone, Arcata is lonely in its nullification activities. Liberty Tree's Local Democracy Program hopes to encourage more such localized resistance, and more assertion of local sovereignty, by fostering local democratization campaigns aimed at making municipal government at once internally participatory and externally oppositional to federal and corporate power. To this end, Liberty Tree is working to develop a network of local political parties, community groups, organizers, and elected officials, with the purpose of forming a national movement for local democracy, and eventually, a new national federation of democratic municipalities. Democratizing Education As with municipalities, public education remains a base of organizing for progressive forces in the United States. And, as with municipalities, public education, particularly higher education, is under attack. American public universities and community colleges are subject to a long-term program of corporatization. Corporations have transformed American universities into publicly subsidized corporate proprietary research facilities. Some university systems have eliminated their Education, Sociology, Ecology, and Arts schools, and the like, and replaced them with expanded Business and Biotech programs. Several systems have spun off their crown campuses as quasi-public, quasi-private, universities. The genuinely public university is becoming an American relic. These shifts in university priorities are aided by concerted corporate attacks on higher education funding in the U.S. at all levels. University systems from California, to New York, to Wisconsin, have experienced budget cuts approaching 15% in recent years. These cuts have in turn produced declining services and tuition increases of up to 70%. As public universities lose their public financing, they become not only inaccessible to working and middle class students, but also more dependent on corporate funding to plug their budget holes. These budget cuts have produced a rebirth of mass resistance on scores of campuses, with student-labor strikes hitting campuses in the Northeast, Midwest, and on the Pacific Coast. The strikes have been uncoordinated, and locally specific. However, they also represent the organic development a more sophisticated analysis of the corporatization of the university among campus organizers. With the aim of building on these developments, Liberty Tree's Democratizing Education Program recently convened a meeting of U.S. campus organizers in Ottawa, Ontario. The meeting served to introduce the Americans to leaders of the student and campus labor movements in Canada and Quebec. The meeting produced agreement on the need for a movement against corporatization, and for the democratization of higher education in the U.S.. The meeting also resulted in ongoing organizing in preparation for a proposed national higher education strike planned for the Spring of 2006. Democratizing Elections In contrast to the experience with local democracy and public education, the American electoral system is not merely under assault; its walls have already been breached. Nearly half of all Americans believe the 2000 presidential election was stolen; roughly a fifth believe the same of the 2004 election. Under these circumstances, public faith in the integrity of elections is understandably low. Unfortunately, anger over election fraud has yet to translate into effective remedy. Instead, those forces most commonly perceived to have been responsible for the fraud have partially succeeded in reframing the issues. In place of election fraud, they have promoted the idea of "voter fraud," thereby shifting the focus from inequitable election laws and administrative malfeasance and toward the isolated, individual, minor, and largely unproven instances of voter malfeasance. In so doing, they have used popular outrage at their own transgressions to justify, if not very convincingly, their own efforts to further corporatize elections. Since the 2000 election, government officials have given private corporations increasing control over voter registration, voter identification, and in some cases, vote tabulation. Allow me to analogize to an expression which may or may not be familiar to you - that of the fox guarding the henhouse. The foxes guarding the henhouse were caught poaching hens. Rather than run away or apologize for their poaching, the wily foxes have offered their own explanation of the problem: The free-roaming hens themselves were to blame. And the foxes have offered a convenient solution: Constrain the hens further. Today, the foxes not only guard the henhouse, they have also made it more difficult for the hens to protect themselves. Luckily, the chickens are getting organized. We established Liberty Tree in June of 2004 in order to coordinate the No Stolen Elections! campaign, a popular mobilization against the prospect of another stolen presidential election. That mobilization involved tens of thousands of people in over 60 cities, and was due in no small part due to Liberty Tree's work, as well as to the Ohio recount launched by then Green Party presidential candidate, and current Liberty Tree Fellow, David Cobb. Today, there exists a wide and diverse consensus among U.S. progressives regarding the 10-point Voter Bill of Rights, a reform platform drafted in the wake of the 2000 election, involving independent election administration, voter protection, same-day registration, Instant Runoff Voting, proportional representation, abolition of the electoral college, D.C. statehood, and the like. What is missing at the moment is a deepening of that consensus. Liberty Tree's Democratizing Elections Program is currently working to deepen the consensus by strengthening the multiracial and direct action aspects of the existing alliance around the implementation of the Voter Bill of Rights. Prospects for Participatory Democracy in the U.S. Failing a significant challenge from some kind of domestic democracy movement, or a major collapse of U.S. power abroad, the trend in the U.S. is for a stronger national state, stronger global state, and weaker municipal and state governments. The trend is for the corporatization of public institutions, especially public education. And the trend is for rigged elections on a whole new level, along with a concurrent growth in popular disenchantment with elections and voting. The task, therefore, is to facilitate the growth of an aggressive democracy movement in the United States. Should such a democracy movement rise, it will come in new forms. Already, existing progressive formations such as the AFL-CIO, the National Organization for Women, and Rainbow/PUSH, are breaking up and/or realigning along new, more independent and oppositional lines. Already, we have witnessed the emergence of a uniquely long-lasting and growing, if still small, independent political party in the form of the Green Party of the United States. And today, new progressive formations appear to be in the works, including education syndicalism, municipal federalism, a new voting rights movement, and community unionism, among others. It is reasonable to conclude that the spirit of participatory democracy will inevitably and necessarily lie at the heart of these new formations. Inevitably, because the very constitutional basis for local democracy, campus democracy, and other participatory forms, is under attack. Necessarily, because democratization struggles have so much to offer in creating the conditions for the kind of broad, aggressive, democracy movement the times demand.

Additional Information: 

Ben Manski is a Fellow with the Liberty Tree Foundation for the Democratic Revolution in its Local Democracy and Democratizing Education program areas. He served as Co-Chair of the Green Party of the United States from 2001 through 2004, and was active in the U.S. student, labor, peace, and environmental movements throughout the 1990s. Ben has a degree in law from the University of Wisconsin, and has written on the corporatization of higher education in the United States.