Book Review: Slow Democracy (Clark & Teachout)

Book Review: Slow Democracy by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green Publishing, 204pp)

“Remember, for this is the kernel of the matter, that the theory of democracy assumes a far higher level of good sense, judgment, honest purpose, devotion to the public welfare in the citizen of a free country, than is either for or needed in the subject of a despotic monarchy or of an oligarchy. Thus the deficiencies which free governments show reduce themselves to the failure of the citizens to reach the needed standard of civic excellence.”  -  Lord James Bryce, The Hindrances to Good Citizenship (1909)

Bryce wrote these words as the British Ambassador to the United States during his fourth visit to this side of the pond. As hundreds of European travellers to America remarked, the responsibilities placed on “everyday citizens” were of a scale that shocked those of an aristocratic temper.

We don’t talk much about “the needed standard of civic excellence” anymore. But we should. Citizenship is hard work, demanding action founded on love– as do all great faiths. As the now-bankrupt municipal governments of San Bernadino, Stockton, and Vallejo demonstrate, low levels of civic awareness and participation can have dire consequences. The well-known travails of the City of Bell also illustrate how a disengaged populace (though, no longer disengaged!) can result in corruption of a scale almost unimaginable.

With these events as a backdrop, I came in to possession of an encouraging new book: Slow Democracy, by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout.  Part manifesto, part strategic plan, the book is a challenge by authors who are witnessing the erosion of the American system of governance, and the cultural mores that have supported it for more than two centuries. “I’m tired of apologizing for the time democracy takes,” Clark declaims in her introduction, “I’m changing my strategy. No more apologies – only celebration.”

The book makes one of the better arguments for federalism and the decentralization of policy-making in my recent memory. This used to be one of the qualities of American government that so distinguished us from our European progenitors. De Tocqueville described this in great detail, but even he could foresee that with the growth of national markets and the desire for efficiency, a time was coming when policy decisions would centralize – first to states then to the federal government.

 And so it has.

But, as the authors explain through case studies and public opinion research, this centralization has come with tremendous costs – both culturally and politically. As policy decisions from education to public safety to land use planning move away from their local origins, citizens are enervated and policy becomes too boilerplate. Though not mentioned in the book, the work of the recently passed Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom is particularly helpful in quantifying the adverse effects of generalized public policy.

There must be a balance, though, between locally customized policy and the higher levels of government needed to protect civil rights. As the authors write, “It’s not that all decisions should be made locally all the time. Some standards must be set at the national level, especially when it comes to ensuring basic rights.”

More than a paean to “Thinking Locally”, Slow Democracy moves to a discussion about discussion: specifically, how we convene public meetings to discuss public issues. Clark is both a veteran and researcher of New England “Town Meetings” and this portion of the book is, again, appropriately nuanced in its understanding of what is possible. The authors know that – far from the Rockwellian caricature – the Town Meeting can be a contentious, exhausting, and frustrating exercise.

But there is hope.

Along with the aforementioned decentralization in policy making, Slow Democracy, makes one of the more impassioned pleas for more deliberative public processes. Not since Matt Leighninger’s The Next Form of Democracy, has a book treated this subject in such a clear way – stripped of the encumbrances of academic-ese. The authors provide a very easy to follow overview of the basic elements of a more participatory public process. Clark and Teachout note that we already have one institutionalized form of public deliberation – the jury – but the concepts that undergird these processes can be expanded upon.

Importantly, for the more cautious readers, the authors are not calling for an overthrow of representative democracy, but a revitalization of it through more local power and deliberative processes. “Slow democracy is not just an add-on to representative government,” the authors propose, “Ideally, the two systems will complement each other.”

The authors themselves reveal that they lean more to the left politically, but I think one of the more interesting aspects of the book is the platform it provides for people of both liberal and conservative persuasions to discuss common policy challenges together. As Teachout remarks in her introduction, “I was especially struck by how the problem-solving techniques we describe in this book cut through ideological divisions and allowed communities to frame their own questions.”

This is something I have witnessed personally in some of our Institute’s public engagement consulting. The localization of a problem may draw contentious parties – but rarely along partisan lines. These collaborations across party lines form interesting and enduring relationships between people who would rarely connect if a conversation were convened on a national issue.

Only alluded to in the book, the authors are touching on the very interesting (and increasingly popular) arena of communitarian thought, which has both left-leaning and right-leaning proponents and places for multi-partisan agreement. From Robert Nisbet’s classic, The Quest for Community to the more recent, Crunchy Cons, by Rod Dreher to the website FrontPorchRepublic.com, a fuller exploration of conservative philosophy – beyond libertarianism – is gaining exposure and an ardent following. While I doubt I’ve ever voted for the same presidential candidates as these authors, I found myself constantly agreeing with points made in the book – from the aforementioned decentralization of policy making to the populist demand for greater civic engagement.

On this note, as someone who leans right, I might quibble with the authors on where they draw the line on localist decision-making (for example, while agree with the authors’ views on the need to protect civil rights, and even that “nature has a voice”, do the unborn have a voice too?), and the supposed perils of “privatization” (citizens still have the power to make these decisions, and it could be argued in an era of overstretched government that privatized libraries and parking lots are not deleterious to the “common good”), overall, Slow Democracy is an excellent book – a call to the hard work of citizenship.

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