Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
As the election season intensifies, many people are thinking that representative democracy has become an empty idea. Pettiness, lies, distortions, and drives for personal power overshadow meaningful public discussion of the problems we face or the potential we have to create something new. At almost every level, the only interests represented seem to be those of the corporate elite and a small group of mostly white, male, wealthy and very fundamentalist folks.
Representative democracy was forged in the American and French Revolutions more than 200 years ago. It was a corrective to the abusive powers of kings, nobles, and churches. These revolutionary struggles advanced new ideas about citizenship and the capacity of people to make decisions about our own lives. Over the next two centuries, the most humanizing movements of people were to enlarge and deepen this idea of whose voices would be represented. Ideals like liberty, equality and freedom inspired people to organize, march, strike, protest, persist and push for the right to vote in the U.S. and around the globe.
Today it seems that the capacity of representative democracy to reflect the will of the people, to ensure the public good, and to provide for safe and productive lives is in question.
It is worth looking on our own Declaration of Independence these days. It says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Representative democracy, the Declaration of Independence and ultimately our own constitution did not just appear because people were angry about taxes and tributes. It emerged in the context of a rich relationship between ideals and actual experience. The colonial enterprise brought Europeans in contact with indigenous philosophy and practices of collective decision-making. The Six Nations and the Iroquois Confederacy advanced notions of participatory democracy that had been practiced since the beginning of memory. Town meetings and voluntary organizations were critical to organizing daily life. Compacts and constitutions required public agreement on principles and process. Ideas from classical Greece and Rome and from the struggles for individual rights in Europe combined to create notions of the common good. Churches provided democratic practice as Congregationalists emphasized the need for consensus on key decisions.
Today, in Detroit, as in many places around the country, a new kind of democratic action is emerging. The contrast between the democracy people are participating in and the one that is supposedly representing us is becomes sharper.
Talk with any urban gardener and they will tell you how they engage with friends and neighbors to decide what to do and why they are doing it. Part of the vibrancy of the urban agricultural movement is not only the good food it produces, but that the process of production is embedded in discussion, debate and real decisions about things that matter.
Or visit any of the thousands of churches that shape our landscape. In many of them, people are not only deciding policies, budgets, and programs, but are asking how to improve and support the lives of those in our communities.
These experiences of participating in direct, democratic decision-making are forging a new understanding of what we the people are capable of bringing to life.