Between the cruel indifference of Washington’s pandemic response and the monstrous violence used by police, it’s clear that authorities have abdicated their responsibilities to all but the wealthy and the well connected. The work of mutual care has fallen back onto neighborhoods and local communities. Ordinary people have taken it upon themselves to collect medical gear and deliver meals to front-line health-care workers, to provide refuge to protesters and put their bodies between their fellow citizens and state violence.
It’s hard not to wonder how these things are related — if the experience of lockdown hasn’t in some way replenished the human solidarities now driving the protests. Both pandemic and mass protest teach us that daily democratic habits are not luxuries. They’re essential for individual survival and collective resilience.
Reconstructing Democracy: How Citizens Are Building from the Ground Up should be precisely the book for this moment. Co-authored by philosopher Charles Taylor, political scientist Patrizia Nanz, and social change consultant Madeleine Beaubien Taylor, it’s a smooth, optimistic manifesto about grassroots democratic renewal. But can it reassure us about democracy’s future? Do we still speak the same language?
In about 100 pages, the authors present our contemporary democratic crisis as a twofold challenge. First, they write, democracies are getting worse at solving problems. Elected leaders “often don’t know which policies are adequate” for a complex and interconnected world. This failure is compounded by growing distance between regular people and those who rule them. Leaders “are afraid to take drastic measures that might not be supported by their constituents” (e.g., on climate) while voters no longer grasp how politics works.
Our only hope, the authors propose, is to “reconstruct democracy from the bottom up.” The book elevates “experiments [in] revitalizing democracy” from North America and Europe, though what they mean isn’t labor activism, protest, or electoral organizing but rather dialogue-driven community planning and new forms of consultation. Guided by an earnest faith in expertise, rationality, and consensus, Reconstructing Democracy is about how ordinary voters can learn to speak in ways that their rulers can understand. “Only if we enhance and reinvigorate democracy at the base,” they argue, “will the citizenry find clarity about what to ask for, or what future to envision.”
There are democratic lessons here, but not the ones imagined by the authors. For although it honors ordinary citizens, this is a book for elites. Reconstructing Democracy is a balm to power, a reassurance that the old tools still apply. Already a relic from our very recent past, it speaks volumes about how the powerful are meeting this crisis: equipped with the same faulty assumptions that led us here to start with. It also teaches us to beware. Not all forms of local democracy are made equal.
In 2004, the Canadian province of British Columbia established a pathbreaking Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. Balanced by gender and regional representation, with two seats set aside for Indigenous members, this group of 160 randomly selected citizens spent a year learning about electoral systems, reflecting on shared values, and holding public hearings. In their final report, they recommended the province switch from the infamously uneven first-past-the-post system to a form of proportional representation.
The Canadian model has since traveled. Ireland made headlines by legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015 — and then abortion three years later. Both constitutional amendments, endorsed by referendum, emerged from national citizens’ assemblies. The Irish panels are rebooted regularly with new participants and mandates. The third and current assembly is focused on gender equality. Chosen at random, 99 citizens gather monthly to hear expert presentations, listen to testimonials, propose policy changes, and write ballot questions.
Also in 2015, the western Austrian state of Vorarlberg used the citizen assembly model to defuse tensions related to refugee resettlement and integration. A “wisdom council” of 23 citizens, selected at random, met with the help of expert facilitators to identify conditions for peaceful, prosperous coexistence. Members of the gender-balanced council were aged 18 to 75. One-fifth of them had personal or family experience with migration. Feelings of anger and fear gradually gave way to a new consensus: that newcomers and locals should be in regular contact, refugees should be supported in achieving economic independence, and residents should be given more volunteering opportunities to help the process along.
The co-authors propose that these bodies represent a fourth political power they call the consultative (next to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches). Advisory councils of randomly chosen citizens cannot replace elections, nor should they. But they do seem useful for handling divisive issues, practicing deliberative habits, and tackling challenges that extend beyond the terms of a single parliament or presidency. What’s distinctive and important about assemblies or “future councils” like these is that they give regular people new tools for remaking existing political structures. They bring non-elite voices right into the corridors of power.
Some of Reconstructing Democracy’s other case studies are less innovative, although not less valuable. The co-authors tell us about Lawrence Community Works, a Massachusetts “community development corporation” that builds networks among low-income residents so that they can provide services to their own even more vulnerable neighbors. Of course, ordinary people have used the bonds of local community to help one another long before they found the vocabulary (social capital, community assets, etc.) to make it attractive to wealthy donors. And a truly decent democracy would ensure that none of its citizens was too poor to live, rather than asking them to arrange meal-sharing services for themselves.
Indeed, it’s a strangely private vision of the public sphere that structures Reconstructing Democracy. A project like Lawrence Community Works is evidently important. But even as it testifies to neighborhood vitality, it also draws the eye to a deeper civic predicament, about which the co-authors have extremely little to say: the privatization of public goods, the marketization of our democratic imaginations, and the shunting of shared obligations onto the shoulders of individuals and local communities. This is nothing to celebrate.
What it means for an activity to be democratic is not a question the authors ever explicitly answer. They seem to equate democracy with deliberation or dialogue, but it’s not always clear how the forms of participation they write about are assertions of power by free and equal citizens. The strange result is that certain examples don’t feel that democratic at all.
Take, for instance, the Market Creek Plaza (MCP) project in San Diego’s Diamond Neighborhoods district, a poor and diverse corner of the city tucked among intersecting freeways. In the 1990s, the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation acquired a 20-acre industrial site and asked local residents how they’d like to develop it. The Jacobs team imagined a profitable commercial center that would serve the community’s needs (public space, a supermarket, a movie theater, etc.) and that would be owned, in part, by those who lived nearby.
Beginning in 2001, community investors (mostly educated African American women homeowners) were allowed to purchase shares in the complex, up to 20 percent of the entire capitalization. A glowing 2007 report in the Stanford Social Innovation Review called it “the people’s IPO.” Reconstructing Democracy holds up MCP, which opened in 2004, as an achievement “of great human and also political importance,” an example of participatory democracy “which has itself something of the nature of an artistic creation.”
A quick Google search reveals a sadder story. Since 2010, MCP has been struggling. Pride in ownership has dissolved into disappointment. The movie theater was never built; just a DVD rental kiosk. Many community-owned businesses have vanished. Replacing the craft store and women’s fitness center are Starbucks, Papa John’s Pizza, Subway, and T-Mobile. Here, “reinvigorating democracy at the base” apparently means acquiring a minority stake in an outdoor mall choked with chain stores and run by philanthropists.
Nanz and the Taylors are bullish on the idea that expert-guided deliberation (we could call it facilitated democracy) could revitalize economically distressed zones in Europe and the United States, from eastern Germany’s post-communist coal country to the shuttered towns of the American Midwest. These areas are caught in what the co-authors call the Appalachian predicament. Communities suffering economic decline lose their “capacity to self-organize” or “develop new ideas to move forward.” Lacking the cultural and social capital to respond to a changing world, people get worse at understanding “the mechanisms of change” and, left to their own devices, are unable to “collectively take their fate into their own hands and move on.” They turn against democratic institutions that don’t serve them and reject political systems that they no longer understand.
Could facilitated democratic deliberation be the answer? The co-authors call our attention to Wisconsin Rapids, the once-thriving seat of Wood County, Wisconsin. Downsizing hit the community hard in the early 2000s. The paper industry contracted and 40 percent of all local jobs were lost. A local community foundation called Incourage moved to address urgent needs (job retraining, transit benefits for students, etc.) while convening a series of “community conversations” about the region’s future. Using this “participatory planning process,” the foundation worked with locals to decide how best to transform the town’s folded Daily Tribune newspaper building into a community center. It’s telling, though, that the co-authors of Reconstructing Democracy single out for praise not citizens but rather the staff of a Louisiana-based firm called Concordia, hired by Incourage to direct public meetings and build consensus.
The co-authors frame this project as part of “a democratic counterblow against the current drift to stagnation and xenophobic exclusion.” They assert that the efforts of facilitation firms like Concordia and foundations like Incourage will have a long-term impact on the democratic future of poorer communities by renewing civic bonds and strengthening political habits. “[W]e usually need to start with the question of how to initiate and foster the process from the outside,” Nanz and the Taylors write, but expert-guided deliberation can be “the engine of a reconstruction of democracy from the bottom up.”
Reconstructing Democracy tells the hopeful story of Wisconsin Rapids using surveys and reports that date mostly from the early 2010s. What happened in 2016? Wood County voted overwhelmingly, by a margin of 20 points, for Donald Trump. (One way of explaining that election is that it was a frustrated repudiation of a technocratic neoliberal presidency guided by many of the same assumptions as this little book.) The community project to reimagine the local newspaper building, however, is still underway.
This idea of an “Appalachian predicament” is more than a little condescending. But it tells us something essential about how the co-authors understand democracy — and how they believe regular citizens should participate. One assumption here is that the crisis of democracy is primarily a crisis of knowledge: citizens don’t understand the world, don’t know what they want, and don’t know how to speak to powerholders about what they desire and value. A second belief appears to be that facts are democracy’s cure-all, that when given accurate information human beings will make rational decisions. “In any case,” they write, with all the procedural optimism of a corporate annual report, “well-crafted solutions to recalcitrant problems will draw support.” The third conviction is that citizens need experts, to acquire that knowledge and learn to communicate well. Finally, Reconstructing Democracy assumes that the ideal democratic condition is consensus, that with enough dialogue or deliberation, we can all basically agree on the things that matter. We’re asked to “imagine the synergy created” if downtrodden regions were able to find consensus “around the best direction to go” instead of voting for xenophobic populists.
To put it all differently: If former South Bend, Indiana, mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg were a book about fixing democracy — not the daring generational crusader who entered the race pledging to pack the Supreme Court, mind you, but the technocratic consultant who departed it while warning about the price tag of universal health care — at any rate, if Pete Buttigieg were a book about fixing democracy, he’d be this one.
The point, of course, isn’t that expertise is unnecessary for democracy or that deliberative processes don’t work or that consultations aren’t important. If we can’t reason together in public, the democratic game is lost. And so it’s worth developing new ways to master the habits that allow us to rule ourselves, as free and equal citizens, through deliberation and debate and sometimes even consensus, not coercion or violence. But there’s a metonymic quality to the vision of democratic politics guiding this book, a small part standing in for the larger whole. Dialogue and deliberation are critical for democracy, but the procedures alone don’t keep us democratic. How they relate to power makes all the difference.
Here are some things that do not appear in this short book, published in 2020, about “how citizens are building from the ground up.” Electoral movements. Black Lives Matter and protests about criminal justice. Climate protests. Women’s marches. Labor activism. The 2018–’19 red-state teachers’ strikes. Surging interest in local elections. Bernie Sanders. It is odd, frankly, that a book selling local engagement as the antidote for illiberal populism would deliberately omit so many vital examples of citizens asserting their public power.
More frustrating, however, is that the co-authors look at forms of democratic action that aren’t dialogue-driven and see only failure. Protests and movements, to their mind, can’t achieve real change because they’re not coordinated with existing institutions. But this misses the forest for the trees. In Wisconsin Rapids, the co-authors proudly tell us, more than 500 people attended 75 local planning meetings. How many more residents of south Wood County have, in recent years, attended rallies for populist presidential candidates, or joined marches, or knocked on doors, or made donations to political candidates? What feels more satisfying right now, and more democratic: talking or acting?
The expert vision of facilitated democracy offered here is guided by an abiding faith in reason and procedure. But it has little to say about the world as it actually exists for us as we enter this third decade of the 21st century: profoundly unequal, structured by massive concentrations of political and economic power, relentlessly violent, challenged by dark alternate visions of racial and political community, and, at least in the United States, ruled by bad faith actors no longer all that convinced by democracy. Sometimes, we are learning, you can’t argue your way into a fairer distribution of resources or a more just share of power.
Democracies do need a certain level of underlying social agreement. The co-authors aren’t wrong. But any meaningful democratic consensus, about the kinds of political action and ideas we wish to allow and the ones we don’t and who’s included and who’s kept out and where those lines are drawn — none of that just exists in the world. It has to be won.
Ian Beacock is a writer and journalist. Trained as a historian, his essays and reporting have appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.