Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places
“We live in and through institutions. The nature of the institutions we both inhabit and transform has much to do with our capacity to sustain attention. We could even say that institutions are socially organized forms of paying attention or attending, although they can also, unfortunately, be socially organized forms of distraction.”
—Robert Bellah et al.
People all across the United States I call “democratic professionals” are creating power-sharing arrangements in organizations, institutions, and workplaces that are usually hierarchical and non-participatory.Their stories, which will begin in the next installment in this series, can help us understand both the obstacles confronted and the resources available for deep cultural change today. To appreciate them fully, however, we must release ourselves from the grip of the prevailing view of how and where democratic change happens.
Drawing on the historical precedents of the abolition, women’s suffrage, labor, civil rights, and student movements, discussion of democratic change typically focuses on the power of people joined together in common cause and pressing for major legislative action. Core factors in the process include leadership, mobilization, organizational capacity, consciousness-raising, forms of protest such as strikes, marches, and sit-ins, and electoral pressure on political parties and candidates.
While our default perspective is crucial for understanding vital types of democratic action, as the Arab Spring most recently demonstrates, it is state-centric, and privileges resources and commitments that are exogenous to daily life. Political action appears as a burst of collective energy that then dissipates after certain legal or policy targets are met: slavery was abolished, voting rights for women established, the 8-hour day guaranteed, military conscription for Vietnam ended. A large enough number of people leave their everyday routines, at least temporarily, to join in a collective effort. For this reason, Sheldon Wolin has called democratic movements “fugitive,” since at the end of the protest, strike, or campaign, most people return to their families, neighborhoods, and workplaces.
Yet some purposeful democratic action is not fugitive. Harry Boyte has drawn attention to the public work of self-directing community groups that band together to secure affordable housing, welcome new immigrant groups, and repair common areas like parks and playgrounds. Though deeply relevant to many neighborhoods’ quality of life, such public work remains under the radar of the mass media and academia because it does not usually expend its energy on law and policy.
Even less noticed are the alterations democratic professionals are making to their organizations: they take their public responsibilities seriously and listen carefully to those outside their walls and those at all levels of their internal hierarchy in order to foster physical proximity between formerly separated individuals, encourage co-ownership of problems previously seen as beyond laypeople’s ability or realm of responsibility, and seek out opportunities for collaborative work between laypeople and professionals.We fail to see these activities as politically significant because they do not fit our conventional picture of democratic change. As if to repay the compliment, the democratic professionals I have interviewed in fields such as criminal justice, public administration, and K-12 education rarely use the concepts employed by social scientists and political theorists. Lacking an overarching ideology, they make it up as they go along, developing roles, attitudes, habits, and practices that open calcified structures up to greater participation. Their democratic action is thus endogenous to their occupational routine, often involving those who would not consider themselves activists or even engaged citizens.
Though they belong to practitioner networks and engage in ongoing streams of print, online, and face-to-face dialogue, the democratic professionals I have met do not form a typical social movement. Rather than mobilizing fellow travelers and putting pressure on government office holders to make new laws or rules, or convening temporary participatory processes such as citizens’ juries, deliberative polls, and citizens’ assemblies, democratic professionals are making real-world changes in their domains piece by piece, practice by practice. In the trenches all around us they are renovating and reconstructing schools, clinics, prisons, and other seemingly inert bodies.
In this series, we will talk with Donnan Stoicovy, a principal in University Park, Pennsylvania who turned her Kindergarten through fifth grade institution into an explicitly "democratic school," designing curricula and internal structures to encourage student voice and participation in setting school policies. We will hear from Lauren Abramson, who convenes community justice conferences in some of the most distressed neighborhoods in Baltimore, Maryland, to address harmful actions before they become formal crimes and enter into the criminal justice system. Stoicovy, Abramson, and the other democratic professionals we will meet are changing routine, everyday practices where we all live and work. Their democratic practices are not, therefore, “fugitive” in Wolin’s terms because they are part of our daily life.
Democratic professionals have a different kind of leverage on the social world than the political actors and movement organizers we are used to. The energy involved is not a large burst but a slow burn. It is generated not by raising the public consciousness, but through load-bearing work that fosters relations of proximity within classrooms, hallways, conference rooms, and administrative offices, imbues them with public-ness, and remakes them as civic spaces that refuse to be dominated by bureaucratic routines. Proximity in public space—getting close enough to see and understand others as fellow citizens—is taken for granted as a principle of advanced democracy and yet it is in astonishingly short supply.
John Dewey wrote in 1927 that the modern public was in eclipse, too “scattered, mobile, and manifold” to find itself. To be sure, twentieth century Americans inherited a participatory infrastructure—of town meetings, local control, competitive elections—but it was inadequate for an era of urban populations, large-scale corporations, and cross-regional issues. Democracy, Dewey thought, “consists in having a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which one belongs and in participating according to need in the values which the groups sustain." But how could individuals awaken to this responsibility and adequately discharge it under conditions that bewilder and obscure common interests?
Now, in our time of late modernity, the public is even more scattered, mobile, and manifold. Zygmunt Bauman and other leading social theorists write of contemporary social structures that, paradoxically, destructure common life, distance us from each other, and make it increasingly hard for us to interact with others in anything but a partial, superficial, and self-selecting fashion. Absent are the places that, in the past, helped us realize who we are as a public, as Tony Judt has illustrated in sketching the lost civic world of his childhood. We lack sufficient means today for calling ourselves to attention, for sobering ourselves up to our responsibility for the world all around.
We have an underutilized capacity to connect, to see humanity even in the darkest corners of public life, to find common cause across our many legitimate differences and allegiances.
Bringing lay people together to make justice, education, public health, and public safety—when done as a routine part of the normal social environment—helps fill in the erosion produced by the destructuring of public life. It is accomplished in part by repairing our frayed participatory infrastructure—the traditional town meetings, public hearings, jury trials, citizen oversight committees, for example—but also by remodeling this and creating new civic spaces. Democratic professionals in schools, public health clinics, and prisons who share their load-bearing work are innovators who are expanding, not just conserving, our neglected democratic inheritance.
Professionals typically and all too easily seal themselves off from the “clients,” “taxpayers,” and “patients” they serve and treat without understanding them fully. Modern organizations privilege speed, efficiency, and cost containment, and therefore employ the division of labor and hierarchy deemed necessary to reach these goals. Yet these internal arrangements can create a stultifying distance between organizations and lay citizens. Democratic professionals adapt the formal rationality of institutions to appreciate and act upon substantive contributions that lay citizens can make to a reflective legal judgment, a secure environment, or a stimulating education. And, importantly, democratic professionals bring citizens together who had not planned to be together. Sometimes the lay contributions that serve as a valuable corrective to institutional rationality are not brought in by citizens immediately, but are rather developed by them over time through power-sharing practices that encourage sober reflection. This sort of action is particularly important for treating issues most of us would rather ignore because we have no direct interest at stake or because they are distasteful in some way, such as incarceration rates or prison conditions. Here innovators engender co-ownership of processes, problems, and solutions that have long been the province of specialists and experts. That such co-ownership is not necessarily demanded by or desired by citizens is part of what makes it important as a force for democratic change.
Consider the capital jury, the body that must decide whether a death sentence is appropriate. Even though they only seat death-qualified jurors who believe the penalty is just in principle, such juries choose death significantly less often than the public opinion statistics on Americans’ views of the death penalty would predict. It is not discourse about the validity of the death penalty or consciousness-raising that causes this discrepancy, but rather the shared responsibility for a grave decision and the proximity to a living, breathing, mistake-making human being. Likewise, standard public opinion polls about punishment in the United States register generally severe attitudes, but when researchers provide context-rich descriptions of particular offenders respondents’ preferences for sentencing become more moderate.
We have an underutilized capacity to connect, to see humanity even in the darkest corners of public life, to find common cause across our many legitimate differences and allegiances. While it may be unrealistic to think that by creating civic spaces of shared work and responsibility Americans will morph into fully-fledged participatory democrats, perhaps it is enough if these serve as an antidote to the layers of bureaucracy, the compartmentalization of responsibility, and the division of labor that keep us from seeing others as fellow citizens today. Marc Stears has called for non-state-centric “everyday democracy” efforts that share power and create open spaces of collaboration in workplaces and in public life more broadly. I share his goal, yet Stears takes an unrealistically communitarian stance when he posits “relationships” as the primary levers of change. By contrast, I think load-bearing collaborative work that brings us together in public places can result in a sobering-up process that calls us to attention to the other. To return to the example, juries are a way that courts share responsibility for justice; they circulate lay people into a professionalized institution and, through the unanimity rule, make sure everyone’s voice matters. Restorative justice programs that bring victims into contact with offenders or their proxies in structured, sober, and reflective ways, also show how we can come to appreciate each other as fellow citizens, even at our worst moments.
What have you created that will outlast your career?
I have been asking democratic professionals across the United States questions that are no less demanding than those we commonly ask reformers involved in social movements:
1. How have you repaired or created spaces of proximity and collaboration in your organizations? How have you, as an innovative public administrator, for example, brought citizens into reflective contact with each other to do substantive, non-symbolic work?
2. How has your democratic practice shifted or shared responsibility for the goals of your organization? How have you, as a democratic public health practitioner, for example, managed to incorporate non-professionals into your decision making while ensuring competence and accountability?
3. How have you released the capacities of those throughout your operational hierarchy and of those affected by your organization but not employed by it? How have you, as a democratic teacher or principal, for example, broken the traditional barriers that distance you from students in the service of institutional order?
4. Hardest of all, what have you created that will outlast your career? Have you shifted institutional habits so that the inefficiencies of lay participation are recognized as costs worth paying in order to enjoy collective or long-term benefits? Have you successfully and durably trained the next generation of democratic practitioners who will take up similar roles in your organization?
Though these changes are more retail in nature than the wholesale changes sought by movement activists, they are not minor achievements, for they fly in the face of counter-democratic pressures in professional-led organizations: bureaucratic demands for efficiency, cost-control, and clear chains of command; legal constraints that carve out specific zones of authority and responsibility; and economic incentives to assert what Andrew Abbott calls “jurisdictional control” over certain problems, issues, and tasks in order to preserve and enhance the market for professional services. All of these operate as powerful barriers to democratic innovation.
Yet my interviews will show how practitioners find opportunities for change, and necessary resources and allies as well. Wicked problems such as teenage pregnancy, which admit no one-dimensional expert response, can prompt otherwise risk-averse public health professionals to bring in community members as collaborators in solving their own problems. Centralized authorities can relax when participatory processes yield results by using local problem-solving knowledge. Hierarchy, when counterproductive in activating creativity and nurturing the love of inquiry, as many democratic teachers and principals have discovered, can also loosen its organizational hold. Moreover, widespread resentment of managerialism among skilled professionals, especially the degradation of workplace autonomy through endless techniques of increasingly invasive measurement and assessment, motivates strategically useful allies in democratic culture change.
Worth noting, too, as a strategic advantage, is how trench democracy, performed by these practitioners at the local or institutional level, can improve lives immediately because it does not depend on the lengthy grinding of legal or political machinery. Children in more participatory classrooms, citizen-patients taking part in inclusionary public health efforts, and prisoners enabled by restorative justice programs to interact as citizens with victims or their families can improve their well-being at the very moment they conduct their work. Their collaborative, reflective, and load-bearing work can be, itself, a valuable end result.
Inside some very beige buildings along some very normal streets are remarkable people breathing new life into American democracy. Let’s get to know them.Research on this project was done in partnership with the Kettering Foundation. Image provided by Albert Dzur.