Forum — From the February 2017 issue

Trump: A Resister’s Guide

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Democracy How?

By Celina Su

The results of this election are, among other things, a devastating consequence of almost six decades of declining political participation in America. In 2016, almost half of those eligible to vote did not exercise their right to do so. This is due not to historic highs of apathy but to historic lows of trust in government. According to Gallup polls, 71 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of confidence in Congress in 1972; in 2014, that figure was just 28 percent. People are deeply and rightfully disillusioned with the ability of electoral politics to bring to power officials who represent the interests of the communities they serve. The Electoral College, the limited choices available in a two-party system, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the disenfranchisement of more than 6 million citizens (including many no longer on probation or parole) all contributed to the election of a racist demagogue supported by a minority of Americans.

Political participation is essential to a robust democracy, but we cannot rebuild trust in government without rebuilding government itself. The reform of electoral politics is necessary but insufficient. Equally important is the development of democratic institutions that rely on direct participation rather than representation.

First adopted in the United States in 2009, participatory budgeting is one such answer to representative politics. Typically, budget allocations — grants for computer labs in library branches, or meal programs for homebound seniors — are made by elected officials at various degrees of remove. P.B., as it’s often called, brings constituents into the process, allowing them to articulate the problems they see in their neighborhoods, deliberate over solutions, and draft the policies that will govern them.

In a moment of bigotry and autocratic opposition to free media and discourse, such processes — which require us to consider our public priorities with people unlike ourselves — are radical. They force us to broaden our definition of whose voice counts. Where the electoral system has engaged the usual suspects — older people of higher income — P.B. would give voice to people often marginalized, including the young, the formerly incarcerated, and the undocumented. When P.B. was first tried in New York City in 2011, young people were not allowed to vote, but they could develop proposals, and their contributions impressed adults enough that the voting age has been lowered almost every year since.

This expansion of the political community happened partly because P.B. enables participants to draw on lived experience and wisdom that does not depend on formal schooling. If a question is raised, for example, about which areas feel unsafe at specific hours, local knowledge carries as much weight as technical expertise, and it’s harder for elites to dominate the conversation. Participants report that P.B. deliberations allow them to inhabit more than one aspect of their identities — for example, their lives as African Americans, as parents, as sports fans, as city dwellers, as Midwesterners — and connect with people they might otherwise assume they have nothing in common with.

The goal is not consensus, which can often serve as a mask for domination, but generative conflict. Neighbors focus on changing the policies that shape their lives rather than, say, getting rid of the people down the street. The practice combats what Henry Giroux, a theorist of critical pedagogy, calls “civic illiteracy” — “the inability to see outside of the realm of the privatized self.”

The challenge lies in ensuring that P.B. experiments achieve countervailing power and do not simply pay lip service to community involvement. For P.B. to be effective, communities must have authority over a substantial portion of public budgets, certainly more than the governmental equivalent of the crumbs from a P.T.A. bake sale. When austerity economics dominates budget debates, officials can use P.B. to make citizens themselves choose cutbacks, forcing them to decide whose school gets a playground upgrade and whose doesn’t. And if P.B. is to make a dent in Trumpism, it must take account of the way budgets can reinforce racial inequality, and vice versa. One solution is to work toward public control over tax revenues as well as spending allocations. Should local governments in places like Ferguson, Missouri, earn significant portions of their budgets by overpolicing populations of color?

In a racially and economically segregated society, these sorts of local democratic experiments can reinforce existing inequities, especially in the short term. What happens at a meeting, for example, when a bully shows up? Yet in contrast to conservative movements organized around local control, P.B. aims to remake government, not weaken it. Ideally, participation prompts people to turn their attention from their plight as individuals to the conditions of their community and, in turn, to the governmental, corporate, and institutional powers determining those conditions. It shows us what democracy looks like as an everyday social practice, rather than as an institution to be visited once every fourth November.

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