Deepening Democracy: The Varieties of Participatory Institutions

When most people imagine deepening democracy — increasing citizen participation in power — their mind often jumps to the furthest extreme of direct democracy: endless meetings of every citizen ignorantly voting on every issue.  If this is what deep democracy means — all of us taking time to discern the right policy regarding inland fisheries regulations and medical device taxes — then deep democracy is ridiculous.

But this is the wrong way to think about deepening democracy. Rather than seeing a deep democracy as a system where every citizen has a vote on every issue, we should imagine it as a system where every citizen has a variety of open avenues to having their voice heard and ideas realized. To deepen democracy is to open up power — the power to start projects, change projects, and stop projects — to more people in more ways.  

The mechanism for deepening democracy is the participatory institution: a system that gains political power for the purpose of distributing it to a wider variety of people. A deep democracy would consist of a dense array of interconnected participatory institutions. Continue reading “Deepening Democracy: The Varieties of Participatory Institutions”

Greg Watson at “Beyond Sanders and Clinton”

This past February, the Democratic Alternative co-sponsored “Beyond Sanders and Clinton: Visionary Futures for Democratic Economics” at Harvard Law School.  Here is the video of Greg Watson’s speech at the event:

Greg Watson is the former Commissioner of Agriculture of Massachusetts and now the Director of Policy and Systems Design at the Schumacher Center for New Economics. He has been a public voice for sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, new monetary systems, equitable land tenure arrangements, neighborhood planning through democratic processes, government policies that support human-scale development, cooperative structure, and import replacement through citizen financing of new enterprises.

Reducing the influence of money and raising the temperature of politics: Practical first steps

The Democratic Alternative is based on a vision. It is a vision to open politics to everyone, to democratize the economy, and for the empowerment of communities and citizens in the building of a freer, more just, and engaged society. This vision is often criticized as utopian. We are told that our ideas are too grandiose and vision too broad; we are told that our program is impractical in politics as it exists today. What is needed, critics say, are political managers that know how to get bills through congress, pass progressive legislation, and work with the political parties. Even if our politics are more desirable, they are deemed impractical. Such critiques have dogged radical reformers and revolutionaries throughout history, and they are critiques that we reject.

Continue reading “Reducing the influence of money and raising the temperature of politics: Practical first steps”

Against Mansion Politics

At a $500-a-head fundraiser in Charleston, South Carolina yesterday, Ashley Williams, a Black Lives Matter activist, confronted Hillary Clinton about her support for the 1994 Crime Bill as well as for her comments at the time parroting the racist media hype that some youth were “superpredators” who needed to be brought to “heel.” Clinton — who in a public speech in Harlem in the past weeks said that “White Americans need to do a better job at listening when African Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers they face every day… practice humility rather than assume that our experience is everyone’s experiences” — did not answer the protestor’s questions, acquiesced the crowd’s boos, allowed someone to escort the protestor out of the mansion, and then said, “Now let’s get back to the issues.” See the video here:

There is a lot that is going to be said about this clip, which should be widely seen. It’s best for others to comment about what this clip says about the Black Lives Matter movement or Hillary Clinton’s campaign. However, I will say this: this incident is a perfect example of the campaign finance system’s distortion of politics. Continue reading “Against Mansion Politics”

Political Equality First

i. The economic inequality crisis in the spotlight

The crisis of economic inequality has reached the center of Democratic Party politics. The recession, the Occupy movement, Elizabeth Warren’s popularity, strikes for higher wages at fast food restaurants, the reception of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, and now the Presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders have together, step by step, put it there. Even Republicans are starting to listen, thanks in part to Robert Putnam’s recent book Our Kids, which frames the problem of economic inequality in conservativefriendly terms: not as a problem of suffering adults, but rather as a dangerous opportunity gap for America’s children.

Diverse descriptions of this crisis of economic inequality abound. Some describe it in terms of income inequality (emphasizing wage stagnation and CEO pay); others in terms of wealth inequality (emphasizing large inheritances and capital gains); and the most visionary thinkers on the subject, such as Roberto Unger and Gar Alperovitz, speak in terms of structural inequality (emphasizing the undemocratic structure of most economic firms and markets). Yet, implicit in most descriptions is a shared premise that solutions to the crisis will necessitate government action. True, the project of lessening America’s economic power disparity can be partially forwarded by non-state actors—the CEO who voluntarily raises worker pay, the billionaire who donates most of his wealth, the union organizer who reinvigorates unionization within an industry, or the new business school set up for training entrepreneurs interested in launching worker cooperatives. However, the enormity of this power disparity is going to require the participation of a much more powerful actor: the government. Take the major proposals for better distributing economic power: raising the minimum wage, allowing card check unionization, equalizing public school quality, funding the broadening of higher education access, taxing capital gains equal to income, increasing the estate tax, providing for the health security required for economic risk-taking. All these proposals necessitate state action. Continue reading “Political Equality First”

Introduction to the Open Democracy Project

Citizens want to participate, but our democracy is closed, serving the interests of insiders. Washington’s endemic inertia has made political change dependent on crisis. Even proposals that garner wide support are shackled by partisan politics and industry insiders. As money increasingly corrupts the legislative and administrative process, the capability to make political change becomes evermore limited to those with the money to buy results. Tired of the gridlock and corruption, Americans limit their political participation to the minimal act of voting, or opt out of politics entirely. As popular participation and experimentation declines, the range of acceptable ideas narrows, and elites with special interests define the scope of political thought and debate.

To reverse these trends, the Open Democracy Project is researching policies that work to:

  • Eliminate the corrupting influence of private money in politics: Legislatures and government administrators should be dependent on the people alone, not campaign donors. To achieve this goal, we should develop and expand programs for the public financing of elections, as well as the public provision of other campaign resources, such as media opportunities, to all ballot-qualified candidates.
  • Increase popular engagement in politics: We should invest significant public resources and efforts in ensuring a heightened, sustained, and organized level of popular engagement in politics. Social movements, civic education initiatives, forums for deliberation, and community projects should have broader access to media, funding, public space, and government resources.
  • Develop mechanisms for resolving gridlock: We should establish formal legislative mechanisms to more rapidly resolve Washington gridlock, such as innovative forms of ballot initiatives. We should pursue experiments in combining features of representative and direct democracy in formal decision-making.
  • Empower local and sector experimentation: We should create opportunities for experimental deviation in particular places and sectors. As national initiatives move in one direction, there should be opportunities for pursuing local experimentation and sector autonomy that enable alternatives.

Stay tuned to this section of to follow our work on building this Open Democracy Agenda. To join the Open Democracy Project, contact To submit an independent post to this section, contact