Can Real Participation Save Liberal Democracy?

Three ideas for how to reengage citizens in democracy beyond elections, and revive trust in the democratic process

November 2023
Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey
In partnership with:

The future of democracy should never rest on the results of a single election. But for a few days in November 2020, it sure felt like it did.

We were working on our book, Letting Go, less than a mile away from the United States Capitol building, when former President Donald Trump’s supporters formed a violent mob and stormed the Capitol with the goal of preventing Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.

It shook us enough to write an Afterword to Letting Go, focused entirely on participatory democracy. The book was about participatory decision-making models that could help fix the urgent disconnect facing leaders in philanthropy and impact investing. Our thesis: there are massive disparities in wealth, power and agency between those who decide how to solve problems and those who live those problems every day. It’s led to a crisis of faith and a crisis of legitimacy for social sector leaders.

That same disconnect has continued to fuel Trump since 2020. And in countries around the world, this lack of trust has created an opening for demagogues to turn their supporters against “rigged” democratic institutions to which they no longer feel a connection.

We were inspired by an emerging network of pro-democracy activists who argue that one way to save liberal democracy is to return to democracy’s roots: to encourage public participation in the democratic process. That means looking beyond elections.

Participatory Democracy

Meet the Democracy Beyond Elections project, led by the Participatory Budgeting Project, the People’s Action Institute and others. Josh Lerner, one of the project’s creators, explained the name: “We’re in a crisis of democracy, but our responses to this crisis have mostly been confined to sit within our dysfunctional political process.” He advocates for a more expansive view of reform. “Yes, we should make voting more accessible and expand civic engagement. But no, this alone will not fix our democracy.”

Lerner’s solution is something called participatory democracy delegating decision-making authority directly to citizens, rather than the elite political and professional class. The thinking is that if want to restore faith in government, we will need to take a more Athenian approach to the how of democracy: by encouraging direct participation by citizens in the political decisions that affect their lives.

That will take investment. It means investing in new civic spaces — physical and virtual–where deliberation can take place on the federal, state and local levels. As well as investing in the nonprofits that cultivate them, and that are building a movement for participatory democracy.

That investment is still lacking. In 2016, Americans spent more than six billion dollars in contributions to US presidential and congressional campaigns. That same year, foundations spent one percent of this amount — $74 million — on all non-electoral public participation programs combined.

Below, we're reprinting excerpts from Letting's Go's Afterword, where we share three examples of participatory democracy. The first section is about participatory budgeting: a form of direct democracy that hands decision-making power over taxpayer dollars to the people who pay them. Our second is about policy juries, and our third is about legislative theater — two other democratic exercise that can help restore trust and faith in our democracy.

Participatory Budgeting

In 2014, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page asked an important question: Just how much power does the average person have in setting federal policy? Their study’s introduction put it more bluntly: “Who really rules?”

Their central finding echoed at least half a dozen other studies in the past decade: middle-class Americans have essentially no influence over what their government does. When a federal policy has strong support among the wealthy, the probability of that policy becoming law roughly doubles. But strong support among the middle class has virtually no effect. “In other words,” Giles and Page wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “the well-to-do get the policy outcomes they strongly prefer far more often than do average-income Americans.”

People know when they’re not being heard. Seventy percent of Americans today believe the political system is “rigged,” a sentiment Donald Trump has regularly exploited. This messaging was effective because, in a sense, the criticism is true. Thanks to dark money, voter suppression and a general lack of transparency in the policymaking process, the rich and well connected continue to have outsized influence over our collective future.

Advocates of participatory democracy have a straightforward solution to this problem: Give people real agency over how their government spends its budget.

We talked about participatory budgeting a lot in this book. The operating philosophy behind participatory budgeting is that the best way to solve a problem is to follow the lead of the people who know it best. It narrows the distance that inevitably exists in any form of representative democracy: between mayor and citizen, federal and local, those who govern and those who are governed. According to the Participatory Budgeting Project, participatory budgeting is a “democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget. It gives people real power over real money.”

After its origins in Brazil in the late 1980s, participatory budgeting came to the United States in the wake of the Great Recession. The first experiments took place in Chicago in 2009, then in New York City two years later. It’s since spread to dozens of cities across the country, funding everything from park improvements and greenhouses to street safety enhancements and technology and infrastructure upgrades for underfunded schools.

Participatory budgeting has many benefits. For instance, it was adopted as an anti-poverty measure in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and ultimately helped reduce child mortality by nearly twenty percent. For the sake of this blog, though, we simply want to show that participatory budgeting is a tool to restore a sense of agency for everyday Americans. It counters the notion that the system is rigged by giving people the chance to influence the system with real teeth behind their decisions.

The cause has recently been taken up by a broader set of activists. The Movement for Black Lives, the organizing group of Black Lives Matter, included in its policy platform a call for participatory budgeting at the local, state and federal level. This framing of participatory budgeting as a racial justice issue is a major step for a policy concept that can sometimes get bogged down in the technicalities of municipal budgeting.

This renewed activism is starting to see results. In 2020, as Seattle was consumed with protests against police brutality, activists issued a demand for a participatory budgeting process alongside their calls to defund the police. In December 2020, the Seattle City Council voted to cut the police budget by eighteen percent and simultaneously to allocate $30 million to a fund that will be distributed via participatory budgeting.

The process will be developed by a Black Lives Matter-affiliated activist group called the Black Brilliance Research Project with support from the Participatory Budgeting Project. The group’s initial “needs assessment” report hints at a set of priorities that involve cutting bloated police budgets and moving resources to needs like housing and mental health support for the formerly incarcerated and treatment for substance abuse.

It’s a plan to “defund the police” that is more substance than slogan–and a way to return agency to communities that feel over-policed and underrepresented.

Want to learn more about participatory budgeting? The Participatory Budgeting Project is a nonprofit that promotes participatory budgeting, primarily in the United States and Canada. Since 2009, it has supported dozens of governments, public institutions, and organizations in launching and deepening participatory budgeting processes. This support ranges from technical assistance to implementing full processes. The Participatory Budgeting Project also runs the Democracy Beyond Elections project. The project maintains a running list of communities that engage in participatory budgeting and invites contributors to get engaged at the local level and with the project itself.

Shari Davis is head of the Participatory Budgeting Project. She has a vision, and a way to avoid an “apathetic apocalypse.” Listen to her TEDtalk on participatory budgeting, and learn why it was the way in which she saw democracy actually work for the first time.

Participatory budgeting is now used in more than seven thousand municipalities around the world. Its rise has been a bright spot in an otherwise dismal decade for democracy; amid the rise of authoritarianism, it represents a return to democracy’s roots.

Citizens' Assemblies

America today has a problem: its citizens fundamentally don’t trust each other.

The level of partisanship in American politics has reached historic levels. This division is often personal. One recent study found that roughly half of Republicans say Democrats are “more immoral” than other Americans, while a similar number of Democrats say the same about Republicans. Another survey found that a third of Republicans and nearly half of Democrats would be “very unhappy” if their child married someone from the opposing party.

Social scientists have termed this “negative partisanship”: disdain for the opposing political party now outweighs affection for one’s own party.

To state the obvious, it’s bad for democracy when people across the political spectrum harbor deep resentment toward those who do not share their views. It makes the daily grind of policy making nearly impossible, turning issues large and small into a life-or-death political cage match. More fundamentally, it fuels the notion that America has become ungovernable. Indeed, academics have found that “pernicious polarization”–when a society is split into mutually distrustful “Us vs. Them” camps–is a prelude to democratic collapse.

But as Ezra Klein and others have argued, these topline numbers on polarization can be misleading. When it comes to individual issues, Americans aren’t nearly as polarized as they seem. The COVID-19 relief bill that passed in early 2021 barely squeaked through a divided Senate, but its provisions–relief for state and local governments, stimulus checks, and funds for expanded testing–were supported by more than seventy percent of Americans, regardless of party affiliation. There’s similar majority support around other hot-button policy questions, from expanding gun control to increasing border security.

Still, it’s hard to understand this beyond an intellectual level, because for the most part, we never talk to each other. We live in self-imposed political bubbles, based on where we live, how we get our news and what we see on social media. In one recent study, the most isolated Democrats say they expect that ninety-three of their encounters will be with other Democrats; Republicans provided a similar response.

Advocates of participatory democracy see one potential solution to this problem of broken trust and divided allegiance: policy juries.

Policy juries are independent commissions that convene a representative sample of citizens to weigh in on a public policy issue. Like trial juries, they emphasize deliberation and cooperation. Members of the jury hear from experts and spend hours or sometimes months discussing and debating with people who were recently strangers.

Policy juries are a relatively new invention, but they already have a remarkable record of lowering the temperature in intense political environments. For a recent example, we can look to the Republic of Ireland, where citizens came together to find a solution to one of the most polarizing issues in the world.

Abortion is a politically sensitive topic in Ireland, to say the least. More than seventy-five percent of the country population identifies as Catholic, and many of the country’s laws reflect the church’s influence, including a nineteenth-century ban on abortion in the country’s Constitution.

In 2016, the Irish government partnered with Atlantic Philanthropies to run a “Citizens’ Assembly” on the topic of abortion, as part of their “We the Citizens” project. They selected a random sample of ninety-nine Irish citizens (Their selection method? Hiring a market research firm to knock on doors and ask people if they wanted to participate.) The gathered citizens were posed with the question of whether or not to effectively legalize abortion by amending the constitution.

The process was intensely deliberative. Over the course of one year, the ninety-nine Irish citizens attended weekend-long sessions, where they listened to presentations from legal and ethics experts, activists and people with lived experience around abortion. Each presentation was followed by small-group discussions led by trained facilitators. The idea was to get the participants not just to parse what they heard but also to connect with one another. After weeks of deliberation, the Citizens’ Assembly recommended repealing the abortion ban. The outcome triggered a national referendum vote in 2018, and after historic turnout, the Irish electorate surprised the world by voting in favor of the amendment’s repeal, legalizing abortion in one of the most Catholic countries in the world.

This process succeeded where elite decision-makers had failed. But the larger point is that it got people talking to each other.

Policy juries have recently started to take hold in the United States. The following organizations aim to advance this kind of public deliberation, restoring citizens’ (loosely defined) trust in each other, and in our democracy:

  • Healthy Democracy is a nonpartisan organization based in Oregon that designs and coordinates policy juries and other deliberative democracy programs. This organization has pioneered the Citizens’ Initiative Review process in Oregon, Massachusetts and California, which brings together randomly selected and demographically representative members of a particular region to debate and produce a report on ballot measures. Healthy Democracy also designed a replicable model for citizens’ juries on the municipal level that go one step further: These policy juries provide city councils with detailed policy recommendations on the topic at hand.
  • Policy Jury Group works to advance the use of policy juries in a non-partisan and impactful way, primarily focused on the state and local levels. They collaborate with political reformers, policy entrepreneurs, academics, journalists, and public officials to “identify the lessons learned and opportunities for reform based upon cutting-edge work in the field, put forward key insights and strategies to help reformers nationwide, and provide model programs and best practices for implementing Policy Juries as a function of government.”
  • Center for New Democratic Processes promotes a Dialogue-to-Action model in their Citizen’s Juries, which can be seen in action here. They hope to “restore legitimacy, hope, and trust to collective decision-making and the institutions we interact with every day,” to produce truly representative and sustainable solutions around the world.

Jury duty is one of the last remaining ways that people tangibly and constructively interact with government, beyond voting. Policy juries double down on what already works. They are designed to make policy debates constructive rather than divisive; to keep the temperature lower than in electoral bodies like the US Senate; and to blunt the natural incentives for partisanship.

In an era of “alternative facts,” tasking citizens with identifying what matters most takes the conversation out of a hyper-partisan frame and brings it into a community-centered one.

Legislative Theater

In 2014, the New York City Council passed a historic bill to curb the invasive practice of stop-and-frisk policing, which disproportionately criminalized New Yorkers of color.

During the roll call, one council member dedicated his vote to a trans woman of color named Giselle, whom he had seen share a piece of performance art in which she reenacted a frightening encounter with a police officer who accused her of soliciting sex work.

“Giselle had a real, concrete effect on me,” the council member told a reporter. “[Her performance] really helped me solidify my thinking on that issue.”

We’ve talked so far about rather wonky formats for discussing policy debates: budget referenda and jury deliberations. In this final section we’ll talk about one more type of participatory democracy that is a bit different: legislative theater. What began as an experiment among Brazilian artists has since morphed into a global model for immersive storytelling for social change. It’s a model that provides a platform for marginalized people who might otherwise feel that the system is “rigged” against them.

Like participatory budgeting, legislative theater has its roots in Brazil. Augusto Boal was a theater director and community organizer who organized low-wage workers in his free time. In 1971 he was kidnapped off the street by the military regime and exiled to Argentina, where he stayed for five years. During that time he studied the work of Paulo Freire, the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Inspired by Freiere and by his theater background, Boal created a new format of political engagement called Theatre of the Oppressed.

The military regime fell in the early 1980’s, and Boal returned to Brazil. He rented a theater and started putting on shows that featured oppressed people sharing their personal stories in front of an audience of “spect-actors” who shared their opinions and experiences as part of the performance.

Augusto Boal was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for Theatre of the Oppressed, and since then the idea has spread to more than seventy countries, including the United States.

  • Theater of the Oppressed NYC is only one of several local legislative theater organizations, whose groups are invariably small, community-led productions that need financial support.
  • In Washington, DC, Sojourn Theatre runs a semi-annual production,The Race, that promotes inquiry into the civic process. Their most recent production, just days before the 2020 presidential election, invited audience members to answer questions like “Why would you follow someone?” and “Is diplomacy a sign of weakness in a leader?”
  • In Manchester, England, local officials have started turning to legislative theater to inform their homelessness prevention strategy, leading to policy proposals that include sharing data across health and social services, as well as training peer advocates with lived experience.

Theater of the Oppressed NYC, was co-founded by one of Boal’s proteges Katy Rubin, and the venue for Giselle’s performance. The program is run by a small staff and volunteers out of an auditorium in Hell’s Kitchen. In a typical show, the actors present an original play “chronicling an unresolved problem resulting from systemic oppression.” The audience is invited to break the fourth wall, stepping onto the stage and sharing or acting out possible ways to address that problem. Later on, these performances are re-created for an audience of policymakers to generate discussion on solutions and even inform draft legislation.

“We want to take back the storytelling process and demand change from the people who are actually facing the problem,” said Rubin. “The philosophy is that everyone is an actor, both the audience member and the performer.”

Legislative theater can have real policy impacts, but it can also engage new kinds of people in the policy process: think theater kids rather than Model UN kids. It’s a creative way to restore the civic religion of democracy by activating people’s imaginations–and a promising idea to provide a potentially more welcoming entryway into the democratic process.

Learn more about Letting Go here.

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