Introducing… Beyond Elections

What if democracy could be so much more than what we think it is?

June 2024
June 2024
June 23, 2024
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Last month, I dropped in on the encampment at George Washington University, where students were challenging U.S. support of the Israeli assault on Gaza. 

I watched the students serve from a communal food table and create posters, and spoke to some of the volunteer instructors at the teach-ins. When I asked several students why they believed occupation of their campus was necessary, they invariably told me they felt they had no other way to influence the policies set by their university, or by the American government.

While some people might disagree with their tactics, there is something beautiful about the sight of masses of young people passionately engaging in public discourse. I thought to myself: Why isn’t there another way to both enable this kind of public engagement and give “ordinary” citizens a say in official decision-making?

Ask most people to define “democracy,” and they’ll give you a variation on “elections.” But these protests illustrate why we need democracy to be so much more. We need to offer people from all incomes, ethnicities and education levels the opportunity to engage in official decision-making, helping to shape the policies that define us as a country.

In other words, we need to make our democracy more accountable – and more participatory.

What does accountability look like?

Last year, journalist Vincent Bevins published the book “If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution.” He asks a question that is on many of our minds. From 2010 to 2020, more people participated in protests than at any other point in human history. Yet we are not living in more just and democratic societies as a result. What happened?

In one chapter, Bevins writes about the breakdown of state accountability in our culture: “The links between the people and the state, supposedly the foundation of liberal democratic politics, have become increasingly weak, and often rendered invisible…There is widespread agreement that the political systems in advanced societies have become distant from the sovereign people who putatively grant them their power.”

Bevins also concludes that protests – while inspiring in their massive display of “people power” – usually do not result in the lasting, positive change the original organizers hoped for. Part of the reason: protestors’ rarely agitate for pathways to citizen inclusion in decision-making. 

There are, however, examples of what regular citizen input could look like. Ireland legalized abortion after participants in a citizens’ assembly voted to do so. Porto Alegre, Brazil, used participatory budgeting to involve its residents in allocating the municipal budget. And a district in Zimbabwe employed legislative theater to bring youths together with local governments to make climate policy.

What other methods are there? What determines their success? How can they be combined for maximum impact? Those are the questions we’ll ask in this new platform.

Introducing Beyond Elections

Beyond Elections will explore all aspects of participatory, deliberative and direct democracy, in an effort to inspire experimentation, share lessons learned and recognize the trailblazers who work so hard to bring these techniques to scale for the benefit of all.

This series is launching with the support of People Powered, which has acted as a global hub for participatory democracy since 2019. We hope you’ll become both a supporter and a contributor. Sign up for our monthly newsletter, and send us tips on who you’d like to see interviewed or which projects you want to know more about. 

In this first issue, we kick off with a special feature on citizens’ assemblies, asking why they haven’t taken off in the United States like they have in Europe and Canada. We also interview Iain Walker, executive director of newDemocracy, about his provocative proposal for the use of citizens’ assemblies in areas where the government has imploded, such as the Gaza Strip. And we feature the thoughts of Nick Vlahos on how to combine assemblies with tactics such as participatory budgeting for even greater impact.

I hope you’ll find this collective journey stimulating and inspirational!

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