One sizeable shelf in my office bookcase is devoted entirely to recent works addressing the woes afflicting America’s system of governance. Many dimensions and symptoms are charted and explored: social isolation, breakdown of civil society, corruption of politics by big money, polarization of political attitudes, shallow media coverage, and so on. Few of these works would provide much in the way of hopeful or practical advice for those engaged in the nitty-gritty work of democratic participation. David Mathew’s The Ecology of Democracy is a great start on filling that gap.
Mathews, the President of the Kettering Foundation, does not dwell on ills recounted elsewhere. He acknowledges that citizens feel marginalized and reviews the systemic problems of self-rule and the ever-shifting nature of the political ecosystem. His chief contribution here is in calling attention to the citizen models and institutional practices that are attainable and may lead to the civic capacity-building that he hopes to see come about. In a time when some find the very notion of small “d” democracy radical and impractical in a large, globally engaged nation such as ours, Mathews strikes notes that are decidedly non-radical and workable.
My own views on our democratic experiment are more radical than Mathews’, but his are useful starting points that are digestible for those who are not in the fulltime business of thinking about how things work (or don’t work). Many of us immersed in citizen participatory work are constantly taught the lesson to start where people are at and then trust them to spot dysfunction and alternative remedies as they work together through possible approaches to democratic decision-making.
The Kettering Foundation’s contributions to public conversation are notable and they occupy a crucial space on what I call the “deliberative continuum”. It is a space that others would have a difficult time filling or filling so well. Mathews, however, addresses the public conversation landscape in fashion broader than many of us connect to Kettering. His chapter on “framing” issues on deliberation is one of the most succinct pieces of guidance for authentic public conversation I have seen.
For the last several years I have been asked from time to time to recommend some initial reading in the area of democratic practice. I have often referred contacts to Parker J. Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy. Add The Ecology of Democracy to my short list.