America – Democracy

November 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

Midterm Elections

This week America went to the polls, voting on House, Senate and Governor races around the country. As you know, the Democrats just held control of the Senate, but were trounced in the House and gubernatorial elections. The Tea Party won some big victories, but Sarah Palin’s ‘Mama Grizzlies‘ also failed in Delaware, Nevada and California – giving some hope of sanity.

One surprise for me was just how many things are on the ballot when US voters go to the polls. State-wide: Governors, Lieutenant Governors, Senators, then regionally: Representatives and judges, locally: school boards, Mayors, Deputy Mayors – and to top it all off, propositions: make cannabis legal? block any gay-marriage legislation? stop taxing oil companies? tax oil companies more? make Ronald McDonald President-elect?

It seems to me that voters don’t have a sophisticated choice on each of these options. I wouldn’t either! They like the name/party and they vote. Or more often than not (in fact, in every state except Vermont according to the polls), they are voting against something – and right now, that’s Obama. This piece in the LA Times by Marshall Ganz has the best analysis of the Obama Presidency so far in my books. The central point is that people voted for him because he promised transformational change – and ended up being only transactional.


But things can change. While I was in New York, I took part in a community consultation for PlaNYC – the city’s effort to turn New York into a sustainable urban space by 2030.

With 100 people from lower Manhattan in a school gym hall, we broke into issue groups – each on one table – ranging from Green Jobs, Water, Food, Brown Sites, Transport etc. The evening was led by a former Move.On organiser who was full of phrases like ‘Do I have everyone with me?’ and ‘Are we all agreed on the objectives for tonight?’. He set the right tone, and managed our expectations well – but then came the table facilitators… Each one a junior person from City Hall with titles like, ‘Assistant to the Chief of Staff for Personnel’ who had clearly never engaged with the public before. I joined the ‘Food’ table, with young urban farmers, a mum who had changed her kids’ school menu to include sustainable food, and the NYC Slow Food co-founders – these people knew what they were talking about. Our young West-Wing-Wannabee facilitator outright ignored the women on the table, created conflict with every answer and then left early – the ultimate ‘How Not To Facilitate’ experience..

I’d asked Marshall Ganz whether participative democracy was possible, and he said ‘It has to be – otherwise we might as well give up’. Indeed, organisations like Involve here in the UK have rich examples of how to do this type of work well – and I believe that as campaigners, we need to be much better at listening, and bringing people’s voices into the heart of our work. It seems Organizing For America has learned that painful lesson this week with the elections – and is launching Listening Tours around the country to try to salvage what they can from the ’08 campaign.

Rally For Sanity

In the run-up to voting day, the topic for many progressives while I was in the States was the Rally For Sanity, brought together by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and supported by the Huffington Post. Former Secretary of State under the Clinton Presidency, Robert Reich, who I was lucky to meet after his class at Berkeley, argued that it was an impressive rally, but failed to have political impact because it wasn’t ‘for something electable’. Others, including many former colleagues at saw it filling the void left by progressive organisations after Glenn Beck’s rally a couple of months ago. Either way it had some brilliant protest signs

BONUS: This piece from Cognitive Policy Works is full of phrases like, ‘Our enemy is not a party.  It is a system designed to manipulate public perceptions about what it means to be American.  And it is unraveling the tapestry of our culture and destroying our democracy.’ Worth the read!

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