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Reviving a Radical Concept from the 1970s to Strengthen Democracy Today
Carole Pateman's book "Participation and Democratic Theory" is as relevant as when it was printed during the Nixon administration.
In brief: If you ask yourself what makes something democratic, your first response will probably be about systems: voting, free speech, ways of choosing representatives. In her book Participation and Democratic Theory, Carole Pateman argued that democracy is, instead, a habit of participating in the decisions that affect you at all levels, from big to small.
Why it matters: More than half of Americans think democracy is in crisis. The global picture isn’t much better. How we imagine democracy might constrain how creatively we think about how to fix it. If we imagine democracy as structures—the right to vote, freedom of expression, due process and equal protection—we will propose structural solutions, and progress on that front is, at best, stalled.
But: If instead we imagine democracy as participation in decision-making at all levels, we can all get in the democracy-fixing game by practicing democracy on a small scale, for example:
In families: What decisions get handed down, versus decided in a collaborative fashion?
In classrooms: Educators tend to decide learning goals, assessment structures, and assignments unilaterally. But a lot of the power educators have could be shared with students.
In the workplace: Most companies, from small family businesses up to publicly traded companies, are intensely hierarchical. But they can be made more democratic in small ways (building in more carefully structured feedback loops) to big ones (open book management).
Image Credit: “Fighter for Democracy” by Charles Keller, available at the Library of Congress.