Twenty-five years ago, a city manager looked at me gravely and said, “I’m not a big fan of unbridled democracy.” I had just suggested ways that she could engage large, diverse numbers of people in a deliberative process to plan the future of her city. She was skeptical.
Why? Because all my ideas about giving citizens a voice in decision-making went against the grain of her training and outlook on how public life is supposed to work. As a highly competent administrator and expert, she was used to a system where citizens elect officials and get out of the way. Then, those elected officials hire managers and experts, and they get down to the business of governing.
I’ve spent my whole career helping cities, states, and countries engage citizens in more democratic ways. (By “citizens” I mean all of us, whatever passports we hold, and I use it to honor our contributions to democracy and civic life.) When I tell people about my work, most Americans expect that resistance to these practices comes mainly from conservatives.
It doesn’t. Some of the strongest opposition to democracy comes from progressives, particularly people in positions of influence and authority.
To succeed politically—and, more importantly, to make a greater contribution to American society—progressives should take a closer look at what democracy means, why it really matters, and how innovations in democracy offer a much more productive debate about our future as a country.
Why are progressives so uncomfortable with democracy? Because, from its beginnings, progressive philosophy didn’t give citizens a central role in public life.
The core ideals of progressivism were established in the early 20th century, as a reaction to the main challenges of the times. Back then, American cities and towns were beset with corruption, poverty, and illiteracy.
In response to those problems, Progressive-era reformers helped create a new set of public-facing professions, including city management, social work, and modern policing. Expertise in these areas promised to improve public health, end child labor, rein in organized crime, and solve many other problems. Free and fair elections, combined with transparency in public decision-making, helped combat the political “machines” that dominated the cities.
For the most part, it worked. Progressive expertise helped us survive the Great Depression. But it also isolated these experts, as well as elected officials, from the people they ultimately serve. Many professionals came to see citizens as rank amateurs at best, obstacles at worst.
Conservatives also put government above citizens. But progressives want officials to govern proactively, while conservatives believe they will “govern best by governing least.” Neither approach is satisfying to citizens today. Those early-20th-century institutions and professions have lost the trust of most Americans.
The reverse is also true. Progressive public officials and experts have become more mistrustful of their constituents—and thus more skeptical about democracy. One reason for this mistrust is that they hear only the loudest, angriest voices. This is true online and on social media, but it’s also true in most public meetings and hearings, which operate according to an old formula where people get a few minutes to speak at the microphone. Angry constituents dominate these meetings, and there is very little meaningful exchange. Many progressives associate these kinds of horrible public meetings with “democracy,” and it makes them less and less enthusiastic about interacting with citizens.
Political polarization makes this worse. Most progressives now think of conservatives as uneducated, racist, mindlessly anti-government, and manipulated by Fox News. Why give those people a meaningful say in public decisions?
Before 2016, many Democrats as well as Republicans were voicing frustration with politics and advocating systemic change. But since Donald Trump’s version of systemic change basically amounted to demolishing the system entirely, he provoked an understandable knee-jerk reaction from Democrats defending government.
Now, progressives are increasingly fearful—for good reason—that Trump and his allies are poised to make voting much harder and are even preparing to steal the next election. Progressives are urging us all to “save democracy”—but by democracy they mean voting, and only voting.
This is a weak vision of democracy, and it is a losing message for progressives.
These days, most people vote not out of enthusiasm for their preferred candidate, but out of fear, and a desire to keep the other side from causing harm. Some Americans think their votes aren’t being counted, others think that voting fails to produce the policy changes they support. Asking Americans to pin all their hopes for change on voting seems like a doomed strategy.
By putting all their emphasis on voting, progressives continue to push the idea that governance should be left entirely to the experts and elected officials. Progressives risk coming across as dismissive, condescending, and pedantic—a recipe for defeat.
Progressives are missing an opportunity. When citizens are presented with practices and reforms that would give them a more meaningful say in public decisions, they respond with enthusiasm. In one national opinion poll, Americans were asked about a list of possibilities for participatory democracy. There’s been strong support for these ideas—including participatory budgeting and citizen assemblies, which allow everyday people to contribute to policymaking—without significant differences between Republicans and Democrats. Giving power to citizens is a message that seems to translate well on the campaign trail.
There is no reason why progressives can’t advocate for a broader, more inclusive vision of democracy, one that actively engages people of different backgrounds in making decisions and solving problems together (and voting too).
Engaging citizens this way has another advantage: It works.
First of all, efforts at bridge-building and deliberation can succeed despite partisan polarization. Most of these efforts rely on paired or small-group discussions; they include the wave of participatory processes that emerged 25 years ago, the “Text Talk Act” discussions of the National Dialogue on Mental Health nearly 10 years ago, and the digital America Talks process of the last two years. When people meet in these kinds of settings, where they have the chance to share experiences and interact on a human level, they are more likely to empathize with one another, find common ground, and understand the reasons for their disagreements.
Second, these deliberative processes have a long track record in creating candid, productive discussions on issues of race and difference, the kinds of sincere conversations that don’t seem to happen inside the Democratic (or Republican) Party.
Third, engaging people taps into the skills and capacities of 21st-century citizens. Regular people, volunteering their time, improve their communities and country in all kinds of ways—they plant trees, mentor young people, share information online, raise money for important causes. Whether they are big or small, these actions matter: Confronting most of the daunting public challenges we face, from climate change to the pandemic, will require millions of people to make basic changes in their daily lives.
Fourth, democracy doesn’t threaten expertise, but strengthens it. As everyday people work with officials in more intensive ways, they gain greater respect for the expertise of the professionals. Citizens who work with city staff in participatory budgeting projects, parents who partner with teachers to improve schools, and patients who talk with their doctors all gain greater respect for those institutions. Giving citizens a say is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Most people want professionals to continue making most public decisions; they just want a voice in the ones that set the overall direction of governance, and that affect their lives most directly.
Finally, research from a range of fields shows what may be the most significant value of these citizen-centered forms of democracy: They strengthen community networks and connections, which has positive impacts on public health, economic development, racial equity, environmental resilience, and student success—all things progressives care about.
Peggy Merriss, the city manager I spoke with 25 years ago, just finished an illustrious career as one of the most innovative city managers in the country. Decatur, Georgia, the city she led, is firmly established as a participatory local democracy and steadily improving its quality of life. The Georgia Municipal Association inducted her into the Local Government Hall of Fame.
What changed for Merriss? She participated in projects like the Decatur Roundtables, which engaged residents in discussions about land use, race, and education. She was involved in Decatur Next, a large-scale community planning process. “I participated, but I had no more influence than anyone else,” she said. Her experience working directly with residents in these settings reassured her that citizens can, in fact, be reasonable, open-minded, and capable of compromise.
To govern more effectively, progressives should follow Merriss’ lead. This is an emotional transition as much as it is an intellectual one: People in positions of authority need to realize that they were not elected or appointed to make every decision and solve every problem. Creating situations that tap the collective intelligence and volunteer capacity of citizens would help them best serve their communities and their country.
The resulting policy debate, about what kind of democracy we want, would be far more meaningful than most of the campaign rhetoric we hear today. And progressives would be speaking to what voters actually want: not just the right to elect representatives but the right to have a voice.