Building Democratic Infrastructure

Hollie Russon Gilman, K. Sabeel Rahman, & Elena Souris in Stanford Social Innovation Review: “How can civic engagement be effective in fostering an accountable, inclusive, and responsive American democracy? This question has gained new relevance under the Trump administration, where a sense of escalating democratic crises risks obscuring any nascent grassroots activism. Since the 2016 election, the twin problems of authoritarianism and insufficient political accountability have attracted much attention, as has the need to mobilize for near-future elections. These things are critical for the long-term health of American democracy, but at the same time, it’s not enough to focus solely on Washington or to rely on electoral campaigns to salvage our democracy.

Conventional civic-engagement activities such as canvassing, registering voters, signing petitions, and voting are largely transient experiences, offering little opportunity for civic participation once the election is over. And such tactics often do little to address the background conditions that make participation more difficult for marginalized communities.

To address these issues, civil society organization and local governments should build more long-term and durable democratic infrastructure, with the aim of empowering constituencies to participate in meaningful and concrete ways, overcoming division within our societies, and addressing a general distrust of government by enhancing accountability.

In our work with groups like the Center for Rural Strategies in Appalachia and the Chicago-based Inner-City Muslim Action Network, as well as with local government officials in Eau Claire, Wis. and Boston, Mass., we identify two areas where can help build a broader democratic infrastructure for the long haul. First, we need to support and radically expand efforts by local-level government officials to innovate more participatory and accountable forms of policymaking. And then we need to continue developing new methods of diverse, cross-constituency organizing that can help build more inclusive identities and narratives. Achieving this more-robust form of democracy will require that many different communities—including organizers and advocacy groups, policymakers and public officials, technologists, and funders—combine their efforts….(More)”.