Where is Our Polis In the 21st Century?

Hollie Russon Gilman: “If you could improve the relationship between citizens and the state, how would you do it? It’s likely that your answer would be different from mine and still different from the next five people I ask. Because rules and structures of government are constantly changing and the tools people use to communicate shift with newly available technologies, this relationship must continue to evolve…

Multiple factors shape the quality of democracy, such as the safety of free speech and reliability of public transit or secure long-term planning. Democracy, at least the glorified ancient ideal some like to lay claim to as our founding heritage, also involves the creation of a polis — specifically, a place where man is freed from the burdens of household goods, most famously articulated by Plato in The Republic.

We can’t mistake an ideal for the reality — Plato’s polis was highly constrained and available only to the most privileged of Greek men within a social system that also sanctioned slavery. However, the ideal of the polis  — a place to experience democratic virtues — also holds at least theoretical promise and compelling possibilities for real change to the current state of American democracy.

We need what this ideal has to offer, because the social contract as we know it today can feel more like a series of alienating, disconnected obligations than what it could and should be: an enabler of civic creativity or power. Our current social contract does not come with a polis — or, to put it another way, room to imagine new ways of thinking.

Why is this a problem? Because in order to truly harness civic innovation, we need to embrace deeper ways of thinking about democracy.

What would a deeper democracy look like? Harvard political theorist Robert Unger describes “deepened democracy” in his recent book Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative as a system in which citizens “must be able to see themselves and one another as individuals capable of escaping their confined roles.” One promising way citizens can perform new roles in a “deeper democracy” is by working with public institutions, and amongst themselves, to influence policymaking.

We need tools to empower these citizens use their work to fashion a polis for the 21st century. One particularly promising innovation is Participatory Budgeting (often shortened to “PB”), which is a process whereby citizens make spending decisions on a defined public budget and operate as active participants in public decision-making like allocating local funds in their neighborhood. The Brazilian Workers’ Party first attempted PB in 1989, where its success led to the World Bank calling PB a “best practice” in democratic innovation….

Why is PB so effective as a civic engagement tool? PB is especially powerful because it engages citizens with complex political issues on the local level, where they live. PB’s strength as an intervention in our social contract lies in municipal budgets as the scale at which citizens can be experts. In other words, people who live day to day in communities know best what resources those communities need to solve problems, be successful, and thrive.

Many of our governance decisions face the dual challenges of integrating individual-level participation efforts with the scale of contemporary national U.S. politics. Part of PB’s power may be breaking down complex decisions into their manageable parts. This strategy could be applied beyond budgets to a range of decision-making such as climate adaption or addressing food deserts.

PB represents one of the best tools in a broader toolkit designed to re-engage citizens in governance, but it’s far from the only one. Look around your very block, community, and city. Examples of places that could operate as a 21st-century polis range from traditional community anchor institutions engaging in new ways to the application of digital tools for civic ends. Citizenvestor is a civic crowd-funding site that works online and with traditional brick-and-mortar organizations. In Mount Rainer, MD, Community Forklift — a “nonprofit reuse center for home improvement supplies” (or, you might say, a library for tools) — and a local bike share engage a large group of residents.

Civic and social innovation is built from the exchange of resources between government institutions and community networks. Ideally, through coming together to talk, debate, and engage in the public sphere, people can flex their civic muscle and transform their lives. The fabric of communities is woven with the threads of deeply engaged and dedicated residents. A challenge of our current moment in history is to reconcile these passions with the mechanisms, and sometimes the technologies, necessary to improve public life.

Can this all add up to a wholesale civic revolution? Time will tell. At a minimum, it suggests the potential of community networks (analog and digital) to be leveraged for a stronger, more resilience and responsive 21st century polis….(More)”