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The Human Scale of Democracy: Trust and Responsibility

By this point you'll have noticed a common theme throughout these posts: namely that democracy is so much more than what happens at the voting booth or in representative assemblies. In today's world, deliberative, locally centred, decision-making practices are overlooked at best, and ignored or abused at worst. A narrow conception of democracy concentrates power in the hands of "experts", reduces our political complexity to the anonymous expression of our desires through voting, and segregates decisions from citizens. Isolated attempts to engage community members, such as public hearings, obviate the best parts of democracy (as outlined in this previous post).

So how do we begin building and modelling better approaches?

Trust and responsibility are two places to start. Trust is the deeper, more personal, version of accountability. Responsibility is an intended characteristic of political citizenship. The idea is that if we take responsibility for participating actively in society, we'll build trusting relationships with one another.

Consider the following two democratic exercises: a public poll requesting resident approval to increase the municipal budget to pay for more street lighting, and a nonprofit organization deciding whether or not to open a second location. In the first example, individual voters may not have any context or background regarding the request, and may not have relationships with elected officials. There will not be a great deal of trust. By participating in the poll anonymously, residents are not likely to feel much responsibility for the outcome of their collective decision. Although the decision may have some impact on them personally, the majority are unlikely to seriously consider the implications of voting one way or the other.

In the case of the nonprofit, it's likely that Board members do know members of the organization, and also clients. If it's a smaller nonprofit there are likely to be many discussions, both formal and informal, about the opportunity to open a new location. Not only that, but many of those involved in the decision will also have a responsibility to participate and support the new centre if they decide to proceed. All of the members, board directors, volunteers, and staff will be implicated in the decision itself. No one is in the position where they can say 'yes' or 'no' without feeling the impact of the consequences. The process to make a decision will feel very different to everyone involved, there will be an opportunity for innovative approaches and alternatives to be explored, and the ultimate decision could be more sustainable and effective (there's research to support this).

In fact, if the board tries to make a decision through an overtly formal or bureaucratic process, they are likely to be met with resistance and disappointment from the members and staff. Where trust, relationships, and responsibility exist, impersonal democratic mechanisms like polls feel inauthentic and out of place - for good reason.

Democracy treats each of us as equal participants in community decision-making. But good decisions come about when we feel some responsibility for the outcome, and when we have trusting relationships with each other and those making the decision. This is why centralized decision-making is not conducive to robust democratic practices, and why we need to consider making decisions at a level that makes actual real-life human relationships possible. Good democracy removes anonymity from the equation; it's why online forums and comments are a nightmare - they're completely devoid of the trust and responsibility that accompanies robust, discursive, decision-making.

So if you're involved with a group decision, spend some time building trust, and think about the different responsibilities of everyone involved. Even better, ask yourself: what do you feel responsible for in your community? What could you be responsible for, and what would that make possible?


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