Democracy in Everyday Life –
September 11th & Beyond
[Traditional Paper: 3,499 Words]
This paper develops a pragmatist theory of democracy in everyday life, and suggests its ongoing relevance to life for New Yorkers post-9/11; it is organized as follows. First, I review an ongoing debate over the meaning of democracy in everyday life between those stakeholders who embrace the ethic of direct citizen input in public decisions and those stakeholders who would be happier with "representatives" making all the key decisions. Second, I review the contribution to theory and practice of democracy in everyday life, particularly focusing on American experiences of September 11th and beyond, utilizing the pragmatist tradition, endeavoring to discover helpful insights about the grounds, tools, processes, and checkpoints for advancing a reconstructive social architecture that can contextualize and foster a distinctive American democracy in everyday life. Finally, I focus on one case study of the process of direct democracy practiced by Imagine New York, which I was an active participant.
The cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy.
--John Dewey, The Public and it Problems (1927)
Democracy focuses on participatory and educative requirements for continuing processes of personal growth and individuation, as well as social-institutional transformation, that make possible a more desirable quality of each member’s individual experience within a shared social life that is mutually beneficial and mutually valued.
--Judith Green, Deep Democracy (1999)
I. Guiding Vision and Aims of this Paper
The focus of my professional and academic work is developing the tools and processes through which to enrich the community discourse for legitimate citizen participation regarding decisions affecting individuals and groups in their daily living; I call it a theory of democracy in everyday life. For me, democracy is more than just the franchise of voting (although taking the time to vote is a very important element of American democracy, as is the political campaign process to open the public discourse on the issues), but it is also working together within a community to make a difference in one’s own life and the lives of those around them. The idea of a theory of democracy in everyday life is not new. George Herbert Mead’s classical American pragmatist democratic model of the formation of the social self (the "I" and the "me" in relation to "the generalized other"), which was developed as a gestalt that functions as a whole theory of social development, is one of the ontological underpinnings of this theory. Many contemporary theorists (e.g., Jurgen Habermas, Dorothy Smith, Carol Gilligan) utilize Mead’s gestalt as a paradigm for expanding our understanding of human formation processes, especially the democratic social self within democratic social community. In the American social context, democracy in everyday life requires transformative attention to socio-psychological formations of race, gender, and class. Progressive social movements help to sustain and test determinative formulations of these concepts in their transformative application to democracy in everyday life.
The meaning of September 11, 2001, for the younger generations of Americans today is similar to the meaning of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy for my childhood generation, and the attack on Pearl Harbor was for my parents’ generation. The event shook all Americans to the core; in Anthony Giddings’ terms, 9/11 affected all Americans’ ontological security and their trust in the ability of our government to ensure that we will be safe from terrorist attacks.
Once we got outside the building, it was like walking into a hot snowstorm with visibility almost non-existent; however, people were helping others to get to the East River. From there I was able to walk four miles north to Grand Central Station. I was not the only one who went out of my way to help others with their loads. Instead, everyone seemed to be bound together in giving one another assurance that we all could make it to safety, either over the Brooklyn Bridge or uptown toward Grand Central Station and out of harm’s way. It was a time of extreme anxiety, unknowing, fear, and being unable to communicate with loved ones, yet helping to keep everyone calm. It was a time of great civic pride in which people did not panic, but chipped in to help one another with what was needed, that everyone showed the influence of democracy in everyday life. For example, I vividly remember that once I proceeded north past East 14th Street, I noticed people putting up signs offering others places to stay, and I also remember the sense of loss that some of my friends might have been in one of the Towers, and that they might have not made it out. When I witnessed from 30 blocks away, the second tower coming down, I remember thinking that over 50,000 people must be dead. Ironically, I also remember that the day was clear, bright, and relatively cool.
Having now explained how and why I became interested in a theory of democracy in everyday life, and having begun to suggest its ongoing relevance to life for New Yorkers post-9/11, the rest of my paper will be organized as follows. First, I will review an ongoing debate over the meaning of democracy in everyday life between the stakeholders who embrace the ethic of direct citizen input in public decisions and those stakeholders who would be happier with "representatives" making all the key decisions. This debate is over the legitimacy of participation in the decision process. Second, I review the contribution to theory and practice of democracy in everyday life, particularly focusing on American experiences of September 11th and beyond, utilizing the pragmatist tradition. By utilizing the pragmatist intellectual tradition, I am endeavoring to discover helpful insights about the grounds, tools, processes, and checkpoints for advancing a reconstructive social architecture that can contextualize and foster a distinctive American democracy in everyday life. Finally, I will focus on a case study of the process of direct democracy practiced by Imagine New York, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society.
II. What is Democracy in Everyday Life?
In proposing this particular theory of democracy in everyday life, I start with a contrast between stakeholders who embrace the ethic of direct citizen input in public decisions with those stakeholders who would be happier with "representatives" making all the key decisions. This debate is over the legitimacy of participation in the decision process.
In her forthcoming book, Pragmatism and Social Hope: Deeping Democracy in Global Contexts, Judith Green presents what she calls "the dialectical history of democratic theory and practice in America." This "dialectical history" that traces back to before the American Revolutionary War, and draws upon the democratic model of the Iroquois Confederacy, is the debate between the two strands of democratic thinking about the role of the citizen voice in public decisions. The first "strand" of the role of the citizen in America’s governance, which were the arguments put forward by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Adams that "emphasized the representative strand of democratic theory" (Green). The second "strand" of the role of the citizen in America’s governance, and advocated by Thomas Jefferson (and others), emphasized the "direct citizen participation in government, as well as in nongovernmental organizations and social movements that have sought to shape the various people-making values, processes, and cultural institutions of daily life" (Green). It is in "historical usage and prospective transformation," that the second strand is "best understood as complementing the [first] representative strand" (Green). However, it is this second strand of "democratic theory and practice" that, Judith Green argues has "always been vigorously opposed, undermined, and hidden, both by anti-participatory "democratic realists" and by anti-democratic cultural, legal, economic, and political forces in a dialectical power struggle that continues today" (Green).
1. Collaborative or Deliberative Democratic Processes & Social Movements
My own definition of the collaborative planning model of participatory democracy focuses on fostering the kind of effective public participation that requires assuring ease of access and providing situation-specific opportunities for stakeholders to be heard and to have their issues taken seriously. It is not always necessary that total agreement or consensus be reached, but participants must feel that they are able to make their views known, and if possible, to have their suggestions incorporated as part of the final recommendations. Therefore, it is not enough to get stakeholders together and to allow them to just voice their opinions. Rather, it is vital that each of the meetings and events have specific goals and objectives, that the right level of stakeholders is at the table, and that effective informational materials are developed and provided to present to the specific targeted stakeholder group. For all stakeholder meetings, consensus-building techniques need to be used that are highly successful to ensure that the results of this effort remain a win/win for all stakeholders who participate in the process. The key to the success of fostering public outreach is to provide opportunity and ease of participating for all stakeholders (those who can make or break a policy as well as those who are affected by that policy) to be heard, and to have their issues taken seriously.
As stated above, the second non-participation model focuses on what Sherry Arnstein identified as "Tokenism," which she explains as either "placation," "consultation," or informing" (Arnstein). The strategy of allowing people to believe that they have been heard and really participated is a hoax. It is clear that at least some participants believed that a number of the post-9/11 institutional decision-makers for Lower Manhattan, utilized this model in expressing their belief that most public participation processes are too cumbersome and that—in the end—Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg were going to make the key decisions with little or no real input from the public.
An in-depth analysis and discussion regarding the degree to which the public’s skepticism of the perceived legitimacy of the participation process has influenced key decisions and decision makers is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is clear at this point that at least some decisions makers, or those with expertise to try to influence the decision-makers, were publicly skeptical of the scope and role of public outreach efforts at various periods over a span of twenty months in the specific context of post-9/11 deliberation about the Ground Zero’s future.
2. Democratic Cultures
Another interesting study of the culture of democracy in everyday life is Francesca Polletta’s insightful book, Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in Social Movements from Pacificism to the Present (2002). Polletta apply states that "participatory democracy…demands more patience, energy, and time on the part of its participants" (Polletta, p. 12). Furthermore, the key principles of participatory democracy highlighted in her study of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were adopted as the "Port Huron Statement," utilizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s principle of the "Beloved Community" (Polletta, p. 26). For the Peace Movement of the 1960s, the "Port Huron Statement" laid out key principles utilized by many activists against the Vietnam War. In our own times, King’s writings and speeches can be highly instrumental in creating the habits, social conditions, and attitudes in America for a culture of democracy in everyday life.
III. Reconstructing the Social Architecture
The pragmatist strain of social theory create the social architecture to argue that we as Americans are living in a world that already offers a basis in social experiences a democracy in everyday life. This will require more fleshing out than is possible here, but their significance can at least be suggested by returning to reflecting on September 11th and beyond.
The September 11th terrorist attack has shaped the way in which Americans see the world. Some have become more involved in world, regional, and local events. For me, 9/11 has guided my professional volunteer activities in actively working with such groups as the Municipal Art Society, Civic Alliance, and New York/New Visions to participate in the planning and implementing of numerous citizen outreach activities relating to the physical rebuilding the WTC site, the surrounding areas of Lower Manhattan, and as importantly, the Memorial for those who died.
For the last twenty-four months, there have been numerous processes going on simultaneously; however, in this paper I will only focus on the process of direct democracy practiced in Imagine New York, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society. My main interest is in the decision process relating to the physical elements of the rebuilding process.
Arnstein, Sherry. 1969. "A Ladder of Citizen Participation," Journal of American Institute of Planners, No. 35, Washington D.C.
Cohen, Jonathan. 1999. "Procedure and Substance in Deliberative Democracy," published in Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement. Oxford: Oxford University Press Collins, Patricia Hill Collins. 1991.
Dewey, John. 1927. The Public and Its Problems. New York: Henry Holt.
_____. 1960 [First published 1929]. The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action. New York: Capricorn Books.
Duda, Penelope and Eva Hanhardt. 2003. "Imagine New York: Bringing Diverse Visions into View," published in Planners Network: The Magazine of Progressive Planning, No. 154.
Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Stanford University Press: Stanford, California, 1991.
Green, Judith. 1999. Deep Democracy: Community, Diversity and Transformation. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
_____. Pragmatism and Social Hope: Deeping Democracy in Global Contexts (Forthcoming)
Mead, George Herbert. 1932/1962. Mind, Self, & Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Ed. Charles W. Morris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Polletta, Francesca. 2002. Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in Social Movements from Pacificism to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.