Code: TP-29


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. 

         With that stated, however, for me the experience of September 11, 2001 embodies the vision of democracy in everyday life.  On September 11th at 8:58 a.m., I exited the #4 subway train at Fulton Street Station in Lower Manhattan, only to look up to see that the first World Trade Center tower, only six short blocks away, had been hit and was on fire.  At that time, nobody around me had any idea what had caused the building to be on fire.  To this day, I can still remember the feelings of helplessness and horror at what I was witnessing; I still have nightmares of people falling off the building.  A short time later, I heard a huge explosion, I looked up, and I saw the fireball—the second tower, much farther away, was hit.  I knew that I needed to get out of the way, so I went to my meeting, which had taken me to that part of Manhattan on that day in the first place.  About an hour later, we meeting participants heard a third explosion and the ground shook like an earthquake—yet without much panic, the building was evacuated. 

     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

     There has been an ongoing debate whether and to what extent the public should be given a voice in the decision process regarding both the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site and the Memorial for those who died.  There are at least two prevailing attitudes on this key question.  The first prevailing attitude is to embrace the process of citizen participation and outreach, which I call the deliberative democracy or the collaborative planning model. The second prevailing attitude is defined by Sherry Arnstein as either "nonparticipation" or "tokenism," which in effect is to "stall long enough and people will go away, thereby creating the citizen fatigue factor," or what I call the "if we have to" minimal participation model. In recent years, numerous social theorists, such as Joshua Cohen, Mark Warren, Iris Marion Young, and Judith Green have focused much of their scholarship on the theory and practice of deliberative democracy.  Joshua Cohen argued in his article, "Procedure and Substance in Deliberative Democracy" (1999) that the "deliberative concept of democracy is organized around an ideal of political justification…the exercise of collective political power is to proceed on the basis of a free public reasoning among equals" (Cohen, p. 99).  The principle of "free public reasoning among equals" is one of the important ontological foundations of deliberative democracy.  Cohen further stresses that a process of deliberative democracy requires participants and organizers to adhere to his "Three Principles": the "principle of deliberative inclusions," the "principle of the common good," and the "principle of participation"  (Cohen, pp.102-106). Judith Green, in Deep Democracy: Community, Diversity and Transformation (1999), outlines for social theorists excellent criteria for successful deliberative democracy:

Deep democracy within beloved communities must include at least these main aspects:

·          Respect for human rights understood as common humane values

·          Democratic cultural revitalization

·          Lifelong education within collaborative processes of rebuilding the public sphere

·          Political re-inhabitation

·          Shared community efficacy and commitment to mutual flourishing

·          Economic re-location

·          A shared commitment to ecosystemic health

·          Shared memories and hopes

·          A web of caring within a consciously shared community life (Green, p. 217).


In other words, the theory of democracy of everyday life, built on the themes of active citizen participation in the public sphere, is vital for the outcome of communities that reflect the shared values of its citizens and that incorporate the principles and aspects outlined above.

      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

     As a social movement orientation, the term "democracy in everyday life" incorporates various (and sometimes competing) cultures.  Various groups and social movements that have sprung up in the last forty years—especially the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Movement, Anti-War/Peace Movement, Environmental Movement, Economic Democracy Movement (and other social movements) have become, in Alaine Touraine’s words, the "basis for democracy."  The movements have in common that each has, as one of its key goals, the hope of direct democratic participation that would be inclusive rather than exclusive of diverse people and viewpoints.  The ideals are vital to understanding how that group will endeavor to function in ways to bring about social change.

    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.        

     The principle of participatory democracy that this paper advocates is based on the building a culture necessary to empower stakeholders to influence decision-makers.  While the specifics of the idea will be further developed in a later paper, I focus in the section below on only one example of how I have personally experienced a "culture of democracy in everyday life" through activities I have participated in over the last twenty-four months.  However, this concept of democratic culture in America needs to be expanded from a preliminary study of the participatory pressures that influenced decision-makers since the events of 9/11, to a much broader range of examples, including diverse American and international cultures.  For example, the first women to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller spoke about her feelings when she and her spouse visited the WTC site one a week after the terrorist attacks; at that time, total strangers standing close by simultaneously just reached out and held hands in silence for several minutes.  This simple act of holding hands with total strangers, while reflecting about the meaning of life and these deaths in solidarity, is for me the reality of a democracy in everyday life.  But how would this come about, and what have various social traditions and theorists contributed already to developing the idea of a culture founded on the premises of democracy in everyday life?  In the next section, I review the contributions of the pragmatist tradition.  In incorporating the pragmatist intellectual traditions, I am endeavoring to discover helpful insights about the grounds, tools, processes, and checkpoints for advancing the reconstructive social architecture that can contextualize and foster a distinctive American democracy in everyday life.

III. Reconstructing the Social Architecture

     Pragmatist social theorizing works within the intellectual tradition of philosophical pragmatism, a worldwide movement that started and is grounded in America. Pragmatism opens space within for the layering of "other voices" within the "generalized other," voices that already are part of each other’s everyday world, and that would transform each other in world-changing democracy in everyday life.  What is so particularly rich about the pragmatist intellectual tradition is that it offers social theorists the flexibility to interactively transform society while focusing their studies on what is current and real today. For example, when John Dewey published The Public and Its Problems in 1927, he argued for the "twin facets of his guiding ideal—community and democracy…[where] democracy as an ideal has its place as a quality within the experience of community life itself."  Similarly, I argue that, in 2003 as well, democracy in everyday life takes place "within the experience of community life itself." 

     In addition, George Herbert Mead’s pragmatic model of the interaction of the "I" and the "me" within the "generalized other" still offers the contemporary social theorists a framework for important future transformative projects, focusing on culture and multiculturalism, economics, politics and power, social justice, and discourse and other agencies, as well as for further developing a general pragmatic paradigm. 

     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.

IV. Case Study:  Democracy in Everyday Life Since 9/11

     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.

      The Municipal Art Society spearheaded a coalition of community stakeholders to develop a more inclusive public outreach process utilizing the principles of participatory democracy defined broadly. One of Imagine New York’s key elements of their outreach program was planning and design charettes.  The planning and design charettes, which I actively participated in, were designed to focus on physical design and planning solutions for the WTC site and Lower Manhattan. 
          The key to the success of Imagine New York’s process was that MAS developed and adhered to the following set of direct democracy principles:

1.      Encouraging participation, regardless of participant’s age, educational background and language;


2.      Recording all ideas submitted by participants and displaying those ideas on the project website;


3.      Opening dialogue to all ideas, without limiting ideas to geographic boundaries of Lower Manhattan and the WTC site; and


4.      Developing multiple visions to better reflect the rich diversity of the region.


To accomplish these goals, MAS developed and implemented a training program specifically for architects and planners to facilitate the twenty-five design and planning charettes.  In addition to the overall set of principles that governed the whole process, five additional principles for these planning and design charrettes were added:

1.     Transparency—all steps are driven by the public, built on the public’s trust;


2.     Community-driven—based on local knowledge and local stakeholders;


3.     Inclusive—everybody is welcome and all have a say in the development of the ideas and principles;


4.     Careful design of a multifaceted approach—"one-size does not fit all," so it is important to design different meetings to meet the needs of that stakeholder group; and


5.     Leading to implementation—don’t raise expectations of stakeholders without trying to influence decision-makers.  This is the legitimacy issue.


In total, Imagine New York held over 250 meetings throughout the Tri-State region (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) over a three-week period, from which over 19,000 ideas were derived, resulting in a document that consolidated these ideas into 49 vision statements.  These 49 vision statements were organized into the following five categories: "People, Place, Social Equity, Public Involvement in Planning, and Policy."  Imagine New York is only one example of the pragmatist ethic of direct democracy based on individual and collective life experiences need for a theory of Democracy in Everyday Life since 9/11 and beyond to work.

Works Cited


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.