Grassroots Dayton: “Sowing The Seeds Of Democracy”

Grassroots Dayton is a not-for-profit 501C(3) organization that has a great purpose: “to promote the development of citizen democracy in the Dayton region.” I like its motto — “sowing the seeds of democracy” — it suggests an interesting path of thought. Maybe I’m inspired by Chauncy Gardner from “Being There,” but, I’m wondering: What is a seed of democracy? What does a seed of democracy look like? How does one go about sowing such seeds?

I’m glad that Grassroots Dayton didn’t choose an easier motto, something like, “building democracy.” A free press, an educated population, fair elections are all aspects of building democracy. All good ideas. But the motto “sowing seeds” suggests a lot more. An architect directs the growth of a building based upon a blueprint he himself designed, but a gardener understands that his role is different. He knows that the growth he seeks comes not from his blueprint or his direction, but that growth comes from a force of life beyond his direction. He just needs to get it started. He needs to sow seeds.

We might think of our democracy as being a grand old building in bad disrepair and might imagine that the solution to its problems are architectural. But it seems more accurate to think of our democracy in ecological terms. Our landscape is a desert, when it should be a lush and productive garden. It rings true, to me, that the solution of the problems of our democracy are more those requiring the skills of a good gardener, rather than those of a good architect. It is interesting that Grassroots Dayton’s motto suggests just one gardening activity — “sowing seeds.” Nothing about preparing the soil. I’m wondering if an expanded slogan — say, for a membership drive for Grassroots Dayton — might be something like this: “The ground is ready, the conditions are right, we need workers to help us in our work, ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Democracy’.” (An extended video commercial — soliciting new membership or donations — could develop this theme, showing an historical understanding of the development of our democracy, emphasizing that the opportunity for democracy did not happen without a price.)

One thing is certain, a seed of democracy has great potential and great power. Totalitarian states are ever vigilant to notice any evidence of democracy sprouting up and are relentless and merciless in ever uprooting any growth of democracy that becomes evident. Totalitarian states spend great energy to make sure that seeds of democracy never enter their borders. The idea of democracy, itself, is a seed of democracy. Totalitarian states know that the idea of democracy is a powerful idea that has inflamed imaginations throughout human history. So, they purge libraries of material promoting democracy, and censure and control speech within their country to deflect any interest in or discussion of democracy.

Democracy, of course, is more than an idea. Democracy is a means to meaningfully organize a group of people, a means to make group decisions. Democracy rests on faith in the belief that there is such a thing as group wisdom and that, given the opportunity, a group will make good decisions in choosing its leaders and in charting its course.

It is an interesting fact that a lot of Americans have really never experienced democracy in the sense of meaningfully participating within a democratic group. Most work places are not democratic; most schools are not democratic; the military is not democratic; even churches often are not democratic. And, many people have stopped voting because they have concluded that even our democracy is not democratic.

The fact is, we have allowed our system of democracy to degenerate into a system of elitism. I wrote this post — “For Our Future’s Sake, We Must Transform Our System of Elitism To a System of Democracy” — developing that idea. It’s true, our democracy is not democratic. When you look at the landscape of our democracy, you see a desert where there should be lush and productive growth. Our democracy is in need of vitalization; we need many new outgrowths of democracy throughout our entire region. We need to sow seeds of democracy.

I believe that the idea of democracy should be an idea that should dominate our political discourse. I wrote a post last September that said, “The irony of our effort to build democracy in Iraq is the fact that our own democracy is barely functioning and is in need of a building effort itself. A consensus view is growing that ours is a very weak democracy and that our government is a far cry from one that is ‘of the people, for the people.’ The ascending issue in our democracy, in my judgment, is democracy itself.”

Because a seed of democracy is the idea of democracy itself, Grassroots Dayton should find ways to bring the topic of the state of our democracy into public discourse, and should find a way to support a meaningful study and discussion of the state of our democracy.

I’m thinking another seed of democracy Grassroots Dayton should sow is the creation of realities within which people can directly experience democracy. The more people experience democracy, the more they will want to experience it. I like the idea of creating forums, for example, for the study and discussion of issues concerning our future. Such forums, in the way they are organized, could function as temporary communities and could serve as positive examples of how people can form communities and work democratically together to achieve a common purpose. I like the idea of creating school clubs, “Democracy Clubs,” that could serve as democratic communities for students dedicated to a common purpose — understanding and advancing democracy. Such clubs might work cooperatively with organizations like Kids Voting, or The League of Women Voters.

I like the idea that a seed of democracy Grassroots Dayton might sow this political season is the organizing of community meetings where neighbors can get together for the common purpose of socializing with each other but also for meeting and dialoguing together with Republican and Democratic candidates running for office. Anytime communities are brought together for meaningful work, the cause of democracy is advanced, because, active communities are the essence of democracy.

And I like the idea that Grassroots Dayton should facilitate the discussion of and understanding of important issues facing our community. A seed of democracy is basic public awareness.

Finally, I’m thinking that Grassroots Dayton, itself, must become an active democratic community. Grassroots Dayton must use the opportunities of the internet to form a meaningful internet community, operated democratically to pursue and accomplish Grassroots Dayton’s mission.

So, in general terms, I’m thinking Grassroots Dayton can work toward fulfilling its mission — “sowing seeds of democracy” — in the following ways:

  1. Find ways to bring the topic of the state of our democracy into public discourse; find ways to support a meaningful study of the state of our democracy.
  2. Create realities within which people can directly experience democracy.
  3. Organize community meetings.
  4. Facilitate understanding of important issues.
  5. Define itself as a democratic community and act as a democratic community.

This whole question of how Grassroots Dayton can meet its purpose — the development of citizen democracy in the Dayton region — is an important question and I want to suggest some workable answers to that question in future posts.

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4 Responses to Grassroots Dayton: “Sowing The Seeds Of Democracy”

  1. gary staiger says:

    Nice outline of a structure for teaching a mass public civics’s course…

    Lacking is the engine to move it forward.

    That engine is the engine of ideas; how to APPLY democracy as a tool, not as an end result of an organizing effort. A cohesive ideology holds a “community” together..

    Your ideas are very useful but also very structural. Good bones…bit thin on the flesh side.

    Are building alternatives to MCDP or inside it?
    What are the common values that could hold a democratic structure together?
    Pro Choice
    Union friendly
    For Fair Trade, Not Free Trade at the expense of USA
    secularism vs ecumenism. {See under: Middle East”

    An outlook of Pragmatic Populism…a term I think broadly defined in Nt’l gov. by people like Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, Barney Frank, John Testor, Rep Slaughterhouse, Wexler etc

    Our own Port Huron Statement of principles is needed to set the base to build your democratic institutions on.

    [The Port Huron Statement was the first official document of SDS — and the most widely distributed document of the American Left in the Sixties. Growing out of a draft statement prepared by SDS staff member Tom Hayden, the Port Huron Statement represented the collective thought of the founding convention of SDS, held in Port Huron, Michigan, June 1962]

    That document spelled out some core issues that are still relevant today.

    Any new left in America must be, in large measure, a left with real intellectual skills, committed to deliberativeness, honesty, reflection as working tools. The university permits the political life to be an adjunct to the academic one, and action to be informed by reason.

    A new left must be distributed in significant social roles throughout the country. The universities are distributed in such a manner.

    A new left must consist of younger people who matured in the postwar world, and partially be directed to the recruitment of younger people. The university is an obvious beginning point.

    A new left must include liberals and socialists, the former for their relevance, the latter for their sense of thoroughgoing reforms in the system. The university is a more sensible place than a political party for these two traditions to begin to discuss their differences and look for political synthesis.

    A new left must start controversy across the land, if national policies and national apathy are to be reversed. The ideal university is a community of controversy, within itself and in its effects on communities beyond.

    A new left must transform modern complexity into issues that can be understood and felt close up by every human being. It must give form to the feelings of helplessness and indifference, so that people may see the political, social, and economic sources of their private troubles, and organize to change society. In a time of supposed prosperity, moral complacency, and political manipulation, a new left cannot rely on only aching stomachs to be the engine force of social reform. The case for change, for alternatives that will involve uncomfortable personal efforts, must be argued as never before. The university is a relevant place for all of these activities.

    Ok, so the gloves are off. Now what?

  2. Mike Bock says:

    Gary, Thanks for your comments. Very thoughtful. I’d not read the Port Huron document before.

    My thinking is that the engine, the motivating idea, that progressives need to fire up is the idea of democracy itself. The fact that our democracy is not working as it should is the “problem behind the problem.”

    I wrote a post about the David Matthews’s book. Matthews is president of the Kettering Foundation. I said, “Matthews and the Kettering Foundation seem to assert the principle, that I agree with, that says, if our democracy was working as it should, the public good would be advanced in ways that are only hinted at now. How to make democracy work is the problem behind the problem. The ascending issue in our democracy, in my judgment, is democracy itself.”

    Matthews, in his book, makes the point that effective democracy is essential to creating effective education and that if our system of public education is to be improved, our democracy must be improved. Matthews is a former member of Gerald Ford’s cabinet, a former president of the University of Alabama. I’ve not met him, but I would imagine that his political views on specific issues are somewhere to the right of where the left of Dayton might be, but he is emphasizing an idea that everyone should agree with — the importance of vitalizing our democracy. The purpose of the Kettering Foundation is to research ‘What does it take to make democracy work as it should?’ This is a powerful question that has the potential to generate lot of energy and unity. It seems to me a good place to start.

    The idea of democracy, itself, I believe, is the engine that should not only unite and motivate progressives, but should unite our whole community as well. You mention several issues that might help create and motivate groups of activists to work together — issues of war, race, trade, etc. — but regardless that such issues may motivate individuals to join a group, the group itself may have few characteristics of a community. When the focus of a group in on a specific issue — or specific mission, say, electing a progressive candidate — if the group fails to govern itself democratically, fails to itself become a meaningful community, it has little permanence or little long term impact. At the heart of issue advocacy, it seems to me, must be a meaningful local community. Someone swooping into town with a lot of money and a lot of organization skills — for the purpose of impacting an election — is not the basis for the long term solutions that progressives are working for.

    It seems to me, long term solutions — to moving our community forward — must involve the creation of meaningful democratic communities. The idea of democracy should be the ideology that holds such a community together and the practice of democracy should be what directs the activity of such a community. We need to find ways to create meaningful new communities of individuals committed to big purposes — internet communities — but we need to vitalize the effete communities already in existence and already defined by law. Every school board, every city council should be the center of a meaningful democratic community. Citizens feel powerless because democracy is not working as it should. Our local political parties, themselves, should be models of effective democratic communities. The Montgomery County Republicans just met to reorganize, but only 133 of Montgomery County’s 548 precincts bothered to elect a Republican to the party’s governing Central Committee. In the Dayton Wards, only 18 of 151 precincts are represented on the Republican Central Committee. The numbers for Montgomery County Democrats are similar — in 2006, when the Montgomery County Democratic Party reorganized, only about 100 Central Committee members were on hand to reelect Dennis Lieberman as chair.

    Can you imagine the impact that truly democratic local political parties could have on our community?

    To someone currently embedded in the Montgomery County Republican Party, this idea of questioning the democracy at work in the group may sound like a controversy started by a trouble maker. There are plenty of people satisfied with the status quo. The Port Huron Statement of Principles says, “A new left must start controversy across the land, if national policies and national apathy are to be reversed.” Controversy can build interest. But more important than starting controversy is building consensus. Controversy has little impact outside of a community that can productively channel the energy that controversy can engender. We are lacking in meaningful community. And, the topic and issue about which we can build consensus and community, the issue that has the greatest hope of taking us into a better future, I believe, is the issue of democracy itself.

    My post specifically was about a local 501C(3), Grassroots Dayton, that has a great purpose, “to promote the development of citizen democracy in the Dayton region.” It has a great motto, “sowing the seeds of democracy.” Grassroots Dayton needs to find a way to proceed that can attract all Daytonians, regardless of their current political or issue loyalty, to help it fulfill these great goals.

    Yes, this is just a skeleton, but, I am suggesting these five ways for Grassroots Dayton to proceed:
    1.Find ways to bring the topic of the state of our democracy into public discourse; find ways to support a meaningful study of the state of our democracy.
    2. Create realities within which people can directly experience democracy.
    3. Organize community meetings.
    4. Facilitate understanding of important issues.
    5. Define itself as a democratic community and act as a democratic community.

  3. A global initial, known as Metagovernment, has recently gotten underway, to promote the development of a radically new form of participatory government. At the moment it includes a wide range of individuals, from lawyers to software developers, focused on the creation of an “engine” that accomplishes much of what you describe above.

    Of course, there are and have been many projects which attempt to accomplish this same feat, including wikis, community blogs and organizational tools, as well as other groups such as the Open Party and Reputocracy, the latter two of which focus primarily on “open source voting” and the like.

    If we’re planting the seeds of Democracy here in Dayton, I wonder if the methods differ from those used in the past (ie. collecting signatures, organizing rallies)? Or, does the tagline of Grassroots Dayton include the radical revision of Democracy in the 21st Century?

  4. Mike Bock says:

    Christopher, Thanks for referencing Metagovernment, Open Party and Reputocracy. I intend to study as much as I can to understand the thinking and strategy behind these approaches. How to organize a meaningful internet community is a great question. I’m trying to understand an overall vision of what such an internet community would look like, how it would function. Clarifying the vision is the big step. I have confidence that there will be a technological solution once the vision is articulated. Of course it might work the other way, that is, starting with an understanding of what the technological possibilities are available may be a means of inspiring or clarifying a vision. We are all copycats to one degree or another.

    I’m not sure what you mean by the phrase “radical revision of Democracy.” I don’t want to revise democracy; I just want it to live up to its potential. If that could be accomplished, it may seem radical. I think the key is to use technology to bring people together into meaningful participatory communities. Maybe that is radical. I talk more about that idea of creating community here:

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