Some democracies lose their ability to give all citizens equal power over their lives. If you feel you live in such a society, there are many concrete things that allow you to reclaim your democracy. These concrete actions may differ some, depending on the type of society in which you find yourself. Yet there is also significant overlap across different settings when acting to revive democracy.
Those who live under dictatorships have been successful in strengthening democratic social structures as a step towards overthrow of autocratic rule. The recent success of Tunisia in such a transformation is only one of a long history of countries that have reclaimed their governance practices from centralized authoritarianism. These successes have been analyzed by Gene Sharp and other commentators and organizers.
Success at decentralizing power often seem to come from a careful, strategic effort to revitalize local organizations and dislodge centralized power. These efforts can come from coordinated work to strengthen social institutions while gradually beginning to challenge the authority of centralized power structures. This work may take the simple form of religious organizations, cultural associations, sports clubs, trade unions, student associations, village councils, neighborhood associations, gardening clubs, human rights organizations, musical groups and literary societies, and other bodies. (Sharp, 4th ed., 22)
So reclaiming decentralized power can start with the widespread revitalization of community bodies that provide a structural base for governing community affairs. Some of these organizations may attract the attention of authoritarian elites, such as trade unions or human rights organizations, but many others may operate freely for a long time without such attention.
In nations where electoral democracy is seemingly alive and well, even if power inequalities remain widespread, many concrete actions will contribute to increased control over social relations. In the United States after President Trump was elected, for example, many feared that their status as a democracy might be at risk. As is the case when normalized ideas of what keeps a democracy alive are threatened in other electoral nation-states, there may be a temporary rush to strengthen important institutional supports for electoral democracy.
One group of organizations that often receives support in times when electoral democracy seems threatened are press and media organizations. Organizations like investigative journalism sites and the Committee to Protect Journalists or the Alexia Foundation and PEN or sites that leak government secrets often receive support when governments attempt to limit information and the available range of viewpoints. If human rights still seem like they might strengthen democracy, then civil liberties or constitutional rights or women’s rights organizations may appear to be an effective approach. For those who believe in equality, questions about wealth inequality or racism or xenophobia motivate some to turn to identity-based organizations to fight inequality. For those who trust elected officials and expert policy makers, they may turn to these leaders to strengthen democracy. For those who believe that election funding has made accountability to all impossible for elected leaders, they may attempt to reclaim government from corporations and lobbyists. Others may attempt to hold elected leaders accountable to voters by investigating their voting records and writing letters and emails or calling elected representatives, or even attending town hall meetings.
If you have grown to distrust electoral democracies as a way to achieve equality, then you may put your efforts into reviving democratic practices that redistribute power more equally. There are two key ways to decentralize power for those interested in democracy beyond elections and other practices that produce inequality. First are those structures that protect the general interest. Common examples of these structures are mass assemblies, village or town meetings, and other occasions where all community members are present. These structures confront those who pursue their own narrow interests with the assembled multitudes who may pursue policies and practices that serve the general interest.
Second are practices that produce consensus. Rather than marginalizing a minority, they bring all parties together to encourage them to find solutions that satisfy all. By taking consensus at their center, rather than elections, these practices teach participants how to work across disagreement and difference constructively.
There are many approaches to building consensus and many aspects to transforming habits and expectations needed to make consensus possible. Many have accepted as normal those competitive efforts that defeat opponents rather than build constructive group relations. So consensus depends on changing goals and general objectives. Consensus also depends on all present clearing room in discussions so that all may speak, rather than assuming that only the highly educated or the wealthy or men will dominate discussion. Many organizations have produced helpful guides to practicing consensus in meetings as well, from small meetings to large gatherings, such as the mass meetings in large urban plazas in Spain or in other settings.
For some, democracy is only possible when elections have been left behind and other forms of democratic practices take center stage. For others, electoral democracy as found in the European-style modern nation-state is the only possible form of democracy. But all have work to do if they wish to strengthen democracy in practice, whether in Tunisia or the United States or in social spaces where a lack of democracy produces political urgency.