Here in New Hampshire there’s a lot of talk about “participatory democracy.” Our state is known for its citizen-powered state government, for town meetings and our insistence upon local control. Sometimes these terms are used nostalgically, sometimes dismissively by people who think they are either problematic (i.e. our sprawling underpaid legislature), archaic (our underattended town meetings) or mythic (our dubious amount of true local control).
The editor in me has a problem with “participatory democracy,” too. It’s redundant. Democracy basically means “rule by the people.” You can’t get much more participatory than that. But I understand why the emphasis is required. We live in an age where problems seem too big to comprehend, and it’s tempting to cede control to equally perplexing organizations (like Congress) with vast powers (our money) that offer to fix things. If the people rule, they can certainly choose to delegate the big picture items and go back to matters more within their grasp — matters like keeping jobs, juggling bills and paying ever-escalating taxes.
But if participatory democracy is redundant, non-participatory democracy is absurd and dangerous.
My job has provided me with the privilege of sitting on a number of boards and committees over the years, and it’s pretty eye-opening to see how well people can run things when given a cooperative and collegial environment. It’s also mind-expanding to get to know people in this kind of volunteer relationship. It’s not the kind of casual acquaintance you develop between neighbors, it’s somehow deeper even than the bonds between fellow employees. You are working together not for payment or social obligations but simply to accomplish something bigger than any of you could do alone.
You get to know that regular folks, the kind you run into at Target or on the soccer sidelines, are a lot more complex and capable than they might seem. You start to think that maybe a group of committed people who agree on the mission really could tackle some of the mind-boggling challenges that we face in this state, this country, this world.
Our “It List” is a reminder of this fact as well. Most of the people on that list are not famous or rich or powerful. They are folks who, with some imagination, enterprise, collaboration (and luck), have made a lasting mark or started something going that is either changing the world or changing the way we look at it.
So my advice this campaign year (to myself, mostly) is to do more than vote. Get involved with the remarkable people in this state. Participate and be amazed at what “rule by the people” can really accomplish.
This article appears in the November 2008 issue of New Hampshire Magazine