Put the Demos Back Into Democracy

There are two kinds of activist groups, equally (in)effective. Which are you? And why?

Pop-up activists tend their topiary and anguish over bathroom fixtures until… a Big Bad Issue pops up and invigorates them.

Permanent Waves — the second kind of activist group — inhabit longstanding, institutionalized power zip codes nestled among other shrubbery in the nonprofit landscape.

Pop-ups are amateurs. Though their acute focused activism seldom succumbs to mission statement mission creep, they are often denigrated as single-issue groups by people who have forgotten that many citizen activists got startled (sic) and awakened by a single issue.

Permanent Waves are pros. Not just in the sense that they “know the ropes,” but that they keep stables of well connected, highly credentialed, (well-paid) staff, who are invested in professional entanglements, hoary institutions, and relationships with funders. Mission creep often leads them to the nowhere land of Activism Without Borders (aka “public education”), which unfortunately, tends to lack not only borders, but focus, strategy, and effectiveness as well. But those Permanent Wavers put out a great magazine. (A must for the coffee table.)

In their initial naivete, the Pop-ups often think that the Permanent Waves are there to help them, a notion quickly enough dispensed with after First Contact. The Permanent Waves, whose strategies and lifestyles most resemble those of other corporate lobbyists, generally find the Pop-ups to be unpredictable, off-script, and liable to fly off the handle or otherwise misbehave in public. These Pop-up traits can, however, be overlooked long enough to recruit potential members for the Permanent Wave groups. (Then these new members can get the magazine, too.)

The Pop-ups learn brutal lessons about what our current democracy theme park means if you’re a bunch of poor people kvetching about toxic drinking water. (Boo-hoo.) The Permanent Waves — corrupted a lot or only a little by proximity to power and access to comfort — insist, We’re doing all we can! But disappointment or downright failure is easier to take in a hot tub than the middle of a cancer cluster.

Sure, that dichotomy is oversimplified. Lots of groups middle around as kind of semi-permanent Pop-ups. Run like unstable feudal baronies and constantly on the verge of losing the community’s attention, the lord’s favor (this means foundation support), and the volunteer techie who updates their web site, they spend much time trying to seem more established than they are.

It’s Not About Taxonomy

But wait, I’m not here for taxonomy, or, by the way, to disparage any citizen activism motivated by desire to make the world (or even a teeny part of it) a better place.

Two types or three, or seventeen, these groups have a lot in common and most of it’s not good.

  • They watch as states enact legislation explicitly prohibiting local governments from passing laws to protect themselves against harms that the Feds and the Supreme Court allow and even encourage. The message: You can’t protect yourselves.
  • They watch the Congress occasionally pass a good law addressing a tiny part of a huge problem, but then see it go unenforced. You can’t even enforce the weak laws we have.
  • They watch the Supreme Court chip away at good laws. Oops, we can’t even do that anymore. Suddenly, after decades, it’s declared unconstitutional. Protections legal yesterday are unconstitutional today.

When it comes down to it, all of these groups are birds of a feather, doing Conventional Activism, floundering in the self-defeating, self-limiting, and ill-named art of the possible. They all practice paint-by-number activism (stay within the lines, now) that narrowly addresses only the symptoms of an undemocratic fundament.

Beyond Conventional Activism

Faced with the overwhelming fact that local, state, and federal governments, and the regulatory agencies that supposedly enforce the law, do not function democratically and do not represent citizens’ views — isn’t there room for somebody to acknowledge that things are not okay? And to tilt their activist lances toward removing the obstacles that stand between citizen activists and having a democratic government?

  • Why can’t local governments protect their citizens?
  • Why don’t governments enforce laws?
  • Why are so many good laws declared “unconstitutional”?
  • And, why isn’t changing all of this a major focus of citizen activists?

When would be a good time? It’s always inconvenient to try to change the legal landscape, a difficult, uncertain and long-term proposition, as opposed to trying to just get one little “win” out of a thoroughly undemocratic setting. But each little “win” is temporary and small (not to mention unlikely). It sucks resources that could be used to work for more fundamental change.

It’s Already Happening

Turns out there is a second kind of group after all — one aimed at something more fundamental and expansive.

For two decades, here and there in venues that rarely make in onto the mainstream news, people in the US have been trying to put the demos back into democracy, to remove the obstacles that have made government a safe and predictable theme park for those whom most government decisions benefit: the few, the endowed, the machine.

In recent years, many of those efforts have gone under the featureless rubric of “community rights,” a pretty bland term for what essentially constitutes an effort to bring democracy and democratic rights to local and state government. Hundreds of communities across the US have gotten involved. Current “community rights” work comes in different flavors, as is appropriate for a movement that is based in local, grassroots citizen activism. You know how to do an Internet search.

You don’t have to be a Pop-up or a Permanent Wave or an unstable barony. All slogging under the yoke of Conventional Activism. You have a choice.

Stop staying within the lines. A thousand completed paint-by-number projects bring you no closer to being an artist. Throw out the glossy magazine. Clear the coffee table. Use mixed metaphors. Invent democracy. Bring it to your issue and your neighborhood.