I study democratic politics and I mean both of those terms in the most fundamental way possible. I understand “politics” to mean “the way people who live in a place make choices and address shared problems and opportunities, where there are disagreements about what should be done.” And by “democracy” I mean “people collectively deciding how to exert control over their future.” In this way of understanding, democratic politics is not the same thing as “organizing.” Politics involves tension. Something is political if there are tensions about what we should do.
Note that this is a much deeper sense of both words than the ones in which they are normally used. For instance, “elections” are not themselves democracy. They are a mechanism for choosing representative leaders. And having representative leaders is a strategy for acting democratically. One challenge in studying democratic politics in the way I describe is that it can be hard to see — or perhaps better put, other related things are easier to see. In democracies that include elections, you can see elections. You can see how many people vote, for whom, and how open or inclusive the voting is. It is also easy to see institutions such as government. Often, in trying to see and examine democratic politics, these and other easily visible things occlude the whole of politics. But describing and understanding a government is not the same thing as understanding politics. (This is not to say that such institutions are not a part of politics — they are. And they are important. But looking solely at institutional structures provides an incomplete view of politics.)
One level of democratic politics I am quite interested in is the community level — community politics. What does it look like? How can you see it?
One way to see community politics (any politics, really) is to look for evidence that the things that make up politics are happening. And if you are looking to find democratic politics on the level of community, you might look for evidence about how these practices are taking place. So:
- Where is there evidence of people trying to understand what the problem is?
- Where is there evidence that people are exploring options?
- Where is there evidence that people are choosing deliberately from among options of what they might do?
- Where is there evidence that people are trying to identify resources through which to act?
- Where is there evidence that they are taking action, and to what extent are these actions complementary or not?
- Where is there evidence that, seen collectively, the community is learning from its experiences?
The area where I live, in a suburb of Washington, DC, recently had an historic blizzard. Thirty-five inches of snow were dumped in my neighborhood. The snow removal resources of every government entity, and indeed of every business, were severely taxed. My street is a dead-end that inclines away from the nearest through-route, which itself is not a major street. So on dig-out day, everyone on the block was pretty much stuck, and we weren’t going to get plowed out for quite some time.
As people do, we all began our digs. And here is where we began to see politics.
Just responding to a crisis is often not really that political — it is clear what must be done and there is no real choice to be made. You just do what must be done. But this was not quite a crisis and it was not clear exactly how we should move forward. We each had our own interests: we wanted our driveways cleared and to be able to reach the outside world. But “reaching the outside world” was also a collective interest. And there were some elderly neighbors who did not have any means of moving their own snow — what should be done about their situation?
Furthermore, we all had varying resources available, and some of those were communal. Most of us had snow shovels and at least one person willing to use it. But some of us also had small snowblowers. One neighbor had actually purchased a very large snow blower a few years back, and regularly made it available to neighbors. Furthermore, eventually we would get plowed out by the city.
In figuring out how to respond collectively to this problem, we were doing politics in exactly the way described above. Our approach was to begin our resources — which is often how it happens on a community level. Who has what? What can we use? The neighbor’s snow thrower could not take care of the whole problem for us, but it was up to the task of clearing sidewalks and helping cars get dug out from under snowdrifts. Some neighbors with four wheel drive trucks went to get gas for the snow thrower, while another truck owner started driving back and forth through a few deep drifts to mush the snow down and make it a little passable. Someone shoveled the elderly neighbors’ drive.
To be clear, this was not “organized” in the way you might imagine. It was loose. It was not like a barn raising. We were mostly tending to our tasks, but we were doing so mindful of the whole. We were acting in complementary ways.
During this work, we stopped occasionally and assessed what the problem was we were tackling. (Again, informally.) Is it that we all had our cars stuck? Or was the problem that we couldn’t even walk anywhere safely? Or was the problem that some of our vulnerable neighbors were truly up a creek? Was it that we had not prepared well enough in advance? Did someone leave their car in a place that made it worse for everybody?
Similarly, we addressed our options. Should we unearth cars first? Sidewalks? Should we just wait for the city, as they would eventually come by? Should we think about buying a small tractor with a snow blower, and splitting the cost, for future snowfalls? We decided to try to clear all the sidewalks and driveways, and somevpeople would go beyond that individually (for instance I dug out a separate parking space for myself).
We coordinated what we would do. Some neighbors dug a space for one car, and then were able to use that “extra” parking spot as a staging area while digging out other cars. It was arranged who would do what: snow blow, dig, drive. We didn’t all agree and we had to work through tensions between the various possibilities. For example, everyone who had parked on the street wanted their car dug out first — but only one or two could get freed up that first day. Though we all wanted our own vehicle moving, the work van of a neighbor who needed it for his livelihood took priority.
Over the years we had also learned what some of the best things to do for our particular stretch of the street in big snowfalls was, and we added to that learning this time. Some of us, acting on previous learning, had parked their cars up the street, in the road at the top of our small hill. The reasoning was not to get stuck. But this snowfall was so large this turned into a liability — when the city plow finally came, the cars that had not been unstuck yet were really socked in under almost insurmountable walls of gunk. We agreed that in future the best call would be to keep all cars in our driveways so city plows could plow curb to curb.
None of this was formal. It unfolded over the course of the day, bit by bit, and you could see it in a building series of conversations between different neighbors. All very casual. Politics does not have to be serious, even when it is solving serious problems.
[Updated (twice!) to fix some typos and clarify some points.]