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Making Democracy Fun

On the eve of a historic election in the United States, revisit Josh Lerner's book reminding us that democracy can be fun.

Everyone loves democracy—except for most of the time, when they hate it. Despite its wide appeal, democracy has a remarkable ability to be fantastically boring, bitterly painful, and utterly pointless. This ability is so incredible that, in mere hours, democracy can transform a thousand passionate activists into a room full of lifeless faces and empty chairs. 

Case in point: A public hearing on the largest development project in New York City history—Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards. On a late August afternoon in 2006, hundreds of opponents and supporters crammed into a university auditorium, with latecomers lined up outside. Officially, the hearing’s goal was to collect input on the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Study. In other words, to help determine if the developer could plant a new basketball stadium and 16 soaring apartment towers in the middle of Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods. And if so, how? The hearing was a nasty battle. Opponents protested that they only had 66 days to review 4,000 pages of technical documents. They warned about endless traffic jams and sketchy guarantees of affordable housing, claiming that the new apartments would just be “rich folks’ housing.” Unions and other supporters praised the new jobs, housing, and basketball team that the project vowed to deliver. Amid the chaos, the hearing organizers called in the police to remove an outspoken critic. Speakers faced constant heckling and threats. “The bulldozers are coming,” boasted an ironworker, “and if you don’t get out of the way, they’re going to bulldoze right over you.”

The hearing was a nasty battle. Opponents protested that they only had 66 days to review 4,000 pages of technical documents. They warned about endless traffic jams and sketchy guarantees of affordable housing, claiming that the new apartments would just be “rich folks’ housing.” Unions and other supporters praised the new jobs, housing, and basketball team that the project vowed to deliver. Amid the chaos, the hearing organizers called in the police to remove an outspoken critic. Speakers faced constant heckling and threats. “The bulldozers are coming,” boasted an ironworker, “and if you don’t get out of the way, they’re going to bulldoze right over you.”

The Atlantic Yards hearing was about as much fun as, well, your average municipal hearing. After listening to waves of repetitive presentations and canned rhetoric, most of the crowd left early. Those who remained looked dazed. Many walked away frustrated, after signing up to present and not having time to speak. Thousands of other ‘concerned citizens’ had, no doubt, opted to stay home entirely, to avoid a futile shouting match. In the end, the hearing also failed to deliver a clear sense of how to improve the Environmental Impact Study.

The problems that plagued the Atlantic Yards hearing are typical of democratic participation. Governments and organizations are calling on citizens to engage more actively in political processes, beyond voting in elections. In most cases, though, participation is dominated by the ‘usual suspects’ and extreme voices, and widely dismissed as pointless. It rarely resolves conflicts or changes decisions. For most people, these opportunities to participate are simply not very attractive, compared with the countless other ways to pass time.

Is this the best that democracy can offer? Is democratic participation destined to be an undesirable civic chore for all but the most passionate citizens? To borrow a phrase from Oscar Wilde, perhaps the problem with democracy is that it takes up “too many evenings.” Scholars of democracy offer few alternatives to this view. Even when proposing reforms, they generally accept that, for most people, participating in democracy will be a costly sacrifice. As the political philosopher Iris Marion Young concluded, “Democracy is hard to love.” Some champions of participation suggest redesigning the institutions of democracy, to open up new spaces for engagement. Yet too often, these new spaces are no more enticing than the old ones.

After spending too many evenings suffering through public hearings, I glimpsed a different approach in an unlikely place. In July 2006 I was in Venezuela, researching a new national initiative to develop community councils.5 One Sunday afternoon in Caracas, a local organizer invited me to the parking lot in front of a huge dilapidated apartment block. Tenants had been working for months to prepare for this day, when they hoped to launch a new council for their building. If successful, they would gain control over government money for community projects. But first, the law had presented a series of obstacles. The organizers had to complete a building census, hold elections for two commissions, and draw at least 20 percent of the tenants to the founding assembly, when they would elect dozens of spokespeople for the council. And that was just to start the council.

I thought the council was a tough sell, considering these demanding requirements and the general mistrust of government promises in Venezuela. I was wrong. Over 400 people turned out for the assembly, well over the 20 percent threshold. But what really struck me was that people seemed to be enjoying themselves. They were laughing, hugging, chatting, dancing, and—most impressively—lingering. The assembly did not feel like a sacrifice or chore, but rather like something that people actually wanted to attend. Democracy felt fun.

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The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.