Matt Leighninger is executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, and author of The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule is Giving Way to Shared Governance, and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same."
Presidential candidates often use vague rhetoric about the importance of democracy and citizenship, but they rarely say how they plan to help citizens and government work together. John Edwards has finally broken this pattern with his proposal for a biennial "Citizen Congress" involving 1 million Americans.
Edwards' plan is intriguing, but it is only one possible way of engaging citizens in public decision-making and problem-solving. His proposal should serve as a wake-up call to the other candidates in both parties: They too should be giving specific proposals (not just feel-good language) about how they want to make democracy work better.
All of these proposals should recognize, and build upon, the new examples of democratic governance that have proliferated all over the country. In hundreds of communities—and on some state and federal issues as well—public officials and other leaders are involving thousands of citizens in addressing some of the key challenges we face. The issues include school improvement, immigration, race relations, land use, health care, pandemic flu preparedness, economic development and public finance.
These nonpartisan projects give people a chance to examine a range of options, and decide together what they think. They generally lead to better policy decisions and they often tap into the skills and connections of ordinary citizens, giving them new opportunities build community and solve problems.
Groups like the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the November Fifth Coalition have been researching these projects and helping to disseminate the lesson learned. Collectively, we know more than ever before about different ways to structure and sustain democratic governance—more than enough for candidates to develop their own individual proposals.
There is a legitimate debate to be had here, and an important opportunity for candidates to clarify their own identities and philosophies. Instead of simply telling us what they would do about immigration, education, or Iraq, they should let us know what role they would like citizens to play in addressing these issues.
The relationship between citizens and government is changing rapidly in this country. It is time for that to be reflected in our presidential campaigns.