Associate Network member Hollie Russon-Gilman and Elena Souris explore the crisis of democratic participation in the United States for a new article in Washington Monthly. The article, “All Politics Is Local,” points in particular to persistently low levels of election turnout across the country. The recent special election in Alabama, for example, had what is considered relatively high turnout, despite only 40 percent of registered voters participating. Russon-Gilman and Souris argue that this problem is both the driver and result of rising inequality:
“In the United States, that problem is particularly concentrated among the young, minorities, and lower-income people. The crisis of democratic participation is arguably both a product of rising inequality and a contributor to it—when certain groups feel ignored by political institutions, they may become less likely to vote, which only guarantees that lawmakers ignore their interests even more, and on and on.”
The authors propose that addressing inequality should begin at the local level where the link between the benefits and beneficiaries is most visible:
“Despite major, headline-making successes this year, traditional tactics like voting and marching are not enough to bring these voices into government. Solving our national democratic crisis has to begin at the local level, where the connection between participation and impact is most immediate—and where it’s easiest to experiment with new models of civic participation.”
In particular, the article focuses two examples of locally-driven civic engagement: participatory budgeting initiatives and community listening sessions, such as those held regularly by the Office of Community Wealth Building in Virginia.