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Living in Society Writing

Grass Roots or Participatory Democracy?

Prairie Grasses in Late Summer

It is a commonplace that effective organizations, especially political ones, should be “grass roots” driven. It is so commonplace the words are virtually meaningless.

Let’s think about this. What drove the election of the current president was a strong movement fed by the fertilizer of unlimited free speech in the form of dark money from a billionaire-led network. It was a grass roots movement supporting a demagogue. It yielded a predictable result, one we’d convinced ourselves wasn’t possible.

The basic validity of the movement to elect President Trump is hard to question. People are free to support political candidates and elect them to high positions including as president. The underlying efficacy of such movements is mitigated by deception and lies told to further its intent. Despite the number of presidential lies and false statements, people persist in their support of the president and the right wing propaganda machine provides many handles for voters to hold fast to the Trump train.

People mistake a participatory democracy as being grass roots driven. It isn’t necessarily. As Thom Hartmann points out in his book The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole Your Vote — And How to Get it Back, about six percent of eligible voters nominated Trump as the Republican candidate, eight percent nominated Hillary Clinton as the Democratic one. Hartmann’s message is more people should participate in elections.

Grass roots movements are important. Whether they can make needed changes in our governance is an open question. In our current right wing media-dark money-oligarchical society participatory democracy and being grass roots driven aren’t the same thing.

Our recent school board election is an example of a grass roots movement with more positive results. We had six candidates and the community joined together to vet them and pick two to serve. Our collective actions during the run up to the election made a change in the board’s composition. We elected a woman to serve with four other men. She has deep roots among families in the district and the electorate believed the board would be better for her service.

Does characterization of support for a political candidate as “grass roots” make a difference? Probably not. It becomes one more meme in a media environment of too many memes and not enough thinking. I get that tallgrass prairie plants have deep roots. If we hadn’t decimated the ecosystem in which they thrived it might be a more appropriate metaphor. Just like native prairies of Iowa meant something a hundred years ago, grass roots politics are rooted in an era of progressive politics no longer relevant in today’s ubiquitous right wing media and dark money environment.

Instead of coming up with descriptors, politically active people should encourage more people to participate in elections. What we know with some certainty is if everyone votes, common sense solutions to our problems are likely to prevail. Participatory democracy is the way to go.