Democratic Practices

  Democratic Practices

Kettering research has identified democratic practices that have everyday applications in the life of a community. Democratic practices are ways citizens can work together—even when they disagree—to address shared problems.

  Ordinary Questions, Extraordinary Opportunities

Democratic practices are variations on the things that happen every day in communities. In order for these routine activities to become public, citizens have to be involved. Yet this doesn’t mean that communities have to do anything out of the ordinary—they just have to do the ordinary in different ways. If the routine business of politics is done in ways that are open to citizens, the routines can become democratic practices.

These practices are reflected in the ordinary questions people ask one another when something threatens their collective well-being. Their conversations revolve around such questions as:

  • What’s bothering you?
  • How does this problem affect you and your family?
  • What should we do? What would be the consequences?
  • If there are negative consequences to what you propose, do you think we should still do it?
  • What is the right thing to do?
  • Who else do we need to solve the problem?
  • What resources do we need? What do we have that we can use?
  • What are we learning?
  The Political Meaning of the Democratic Practices

Kettering has selected a set of terms that it uses to describe what is going on politically when people ask these everyday questions. Each term identifies one of the democratic practices just mentioned. When people talk about what bothers them, Kettering would say that they are naming problems. Naming is a political practice because the name that is given to a problem affects what is done to solve it.

When people talk about what can be done, they often propose options, and when all the options are put on the table, they create a framework for tackling a problem. The framing structures everything that happens thereafter. Framing issues with only one or two options sets in motion a political debate that is very different from what happens if there are multiple options on the table.

When people move on to assess the possible consequences that might result from one course of action or another, Kettering would say they are making decisions deliberatively. They are weighing possible consequences against what is deeply important to them. They are mulling over or sorting out what they hear, perhaps changing their minds as they learn about someone else’s experience. Eventually, they may settle on some work that they need to do with other citizens, something they want a government to do, or both.

Once a decision is made about how to proceed, people test to see if anyone or any group is willing to act on the decision and identify resources that they can draw on. Kettering calls this political practice identifying and committing civic resources.

Commitments produce collective political will. When citizens then join forces to do something, we refer to that as organizing civic actions, a practice that brings the many and various resources a citizenry has to bear on a problem. Action is normally followed by evaluating what was accomplished, which the foundation has labeled learning together in order to distinguish collective from individual learning. This practice provides the political momentum needed to follow through on difficult problems.

All six of these practices are part of the larger politics of self-rule, not stand-alone techniques. They fit together the way the wooden matrëshka dolls from Russia do. People will continue to name, frame, and deliberate even as they assess what they have done, and people will learn together throughout.

“Democratic practices are ways citizens can work together—even when they disagree—to solve shared problems.”