Visit the 2012 Frontiers of Democracy page
By Matt Leighninger, Peter Levine, Nancy Thomas, and Karol Soltan
The Frontiers of Democracy conference took place at Tufts Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts on July 21-23, 2011. A total of 117 people attended, ranging from high school and college students to senior professors and CEOs of important civic organizations, coming from as far as Germany, California, and Florida. The conference was co-sponsored by The Deliberative Democracy Consortium, The Democracy Imperative, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), and Tisch College at Tufts. It was organized by Peter Levine of CIRCLE/Tisch College, Nancy Thomas of TDI, Karol Soltan of the University of Maryland, and Matt Leighninger of DDC.
It would be presumptuous to try to characterize the views of all the conference participants, but as Peter Levine put it, we formed a community that, in general:
- Struggles for diverse, equal, and inclusive civic engagement.
- Believes that “engagement” means more than just voting, but must also encompass better ways of talking and listening with fellow citizens.
- Yet is not satisfied with deliberation alone but wants to connect it to action, work, co-creation, “civic artisanship,” and power.
- Seeks innovative forms of democracy (“not your grandfather’s civic engagement”): hence the conference track on engaging the online public.
- Creates spaces for people to make their own decisions and to set their own goals and values, and is therefore drawn to the ideal of “neutrality”–but is also committed to values such as equality and diversity. Hence our conference track on the dilemmas of neutrality.
- Seeks to reflect on practice and to bring ideas and ideals into the real world: hence our track on theory and practice.
People generally liked the conference, with 61% saying it was either excellent (17%) or very good (44%). More people (84%) said the set of people who attended was either excellent or very good. Large majorities said that they would try to attend again and would recommend it to others. Most people provided examples of how they would apply what they learned to their work, and these answers were wonderfully diverse. But there were also critical responses to the whole conference and to the various “tracks.” More than one third said they did not have a clear idea of the conference’s purpose before they arrived. Some said their own groups struggled, were rushed, or had ill-defined goals. We conclude that convening this type of group is valuable, but the structure of the conference could be improved next time. We are certainly open to ideas for organization and for specific themes.
On the first morning, the “Frontiers of Democracy Home Movie” (link at right), produced by Matt Leighninger, introduced the main themes and questions of the conference, using a mix of serious footage and small children saying funny things.
Participants then began working in the three conference tracks. The results of these conversations were made available online in the form of a PrioritySpend poll (thanks to Ron Lubensky of Deliberations Australia). Each track was asked to come up with some ‘key insights’ – these ranged from overarching consensual statements to practical suggestions to further questions for the field. Both conference participants and others who followed the conference online were invited to vote and comment on the key insights from the three tracks. Those who chose to comment online were a diverse array of public officials, professors, foundation executives, and other leaders.
- The questions and statements generated by each “track,” the public votes on those statements and questions, and some interesting written comments are collected here.
- The statements by the “Theory and Practice” track—along with other people’s written responses, are available online here.
- The report of the “Neutrality Track” is here. Some additional resources on neutrality are collected here.
- Votes and comments on the statements produced by the “Online Engagement” track are here.
The Frontiers conference was modeled on No Better Time, a meeting held in 2009 at University of New Hampshire. The atmosphere then was optimistic, to say the least. Even the participants who had not voted for Barack Obama were encouraged by the outpouring of civic activism in 2008 and the expansion of relevant federal programs such as AmeriCorps. We talked then about how we would flourish as soon as the recession ended.
Now is not “no better time.” During our conference itself, the headlines screamed that a murderous racist had hunted and killed more than 90 children in one of the world’s safest and strongest democracies; the Speaker of the House walked out on the President of the United States during negotiations to save the full faith and credit of the Republic while the economy continues to sag; and the whole country baked in heat that seemed to portend the climate we will leave to our children. We conference organizers had hoped to engender optimism, hope, and confidence in our field. I am not sure we succeeded, or if that goal was possible.
But we did witness a great deal of learning, network-building, and productive mental and emotional struggle. To name one example, we had intentionally focused on the Nobel-Prize-winning theory of Elinor Ostrom because it is rich with possibilities for civic action and has been developed in close partnership with practitioners. Yet Ostrom’s work is not about deliberation nearly as much as it is concerned with changing the incentives for investment and consumption. If you are a deliberative democrat–like the majority of conference attendees–your ideal may be a room full of citizens talking and listening. If you are an “Ostromite,” you may think instead of municipalities, firms, and public boards negotiating contracts to govern the use of scarce water across the Los Angeles basin.
And yet deliberation can play an important role in such work; and getting people to deliberate is a collective-action problem for which Elinor Ostrom proposes solutions. So the potential is great for Ostrom’s economic theory to enrich deliberative democracy, and vice-versa, in both research and practice. Such are the exchanges and collaborations that I believe we began to build together at Frontiers.
Photo by Elise Selinger