Local Politics and Participatory Democracy
When talking about democracy, we tend to think about it on a national level, but that is not sufficient. For the nation state to be democratic, the democratic mindset and the democratic structures need to permeate all of society, from stamp collecting clubs and art associations to political parties and trade unions, and from city councils to parliamentary assemblies.
For this to be possible, a precondition is "a general public at all levels". A general public must exist when it comes to national politics, with a national press, and thereby a nationwide forum for debate. The same must apply on a local level. "Locally" can refer to a large city with one or more local newspapers and a local radio station, or it can refer to a village, where everyone can meet in the square, or it can be as small as a number of families along a residential road, where the homeowners form a community to take care of road maintenance, clearing of snow and, for example, surveillance and protection against burglary.
Associations are, roughly speaking, private fellowships of shared interests with a set of statutes. For it to be a democratic association, all members must be equal. Typically, a general assembly is held once a year, in which every member must have access to participate and express their opinion. The general assembly elects a board which is responsible for running the association and management of its finances until the next general assembly. It usually costs a fee to be member of an association.
The purpose of an association is stated in its statutes. The purpose may be political; for example to be elected to the city council or parliament with a certain set of views, or to prevent pollution, or to fight for the rights of women. The purpose may also simply be fun; for example to get together around a shared hobby and buy expensive hobby equipment together, items which each member could not afford on his or her own.
In many countries, farmers have united in cooperative associations in order to sell their products together. This happens in Africa today, and it was how English as well as Scandinavian farms became economically feasible in the 1800s. Trade unions, which act to secure the salary and working conditions of workers, are another type of private association and they have helped improve living conditions in the Western democracies.
The power of the state is not sufficient, there need to be smaller public units as well such as provinces, counties, regions, and municipalities. Depending on the size and legislature of the country, these units can have much or little power. Their work is carried out by publicly elected representatives, but, with the occasional exception of provinces, they don't have legislative power. In return, they can levy taxes and are responsible for their own economy.
Local democracy means that the people who are affected by the consequences of decisions are, as much as possible, part of the decision making process. This means, for example, that the state delegates as many decisions as possible to the municipalities, and that the municipalities let the citizens make as many decisions as possible on their own. Local democracy can be implemented in many different ways, depending on the area and scope of the questions involved. The possibilities are many ranging, for example, from what activities the staff and residents of a nursing home choose for the weekend, to inviting an entire neighbourhood to participate in the planning of roads and parking spaces.
Next chapter: Political Issues