Democracy at Work — the Scottish Referendum and Beyond

Huffington Post Blog by Harry C. Boyte on September 22, 2014

In thinking about the recent Scottish referendum on independence from the United Kingdom, it is worth remembering the way the great American poet, Walt Whitman, envisioned democracy.

“We have frequently printed the word Democracy,” wrote Whitman. “Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d…a great word, whose history remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.” Whitman, a fan of Abraham Lincoln, may well have had democracy “of the people, by the people, for the people” in mind — a democracy created by the civic labors of its citizens.

Albeit without thinking much about it, Scotland may have helped to pioneer in the “yet unwritten history” of democracy in the 21st Century.

Many “yes” voters in the campaign are depressed after 55 percent of Scottish voters chose to remain in the United Kingdom with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Fiona Ivanski, a veterinary surgeon who voted for Scottish independence, described “a terrible emptiness” to New York Times reporter Katrin Bennhold, quoted in Bennhold’s story about the election. “We got so close, you could almost touch it,” said Ivanski.

In most people’s minds, “democracy” means elections. The citizen’s role is to be an informed voter. Most discussions of Scotland’s referendum assume that the moment of vibrant democracy is over.

But there are some like Whitman who see much greater promise in democracy.

“One of the biggest attractions of the Yes campaign…is that it is a grassroots movement of people that has energized us and made us feel democracy could work,” wrote Vicky Allan, an Englishwoman in Scotland, in a column in the Herald Scotlandbefore the vote. “You don’t have to be a Scot to relate to that.”

Allan agreed with my point in an earlier Huffington Post blog that there are limits to electoral politics in generating lasting movements for participatory democracy. She picked up the question I had heard from a young man in the final televised debate between Darling and Salmond, leaders of the “no” and “yes” campaigns: how can the tremendous energy and political interest of the campaign continue? “The answer,” Allan replied, “Is [that] it will be up to us to make sure it does, whatever way the vote goes — not just here but in other parts of Britain too.”

The problem with participatory democracy, Allan worried, is that “then I would have to participate.” She was likely thinking about participatory democracy as off-hours voluntarism. This reflects many people’s views, akin to Oscar Wilde’s famous quip about socialism: “it takes too many evenings.” A democracy of active volunteers, in addition to elected officials, seems only for the most public-spirited.

But there is another way to understand participatory democracy, one that I believe will be central to democracy in the 21st Century.

As Marie-Louise Strӧm, my wife, observed in our family trip through Scotland in August before the referendum, democratic energy was everywhere — and such energy was associated with the idea that “we can build the society we want.”

Such comments intimate an understanding of democracy built by the people. In such democracy, citizenship is much more than campaigning, voting or volunteering. Citizenship is expressed through everyday work with public significance and impact. And such citizenship is not only practiced by those able to vote. We were struck by the energy and interest of children and young people in the referendum, below the voting age of 16.

Work with public qualities, or public work, produces what Sara Evans and I have called free spaces in places such as classrooms and schools, colleges, local businesses and unions, religious congregations and many other sites. Free spaces are centers of civic life and empowerment, sustained by public workers, where people come together on an equal footing to develop relationships across differences, learn democratic habits and create sustained cultures of imagination and innovation.

Free spaces and public work educate a democratic people. And only a democratic people can form the foundation of a democratic society.

We saw many intimations of free spaces in the Scottish referendum. The campaign not only activated volunteers and voters. It also energized civic life in businesses, professions, schools and colleges — even in Holyrood, the Scottish parliament, which we visited.

What would it mean for such civic energy to continue?

Fiona Ivanski, the woman who felt “terrible emptiness,” also argued that “you have to take the positives” from the election. Her husband Vincent, who voted no, agreed. “This may be the beginning of something new,” he told the New York Times. I believe that he is right — Scotland was pioneering things to come.

The fledgling movement for “civic science,” mentioned in my last blog, “Democracy and the People’s Climate March,” is another case that suggests possibilities for democracy at work.

As a group of us organizing a forthcoming workshop on civic science at the National Science Foundation describe in our White Paper, A Call to Civic Science, “In civic science, scientists express democratic citizenship through their scientific work: they engage in democratic world-building efforts as scientists.”

This effort, like the Scottish referendum, may help in the great work of reawakening democracy.