Political parties have become contentious and contemptuous, with one side inevitably winning the vote at the expense of the other, leaving voters in a perpetual blame game as they vie for the few opportunities to be heard. Our governmental system is built around winning and losing, not compromise and consensus. Thus, political parties or not, it is not surprising that this structure has led to the massive polarization we see today.
Boone is no exception to this rule. With the university’s influence alone, Boone shifts the overall red demographics of Watauga into a decidedly purple district, further entrenching polarization. The current avenues for political participation leave little room to break free of the mentality of competition and profit-driven growth.
Globally, but also in Boone, the societal and environmental well-being of communities are threatened in the face of intensifying climatic conditions, such as increasing storm events and flooding, less reliable agricultural production, and the increasingly favorable conditions for disease vectors and invasive species. Meanwhile, in the current capitalist economy, our consumption of resources outpaces the regeneration of resources, amplifying human vulnerability to scarcity amidst the uncertainty of a changing climate. At the same time, community decision-making powers are being undermined both culturally and legislatively. The image of true sustainability must be questioned. The solution to these global problems lies within the way that the decision-making systems we rely on are designed, for they depict not only how we interact with one another, but also how we use resources to create a collective well-being.
We would argue that social conflict and environmental degradation are results of how the current paradigm of decision-making systems discourages authentic, productive discussion and compromise. A reworking of the system is needed towards a system that is centered on our interdependence with each other and the environment we inhabit.
We envision a community economy, an economic structure with the well-being of all community members as its driving force.
In creating a community economy, it is essential we start by reworking our decision-making systems. A community economy necessitates people talking and coming to compromise on what actions and decisions serve the collective well-being best. This does not mean relying on a few chances to elect representatives, but rather all people consistently deliberating and deciding in all the mundanity and beauty that encompasses.
Boone is in a perfect position to be a leader in rethinking these governmental systems and testing what it would mean to build a system around discussion and compromise, rather than simply voting. This would mean a deep level of involvement in decision making, a deep democracy, if you will.
The App State community’s response to the urgent call for action from the recent IPCC Report on climate change is one example. Through the newly formed Climate Action Collaborative, spaces are being created that foster discussion and the necessary conversations in allowing all voices to be heard and imagining alternative ways of organizing with democracy as a core tenant. The Climate Action Collaborative is united under the common goal of achieving social and environmental well-being, with the intentions to create connections, learn, become informed together and practice transparency through open discussion, debate and compromise.
As we are not the first community to attempt a transition to a more participatory democracy, there are many experiences we can draw from in thinking about potential pathways out of polarization and disempowerment.
One of the most effective pathways to deepening democracy in Boone would be an online direct-democracy platform like pol.is, a polling software successfully being used currently by the government of Taiwan. The online system does not simply poll on whether participants agree or disagree with pre-written statements, but instead allows users to upload new proposals; it crowd-sources the decision-making process and allows for multiple perspectives to come into the conservation from across wide distances and times.
In Taiwan, this has been used to foster compromise around political issues that might otherwise remain represented by polarized “sides” bickering with one another. Although pol.is is not the final deciding factor, legislators regularly look to it as a way to see what the populous might agree on overall.
Another pathway to participatory democracy in Boone would be the creation of community spaces where town and university decision-makers regularly meet to listen to public opinion on various issues. While town council meetings are pragmatic efforts for working towards town goals, the current structure of town meetings is not conducive to significant public participation. The number of public speakers is usually limited by procedures that require them to apply in advance, thus hindering citizen input on town decisions. Additionally, the aesthetics of existing meeting spaces create the atmosphere that town leaders are part of a decision-making elite rather that our public servants.
Alongside such task-oriented meetings, there should be meetings in a space where the public is asked to openly discuss important political decisions and voice their concerns in an egalitarian way. We hope that the university would join in this effort by sending university administrative leaders to such discussions in recognition of the university’s massive role in local politics.
These would need to be structured in a way that doesn’t lead to government officials just being yelled at by town members, but instead would be an open invitation to discuss, with town officials being explicitly open to listening and heeding public sentiments while town members would explicitly commit to being willing to learn and be understanding of town members’ positions.
As a hypothetical, if this sort of democracy were to be instituted in Boone, the current controversial growth of the university and rise of student population could become a point of conversation where the community and the school could come to a compromise, rather than the university pursuing a growth strategy with little significant input from local residents.
The current culture in Boone is not built around participation. Although there are regular meetings where individual community members can voice their opinions, they are infrequently used. And when we have elections, officials are often elected on the votes of a minority of the population. Therefore we suggest that the town’s leaders and citizens put great collective effort into encouraging one another to participate in local politics and making that participation meaningful, perhaps using some of the suggestions listed above. Likewise, we implore local non-governmental organizations to adopt deep-democratic decision-making structures wherever possible.
Through deep democracy, we can create a culture of consensus, with the well-being of the community and local environment at its heart, as an ethic behind every decision made. Out of this, we could then begin to collectively deliberate the paths to social and ecological resilience. Open, transparent discussion is the first step in this process.
Invited by the challenges of our time, we have the opportunity and responsibility to make such a vision our reality.
Written by: Dustin Hicks, sustainable development major & Leigh Siracusano, biology major