Grassroots Democracy in the Green Party


Not many greens want to change their political colors. At its 2004 national convention, the plenary easily passed a resolution that forbids the merger of the Green Party with any other political party, unless over 90% of the membership agrees to do so. It illustrates the fact that most members of the Green Party find their way of doing politics to be distinctly incompatible with “traditional politics” and that any merger with another party would wither the carefully nurtured political culture that is the Green Party.
From the outset Green Politics was designed to be different. “grassroots democracy” was one of the four pillars of the party as they were first designated by the German Green Party in 1979. (Ecological Wisdom, Social Justice and Non-Violence were the others)
But what is Grassroots Democracy? Like the concept of “democracy” in general, it’s virtues are proclaimed by politicians of all stripes, but fewer are actually inclined to practice it. This essay is to explain what grassroots democracy means to the Green Party, and as a result what the Green Party means to the traditional political process.

The meaning of Grassroots Democracy

In some descriptions, grassroots democracy can be as simple as having a lot of “regular folk” getting involved in campaigning and voting. Populist politicians are often described as having grassroots support, but there is a difference between populist politics, in which a leader tries to appeal to “regular folk” - and grassroots democracy, in which the “regular folk” actually have some involvement in the creation of the message and policies. To say it plainly, the difference is between being patronized and being able to participate.

To understand the difference between grassroots democracy and “plain old” democracy it is useful to define what plain old democracy is. In a plain old democracy you can change the political leadership by voting – you don’t have to overthrow the government to change the prime minister. In grassroots democracy you can vote to change the policies without having to overturn the leader.

Natural leadership

Majority of Greens have an acute dislike for hierarchies and the centralization of power – they see those qualities as being the essence of what is wrong with politics today. Greens value leadership very highly, but choose leaders who facilitate rather than manipulate, and inspire rather than command. This kind of “natural” leadership doesn’t require power or authority to back it up. Natural leaders don’t take power, they give it.
With respect to polices and ideas, greens are wholistic thinkers - they deeply appreciate the complexity and diversity of ideas, but also sense the interconnectedness of everything. One of the first things that emerges from this kind of thinking is a deep humility that each one of us can only understand a small piece of the puzzle. They recognize the folly of believing that any one expert or genius has all the answers. The role of leadership in these situations is twofold, first to ensure that a diversity of speakers can participate, and then to take the consensus that emerges and communicate it effectively to others. It is really not the kind of leadership that one needs have a contest about, because it is not about seizing control of the levers of power. Accordingly, some Green Parties choose not to have leaders at all, some divide the leaders role between two or more people, and most of the rest put some firm restrictions on what leaders are supposed to do. In many cases the “leader” is best described as “principal spokesperson.”

Growing ideas from the bottom up.

Around the world, green parties have displayed a tenacious commitment to a kind of politics where policies and platforms have to undergo a “bottom up” kind of process. Typically, this means that proposals are drafted first by member volunteers – people with no special position in the organization – and then can be circulated, discussed and ratified to become “official” policy. The leadership or the executive of green parties are generally given no special status when it comes to this development process - sometimes they are purposely excluded from it. In the “traditional parties” there are similar means for proposals to be developed at the grassroots level, but these are generally not binding on the leaders – in a traditional party the leader has the authority to change their party’s stand on the issues as they see fit. This authority has contributed to the development of a political system in which the leaders or party executive tend to tightly control their party members, the elected representatives, the legislative agenda and the policies which will be implemented. Media coverage of traditional politics accordingly amplifies the role of the leader, often to the point of creating a “cult of personality” which has the appearance of monarchy or “four year dictatorships”.

“Easy to lose and hard to win”

Green parties have resisted centralizing authority over policies because it is recognized that a genuine grassroots spirit in an organization is “easy to lose and hard to win.” It is “easy to lose” because in a moment of crisis, it is always expedient to abandon a complex and often lengthy process of collaborative decision making, and give over control to a much smaller group of individuals to “make things happen”. It is “hard to win” because in order to have true grassroots decisionmaking a number of necessary conditions must all be met:

  • The group must understand what genuine grassroots democracy is and why it matters. (which doesn’t come naturally in a world dominated by hierarchical institutions)
  • They need a mutually agreed on process of decision making. (which is often painfully difficult to come by)
  • They need the organizational and administrative resources to facilitate the process. (at first, these have to be found with no money)
  • They need the self confidence assert themselves as a group and the discipline to follow through with their decisions. (those who need grassroots democracy the most are often oppressed under the exisiting political structres)

Grassroots politics is rare in modern political organizations because when you stop making it happen, it quickly disappears. Staying grassroots requires a concerted and sustained of effort on the part of volunteer/members. Many organizations have started out in a grassroots fashion, but as they age, as they grow, and as they “professionalize” the authority tends to get focused in the hands of paid leaders and staff. This happens easily and naturally because volunteers who are always pressed for time will find it convenient to just accept what the executive proposes, and gradually, as the members get “lazier,” the staff becomes more “proficient.” Soon enough, the organization gets itself into a situation where having decisions made from the bottom up is a rarity, and sometime after that the need for the executive to consult the members will be relaxed, and eventually, with a wimper rather than a bang, the spirit of grassroots democracy has flickered out.

As difficult and frustrating as it can be at times, the rewards of a grassroots process are something you can feel. Green Party meetings almost always go through the same phases, they begins with tension and confusion, a number of loose ends are tied up, and then the group, in a process of speaking and listening to each other as individuals, opinions start to meld. At the end of the day you can feel a unity of purpose, and everyone recognizes the power of working and thinking collaboratively. We also recognize that the Green Party’s political mission an goals are unique in that they are not only looking to the interests of all citizens but of all beings – we are highly aware that only by a much more rigorous, just and democratic process could all of our private and separate interests be subdued long enough to save the planet.

A brief history of the Green Party’s experiments in Grassroots democracy.

In the Green Party of Canada’s original constitution, the role of “leader” was purposely omitted, and the creation of a national organization was purposely inhibited by the prohibition of a centralized list of members. Many greens at the time were also opposed to the creation of a unified message at all, preferring instead to allow individuals and local organizations to speak for themselves. While most members expressed a desire for a coordinated movement, the reluctance to accept a centralized office or national leader, in practice, meant that the party would fail to achieve coordination of any kind, and for most of the 1980’s a kind of “green anarchism” prevailed.

“the tyrrany of structurelessness”

Critics of the highly decentralized model at this time pointed out that if the aim of a grassroots movement was to empower citizens, “green anarchism” was a total failure. Without coordination, without administrative support, without money, without the means to make use of or build expertise Green party members had far less voice in the political system than members of “traditional parties” who had at least indirect control (by means of leadership contests) over a centralized leadership. Critics also noted that while the party formally rejected all hierarchies and leadership and centralization, the activists who were the most involved in the party were all the while participating in informal hierarchies of influence, creating ad-hoc centralized “membership lists,” and crafting, among their circle of friends, the “message” of the party simply because no one else was going to do it. Green anarchism failed because it imposed all the burdens of building a party onto members with little experience, no organization, and no resources, and like any artificially imposed structure, the grassroots grew around it.

In the 1990’s members who were frustrated with the Party’s lack of success, or general lack of any organization whatsoever, began a series of pragmatic reforms to facilitate the growth of the party as a political organization, rather than continuing to exist as a rather small protest group. In 1997, after 14 years of existence, the Green Party elected its first leader, Wendy Prieznitz, and nominated a shadow cabinet to craft a national platform.

While the Green Party of Canada was prepared to elect leaders and craft national platforms, it still retained a stridently grassroots approach to creating policies – the consensus method. By this method, the moderator of a national meeting was to seek not a majority of votes to decide an issue, but sought the consent of everyone present. By everyone, we do mean everyone. Each individual person who disagreed with a proposal was given the opportunity to speak to the assembly, and only after each had been given the opportunity to speak, did the moderator resort to a vote. The method was usually slow and sometimes painfully slow, not unlike the “conference of the Ents” depicted in J.R.R Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. It did succeed at creating policies that were almost universally agreeable by the assembled members. The consensus method is still practiced by small gatherings of greens, and often used in executive committees. As a method of resolving very difficult decisions very carefully to achieve the maximum satisfaction of everyone in the group, consensus works well. As a method of creating enough polices to fill out a national platform, the consensus approach is unwieldy. As a method to make urgent decisions over a short time frame, it was, of course, totally impractical.

The right process for the right decision.

In the late 90’s and early 00’s after a number of experiments, (including a couple of meetings that broke down entirely) a new method for decision making emerged, one which was better adapted to larger groups. The Bonser method, adopted at the 2002 national convention (named after the facilitator who first used it in the Ontario Green Party) sped up the process because it started with a “first pass” through the resolutions to be decided on, and the group approved those that were highly agreeable, rejected those that were highly disagreeable or ill crafted. This left a much smaller list of resolutions on which the group was undecided, and these were sent to workshops which, as smaller groups were able to use more traditional consensus techniques to sort out the more difficult problems. At the workshops, resolutions could be amended, left as is, or withdrawn if there was no clear consensus. After workshops, a second vote would be held, and unless the resolution met the approval of a substantial majority (60% or greater) it would be rejected – in green politics is generally accepted that a bare majority is not sufficient for important decisions.
The general result of the recent reforms of the greenparty’s grassroots decision making process has been to introduce more efficiency into the process by choosing the right process for the right decision. This means, for each problem, choosing the right size of group to address issues, (how many brains do we need to stack on this problem?), the right decision making standard (do we need a high degree of consensus or will a simple majority suffice?), and the right selection criteria (who gets to decide?)

The opt in principle

Many initial citicisms about democratic reform fall into the category of "but you can't consult everybody on everything" and this self-evident under any process. Building a universal consensus (consulting everyone about everything) never has and never will be a realistic goal, not only because of the time and resources it would require but because people would strongly object that they were being asked to spend huge portions of their life “deciding things” rather than being able to “live”. From the perspective of the individual citizen, there is a short list of decisions that they feel strongly about, and a long list of decisions that either don’t impact them at all, or that they don’t feel they have an informed opinion on. They get annoyed with long meetings and long surveys, but also get furious when what they see as critical decisions are made without ever being notified about it.
The trick of doing grassroots process right then, is to create open processes where people are given:
  • The option to participate
  • The ability to stay informed,
  • The right to have their point of view shared with others,
  • A proportionate say in the outcome, which reflects their contribution.

In a grassroots democracy, decisions are made on a case by case basis by those who care to show up, (as opposed to getting everyone together to vote on everything) can be summed up as democracy by the opt-in principle. A critical corollary of the opt in principle is that if you don't participate, you lose the right to criticize. This rule needs to be firmly upheld because criticism is easy and good volunteers are hard to replace. A short way of expressing all this is to say participation rules.

The opt in principle: for any decision, given that reasonable care is taken to make it possible for all to participate, those who “opt in” shall determine the outcome.

Grassroots democracy in the 21st century

Ever since nation states came into being, there has been a desire to have a truly democratic government, one in which each citizen had a voice and a role in decision making. Historically, it has been very difficult to achieve this ideal except in very small and localized organizations. In large organizations like nation states, it has been normal to find the exact opposite of true democracy - the despotic rule of single individuals. In most large organizations, using a true grassroots democratic process is usually rejected out of hand as "unworkable" without even having to explain why it would be unworkable.

The most difficult problem to solve (the one that people didn’t even bother to explain) was that up to now, communication has been expensive. Think of this from a historical perspecive:

Before the invention of the printing press it was insanely expensive.
After the invention of the telegraph it was prohibitively expensive.
After the invention of broadcasting it was highly expensive.
After the invention of the telephone it was still expensive.
After the invention of the internet, suddenly it cost nothing at all . . .

At least, now that it costs nothing to transport the information, we are left with just the residual cost of the time we spend meeting for talking to or emailing each other (this is still very expensive.) Understanding each other takes even more time than that.

Overall we are looking at a historical development: as information, education, communication and transportation became less expensive, democracy became less expensive and people naturally thought to have more of it.

As our technology has improved, one woulf think we would be adapting our political systems to compensate, but today we are still living politically in a world that is designed before electricity was even discovered, and this is the root of no small frustration.

Imagine we are in 1867, and examine what logistics are required to get the people in St. John, New Brunswick directly involved in the development of the Articles of Confederation. One would have hand deliver a draft from Montreal to St. John, call a meeting, wait at least a month for people around the colony to hear about the meeting, read the draft and make arrangements to be there. The after the meeting, it would be necessary to send a delegate on horseback from St. John to Montreal in order to deliver opinions that, by the time they arrived, would be several weeks out of date, because other people nearby had already convinced the founders to rewrite numerous proposals. Multiply all this by several rounds of consultations, and years have gone by, circumstances and the participants have changed, probably so much that you had to start from scratch again. In otherwords a grassroots process was out of the question. Thus we recieved a system of "democratic" government where we elect an individual to parliament, put them on a horse, and hope they won’t decide anything in Ottawa we will live to regret.

The implications of the internet.

The invention of the internet, for the first time in history makes instantaneous communication and two way discussion possible and affordable from any location on the planet. The remaining problem for grassroots democracy is to find a process to collect opinions and build consensus in a way that doesn’t take forever. Building consensus doesn’t necessarily mean consulting everyone about everything: that would still require a ridiculously long been extremely expensive process. What we can do however is create an open and transparent process where people who do have things to say can quickly get involved and have their point of view shared with others. Thus we have grassroots democracy on the opt-in principle.

The living platform.

The living platform is a web site which serves as the hub of activities for the green party's platform development. Making use of software that facilitates collaborative writing, it is designed to introduce, for the first time ever, a platform development process that large numbers of citizens could opt into. By taking an open and participatory approach rather than secret strategizing, the living platform makes it possible for thousands of people to collaboratively write and edit a policy document in a relatively short span of time. In terms of its basic functions - researching, consensus building, drafting, ratifying, it does everything a parliament can do but faster and and involving more people.

While the living platform website is the "information hub" of the process, it is not the only way people can communicate in the platform project. Telephones and face-to-face meetings provide a warmth and quality of communication that cannot be replaced, not to mention that they can be used by a large number of people to whom a mouse is still something that makes you go “eeek”. Ideally we want to have groups of people in every province get together in person to discuss the proposed planks of the platform. What the web will make possible is for these groups to share their views amongst each other. Not everyone has to use the Living Platform, but one person from every group should be able to connect and "share back" posting the views of their group with people in other regions.

The Living platform is a wiki.

The heart of the living platform is a tool called a wiki. Wiki is a relatively simple piece of software that effectively creates a blackboard in cyberspace where everyone who views the page has chalk and an eraser. In a wiki, everyone is a writer and everyone is an editor, and that is what is so fundamentally democratic about it. In order to write a document together as a group someone first posts a draft and then - turn by turn amongst many people – it is written and rewritten - until the group settles down to a consensus position that most can agree on. For our purposes, policy team members will be able to cut and paste work they have prepared into the wiki, which will be immediately available for others to edit, comment on, revise and add to. Any member of the party will, at the click of a mouse, be able to see where the platform is at and give feedback, or even join the process.

The implications of wiki

The living platform will never be perfected.

The living platform is an ongoing experiment. As far as software goes, what we are using is the result of an ongoing open source project - features are being added (and bugs discovered) all the time. The human side of the process is similarly always being revised. In the name of democracy, we must always be trying to lower the cost of participation (the cost of our patience) and any feedback you have in that respect is always welcome.

General criticisms of democracy and how Greens address them.

Democracy of any kind has not been without critics, and most criticisms of democracy in general are specifically relevant to the more “pure” forms of grassroots democracy. A quick survey of our schools, our businesses and families reveals that democracy is certainly not the preferred method for every decision making problem.

Consider these three sayings:
“government by opinion poll is the surest way to wreck a country”
“a camel is a horse designed by a committees”
“we don’t need democracy, we need someone who can make the trains run on time”
“the IQ of a democracy is always 100, I would rather leave the decisions to the experts.”

Government by opinion poll will wreck any country.

Opinion polls are everywhere in politics, but they fail to show that citizens are willing to make sacrifices or reconcile contradictory wants, therefore we need strong leaders who can be responsible and make the difficult choices. Typical public opinion polls will state that voters want both lower taxes and higher services. Voters will claim to want more freedom but also more security. Referendums are just as likely to bring out the selfishness or xenophobia as they are to bring out the public spirit.

The Green Response: Opinion polls and referendums are not the best tools of democratic decisionmaking, because they suffer from the “garbage in, garbage out” problem. Greens do not advocate for direct democracy, but rather a deliberative democracy because political opinions need to be formed in the process of discussions with others in the community, not in uninformed and isolated contacts between a pollster and distracted subjects.

Politics on TV always becomes either entertainment or sports:

Democratic processes are delivered via the mass media in particular run the risk of becoming “entertainments” and participants can lose focus on the consequences of making poor decisions while getting caught up in the “personality contest”. Participants run the risk of falling into “worship” of a candidate or idea that they particularly like, or also vilifying and persecuting ideas of people they don’t like. Participants can get caught up in rhetorical contests, trading insults, or mutually admiring their philosophical powers. In any of these cases, the danger is that the decision making process will lose it’s grip on what the priorities of the group are, including the fact that important decisions need to be made in a timely manner.
The Green Response: In any grassroots democratic structure there needs to be room for peer review, peer review is what makes the scientific process work. Participants need peer to peer communications to teach and critique each others’ work. Citizenship is a skill which takes practice and needs to be taught.

Who will make the trains run on time?

The strength of consensus decision making is that it produces decisions that are the most agreeable to the largest number of participants. By nature, they will be silent rather than take a side in issues that remain highly controversial. They may also result in “feel good” statements of principle that everyone is agreeable to have said, but no-one is committed to act on. As a result it is easy to end up with decisions that lack substance or consequence. These are common in international institutions as they are in grassroots processes because in both cases there is no easy way to enforce compliance. If it is said of dictators that they can make the trains run on time, it is because they have the capability and the resolve to enforce their will. The same cannot be said of a consensus based group, where authority is dispersed and commitment can be fickle.
In democratic organizations it can be difficult to implement complex strategies, because of the need for everyone to fully understand and “buy in” to the strategy. Non democratic methods don’t rely on volunteer efforts or intrinsic motivation, thus it is feasible to instruct people to act on orders without understanding why.

The Green Response: While participatory democracy is one of our key values, so is personal and global responsibility. Thinking globally and acting locally also reflects the responsibility of individuals and communities to empower themselves to solve their own problems. If in a green world, the trains don’t run on time, it is because the commuters were more interested in other things, like enjoying walkable communities or stopping to smell the flowers.

Complex issues are best left to the experts, and all the issues are complex.

In a world where jobs are highly specialized and we often have a hard time understanding what friends and relatives do for a living, people generally recognize that there are many things in life better left to the “experts.” Wheras politics is frequently messy, heated, by turns self serving and emotional, experts have ready answers which they can explain with mystifying detail but all in a pleasantly professional and detached manner. In almost any situation, it is guaranteed that some people can be found who are more capable of being objective, and some will have more in depth knowledge, and when you can find both objectivity and knowledge together, it is much better to get all the politicians out of the room. Studies of decision making have generally shown that given a choice of having a committee solve a problem or leaving it to the most “expert” person, you are better off.

The Green response: Governance by experts is most appropriate when the experts are working side by side with the citizens who should benefit from the expertise. More two the point - there are two rules of thumb: a) it must be acknowledged that everyone is an expert at living their own life, and b) if the “experts” cannot convince ordinary citizens about the merits of the plan, then it is not a good plan.

To our knowledge, the Green Party of Canada is the first national political party to officially adopt a "living platform" which enables direct and deliberative democracy via the web. This pages offers some historic and theoretical background on the use of the web to enable grassroots democracy.