The first is Slow Democracy, by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout. The second is Interaction Ritual Chains by Randall Collins. Slow Democracy is practical and specific in its focus, whereas IRC is academic and general.
Slow Democracy is an exploration and explanation of direct democracy. The most common example is the tradition of New England town meeting. By this I (and the authors) mean a real town meeting, with a printed warning mailed out to all residents, an agenda, Roberts Rules, real decisions made about planning and finances, and a supper afterwards. I (and they) definitely do not mean a staged media event where a hapless politician gets screamed at by a stacked crowd of mutual strangers with nothing invested in the process. Clark and Teachout are clear on this point: people at a real town meeting aren’t yelling at the government; they are the government.
Update and clarification: I should note that what the authors are discussing is direct deliberative democracy. Voting on a ballot initiative is direct democracy, but it lacks the vital components of discussion, education, and negotiation. Voting yes or no on Ballot Measure #12 lacks the nuance of deliberative democracy. It's like a car with its steering wheel replaced by a left/right switch.
More generally, Slow Democracy concerns itself with any political process that involves ordinary citizens in face-to-face meetings, exchanging information, deliberating, and coming to decisions about the policies that affect their lives. It’s a vital subject these days with the word “democracy”, as the authors point out, diluted to the point of meaninglessness. Part of their thesis is that there is wisdom available out there in the population if we create the structures to extract it, encourage it, and organize it. Part of their thesis is that aside from better political outcomes, participatory politics has a cascade of secondary outcomes that benefit a community.
Some of the academic language in Slow Democracy dragged a bit, but it truly shined in describing the successes and failures of real-world political processes all over the U.S. It follows the residents of a small town in Appalachia as they get conned with a public input process that is only window dressing. This makes one of Clark and Teachout’s main points: true democracy is not about giving advice from the back seat, it’s about driving. There is a tendency for conventional government entities to use public input as a political tranquilizer, something the true small-d democrat must watch for. The happy ending is that the townspeople persevere and get what they want. The authors follow the story of Portsmouth New Hampshire as it struggles with school consolidation. Different sections of the community start with mutual animosity and staked out positions. Through an inclusive and carefully planned process the opposing groups get to know each other and do some creative problem solving. It takes time, but the outcome has wide support. Portsmouth also sets itself up for the same sort of resolution of future conflicts.
The authors emphasize that real democracy is not a casual or accidental process. Organizers can’t just rely on a self-selected group for input. The beginning of a process is searching out and inviting a diverse group of citizens. It’s not about throwing people in a room and seeing what happens. That’s reality TV, not democratic process. Democracy needs an agenda, rules of discourse, and specified goals.
Slow Democracy is not a step by step manual, but a comprehensive overview of the principles and fundamental strategies of direct democracy. It gives the reader justifications, techniques, and real examples of real democracy. I’d call it a must-read for anyone interested in getting a better grip on local politics.
Warning: Interaction Ritual Chains is dense. PhD dense. Eye-crossingly dense at times. It was not written as popular non-fiction. The intended audience is other people with advanced degrees. You might want to prep by reading the works of Durkheim, Weber, and Goffman, all extensively referenced.
Thus warned, I must tell you that the book is fascinating. It is so jam-packed with ideas that it is virtually impossible to summarize with any justice, but I’ll offer the basics.
Randall Collins studies microsociology, the billions of person to person interactions that add up to what we call society. His theory involves interaction rituals (IR), which can be anything from the little moves we do to avoid bumping into each other on the street all the way up to formal religious ceremonies. The “chains” in the title refers to the fact that each ritual we experience leads into and influences the next. The mass of rituals we have experienced in our lives defines our possible responses to the next IR in line. Collins flips our general view of rules/morals and actions on its head. By his account, interaction rituals are the foundation of our values, and not the other way around.
Collins grades IRs by their level of mutual focus, physical and emotional intensity, and physical entrainment. By the latter, he means the actual physical coordination of our movements. Researchers have reviewed video recordings of people conversing and interacting with the tapes slowed to a crawl. What emerges is that we engage in a subtle dance that we don’t consciously register. A subtle movement by one member of a group is mimicked by another, and the movement ripples through the group.
A successful IR raises the emotional energy of the participants. It’s really all about dopamine in the pleasure centers of the brain, and our mirror neurons. We have parts of our brains that fire up when we watch someone else doing something as if we were actually performing that action ourselves. People involved in a successful IR feel a greater sense of belonging, optimism, power, and satisfaction. This can be a subtle lift in mood or something like life changing ecstasy. An unsuccessful IR (and there are many) leaves participants feeling more distressed, alienated, and drained of energy.
We take several things away from an IR:
An attraction or aversion to that particular type of interaction.
A gain or loss of emotional energy.
A symbol or set of symbols that we can later use to recreate what we experienced in the IR.
The symbol could be a word or phrase, an image, a piece of music, a gesture, or a physical object. Imagine the fan of a particular band coming home from a concert and listening to the same music while looking at pictures of that band. It is a faint facsimile of the experience of being in the swaying, roaring crowd, enveloped in high decibel sound.
Symbols are not evergreen. People need to engage in IRs to recharge symbols with their original vitality. Symbols often gain a meaning and importance equal to or greater than their origins. Thus we gain sacred objects. People value them intensely for their ability to recreate positive IR experiences.
Collins illustrates this in a roundabout way by discussing breaching experiments. Some researchers explored the breaching of ordinary and innocuous social standards and observed people’s reactions. One was called the “unexplainable do-gooder.” A person in formal business clothing was set to the task of cleaning up a section of a street. Inevitably a local resident would question the cleaner. Did he live there? No. Was he being paid to clean? No. Was he being forced to clean because of community service, or losing a bet? No. The street was dirty. People would get agitated, confused, even angry because they couldn’t find a socially normative explanation for the man in the business suit cleaning the street. He’s not doing anything truly wrong, but he’s doing something emotionally wrong by stepping outside the boundaries of an assumed social pattern.
It’s not in this book, but it reminds me of an experiment referenced in Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. Researchers asked people to make moral judgments on hypotheticals, one of them being a woman who buys an American flag and secretly cleans her bathroom with it. The act is legal, it affects nobody and offends nobody, but people still reacted strongly to the concept. The hypothetical cleaning woman was manipulating a powerful emotional symbol in a way that struck at people’s arbitrary valuation of the object.
Collins writes about types of IRs, such as power IRs and status IRs. A power IR is one where one person demonstrates their social power over another. It is a one sided interaction, with the dominant participant walking away with the emotional energy and the other diminished. The other common type is a status ritual, where people demonstrate their belonging to a group. This is also rarely egalitarian, with some people ending up closer to the center of the group and others more towards the fringe, with the relative benefits one would expect. Nevertheless, it is this sort of IR towards which people gravitate. In a species that has made its fortune by being gregarious, belonging is a big deal. THE big deal. An individual’s relative status within a group is also a big deal, and we engage in subtle testing and observation of this ranking in every interaction.
As I wrote above, there is too much in this book to do it justice without actually rewriting it. I’ll give a few more highlights, though.
The more formal a ritual, the more it establishes categories of membership. Think of attending a Catholic mass and taking communion. It’s binary – you are either in or out.
The less formal a ritual, the more it establishes personal reputation. American society is ostensibly egalitarian. We have mostly given up on the formal class based social rituals of the past, and deference is unfashionable. Contrast today to the 1890s, when thousands of people turned out to watch the 400 richest people in New York City attend a grand party. Today our status elite are media celebrities. Minus the aura of deference they become human totems. People strive to get near them, touch them, or take away something significant from them. Note the periodic auctions of a celebrity’s personal items. People are trying to take away a symbolic fragment of the emotional energy accumulated by an IR lightning rod. Movie stars and rock stars have huge resources of social status from continually being at the epicenter of huge IR status rituals.
Collins has an interesting sidebar on tobacco rituals. They used to be status defining rituals. Taking snuff was a refined ritual of the upper classes – until it became more commonly available, at which time it became unacceptable for upper class women. Pipe smoking was originally a convivial activity among men in public places. This slowly evolved until in the mid 20th century it was a solitary occupation for upper-middle class men. Chewing tobacco was exclusively male and exclusively working class, as it remains today. Cigar smoking was a male upper class phenomenon in the 19th and early 20th century, and a defined after dinner ritual. As cigars became cheaper it lost its cachet. Likewise, cigarettes were indicative of the upper class party animal through the first half of the 20th century. People displayed stylish cigarette cases and elegant women gestured with cigarette holders. The movies of the 1930s epitomize this. As with many other things, mass production cheapened the ritual, and by the 1960s all forms of tobacco use had lost their high-status origins. Collins makes the point that anti-smoking campaigns would have failed before this time, not so much because of industry push back, but because tobacco still had a politically powerful constituency using it as a sign of class status.
There is much more here, but I’ll leave it at that. I find the book validating in that it reminds me of an essay I wrote recently, before I ever read it: The Real World It’s about what people call social capital, the sum total of all the little, seemingly pointless face-to-face interactions we have every day. It’s the glue that holds us together.