Participatory Democracy in the Era of COVID-19

May 20, 2020 | By Hollie Russon Gilman

The U.S. response to COVID-19 has demonstrated the fault lines of democracy. COVID-19, like all crises, disproportionately affects communities long marginalized in America, and is a reminder that our democracy’s political inequalities stem from and exacerbate other societal inequalities. In Milwaukee for example, ProPublica reports that Black Americans make up over 80% of fatalities from COVID-19, despite accounting for a quarter of the county population.

COVID-19 strips bare the structural conditions that showcase our country’s democratic, political, and economic inequalities. In my recently co-authored book Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Crisis, with Sabeel Rahman, President of Demos, we argue that we need to genuinely empower people in order to rebuild our democracy. We need to build a more participatory governance centered on people, especially women and communities of color, which have been structurally excluded from having a political voice. This is the moment for building the democracy of the future.

On May 11, 2020, Hollie Russon Gilman hosted a webinar on her most recent book, “Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Crisis.” Watch and learn more of her insights.

Too often civic engagement is merely a public relations campaign or people are not meaningfully engaged in decision making. This kind of lip-service civic engagement runs the risk of further alienating communities and increasing the two-way trust deficit in the United States. Public officials are worried about engaging the public for fear of criticism or rebuke, and community members, especially those in vulnerable communities, are rightly mistrustful of the government’s intentions. On the local level, there is often an opportunity for deepening engagement and there are lower levels of mistrust.

What does rebuilding civic power look like in this moment of crisis?

First, it requires building multi-racial, multi-ethnic models of organizing which empower new leadership. Take, a platform for organizing non-union workers. has seen dramatic increases in workers using the platform to organize, demanding basic health and safety protections from their employers. This has included Instacart and grocery workers who deliver food, often without PPE and putting their health and safety at risk. Across the country, we are seeing organizations tap into the power of grassroots communities to empower workers, build new models for engagement, and pushing for policy reform.

Building new organizing models requires reducing the barriers to entry so that new voices can be empowered. It requires investing in a new-generation of leadership and ensuring we create robust fellowship, training, and mentorship opportunities to ensure more diverse leadership to build and organize civic power.

Second, building civic power requires empowering community residents with their government in new ways. We are already seeing communities work together in new ways during this crisis, Several cities are experimenting with new forms of public engagement reducing the barriers to entry and enabling online engagement. From Miami, Florida to Brentwood, Tennessee, public officials are leveraging digital technology to enable more direct communication and participation between residents and their public officials.

Communities are also self-organizing to find innovative solutions to reinvigorate civic life. Madison, Wisconsin’s clerk is partnering with the Madison Public Library to temporarily convert book drops into absentee ballot dropboxes. Libraries are already closed, so the book drops are being exclusively used for ballots. This is a creative way to use existing resources.

Ultimately, we need to build models of governance which provide a two-way mechanism for residents to be involved in their day-to-day of their democracy. Democratic participation should not be confined to every 2 or 4 years of voting. But rather we need to tap into the expertise of on-the-ground communities to re-design and innovative on policy.

This is a process which will not occur quickly, but rather it requires investing in the more durable, lasting infrastructure of democracy to build the institutional structures which support, retain, and train talent.

Hollie Russon Gilman, Beeck Center Fellow, is a political scientist and a Fellow at New America and teaches at Columbia University. 

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash