08/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bottom Up Democracy at PDA, Top-Down at DNC

I'm still at the PDA conference. It's been very refreshing to see how bottom-up the meeting has been with extraordinary efforts to include ALL the participants in attendance.

In the first session, each of the close to 50 participants was asked to introduce themselves and tell about what they hoped to get out of the meeting. I thought that was unusual, with a national organization, with so many attendees.

As the meeting went on, the same process occurred again and again, in breakout and single track sessions. Each person was asked for reports on progress locally, ideas on how to do things better, on flaws or problems with the organization. These reports were recorded and summarized then fed back to the group-- feedback and feedforward.

We got a report last night from Norman Solomon and Donna Smith, who was in Michael Moore's Sicko. They each attended the DNC's platform planning discussions in Cleveland. From their reports, it would seem that rather than discussions, they were planned, pre-written presentations-- totally top-down -- very disappointing, but not surprising.

Bottom-up is becoming a value. Failure to include bottom-up is becoming something that is identified as a liability, and associated with antipathy to democracy and even associated with failure and backwardness. Hierarchical thinking, leadership and organizational policy are on their way out and for good reason. They don't tap the wisdom of the crowds and they are based on archaic conclusions that it is not feasible to include the "we," the "many," in participating in discussions and decision making.

We live in a new world, enabled by the internet, cell-phones, instant messaging and texting that allows organizations to open up the discussion and decision-making process. Failure to tap the capabilities is diagnostic of inflexibility and being stuck in what has become obsolete top-down leadership. Don't get me wrong. Leadership is still needed, but leadership within a bottom-up model is different and very much involves facilitation and collaborative delegation which also includes bottom-up participation.

At PDA, leadership is very much about facilitating, encouraging and helping energize the bottom-up participation. Just imagine that-- seeking, supporting, and reaching out to get feedback, input-- what a concept-- empowering, energizing tapping the full power and passion of the grassroots.

Getting up this bottom-up mindset, becoming part of the bottom-up revolution is something the Democratic Party is failing at now. Howard Dean deserves credit for his 50 state plan, but I've seen too many examples where a handful of senators or Rahm Emanuel and his DCCC bullies come into states where grassroots action has identified strong local candidates, only to ignore the grassroots, and with a lot of corporate or DCCC or DSCC money shove a compliant, more right wing candidate down their throats-- a candidate, like Tammy Duckworth, who replaced Christine Cegelis-- who filled a slot that could have been filled with a more progressive legislator-- someone who is actually a real democrat, not a bluedog DINO.

PDA could do better. At the Personal Democracy Forum, which I attended a few weeks earlier, they used a digital projector to display a website which collected comments by meeting participants as the speaker presented-- all in real time. PDA was streaming the conference. So it could be possible to have a similar screen displayed at the conference, on which members of PDA from all over the country, who were unable to attend the convention in person, could post comments on the ongoing discussions. Maybe next year. Maybe at YOUR next conference. With the cost of travel skyrocketing, this kind of technology, which is really not at all difficult to do, can enable people who can't afford the time or monetary cost of travelling to still participate.

Like I said earlier, bottom-up is becoming a value, like fairness, justice, democracy, balance-- and failure to take a bottom-up approach is becoming as offensive as failure to include these latter listed values. It's just the wrong way to go. Obama's campaign has done well using some bottom-up approaches to fundraising and campaigning. As the new leader of the Democratic Party, Obama would be wise to apply bottom-up principles, and that includes transparency, to the way the Democratic Party makes decisions. The lockout of so many voices at the Party Platform discussions was offensive and suggests an archaic (as in Neanderthal) mentality that MUST go.

There's a reason the congress has such dismal ratings. The Democrats are feeling optimistic about November. But with their shameful failure to protect the vote and so many aspects of elections, they shouldn't be so smug. Electronic, paperless voting has been sold as a top-down, faster and more efficient way to count votes. But this approach sacrifices the verifiability and reliability of properly printed paper ballots. The Obama campaign promises a health insurance plan of dubious value, that is far less than the universal single payer plan that every other developed nation has. The Dems should not settle for anything less than the real deal-- universal single payer, private provider, selected by the consumer.

Then, there are those other things that the huge mass of Americans want-- ending the war, defending the constitution and democracy. Somehow, some way, the 111th congress ought to figure out how to make those wants real. That's democracy and we shouldn't be settling for anything less.