01/02/2008 06:57 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Countdown to the Iowa Caucuses VI -- Lessons in Democracy

A collective sigh of relief will probably be heard nationwide after tomorrow's Caucus, when Iowa again recedes into the anonymity that is its normal fate. Yet beyond the constant stream of TV ads, media brouhaha, and general campaign craze, the caucuses offer something else: a unique demonstration of the type of civic involvement that we so desperately need as a nation -- and as a democracy. In a year when people are being brought closer to democracy than ever before, there is much we can -- and must -- learn from the caucus process, and from the lesser-known leaders who are actively engaging citizens to spark vibrant pockets of democracy across the U.S.

A few months back, I visited Michigan to talk about bringing The White House Project into that state. A local councilwoman, now running for the state legislature, was eager to speak to me and to offer her help. Not expecting much, I admit, I sat down to listen.

Some people "get" the basic things it takes to engage people in a democracy, and she was one of them. She told me about the simple but effective strategies she utilized to govern -- some as easy as encouraging people to bring food to Council meetings, as there was no surer way to get people there and keep them coming. She took on old issues in new ways, refusing to be discouraged by the usual "we've tried that before" refrain -- including a way to preserve the last remaining public waterfront her town was about to lose on beautiful Lake Michigan. By the time she finished, I was in awe of the simple and persistent ways she had transformed the effectiveness and engagement of her Council and her town. She knew that building a strong local democracy meant making people comfortable with politics. And that comfort would arise by demystifying people about the process, giving them meaningful ways to contribute, and nurturing an environment whereby their input meant as much as their vote.

So much of this is now going on in Iowa. Campaigns are making house calls to teach potential participants "how to caucus" if they are confused about the meetings. Iowans are being recruited left and right to volunteer their time, energies, and talents to the democratic process. Generally, Iowans are being treated like a people whose voices and votes are not only being listened to -- but who's input and involvement is essential.

All this feeding, educating, and encouraging is what needs to happen all over America to re-engage people in our democracy and its institutions. We now have frontrunners who bring gender, race, and class to the table on the Democratic side, and a leading Republican candidate -- whether he's to your liking or not -- who has shown you can still get there without a bucket of money. It's an exciting time in our country's history, and hopefully a sign of things to come.