Grassroots democracy refers to political processes which are driven by groups of ordinary citizens, as opposed to larger organisations or wealthy individuals with concentrated vested interests in particular policies.
Grassroots democracy is a guiding principle of green parties worldwide (it was one of the Four Pillars of the Green Party first formulated in Europe which eventually spread to the worldwide 'big G' Green parties). It replaced the term consensus democracy in those parties largely to avoid perceived 'left bias'.
The phrase grassroots democracy is more neutral on the left-right axis, and is also frequently cited as a goal of conservative parties or movements, e.g. the U.S. Reform Party of H. Ross Perot, and the Canadian Alliance (formerly the Reform Party of Canada). Reforms such as term limits, representative recall, the power of binding referendum and more frequent plebescites are the most commonly stated goals of such parties. Political conservatives often seek semi-direct democracy or even direct democracy, which does not imply the more deliberative or mediated/moderated forms favored by 'the left', nor the bioregional democracy favored by green parties.
In theory, it is hard to differentiate what is meant by 'grassroots' from the more specific models of direct democracy, semi-direct democracy, mediated direct democracy, deliberative democracy, bioregional democracy, each of which moderates power in its own way.
In daily political practice the term usually refers to frequent town meetings, consensus policy development, consensus decision making, and electoral reform, all of which is intended to make politicians more responsible to their constituents, at least, and (in the more literal Green conception of the idea) to living things and local habitats in general.
Historically, the term 'grassroots democracy' originated in the US New England states, to describe respect for town meetings and local consensus decisions.
It is used in a very broad sense to apply to union or community organizing, but in this sense it tends to simply mean attention to stated needs of those in the interest group, which is not necessarily co-extensive with the whole community.
An early example of this type of top-to-bottom power conflict was that in Sunni Islam during the late middle ages, when the original democratic concept of a community (or 'umma') coming to a consensus (or 'ijma') with each member of that community applying their own independent thought (or ijtihad), was subverted by a community of legal scholars (or ulema) who introduced the idea of a legal precedent, and froze the civil law (or sharia), including rules of evidence and sentencing. In their own words, they 'shut the door of ijtihad' and asserted top-down control of the consensus of the community.
Such conflicts are probably basic to human organization, and therefore the struggle to introduce a genuinely 'grassroots democracy' is probably one of man's great eternal tasks.
Critics of the idea of grassroots democracy argue that it is easy to manipulate public opinion through public relations and media campaigns and that attempting to produce grassroots democracy does not diffuse power but rather moves it into public relations companies and media organizations. They point to California's experience with referenda as an example of the weaknesses of direct democracy in particular, which to some degree reflect on all means of moving power away from experts and towards less-informed citizens/voters.
One related term is astroturfing (a play on words from "fake grassroots"), which refers to a campaign that presents itself as a grassroots campaign, but is in fact co-ordinated and sponsored by a well-funded organization.