Emerging Issues: Can Local Democracy Save National Democracy?

July 27, 2012

Bill Barnes

Jane Addams, Winston Churchill and Al Smith are all reported to have quipped that the best remedy for the ills of democracy is more democracy. It’s a good quip, but they are all wrong. The remedy is better democracy.

The United States has earned a Homeric catalog of democratic and political ills: extreme partisanship, gridlock in the Congress, incivility (“you lie!”), physical violence, rigged re-districting, out-sized influence of money and the monied, efforts to suppress voting, and [insert here your favorite outrage].

We frequently hear complaints and weariness about “too much politics” in our public affairs. These maunderings are wrong-headed. Charles Krauthammer, a conservative columnist, joins a long line of observers going back to Aristotle by reminding us that politics “is sovereign in human affairs…. If we don’t get politics right, everything else risks extinction.”

Politics is the way we live together. We cannot do it perfectly, but we are not fated to do it as badly as we do now. Asked to describe the 1787 Constitution, Benjamin Franklin warned, “It’s a republic, if you can keep it.”

Off-balance Democratic Ideals

Although we obsess on campaigns and elections and voting, other elements also comprise what we call “democracy.”

It’s crucial, for example, that we have formal and informal spaces -- physical places, online or TV-radio, social, wherever -- that facilitate people publicly expressing and discussing their values, interests, and ideas. Democracy is “a conversation,” and good conversation requires supportive and conducive “structures and processes,” says Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the newly- appointed Executive Director of the National Institute of Civil Discourse (NICD).

Our conversation about politics, argues E.J. Dionne in “Our Divided Political Heart," has gone substantively and substantially awry. It is lacking the “balance” and tension between “two core values” that have defined American history -- “our love of individualism and our reverence for community.” Each individual and each political community embraces both values, and works out its own sense of how the two values relate.

Dionne thinks there is a dangerous effort to reduce American history and government to an expression of individual liberty to the exclusion of community. He doesn’t suggest that we just revert to the balance achieved in the twentieth century’s “Long Consensus” based on Populism, Progressivism, and the New Deal. Instead, there is an urgent need to develop a new balancing formulation that will enable American politics again to be a deliberative effort to address our problems.

Dionne is a self-described liberal. Thirty years ago, William Schambra made a similar argument, using different terminology, in the neo-conservative journal, “The Public Interest.” The New Deal “public philosophy” was “dead or dying” in 1982, he wrote. Any replacement, he warned, must embrace “the two American political traditions, for they both express immutable yearnings in the American soul.”

Balance changes over time and so does tone. New scholarly studies, published in a journal of the American Political Science Association remind us that gross incivility is not always with us; it follows patterns over time. There are long periods of “relative calm punctuated by historical spasms of incivility that roughly correspond to partisan realignments” (that is, when enduring party majorities shift or significantly re-arrange). Lukensmeyer’s NICD was created at the University of Arizona following the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 to add a new voice to those who promote and support respectful and constructive public discourse, the sooner the better.

Pragmatic Democracy

The thousands of American governments and the communities that comprise them each do democracy differently. In general, locals are more firmly grounded in problem-solving that involves engaged conversation among the people actually affected. Federal and state governments -- both of which tend more toward abstraction and ideology -- have some things to learn from their local brethren.

Norman Ornstein, political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, searched for a “ray of hope” amidst the gloom of Federal gridlock, and declared that that “we need role models at the state and local levels.” He called for a “revolution from the bottom up” that could re-shape governance.

Now, political scientist Benjamin Barber is exploring what it would be like “If Mayors Ruled the World” (the title of his book scheduled for publication in 2013). In a recent interview at TheAtlanticCities.com, he says that national and international problem-solving is thwarted because “political sovereignty has passed to the economic sector," but that much could be accomplished by a “bottom up approach to cities collaborating globally.” The basis for such collaboration is a shared practicality: cities have common challenges, functions, and purposes.

A more civil discourse, a better sense of historical balance in people’s ideas about public affairs, and an invigorated pragmatism in governments: these are political goals. You might say that accomplishing them will be very tough and will require hard-nosed, aggressive political action. You would be correct.

But, hey --- as the wise political pundit, Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley, used to say: “politics ain’t beanbag.”

Bill Barnes, the director for emerging issues at NLC, can be reached at barnes@nlc.org. Previous columns are collected on the Emerging Issues webpage at www.nlc.org.