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Democracy, From the Ground Up

Is it possible to have national Democracy with a Big D if you do not have real local democracy with a small d, at the level where people live, work, and raise families?

Is it possible to have national Democracy with a Big D if you do not have real local democracy with a small d

Part of the Series

This is part 7 of an exclusive Truthout series from political economist and author Gar Alperovitz. We are publishing weekly installments of the new edition of “America Beyond Capitalism,” a visionary book, first published in 2005, whose time has come. This installment comes from chapter 3 of the book. Donate to Truthout and receive a free copy.

What of the central question of democracy itself? Many have noted the trends of failing belief, the radical decline in voting, the massive role of money and corporate influence in lobbying, media, and elections- and in general, the large numbers who surveys show feel that “our national experiment in self-government is faltering.” That millions of Americans believe “people like me have almost no say in the political system” has been a wake-up call for many on the left, right, and center.

Several lines of reassessment have become increasingly important as the crisis has deepened. The first, directed to foundational “grassroots” community issues, has come into ever more sharply defined focus in recent years.

The work of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam kicked off a major debate on one aspect of the problem.

Putnam probed well beneath such surface-level issues as the fall-off in voting to focus instead on local citizen associations, networks, formal and informal clubs, neighborhood groups, unions, and the like. Large numbers of Americans, he suggested, were now both actually and metaphorically “bowling alone” rather than in association with others. Putnam suggested that a decline in associational activity, in turn, had produced a decline in trust and “social capital”—foundational requirements of democracy in general. His response was straightforward: the nation should develop as many ways as possible to encourage local involvement—the only way, he held, Americans could hope to renew the basis of democracy throughout the larger system.

Quite apart from Putnam’s studies, general analysis, and recommendations (many of which were challenged by scholars), of particular interest was the explosive reaction to his argument—and the reorientation of strategic concern it represented. The outpouring of interest his first rather academic article on the subject produced revealed that Putnam had struck a powerful nerve. “Seldom has a thesis moved so quickly from scholarly obscurity to conventional wisdom,” observed former White House aide and political scientist William Galston.

Especially important was what was not at the center of attention: Putnam and many who responded to him did not focus on national parties, national interest groups, national lobbying, national campaign finance laws, or national political phenomena in general. What he and they focused on was the “micro” level of citizen groups and citizen involvement. Here, at the very local level, was now the place to begin to look for democratic renewal.

The heart of the larger foundational argument—and this is a critical emphasis—might be put thus: Is it possible to have Democracy with a Big D in the system as a whole if you do not have real democracy with a small d at the level where people live, work, and raise families in their local communities? If the answer is no, then a necessary if not sufficient condition of rebuilding democracy in general is to get to work locally.

Putnam essentially put into modern form Tocqueville’s contention that in “democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge.” There is also clearly a close connection between Nisbet-style “intermediate association” arguments for liberty and neo-Tocquevillian associational arguments for democracy.

But Tocqueville, in fact, had gone beyond “associations” to take up the deeper question of how—and whether—democratic practice is reflected not only in civil society, but in actual local government. “Municipal institutions,” he stressed, “constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it.”

John Stuart Mill similarly held that direct experience with local governance was essential to “the peculiar training of a citizen, the practical part of the political education of a free people.” Mill pointed out that “we do not learn to read or write, to ride or swim, by being merely told how to do it, but by doing it, so it is only by practicing popular government on a limited scale, that the people will ever learn how to exercise it on a larger.”

Understood in this broader framework, Putnam’s thesis is only one of a group of arguments that focus primary attention on what goes on in local communities. Indeed, an important and expanding group of theorists have picked up on the more demanding “small d” Tocqueville-Mill argument that an authentic experience of participation in local government decision making is essential if democracy is to be meaningful. A forceful statement of the more fundamental judgment is that of political scientist Stephen Elkin, a theorist who stresses that citizens must experience the actual use of power: “Civic associations cannot do [this] job: The element of authority is missing.” Again, “for citizens to have any concern for the public interest . . . they must have the experience of grappling with its elements. For any significant number of citizens this can happen only through local political life.”

Other democratic theorists who urge reinvigorating democracy through a renewal of local governing institutions include Jane Mansbridge, Michael Sandel, and Benjamin Barber. Mansbridge argues that citizens are “most likely to come to understand their real interests in a small democracy, like a town or workplace, where members make a conscious effort to choose democratic procedures appropriate to the various issues that arise.” In his study, Democracy’s Discontent, Sandel holds that it is important to recover the meaning of the “republican tradition” in American political life—a tradition that “taught that to be free is to share in governing a political community that controls its own fate. Self-government . . . requires political communities that control their destinies, and citizens who identify sufficiently with those communities to think and act with a view to the common good.”

Barber’s treatise on Strong Democracy emphasizes the importance of different forms of knowledge to different degrees of democratic practice: “[K]nowing your rights and knowing the law are concomitants,” he suggests, “of minimalist or weak democratic politics.” Something far more powerful is needed—and this requires a very different understanding of how knowledge is acquired. “In the strong democratic perspective, knowledge and the quest for knowledge tend to follow rather than to precede political engagement: give people some significant power and they will quickly appreciate the need for knowledge, but foist knowledge on them without giving them responsibility and they will display only indifference.” It follows that “only direct political participation—activity that is explicitly public” can achieve real civic education in a democracy.

The necessity of an authentic experience of government has, of course, also been stressed over the years by numerous conservative theorists—and they, too, have consistently urged the importance of direct local involvement. Hayek speaks for many: “Nowhere has democracy ever worked well without a great measure of local self-government, providing a school of political training for the people at large . . . where responsibility can be learned and practiced in affairs with which most people are familiar, where it is the awareness of one’s neighbor rather than some theoretical knowledge of the needs of other people which guides action.”

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The basic community-oriented emphasis can also be found in a line of arguments urging decentralization of government within large cities so as to increase opportunities for genuine participation. Early in the postwar era, philosopher Hannah Arendt (drawing on a Jeffersonian idea) suggested that “ward republics” be established at the neighborhood level. “It is futile,” urban theorist Jane Jacobs similarly urges, “to expect that citizens will act with responsibility, verve and experience on big, city-wide issues when self-government has been rendered all but impossible on localized issues, which are often of the most direct importance to people.” Jacobs, too, proposed transferring a number of municipal decisions to the level of neighborhood districts.

There are also converging themes of community self-determination in the work of important black theorists: political scientist Phillip Thompson, for instance, draws on the earlier work of W. E. B. Du Bois to argue, “Mass incarceration of black male youth, extensive state ‘therapeutic’ management of poor African American communities . . . make it clear that African American communities are in need of strong independent civic institutions capable of providing their own civic voice and social order in the face of extensive external corporate and governmental control.”

The argument that nurturing democracy with a small d is necessary if big-D Democracy in the system as a whole is ever to be renewed brings into sharp relief some of the real-world conditions required to make this meaningful. A central question concerns the economic underpinnings of local democracy. It is obvious, for instance, that active citizen participation in local community efforts is all but impossible if the economic rug is regularly pulled out from under them. What, precisely, is “the community” when citizens are forced to move in and out of specific geographic localities because of volatile local economic conditions? Who has any real stake in long-term decisions?

That a substantial degree of economic stability is one of the critical preconditions of local involvement is documented in several important studies. A recent analysis of the 2000 election by the U.S. Census Bureau demonstrates that “citizens who had lived in the same home for five or more years had a voting rate of 72 percent . . . “—much higher than rates for individuals who had lived at their residences for a shorter time. Again, Sidney Verba, Kay Schlozman, and Henry Brady have shown that “years in community” is a positive predictor of both national and local-level civic involvement, with the effect nearly twice as strong for local involvement. Another detailed survey of nearly thirty thousand Americans undertaken in 2000 similarly shows that years lived in one’s community and the expectation of staying in one’s community are correlated with increased civic participation.

A related issue involves the power relationships that set the terms of reference for municipal government. Numerous scholarly studies have demonstrated that local government decision making commonly is heavily dominated by the local business community. Commonly, too, the thrust of decisions favorable to business groups radically constrains all other choices. The use of scarce resources to develop downtown areas, and especially to attract or retain major corporations, inevitably absorbs funds that might alternatively be used to help low- and moderate-income neighborhood housing, schools, and community services.

The issue is not simply one of distribution. City Limits, an aptly titled study by Harvard political scientist Paul Peterson, demonstrates that as a result of the underlying relationships, policy choices are often “limited to those few which can plausibly be shown to be conducive to the community’s economic prosperity.” Partly this is because businessowners have more money, hence usually more political influence. But quite apart from such considerations, local political leaders feel they must promote economic development, and they accordingly feel they need the help of the business community.

The “democracy with a small d” question is whether there can be any meaningful democratic decision making when allocations to achieve business priorities implicitly preempt alternative choices. If not—if most choices are radically hemmed in from the start by the need to be responsive to business—what is there to decide? And if there is little to decide, what is the meaning of democracy? And how, precisely, might the situation be altered, given the power of business interests in the system?

The conclusion—though not always brought into clear focus by theorists concerned with democracy and civil society—is inescapable: if the local foundations of democracy are to be meaningfully rebuilt, this also requires an approach to achieving greater local economic stability that does not rely so heavily on traditional business-oriented strategies. If municipalities are to be “delivered from their present economic bondage,” political scientist David Imbroscio observes, they must find ways “to promote economic vitality in their jurisdictions via the implementation of ‘alternative’ economic development strategies based on something other than capturing footloose investment.”

To the extent local economies can be made more stable, the economic environment in which local entrepreneurial businesses may flourish also obviously improves; hence, one of the foundational institutions of traditional conservative theories of liberty can also thereby be strengthened.

How to do this becomes the key question. One method is obvious: as many have noted, cities anchored by universities, state capitals, and other major public facilities commonly enjoy greater economic stability. Economist Ann Markusen also points to many community-stabilizing policies that have been used to deal with dislocations associated with the Department of Defense base closings and related experience. Many experts—for instance, city planning professor Arthur C. Nelson, and sociologists John R. Logan and Harvey L. Molotch—have proposed a range of “development-from-below” strategies. These include diverse education and training programs, and loan, tax, procurement, and other policies to encourage business retention, entrepreneurship, and neighborhood capital accumulation.

A more fundamental structural approach intersects with the asset-based strategies considered in Chapter 1. An important feature of worker-owned firms is that they not only change the ownership of wealth but also are far more anchored in local communities by virtue of the simple fact that worker-owners live in the community. “The only real way a community can regain control over its economic future is to rebuild from the ground up,” urges Michael Shuman, the author of Going Local. Over the long haul, he adds, this can only be done by supporting the development of noncorporate “community-friendly” enterprises that have many integral links to the locality.

Real community democracy, in short, requires real community economic health—and the kinds of institutions that can sustain it.

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