The Problem Goes Deeper Than We Think

Whatever our political views, once we get past this crisis in our politics, we may all get to the point of looking back and recognizing that the Trump administration helped to reveal, like a full-CT scan of our body politics, all the problems and weaknesses in the political life of our nation. But right now, we have no time now for such reflections since we face a more immediate and pressing task. We have to deepen our search for the causes of our crisis so that we have a chance to address them and find a way to a better politics. If you follow our national media, you know that there has already been a remarkable and thoughtful outpouring of ideas on how to understand and fix our politics. Our Op Ed columnists, academics, both conservatives and liberals, as well as our Presidential candidates have all been struggling to find the answers we need now as we head towards the election in November.

But, I don’t think we have gone deep enough yet. One reason for this may be that most of our candidates and public intellectuals, despite their sincere and searching efforts, are too deeply imbedded in our current politics. It is not easy for them to find a way out of this crisis from the inside, from Washington and from the other centers of influence in our current and vast system of governance. I think we might get a clearer picture of the problems and solutions with some distance from Washington and from the perspective of those of us who are not so much a part of the current way of doing things. So, here is a view far from Washington, a view from the neighborhood level, from a volunteer neighborhood leader in a small city in northern California.

As I look out my window and think about my close-by neighbors and those in the neighborhoods across my city, it is pretty easy to see the problem with our politics. We, too often, don’t know our neighbors. We are not really engaged and organized so we can take responsibility for our neighborhoods. Our attention is somewhere other than our neighborhood, on our jobs, our faith based communities, or even on the issues facing our governments. We are divided and mistrustful of each other and we rarely get to meet neighbors with different views than ours. Not many of us are actively engaged in politics at all, and if we are engaged, we are more likely to join with like-minded neighbors in an issue group, or a political party, or even a community-based organization that organizes around and advocates for issues. We organize around an issue to get our governments to do something for us. Many of us are mistrustful of our politics and we just watch from the sidelines until something happens that directly impacts us, like a plan for a new development in our neighborhood that seems to threaten our existing lives. Then we react and organize ourselves to stop something we don’t like and then pretty soon return to the sidelines, often feeling powerless and more distrustful of our governments and each other from our experience with engagement.

We all know this reality. We are living it every day. We all are tired of divisions and gridlock and we know that there must be a better way of doing things. But I don’t think we fully understand that this state of our local neighborhoods and our local politics is the root cause of our current national political crisis. We don’t understand that fixing our local politics will be a key, maybe even the key, to finding our way out of our crisis. And, finally, we don’t understand that our local communities will have to take the lead in the work to heal our communities if we are going to succeed. These are exactly the points missed by our national leaders who, even though they live all live in a neighborhood, for them it is just a place they occupy while they focus and work in a world distant from neighborhoods.

I know that the claim that our local communities are both the source of, and the answer to, our crisis may not make any sense to you. To convince you to consider these ideas, let me first tell you a little more about where this claim is coming from. As for me, I have been working as a volunteer in my neighborhood for the past ten years. I am a past president and current board member of my neighborhood association. My city, Santa Rosa, CA, has a population of about 160,000. My neighborhood, with about 5,000 residents, is the largest in the city. About ten years ago, I also joined a new city-wide group of volunteer community leaders who were dissatisfied with the increasingly partisan nature of our city politics and wanted to do something about it. We formed an organization, Santa Rosa Together, to work to get more citizens engaged and organized, give everyone a voice and role, and improve the way we work together in our city. Trying to achieve these goals has taken us on a remarkable journey and remarkable learning experience. We have succeeded in forming a broad and diverse group of volunteer community leaders that includes neighborhood, faith-based, minority, education and business leaders, elected officials and city and county government staff. We have been able to include everyone from conservative evangelicals to secular liberals in a common effort to build a better politics. Over the years we have gotten to know and trust each other and we have learned first-hand both the possibility and the potential of working together to meet our city’s challenges.

We have learned two main lessons from the last ten years of our work: First, we were right about our feeling that we could create a better politics. We have found that most of us living in our city are looking for a new kind of politics and we are ready to join in an effort that can bring us together and give everyone a voice and role in the city. And, second, we have learned, through the work to rebuild our politics, how deep the change will need to be to heal our city and get us all engaged and working together. We have learned just how difficult it is to try to change the current form of politics and the way of life that supports this politics. We still are convinced that it can be done because we are all looking for a better kind of politics that reflects our values, but we now realize the depth of change required and the need for us to commit to sustaining a long term effort to grow this work.

But, more later on lessons from our local work. Now, with a little background on where we are coming from, I can repeat and argue for our claim that the state of our local politics is the root cause of our current national political crisis, that repairing our local politics will be the key to finding our way out of our crisis, and, finally, that our local communities will have to take the lead in the work to heal our nation if we are going to succeed.

Understanding our claim that the divisions, mistrust, and lack of engagement in our local communities are the sources of the divisions and gridlock in our national politics is not so difficult. Because our local communities are divided, because most residents mistrustful of and not engaged in politics, and because we now have separate sources of information and “facts”, we are open to manipulation by national organizations willing to foster and maintain our divisions as the source for their power in Washington. The divisions and mistrust that are at the center of our political crisis are made possible by the divisions and mistrust that exist in our local communities. We all know this but we just haven’t focused on what we can do to actually go about changing this reality. We are still looking for better national policies on issues like health care to solve our crisis instead of dealing directly with the dysfunction of our local politics that provides the fertile ground that allow our crisis to continue.

If it is true that the mistrust and lack of engagement in our local communities are the source of our national division and gridlock, than we will have to recognize that local communities will be the key to finding a way out of our crisis because they, and maybe only they, have the ability to overcome the divisions that fuel our dangerous political culture. It is the local efforts to rebuild our ability to work together in our neighborhoods and our towns and cities that we will need to restore our ability to work together as a nation. That means that will need to turn our politics upside down and recognize that local communities will have to take the lead in the work to heal our nation if we are going to succeed.

What might that local led effort to heal our nation look like? After ten years of thinking and working on this, after learning as much as we can from other cities, after learning from history, after bringing speakers from around the nation to tell us about their experiences in the work to build a better politics, here is what we have concluded. First, we need to draw on and restore our deep heritage of democratic values, our basic belief that “all are created equal”, and rebuild a local politics to better reflects these values. Second, we have to realize that democratic citizens are not born, they develop out of the values and practices that make citizens possible. Residents become citizens by practice and learning. That means to develop democratic citizens, we need to build a local politics that prioritizes the work to engage everyone, creates the opportunities for us all to get to know and respect each other, develops sources of information that we can all trust, and provides us with the opportunity to work together to find common ground. We will need to build neighborhood and community organizations that have the power and capacity to take responsibility for their communities and partner with local government to do the work of the city. If we do this, we can make our towns and cities into “schools for democracy”, places where we learn democratic skills, where we learn how to work together and where we can see, for ourselves, the power we have to create great towns and cities. These are the kinds of communities and citizens that will not easily be divided and manipulated by national organizations. They, instead, will have the power to transform our national organizations and insist that they transform their work to support a more democratic politics.

Rebuilding local democratic communities will be nothing less than a return to our democratic heritage reflected in the deepest aspirations of our founders and in Lincoln and Douglas and countless others who have followed them, and in the democratic habits of the local communities described in the writings of Tocqueville. It is a recognition that democracy requires citizens who actively participate, know how to work together, and are organized to take responsibility for the work of their communities and the nation. It would be a rejection of our current politics where we are either not engaged, or we vote to decide who will make decisions for us, or we are organized into competing camps controlled by national organizations to advocate for our governments to take actions for us. It would be a reaffirmation of the need for all of us, as citizens, to step out of our competing and partisan organizations and take responsibility ourselves to meet with our fellow citizens and find the common ground we need to work together to meet our challenges. Democracy depends on these citizens and they will be created in the values and practices of our local communities.

We will all also need to understand the history of the “when”, “how”, and “why” of our abandonment of our democratic inheritance so that we can better understand the changes we will need to make to restore our democracy. That journey will take us to the beginning of the 20th Century when our nation was being transformed by migration, industrialization, and urbanization. These great changes created a much different context for our democratic values. We needed, then, to learn then how to create the institutions and practices that could make democracy of our small towns possible in diverse urban neighborhoods. Instead, we made the  fateful decision that the world had become too complex for democracy and we would be better off relying on science and on experts and professionals to make decisions and do things for us. Now we are seeing the results of that decision with the concentration of power in a meritocracy and in our governments and NGOs doing thing for us. In this process, we have undermined the respect for the unique and valuable contributions that all citizens can bring to our public life. We have undermined the local democratic communities that are the necessary foundation for a democracy. We went from citizens organized locally to work together and solve problems, to citizens either alienated from politics or organized into competing advocacy groups led by professionals fighting for power to control our governments. Now we are seeing the end result of this fateful turn from our democratic heritage in an openly authoritarian attack on our remaining democratic norms and institutions that is supported by an alarmingly large number of our citizens.

How could we get started on the work to rebuild the local democracies we need to find a way out of our crisis. Here is a little advice based on our own very limited attempt to try this in our city.

First, bring together community leaders from all sectors who want to create a local politics that better reflects our democratic heritage and work together to create a vision for a more democratic local politics. You will be surprised to find, as we did, that leaders for this work will come from all sectors of our community. Any one of us, whatever our backgrounds, can now see the problems that have come with our abandonment of democracy. Any one of us can see that a functioning democracy is in everyone’s interest because it will create the basis for a way of life that enriches us all.

Second, work on building strong neighborhood and community organizations that have the capacity and the organization to take responsibility for our neighborhoods and city. Make sure that they are truly inclusive, dedicated to respecting everyone’s voice and role, and committed to bringing everyone together to find common ground and working together. These kinds of democratic organizations will be the schools for our democracy. They are the best means we have for tapping into the power and wisdom of engaged citizens.

Third, work to transform your local government from seeing itself as professional managers and experts who do things for citizens into a government that understands that its primary role is to support, inform, and partner with neighborhood and community organizations to do the work of the city. Our local governments know that they do not have the resources to meet city challenges, so help them understand the role they can play to get citizens engaged and build the neighborhood and community organizations that they need to partner with to get things done.

Fourth, when you are ready, demonstrate the power and potential of democracy and organized citizens by using this new approach to tackle a key issue facing your community. In our city, we chose housing as the issue to demonstrate the potential of engaged citizens and democracy to address what looks like an overwhelming problem. Learn by doing. 

Finally, a word about the most promising and perhaps most difficult aspect of our need to rebuild our local democracies: creating effective neighborhood organizations that can serve as the foundation for our national democracy. This work will require a whole new group of volunteer citizens leaders and a whole new level of citizen engagement and effort. Neighborhood leaders will be needed to organize the face-to-face discussions that we will use to overcome divisions and find common ground. More neighborhood leaders will be needed to organize the neighborhood’s volunteer work that we will need to meet city challenges, like the planning and design of affordable housing, or building temporary housing for the homeless, or volunteering on teams to help the homeless reintegrate into the community.

Some time ago, I sent a letter to my neighborhood to talk about the volunteers we would need to create a neighborhood organization that could bring people together and start taking responsibility for our neighborhood and our city. My best guess, then, based on our Association’s experience, was that to build a great neighborhood community in our neighborhood of 5,000 residents, we would need about 40 or 50 volunteer leaders organized in teams who were willing to spend a couple hours a week –occasionally more on the days of special neighborhood events. The job of these neighborhood leaders would not be to do the work for the neighborhood, but to organize and mobilize everyone in the neighborhood to come together to get something done, like a weekend event that would bring hundreds of our neighbors together to build small home for the homeless. I said, in my message, that if we can keep finding new volunteers to take their turns as an active community leader focused on our neighborhood, our volunteers wouldn’t need to make a lifelong commitment, just a commitment for a year, maybe two years. 40 or 50 volunteers may sound like a lot, but that would actually mean that only be around 2% of the adults and teenagers who live in our neighborhood would need to volunteer to take some leadership in our neighborhood in any particular year. I said then that our ability to find the volunteer leaders we need is a question of our priorities, not our capabilities.

But the fact is that my neighborhood has yet to reach this level of volunteers. We all know why: our current lives and our current way of life leaves no time for this kind of volunteer citizen participation. Our jobs, our children, our advocacy organizations, our recreation – together they all occupy us more than full time. So, it will come down to this: are we willing to shift our priorities, cut back on our jobs and our recreation to find the time to participate in the public work of our communities as citizens and citizen leaders?

We will do this if we understand the threat to our democracy of continuing on our current path. Perhaps more importantly, we will do this if we can see this as an opportunity for us to create a very special place to live and do creative work. Just imagine for a minute if we were able to create a community where we actually got to know and respect each other and were committed to working together to maintain and improve our neighborhood.  A place where people from very different political perspectives and very different backgrounds –renters, homeowners, young, old, all races and ethnicities—all treated each other with respect, listened to each other, found common ground, and worked together. We would celebrate our differences and find ways to learn from our different experiences to create new ideas and do creative projects. Wouldn’t that make our neighborhood a great place to live? And wouldn’t that be the kind of democratic community that would be an expression of our democratic ideals and aspirations?

Creating that kind of neighborhood community with engaged neighbors who know how to work together would also give us the potential to do some great work. We, us, right there in our neighborhoods, could create the nation’s first carbon neutral community, create great affordable housing that would ensure the diversity and strength of your neighborhood for the future, create great schools, build the support network that would enable seniors to stay and prosper in their homes, provide summer employment for our young people, create community gardens, build a community center for and controlled by our youth, organize an annual 4th of July parade and picnic, build a coffee shop for parents with young children to gather –you fill in the blank.

Just as importantly, working on neighborhood projects would give us a chance to escape from our hierarchical work lives to be a part of a democratic organization where we had an equal voice in determining all aspects of the work. It would be a chance for our families to work together on projects and for our children to work with us and learn how to work together in a community. It would be a community that our children would help to create and want to spend time in. And maybe a community that our children would actually want, and could afford, to stay in.

Doesn’t all that sound like an opportunity that we should grab hold of?

Yes, you are probably thinking, all that sounds good, but it is just not really a realistic alternative in today’s busy world. How could we find the time to do all that it would take to build this kind of neighborhood community? I would just say that we need to keep reminding ourselves of the difficult and essential historical lesson: democracy requires participation and we will lose it without engaged and organized citizens. Democracy provides us with the best chance to lead engaged and creative lives and it has proven through history to be the best provider of both security and prosperity, but it does have a cost. To get the benefits of democracy requires all of us to participate in its maintenance. But, that will be no problem for us since we will soon realize that the cost, the participation, is also the opportunity we have been looking for. So, the question we should ask is: Can we find a practical plan that can get us from our current fully occupied lives back to the work to create more democratic neighborhoods, neighborhoods that can both respond to our national political crisis and begin to create the kind of community, neighborhood, and way of life we can be proud of?