voice for democracy

Guest Columnist Ryan O'Donnell: What matters in local democracy – GazetteNET

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Today, many of our country’s most urgent national debates, on topics ranging from public safety to climate change, are also taking place at the local level. In some ways, our cities and towns are arguably where those conversations matter most, and where the resulting policy choices are felt most strongly.
Community issues, however, are more than national issues zapped with a shrink ray. Beyond the difference in scale, local issues work in fundamentally different ways than their national counterparts, and they possess some fascinating characteristics all their own.
Here are a few of them.
First, local issues are intimate. Even in this age of social isolation (due not just to the threat of the coronavirus but the glow of our phones) we expect to see our neighbors at the grocery store. Opinions tend to bump into each other in a small town. In contrast to the political chatter we may hear echoing from a distant capital, community discussion happens where we live.
These close-range conversations can be wonderful when they foster feelings of common purpose. But when vigorous discussion is called for, disagreement can become uncomfortable, debates can turn ugly, and expressing an unpopular idea can even feel risky. When things get personal, “what do you believe?” can easily deteriorate into “what side are you on?”
Local issues demand self-criticism. Unlike in Washington, where partisanship has reached poisonous proportions, we generally find fewer well-defined ideological factions at the local level. Without an “other” to blame, our problems are no one’s but our own. When we examine what may have gone wrong in a given situation, we have to look at ourselves.
Self-criticism, you may have noticed, is hard. Finding fault in one’s community is tricky, too. Too often, criticism can be misinterpreted as undue pessimism, or unwelcome hostility toward the community, when in fact criticizing something is often evidence that we care about it. As in our personal lives, failing to make honest assessments of our actions in the public sphere can prevent us from moving forward.
Finally, local issues skew utilitarian. Day to day, most people are concerned primarily, as they probably should be, with basic outcomes: good services, good schools, paved roads and water that comes out of the tap when they turn it on. With this focus, debates about process usually take a back seat. Building enthusiasm for reform can be difficult and frustrating.
Despite the challenges, we should be glad that local democracy diverges from national patterns as it does, because here in our cities and towns, we may occasionally find the means to make progress in ways not possible elsewhere.
So what matters most in local democracy? What makes it work best? The answers may have less to do with the rules, committees and charters we adopt, or even the specific people we elect, than the democratic values of the community itself.
John Dewey, the New England-born philosopher, described democracy as not just a form of government but a “way of life controlled by a working faith in the possibilities of human nature.” To him, democracy extended beyond the political machinery of our formal institutions to our own attitudes and habits, a force acting across our whole society.
That insight certainly resonates at the local level, where individual values have a powerful effect on community affairs. Municipal governments and other institutions tend to align their choices and conventions with the expectations they sense in people. The more we embrace a democratic spirit in our own thinking, the more democratic values will find their way into public decision-making.
These values include a love of open debate, a fundamental belief in equality and self-determination for all people, and the encouragement of free inquiry. Ideals like these require constant care and effort, but perhaps more than any other political factor, they determine the course and speed of local change.
While all this might sound a little abstract, the rewards of cultivating democracy as a way of life are really very practical.
When we welcome dissent and listen earnestly to each other without marginalizing anyone, we are more likely to solve problems. Even if we never change our minds, hearing an opposing view challenges us to strengthen our own arguments and clarify our proposals.
When we can admit fault and hold ourselves accountable, we get the chance to improve our methods and more fully understand the issues we’re dealing with. Putting pride aside also allows for the admission of new and better ideas from other people.
When we consider process as well as outcome, we may come across new tools to strengthen both. After all, an inclusive and open political process is itself an outcome we should desire.
These ideals are ones we will likely never live up to, at least not all the time. We should keep them in mind anyway. Trying as best we can to incorporate democratic values into our lives as well as our institutions can only help us, especially as we navigate the unique challenges of local democracy.
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