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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Unlovely Localities

I want to put down some thoughts that have been bumping around in my head lately. As usual, there are a variety of things which prompted them: this short post by Peter Levine, which touches on the importance of feelings of attachment or even "love" for where one lives as a precondition of civic engagement; this thoughtful piece in Prospect (via Political Theory Daily Review) by Gerry Stoker, on the need to deal with some of the less admirable aspects of mass democracy; and the study "The Local Roots of American Inequality," by Stephen Macedo and Chris Karpowitz (an old friend on mine), published in the latest issue of PS: Political Science and Politics. Macedo and Karpowitz synthesize a fair amount of data in order to persuasively advance their thesis that, as "political boundaries help shape citizens' interests and identities pre-ideologically: they demarcate communities of shared interests," any serious attempt to address inequality in America needs to begin with the one of the unfortunate consequences of our often intensely decentralized politics: the way in which the "crazy quilt" boundaries that shape jurisdictions in various localities across the country are as likely to discourage participation as enable it, and as likely to seal off citizens into distinct political and socio-economic subspaces (ghettos vs. "boutique suburbs") as draw them into common acts of self-government. None of these arguments on their own are earth-shattering; in some ways, the question of boundaries and attachments, of where and how legitimate and (we hope, at least) egalitarian civic action can take place, is one of the oldest questions in political theory. But when you think about community and populism as much as I do, it's hard to ever shake off any of these old questions entirely.

The bare empirical facts are incontrovertible: people participate in politics a lot less than they used to, and considering that concerted political action is the only way the needs and concerns of those outside the dominant social classes can ever manage to impact upon public affairs and the decisions of governing elites (much less ever manage to re-order who that governing elite is!), this is bad news for both economic and civic equality. The standard populist response has always been to, one way or another, seek to empower localities: bring governing power, and the subsequent creation of elites capable acting on behalf of a given public's interest, down to the local level. This usually requires, of course, something much more than institutional reform: if we don't have a cultural and socio-economic structure which supports and makes possible the kind of independence and education necessary for real political participation, then no amount of institutional reform is going to help--though it also goes without saying that institutional reform can play a role in cultural transformation or maintenance as well. But let's just stick with local governing institutions and jurisdictions themselves for the moment anyway. Even granting the populist argument, which I am inclined to do, it isn't clear what simply localizing politics accomplishes. Levine comments that one of the causes of the decline in civic engagement is "the rise of professional management"; well, as anyone could tell you, it's not as though local governments are free of professional turf-guarding. But perhaps the professionalization and complication of what in theory are localized and decentralized open political spaces is an effect, not a cause, of the decline of participation; perhaps the decline actually begins with the way many of citizens of modern Western democracies have themselves changed. Stoker puts it this way:

Politics has been infected by one of the dominant myths of our time: that the goal of life is self-actualisation. Politics as an exercise in collective decision-making has been unable to withstand the assault of a naive individualism. The idea that it is only through individual choice that we can express ourselves has reinforced a negative view of politics compared with other forms of decision-making that we experience....Making decisions through markets relies on individuals choosing what suits them. The genius of the market is in part that rationing is internalised--you calculate knowing what you can afford--but in the case of politics, rationing is externally imposed. You get what the system gives you. And democracy means that you can be involved in a decision that goes against you and still be forced to follow it. As a form of collective decision-making, politics, even in a democracy, is highly centralised compared to markets....

Centralised decision-making is a core part of our societies and politics is the mechanism for deciding what those decisions should be. We accept the prospect of coercion in order to live our lives more efficiently and in a way that meets our needs and interests....A propensity to disappoint is an inherent feature of governance, even in democratic societies--where power changes hands peacefully and citizens are protected by the law. But the disappointment has been getting worse in recent years for several reasons. First, politics seems more centralised, slow-moving and unsatisfactory when the economy and society around it are becoming more individualised and market-based. A generation ago many more people worked in big, collectivist organisations, even if they were in the private sector, and so had more of a sense of the necessary compromises and negotiations of political life. Second, compared with one or two generations ago Britain [and certainly American too] is less hierarchical and deferential, and the idea of equal, democratic citizenship is taken far more seriously. That has raised expectations. People believe more than ever that they are entitled to have their voice heard, yet for many reasons--among them the decline of class identities and greater affluence--fewer are prepared to make the effort required to play a meaningful part in the increasingly technocratic arguments of formal politics. People expect a veto right over a game that they no longer play.

In short, the overwhelming success--depending on how you define the term--of modern market economies has had the result of many citizens adapting themselves to habits of gratification, self-actualization, immediacy, individuation, and internalized (that is, nonpublic) rationalization. Decisionmaking has been reduced in the lives of too many of us to a perpetually self-generated and always self-revisable internal calculus: what do I want, and what do I want now? I am not saying the disciplines and expectations associated with free markets are flawed; I am saying, however, that market-appropriate behaviors are not appropriate to self-government. A relatively successful market economy, combined with a superficial sense of equality bequeathed to us through a naive understanding of one's "rights," results in a general indifference towards others so long as one's own rights and property are acknowledged; hence, the more the dominant segments of society are socially and economically homogenized (enjoying at least superficially an easily replicable level of prosperity across society), the easier it is for those citizens in that class to retreat within themselves and assume everyone else will do likewise. Our sensitivity to truly public matters decline, and our political muscles atrophy. Of course, the enormous leaps in personalized technology, which have allowed us to connect ourselves to networks of art and information that involve no collective determination or distribution, as well as the abandonment of truly involving civic requirements (like a draft), only reifies this process further.

If one thinks about the history of democratic politics broadly, one can see the roots of this process as far back as the Progressive era in the early 20th century. People moved to the cities, after all, because the economy was changing, and there was work and opportunities in metropolitan areas that lured millions at the beginning of the 20th century off their farms and over the oceans. At a certain point, the civic corruptions which came along with these human concentrations were too much; reformers moved in professionalize American politics, clean it up and demand greater "democratic" accountability from it. Their relative success, however, can be taken as proof of this process: self-government becomes harder the more one's life broadens, flattens out, and speeds up; the busier and more productive one becomes, across a larger and more homogenized socio-economic space, the more one naturally desires to divide one's life up between the pace of the market and that which you want to keep sheltered and private. So why not let professionals take charge of the town meetings? Either your individual economic strategies are failing, and you're being crushed beneath the wheel, or they're succeeding, in which case they're buying you personal pleasures the provide some refuge and relaxation. Who needs the headache of making political decisions regarding the sewer system when all that is the case?

Of course, all of this is relative; by almost any comparison, civic life in America and Britain was still a lot stronger at the height of early 20th-century reforms and centralization than it is today. Using Stoker's reasoning, however, that just tells us that a serious rethinking of local democratic politics is long overdue. He writes that democracy "need[s] to adapt to the new conditions and the new citizen, both more demanding and more apathetic....the era of mass participation politics is past." To me, that's a tragic conclusion--but I also have to admit that, while I can talk all I want about the farm, the lure the (once urbanized, now globalized) city and the modern marketplace is too strong: we live in a Blackberry world, and must seek whatever level of equality and democracy we can in a situation where almost every locality of size seems to want to assess itself in light of cosmopolitan possibilities. This is where Macedo and Karpowitz come in.

Macedo and Karpowitz don't bring much cultural criticism or political theory into their analysis of the situation, which is unfortunate; I think their piece would have been improved by an explicit (if necessarily brief) discussion of globalization and capitalism, and how the expectations associated with such simply entrench the "consumerist" model of metropolitan governance which they rightly criticize. But their argument, or at least the conclusions I draw from it, is strong regardless--one of the unfortunate results of the probably inevitable professionalization of politics in American cities is that it has perversely infected our commitment to keeping local government decentralized and "popular," with the result that there develops in short order in any metropolitan area a proliferation of governing bodies that respond primarily to a very small, very select elite, with no, as they put it, "cross-class communication and intercourse" between them. (Some of the facts they present are quite arresting: that a metropolitan area like St. Louis includes nearly 800 units of local government, and that it is not unusual for elections affecting the more specialized of these units across the country to have a turnout of around 5% of the relevant electorate, if that.) The privatized model of the modern democratic citizen encourages this balkanization, since many of us possess what is in affect a "secessionist" mentality when it comes to our localities--if some local jurisdiction bothers us, we use our disposable wealth to go build another one, an enclave (or an enclave within an enclave) that will separate us from portions of the population who threaten our home values or school systems or other public (but in fact for all intents and purposes now privatized) concerns. The result is that, too often, local institutions, far from raising one's political conscious, in fact lower it; they "widen differences and place the unpleasant realities of class [and social] disparity at a distance, while also insulating us from their impact."

What to do about this problem today, understanding it as a problem that was echoed in the late 19th century by the Populists and in the late 18th by the Anti-Federalists, and which is really one of the perennial struggles of modern politics? Probably one must begin by recognizing, as I am loathe to do, that there is only so much you can do by way of encouraging civic engagement and education outside of deep socio-economic reforms. Of course one can and should always encourage love and attachment; those virtues remain worth aspiring to. But I can't help but look at my own present home, the small university town of Macomb, IL. It's a fine place, a stable farming town with a good regional university. But I've been warned (and my experience over the Christmas holiday confirms this) that come summertime, close to half the population will flee; pretty much everyone associated with the university who can leave for the summer does--because, after all, what does a west-central Illinois farming town have to offer a university-educated cosmopolitan? The result is that a lot of civic development which could happen here doesn't, because social and economic resources--i.e., the people--aren't sufficiently rooted to this particular place. Sure, this is hardly a unique situation; it's just the flip side of all those vacation towns along the Atlantic coast or the Great Lakes--it's not a crisis, just the way things are. Which is my point: this is the way we live, the way modern, mostly financially secure democratic citizens want to live--when what we can achieve elsewhere, or just in the privacy of our homes, is no different or maybe even "better" in terms of material satisfaction than what we can achieve in concert with others, "exit" cannot help but appear ever so much easier and attractive to most of us than "voice." And if this is the state even small rural towns are in, one probably shouldn't expect anything different in larger localities. There's only so much that can be done, especially in the short term, to make people love their places more; so the only path left for civic-minded folk is to try to make our places a bit more lovely, or at least more lovable.

This leads me to pay special attention to the recommendations make by Macedo and Karpowitz which deal primarily with how municipalities are structured, and their willingness to suggest that "local political structures and the ideal of local control (or 'home rule')" can be abused. Vigilantly enforced fair housing laws are an obvious way to break up enclaves and induce cross-class political recognition; perhaps even more important are steps that would, on the one hand, unify the "fragmented nature of many metropolitan areas," while on the other hand opening up many special purpose government units to public participation. This is hard thing for someone committed to empowering people where they live, but any serious communitarian has to be constantly willing--as I wrote back when discussing school district closures and education reform in Arkansas--to renegotiate the limits and scope of one's affective (and thus participation-encouraging) community, or communities as the case may be. (Such is the genuis of federal or subsidiary arrangements: you can have educational collectivities on one level, and collectivities devoted to civil or national defense on another.) Localism--whether understood in republican or agrarian or communitarian or social democratic terms--is still a mostly true principle; but if the content which most modern free people are willing to accept as a politically involving "local concern" changes, then that doesn't mean you've lost the possibility of a local, communal context entirely: it just means that as the tools and rhythms of human social life change, the reach of that which can be made vividly and engagingly "local" about it has to change also. I'm not thrilled with all the plebiscitarian recommendations that Stoker, for one, makes--electronic voting and easier calls for referendums, etc. It seems to me that, at the same time that important arguments for a more populist democracy languish, we often allow ourselves to get caught up in faux-populist stunts that do more harm to democracy than good. But I suppose, in the name of making an egalitarian metropolitan localism more possible, I ought to be more willing to work with whatever good things my fellow liberated consumer-citizens just may love, than harangue them for what they don't.

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