January 28, 2013

Growing local democracy as well as lettuce

The two biggest lapses in current liberal thinking - albeit not historically among liberals - are a failure to push programs that aid the economic conditions of ordinary Americans and a crude dismissal of politics at other than the federal level. This article, which appeared in Green Horizon a year ago, addresses the second issue
Sam Smith - The survival of our country and the remaining freedoms we enjoy depend in no small part on what we do on the local level.

The reason it is so important is that the powerful of this country live today in a culture of impunity, a term Latin Americans use to describe a system when law, responsibility, cooperation, community values, and religious faith no longer matter. They have, Mike Lofgren wrote of the American super rich, seceded from America even as their grip on its control mechanisms have tightened: “Bernard Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, says about the views of the 99 percent: ‘Who gives a crap about some imbecile?’”

Test it out by naming every national politician you actually admire; the problem becomes quickly apparent. Further, the national media has become embedded in the propaganda mill, leaving the capital of the country largely devoid of independent critics. The number of companies controlling a majority of media outlets has declined from 50 in 1983 to just five by 2004.

You even find it in such unexpected corners as corruption. Political corruption used to be a feudal system based in communities and contingent on those in power at least tithing to their constituents. Today, the most powerful constituency consists of campaign donors, whose funds are largely used to confuse and fool the voters. And corruption has fleeted up from local jobs, favors and cut corners, to multi-billion dollar development projects and huge defense contracts.

It doesn’t mean that every day is bad, only that we now live in an adhocracy, entirely dependent upon the whims of those at the top.

Yet history suggests a way around, if not completely out, of the problem.

For example, Umbria, a section of Italy north of Rome, has – for over 2500 years - been invaded, burned, or bullied by the Etruscans, Romans, Goths, Longobards, Charlemagne, Pippin the Short, Vatican, Mussolini, German Nazis, and, most recently, the World Trade Organization. Yet Umbria has managed not only to survive but keep its culture, a reminder of the durability of the human spirit during history’s tumults.

Consider the novel, 1984. Orwell saw it coming, only his timing was off a bit. The dystopia described in 1984 is so overwhelming that one almost forgets that most residents of Oceana didn’t live in it. Orwell gives the breakdown. Only about two percent were in the Inner Party and another 13% in the Outer Party. The rest, numbering some 100 million, were the proles.

The proles were, for the most part, not worth the Party’s trouble. Yet Orwell thought that, if there was any hope, it lay with them.
Orwell’s division was almost precisely replicated in East Germany decades later, where about one percent belonged to the General Secretariat of the Communist Party, and another 13% being far less powerful party members.

As we move towards - and even surpass - the fictional bad dreams of Orwell or Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World,’ it is helpful to remember that these nightmares were mainly the curse of elites rather than of those who lived in the quaint, primitive manner of normal humans.

This bifurcation of society into a weak, struggling, but sane, mass and a manic depressive elite alternately vicious and afraid, unlimited and imprisoned, foreshadows what we find today - leaders willing, on the one hand, to occupy any corner of the world and, on the other, terrified of young men with box cutters.

Similarly, many years ago some people built castles, walled cities and moats to keep the bad guys out. It worked for a while, but sooner or later spies and assassins figured how to cross the moats and opponents learned how to climb the walls and send balls of fire into protected compounds. The Florentines even catapulted dead donkeys and feces over the town wall during their siege of Siena.

The people who built castles and walled cities and moats are all dead now and their efforts at security seem puny and ultimately futile - unintended monuments to the vanity of human presumption.

Yet like the castle-dwellers behind the moats, our elite is now spending huge sums to put themselves inside prisons of their own making.

For example, the densest concentration in America of police per acre is around the US Capitol. For a number of years I lived six blocks away and I would tell people I could show them exactly where the War on Terror ended: on Second Street. No one cared if a terrorist lurked in my alley, but a couple of blocks from the Capitol the cement barriers flourished, the guards were on alert, and instantly elevated blockades beneath the street marked the division between former and current America. The police even moved a bus route two blocks, so if a bomb were aboard it would kill ordinary homeowners and not members of Congress.

Strange as it may seem, it is in this dismal dichotomy between countryside and our political and economic capitals that the hope for saving America’s soul resides. The geographical and conceptual parochialism of the castle dwellers who have made this mess leaves vast acres of our land still free in which to nurture hopes, dreams, and perhaps even to foster the eventual eviction of those who have done us such wrong.

Because of this, the role of the local in American life has assumed an enormous, yet still largely unrecognized, role. It is no longer just about sensible communities, friends, ecology, or wise buying habits.

Sadly, however, liberal America has become increasingly federocentric, assuming that those speaking of states or local rights are just rightwing nuts. This ignores the history of every important progressive movement in America: from abolitionists, to populists, labor unions, environmentalists, and the advocates of civil rights. Indeed, devolution was a key principle of the 1960s. In each case, success was based not on playing the elite’s game but on mass decentralized organizing and pressure. Few things scare national politicians more than people getting together.

One standard objection liberals have to devolution is that it is too similar to the principle of states’ rights, which they believe was central to the Civil War. James W. Loewen in the Washington Post*, recently corrected that:
“Confederate states did claim the right to secede, but no state claimed to be seceding for that right. In fact, Confederates opposed states’ rights — that is, the right of Northern states not to support slavery. . . Slavery, not states’ rights, birthed the Civil War. . . .They objected that New England states let black men vote and tolerated abolitionist societies. According to South Carolina, states should not have the right to let their citizens assemble and speak freely when what they said threatened slavery. The South’s opposition to states’ rights is not surprising. Until the Civil War, Southern presidents and lawmakers had dominated the federal government. The people in power in Washington always oppose states’ rights. Doing so preserves their own.”
And so, largely thanks to this misconception, liberals have turned the devolution of power into a gift to the right. Instead of fighting over how devolution should be done, the right of the federal government is considered in every case the preferred course. Thus we find such absurd interpretations as a recent federal judge who said the state of Vermont had no power to regulate the safety of its nuclear plants because that was a federal responsibility.

Arthur J. Versluis wrote in Modern Age about Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on the matter:
“Every state again is divided into counties, each to take care of what lies within its local bounds; each county again into townships or wards, to manage minuter details; and every ward into farms, to be governed each by its individual proprietor. . . It is by this partition of cares descending in gradation from general to particular that the mass of human affairs may be best managed for the good and prosperity of all.”
Jefferson was not alone. Alexis de Tocqueville also spoke of “the political effects of decentralization that I most admire in America.”

As late as 1992, the one hundred largest localities in America pursued an estimated 1,700 environmental crime prosecutions, more than twice the number of such cases that had been brought by the federal government in the previous decade. And as Congress was vainly struggling to get a handle on the tobacco industry, 750 communities passed indoor no-smoking laws.

But, at the top, power was going the other way. For example, the number of elected school boards in America declined from more than 80,000 in 1950 to less than 14,000 today.

The most sensible way to think about this is the principle of subsidiarity – the idea that government should be carried out at the lowest practical level. This is complex, to be sure, and repeatedly debatable but that’s what politics is meant to be about – negotiating the complex rather than merely passing regulations that ignore the complex and pretend it doesn’t exist.

Subsidiarity can even work within the federal government. I learned about this as an officer in the Coast Guard back before the wars on drugs and terror sadly changed its assignments. In the early 1960s, the Coast Guard had 1,800 units, 30,000 enlisted personnel and only 3,000 officers. All around the country were lighthouses and lifesaving stations run by enlisted personnel who might not see an officer for six months at a time and never see anyone from Washington. Yet the Coast Guard was among the most highly regarded federal agencies.
What made it work was that it not only had the power of the federal government behind it, but understood that it also had to serve the communities in which it was stationed. Thus, I felt as if the cutter on which I was operations officer was not only a federal vessel but the flagship of the town of Bristol, Rhode Island - and that I was responsible to both.

I began collecting similar examples of federal decentralization including US Attorneys, the National Park Service, local postal carriers, and State Department charge d’affairs in cities outside the foreign capital where the US ambassador functioned. Interestingly, these examples are generally among the least criticized of federal agencies but also, unfortunately, the least seldom mentioned as models.

We could easily expand such practices at the federal level, but the devolution of federal powers regrettably is not on the table right now. Trapped between corruption, confusion and incompetence, Washington is incapable of reform. So it is up to us.

The amazingly successful one day assault on the anti-Internet bills is proof that it is still possible. I can’t think of another example in our history in which so many national politicians changed their positions for the better in such a short time as a direct result of public protest.

The Occupier movement, the revolts against a national ID and the Citizens United decision are other examples of the potential.

But it involves far more than protest. It requires a clear willingness at the state and local level to stand up for those constitutional powers that do not belong to the federal government, not to surrender these powers in order to get some federal greenmail dollars, and – most importantly – to begin to define America from a local position rather than based on values foisted upon us by corrupt national pols, media and corporations.

It’s not just a political matter; it is also cultural. Some places understand this naturally, place as different as San Francisco, New Orleans and Maine that have been notably successful at not only defining their own values but making sure everyone knows it. And this cultural power can translate into political clout as well. I first noticed this in Washington when it was clear that city politicians didn’t really want to mess with certain neighborhoods. The reason: they were too well organized.

Which is why I argued, albeit without success, that every neighborhood should create its own plan, written according to its own rules, consensus and values, before citywide urban planners got on the case. What are the most valuable places and buildings in the ‘hood? What matters to us? Who requires help? What does the neighborhood need most? Developer buddies of the mayor would rank low in every neighborhood that asked such questions. And while politicians are often bullies, bullies are often cowards if they are just confronted.

Every town and every state in America should do something similar. For example, our national policy is to conduct hyper expensive wars in strange places for no good reason. This is hurting the wallet of locality. What if all the places and states where a majority oppose such national stupidity put it on record just as an increasing number of places are doing with Citizens United?

Less grand, but just as important, is for local voices to come together. In the past few decades a once popular emphasis on coalition building has withered. Yet coalitions are essential for a louder sound. And among the most powerful are coalitions that concentrate on one issue and cut across class and ethnicity.

There also needs to be a greater realization of the degree to which the federal government has come to interfere with state and local government through greenmail i.e. “Yeah, we know it’s not in the Constitution, but if you want any money, you have to do it our way.”

For example the federal government’s badly conceived education intrusions are based, in the case of New York, on giving the state merely one third of one percent of its school budgets.

For over two hundred years public education was a local matter, but then the education industry saw money in a test-obsessed system and the whole game changed. Admittedly, it’s hard to look a gift bribe in the mouth, but recently, for example, Hawaiian teachers did just that - 67% of them voting not to accept a Race to the Top contract.

The best place to start is with one’s town or neighborhood. What do we want? How do we make that clear? What do we think? How do we get others to hear? Who are our friends? How do we stay in touch? How do we bring them near?

The Internet, which has too often been used by activists only for cliktivism, i.e. applying the simplistic notions of marketing to the web, remains a huge potential tool. It is a way to keep track of what others are doing, finding common ground, and launching joint action of which the SOPA web blackouts were a dramatic example.

In the end, however, what really matters is that we understand that those supposed to be leading America have in too many cases seceded morally, politically, and culturally from our country and it is left to us – in our towns, counties and states, to redefine and change our nation the way it should be. In short, America, as well as lettuce, must be locally grown.

1 comment:

Pat Moore said...

Very interesting article. I am 74, and remember that
one reason for federal intervention was in civil rights
issues, and in the wide disparity of social support from one state to another.

One might reason as well, that a strong federal government is needed to match corporate strength. Even though in the last decades they have been allies, the possibility remains for government to do its role of watchdog and regulator.

That being said, the community is a strong, resilient
force in society, accessible to everyone, and has strengths which are not utilized. Appreciate the points being made.