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If We Want a Better Democracy …

VOICES - “If we want a better democracy, we need better democrats!”  Or if you prefer, “If we want a better republic, we need better republicans!” 

This essay is an exploration of this theme, a proposal for new thinking about the subject, and a sketch of a framework for action.  While the theme could be applied at several levels, I'll focus on the City of Los Angeles. 

First thesis: The corruption and dysfunction of the City government is structural and cultural – we won't solve it by “throwing the rascals out”.  Los Angeles City government, like many governments, has been the graveyard of many high ideals.  This is, at the core, a dysfunction of our current form of democracy, as indicated by the poor turnout at City elections and the general lack of knowledge and even caring about the structure and operations of City government. (Stop someone on the street at random and ask them who their City Councilmember is, and what Council District they're in at this moment).  

There's an old saying, “sunlight is the best disinfectant” -- but what if the sun is shining and nobody's looking?  Or if those who look, shrug their shoulders and turn away? 

So, what's required to create an effective democracy in Los Angeles?  For that matter, what is an “effective democracy”?  My starting point here is Lincoln's characterization: “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people”.  (This is likely to remain an ideal, a goal to strive for.  Nevertheless, I think it's a good one, worth the perpetual striving.) 

Second thesis: The core requirement is to create effective citizens, equipped and motivated to participate in governance, rather than remaining “sideliners”, perpetually complaining about government on the basis of narrow concerns, with little understanding of the nature of the government they complain about.  This “creating” is essentially an ongoing learning process, and will take considerable time even to become clearly visible from outside.  

On the other hand, we've spent considerable time getting ourselves into this mess – we shouldn't expect an instantaneous magical cure.  The core enabling attitudes are patience, persistence, a love of the work, and a willingness to dedicate one's life to it.  (Do you have something better to do with the rest of your life?). 

Our educational systems will need to become an important part of this process.  In my view, the core task of an educational system in a democratic republic is not to produce a “workforce”, but to enable and guide students to become citizens, motivated to take part in the process of governance, and well educated to that task.  

Unfortunately, it seems to me that we don't have an adequate curriculum handy to turn to this purpose.  Certainly, there are civics classes that cover the formal structure of government, but are there classes where one can learn, for example, of the largely hidden forces, the nature of corruption, how advertising and propaganda work on the mind, the pros and cons of a two-party duopoly vs. a multiparty system, the complex interplay between the governmental and the economic systems?  

(I'm not talking about academic studies here, but practical knowledge that a citizen can use to understand what's going on at multiple levels of civil and political society.) 

We can't wait for a revolution or evolution in the schools, though, nor do we need to.  We can each begin the process of self-education and self-commitment, to learn what we need to do, to find the collaborators in learning and acting that we need, to begin the task of becoming better participants in the process of governance.  “We are the ones we've been waiting for”, which is a good thing, because “there's nobody here but us”.  Yes, dear reader, I'm referring to you (and to myself, for that matter – I'm still learning). 

In Los Angeles, a good place for citizens (and groups of citizens) to start is the Neighborhood Councils, which were intended to be “an experiment in participatory democracy”, and a good place to combine learning with action.  This implies, however, an expansion of their formally defined role: not just “advisory bodies”, but “learning and action centers for the growth of effective democracy”.  

There's a potential strong synergy here: the more citizens get involved with their local NCs, contributing to them and learning from them, the more effective the NCs can become and the greater identity they can take on as a force to enhance the local democracy. 

Of course, an NC can also become an example of the worst of democratic practice, as riven by partisanship or misdirected by corruption as any other legislative body.  The good news, though, is that it takes place in the “neighborhood fishbowl”.  With enough engaged citizens learning how its dysfunction works, and how to change it, it can be healed, and the lessons from the healing process can become part of the “citizen's toolkit”. 

Quote from the National Civic League publication “The Community Visioning and Strategic Planning Handbook”: “Most civilizations die from within, conquered by traitors within the heart—loss of belief, corruption, erosion of control, and disintegration of shared purposes.”  As I see it, the major impediments to growing an effective citizenry are these “traitors of the heart”; I'd add cynicism, apathy, alienation, and in those who've long “fought the good fight” with little success, exhaustion. 

Third thesis: We need each other.  One of the major trends over the last century has been the gradual decline of the community spirit, of coming together for mutual benefit, naturally and spontaneously (“of course – how else could it be?”).  Robert Putnam, in the book “Bowling Alone”, studied this decline in detail.  Part of growing an effective democracy will be growing “effective communities”, where part of a citizens' sense of self is the community they belong to, contribute to, and take support and assistance from. 

The origin of the word “community” comes from the Latin munus, which means the gift, and cum, which means together, among each other.  (I’ve seen another etymology that translates munus as debt or duty, implying mutual obligations; this is appropriate as well.)

 

(Don Dwiggins is Treasurer and Environment Chair at Northridge East Neighborhood Council.)

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 11 Issue 25

Pub: Mar 26, 2013