Local Democracy, Elite Preferences

Reconstructing Democracy offers less than its title promises. Even its subtitle—How Citizens are Building Democracy from the Ground Up—is misleadingly ambitious. The book in fact studies a few community and economic development programs that citizens—not just governments—helped to design. The programs arose in South Wood County, Wisconsin; Lawrence, Massachusetts; the Market Creek Plaza area in San Diego; and various places in Europe and Canada. They seem to be reasonable efforts on their own terms, although their long-term success is unclear, for the authors’ descriptions often read the way grant requests and reports are written, as if no gap exists between promise and delivery.

The authors—Charles Taylor, Patrizia Nanz, and Madeleine Beaubien Taylor—portray the programs as novel responses to what they consider to be democracies’ current dangers of excessive factionalism and populism. As do other activities, these programs address problems of poor neighborhoods and areas whose economies are based on industries that are no longer viable or desirable. But for the authors, they are especially significant because they display important virtues of citizen involvement and creativity.

Although the programs themselves seem useful or unobjectionable, one must raise several questions about the authors’ larger intention and approach. They take for granted that supporting Brexit or Donald Trump is problematic: “…the vote for Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s successful campaign for the US presidency,” they state, “have resulted in xenophobic appeals to exclude those deemed ‘outsiders.’ These appeals are directed at those who already feel that society has left them behind.” The “menace” of such populist support stems from failed neo-liberal programs, and the gap they create between “political elites and the people.”

The erosion of the welfare state and the encroachments of the economic system have opened people’s eyes to the fact that they live not only in market economies but in capitalist societies where economic affairs are no longer embedded within social interactions…In fact, both democratic politics and various aspects of everyday life have been subjugated to the managerial logic of corporations and banks.

Although the people’s eyes are now open to the problem, they chose the wrong solution, and the authors mean to point them in a better direction. The people’s feeling is correct, but their response is not. But why not? The authors offer no analysis. There is no attempt to show why deregulation and tax reduction might not help resuscitate dying economic areas or begin to increase absolute and relative incomes among the less wealthy. Likewise, there is no attempt to understand why a greater measure of nationalism might not be an antidote to excessive globalization, or why a limited return of populism might not be a reasonable response to the hegemony of both economic elites and the cultural and academic elites to which the authors themselves belong.

The authors seem to be well-meaning, and they wish to celebrate and support some level of popular control or participatory democracy. But they seem insufficiently aware of their own partisanship and refined condescension. They are guided by their belief that people should act democratically, not by what many of the “people” actually want or how they actually use and wish to continue using their liberty.

The authors do not disguise their progressivism, but they take for granted its truth, sometimes wishing to steer local communities in certain directions.

One also sees subtle elitism in the operation of the programs, in the authors’ approval of them, and in what they want the programs to achieve. The notion of local citizen control or creativity, for instance, is somewhat belied by the large degree of foundation funding in the Wisconsin and San Diego projects. This funding is not merely passive, moreover, but involves active participation. Some projects also use professional facilitators who direct debate, and use experts when needed. Foundation funding and involvement, and even professional facilitation are not equivalent to local creativity and control. They need not be harmful in themselves, of course, but they belie the authors’ notion that the programs indicate that democracy is being reconstituted “from the ground up.” At the least, the ground has been well tilled and fertilized from above. Such involvement also calls into question whether it would be possible to replicate these programs broadly.

The authors do not disguise their progressivism, but they take for granted its truth. They (and the funders they describe?) sometimes wish to steer local communities in certain directions. This is most obvious in their view of global warming, whose danger or degree of danger they assume without argument and with no discussion of alternative ways to deal with the issue. One might call their overall position a soft progressivism with more emphasis than one often hears today on participatory democracy.

The authors’ distance from the right and center is also visible in their ignoring religion as a unifying or organizing principle in many local communities (even when they celebrate volunteers in hospitals and schools), and in their acting almost as if business growth and development has nothing to do with profit, economic opportunity, or creativity. Stores and restaurants magically appear in their narrative. But their actual appearance generally depends on an environment that is friendly to business and to individual liberty, which a participatory citizenry (and its government) should encourage. The myriad regulations, including many environmental regulations, that hamper small-business development are more controlling and less democratic than is a freer economy.

Taxes and regulation are not the only things the book ignores. It also ignores alternative ways to advance individuals’ control over elements of their lives that seem dominated by others. A host of neighborhood action and school choice programs exist, for example. (Sometimes, indeed, these are aided by conservative foundations.) Are these superior or inferior to the kind of programs the authors describe? The book makes no attempt to judge the merits of different types of programs, or to discuss scholars’ findings about the limits of participatory programs such as those of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. It is as if democratic efficacy can be achieved only in the ways that the authors suggest. Indeed, when they briefly consider broader political standpoints, they turn to Hannah Arendt’s view of politics based, accurately or not, on ancient Greece. The foundation of American and Canadian democracy in equal liberty is not discussed.

Whether one agrees with or dismisses the alternatives I mention and the criticisms I offer, it is clear that the authors’ standpoint is too narrow—politically, economically, and theoretically—to make their case. The particular programs they discuss may or may not prove to be effective, but they depend too much on outside help and the elite practices, concerns, and political preferences of mainstream foundations to be genuinely built from the ground up. Still, the problem of our self-interested and overbearing elites is real, and the genuine concern of our authors with elements of this problem is commendable.