The public discontent, now being commented on so extensively in political circles, did not suddenly emerge in the last year or so. It dates at least to the mid-1970s when the first waves of globalization and automation began to wash up on our shores. Everyday citizens, especially in traditional manufacturing jobs, began to make their concerns known to office holders and office seekers.
The recurrent theme, often unstated, was: I’m losing control of my life.
There was, and still is, a sense that our national government either did not know how or did not care to deal with the seismic shifts being felt not just in Detroit and Buffalo but in the heartland and the West as well.
With apologies for the personal references (and the “I” references that dominate the opinion section of the New York Times), my reaction to this building disquiet was to re-examine our Constitutional structures for evidence of what our Founders suggested we should do with our political system to adapt to change, to a future none of them could possibly imagine.
Jefferson thought about this a lot. After leaving the presidency, he concluded that the system of representative democracy was the best, if not the only, system that would accommodate a nation of, at that time, three million citizens and one that was bound to grow across the continent. In short, not everyone could attend every meeting.
But, to let citizens participate in self-governance, his only solution was to institute a system of ward or elementary republics at the local level, permitting local citizens to attend periodic public meetings to decide the best practical solutions to issues of public education, public assistance, local security, courts and other public institutions, and a host of other community concerns often peculiar to that community.
Contrary to the ideological struggles that would soon emerge over the evils of “big government”, he did not urge adoption of local republics to weaken national government. He did so to give every day Americans a share in shaping their own local destinies as much as possible. His concern over power in Washington, underwritten by an increasing federal budget, was the opportunity this offered to powerful special interests to benefit at the expense of local taxpayers. And recent events have proved this concern to be prophetic.
This reiteration of a little-known detour in American history is to demonstrate that there are approaches to re-engage citizen participation in ways that refuse to ignite, yet again, a stale “debate” over the size of government (which does not change even when conservatives are in power). But an experiment in Jeffersonian local republicanism would surely reveal how discontented Americans are or are not. Public participation in city and county town meetings and school board meetings is notoriously low. So how discontented are people genuinely?
Remember, once again, Oscar Wilde’s critique of socialism: “Too many evenings.”
Participation in government requires time, thoughtful study of issues, search for accurate information (as opposed to political propaganda), consideration of alternative points of view, patience, tolerance, and most of all civility.
For too many Americans it is too easy to sit in the comfortable chair, watching partisan television tell you what you want to hear, and socializing only with those who share your political views.
Local republicanism will not solve problems of foreign competition, competitiveness, productivity, trade friction, security against terrorism, climate change, currency imbalances, and a host of international matters.
But it could improve the quality of public education, provide targeted solutions to local unemployment, protect community air and water resources, reduce drug addiction, overcome ethnic or racial tensions, and a wide variety of local concerns.
And especially now, when at least half or more of the country is discontented with a president ostensibly elected to respond to public discontent, citizen duties have become paramount. In some circles there is talk of a Resistance. That resistance should refuse to quietly accept destruction of decades of consensus on public education, climate, health care, collective security, and a foreign policy based on alliance. The forming Resistance must be based a new republican ideal of citizen duty.
The price to be paid for regaining control of our lives is assuming responsibility for participation in solving the problems closest to home and in resisting a new elite’s efforts to govern the country for itself.