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.

7 Responses to “The Resistance and a New Republican Ideal”

  1. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    Below is one of Jefferson’s many statements concerning the subdivision of authority within the United States

    “It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Joseph C. Cabell Letters, p. 1388. 1816.)

    This certainly would be easier to implement today than in Jefferson’s time simply because of the speed and convenience of today’s means of communications. It would be good to empower counties and municipalities to act as a break on attempts at over reach by higher levels of authority and to have a constitutional right to do so.

    This is Jefferson addressing an issue which has been addressed directly and indirectly by many who followed:

    “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow the banks to control the issuance of their currency, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of all property until their children will wake up homeless on the continent their fathers occupied. The issuing power of money should be taken from the banks and restored to Congress and the people to whom it belongs.” (Thomas Jefferson, this indignant protest can be heard today across the vista of two whole centuries Letter to the Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, 1802.)

    Most of us are not farmers or large land owners and are not sufficiently proficient at living off the land. Should the money supply fail catastrophically, the masters of that arcane bit of, which is in my view, “hocus pokus”, would be in a position to hold us hostage and extort concessions we would not normally make if secure in our own material well being.

  2. Eric C. Jacobson Says:

    I long ago came to the same general conclusions as Sen. Hart regarding the deficiencies of the current system. (The pivotal problem I identified was the ever-increasing population size of electoral districts, making truly representative democracy essentially illusory.)

    In 1989 I wrote a guest column in the Daily News (Woodland Hills, CA) in which I proposed to supplement representative government with a “neighborhood meeting” method of popular self-government, based on a suggestion Erich Fromm made in his 1956 book titled The Sane Society. It’s here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5ilXuTzT1mlb09oQXJYV25CN0E/view?usp=sharing .

    In 1990 — in a fit of pro bono enthusiasm while making a living (if you can call my modest wages that) as an under-employed staff member at a corporate law firm — I prepared and filed a proposed California ballot initiative to further refine and operationalize what I dubbed a peoples’ House of Commons starting here in California. It’s here: http://repository.uchastings.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1664&context=ca_ballot_inits .

    It failed for lack of funding to gather signatures. My outreach to a few major players within the Democratic Party — including an in-person meeting with former Gov. Pat Brown (Jerry Brown’s dad) — and their consultant world, didn’t work. I was a bit surprised because the initiative also would have eliminated the two-thirds majority vote requirement for raising taxes, in favor of a majority vote. One would have thought Democrats might have been interested, but of course, they weren’t, in part because it would have required elected pols to share power with the people themselves.

    When I shopped it around to Bill Zimmerman and Sid Galanty’s consultant shop in Santa Monica, I was told I should “make a video” dramatizing the idea and its benefits (as a visual aide for fund-raising purposes). Getting initiatives qualified for the California ballot was very expensive in those days and has since become strictly a sport reserved for multi-millionaires, corporations and other special interest organizations. (Unknown as yet is whether the potential for small donor online fundraising might have “changed everything” with respect to maverick ballot initiatives as it has for insurgent political candidates, at least on the presidential race level.)

    My response to the “make a video” suggestion was approximately that of Sen. Hart’s to being told to master a new digital technology skill-set. THEY (Gallanty and Zimmerman) were the ones with such expertise, and their “Hollywood brush-off” response (in my wife’s phrase) was a polite way of saying, “However much civic virtue you and your idea may have, unless you can pay our considerable fees, good luck to you.”

    History continued along without a “California House of Commons”, which I had hoped would become a model for other states and eventually (somehow) the country as a whole (that is, that a similar institution might come to inform federal legislation).

    It was an idea either timely or ahead of its time, I’m not sure. Had I personally had- or been able t raise funds to get my proposed initiative on the ballot and to adequately publicize it, perhaps it would have won. More likely both old parties would have colluded and advertised heavily to defeat it. I’ll never know.

    But as the host says, such ideals of popular sovereignty are timeless, and the times may have caught up with my version of this ideal. If anyone running across this comment is inspired to make a project out of my blueprint (“as is” or modified), he, she or they have my blessing. I will even consult with them (for a reasonable fee 🙂

  3. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    I want to thank Mr. Jacobson for sharing his experiences. I am certain now that bringing the governance of this nation closer to the People is distinctly possible. I have accepted his model to be a sound one and accept that the potential barriers to its implementation are formidable. I don`t know if those who control the main stream media would find this a subject in their interest to promote to their readers, viewers and financial supporters. It would be, in my view, a valuable service to the People of this nation if they would. A free internet and its potential for sharing positive developments in collective vision is still available and could be used. Patience will be required.

  4. Joel Says:

    Senator Hart, do you ever discuss your first principles and where you derive them from?

  5. LORENZO CHERIN Says:

    Dear Senator Hart and colleagues

    Returned to this site which I rate and am fond of , after a busy period, to read of the debacle on , not so much local republicanism, as technological unfathomableism!
    So glad you and all ,are, still here , as the Stephen Sondheim song puts it !

    I think , as a standard bearer for what was and is the most sensible and , both , radical and moderate version of Liberal Democracy, and in party political phraseology, I mean Democracy as distinct from Republicanism, ie Democrats vs Republicans, I think the update of Jefferson needs you to extol , local democracy rather than , local republicanism !

    The innate sense of goodwill and optimism exemplified in the Liberal Democratic centre or centre left, so criticised by voices further left and very much further right , as centrist niceness , are needed. The antidote to most authoritarian , top down government , is more localism,and individuality, and now , in the Trump presidency, more than ever, this is necessary.

    The Democratic party, long associated, wrongly, with big government only, needs to rediscover the philosophy of political Liberalism, classical in one third, social , in two thirds,and develop local initiatives, local voices, local candidates, who can take that to the national stage, personally , and politically.

    Most people understand that republics and republicans and therefore, republicanism, is not the preserve of the Republican party. But it is the Democratic party that needs to develop democracy, and reveal the Democrats as true practitioners of it .

    I fear the party is going to equate that with veering too far leftwards , when it is beyond left and right , that is where the solutions now could be found, and the people to implement them.

    The future contests , rather like 1984, shall see a Republican president , but are there to be Democratic solutions , from someone , like our host, on this site, who can build on a centre left platform, but a home for all.

    I see no Gary Harts emerging, that I ,form a distance have discovered yet.

    But , come to think of it , I see none of the Republicanism of Ronald Reagan in Donald Trump !

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  7. Tim Conner Says:

    I despair, sir, that a tipping point in the basic educational baseline of our electorate was reached a while ago and may never recover to the level it must see to effect true “local republics”. Dark money in politics and corporate intrusion into the two-party system may have poisoned the well forevermore.
    I hope not, but from where I sit: Montrose, CO – there is no venue for a civil discussion of issues. Jingoism and ignorance reign supreme in my hometown.
    Thanks for providing a place of respite.

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