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|| The Florida Frontier: Still Closed

This is an update to my earlier post concerning the beginning of the decline in the population of Volusia County, Florida and its ramifications for civic engagement around growth. Volusia's Population Decline

As the enclosed chart indicates, the decline in Volusia population has continued for three straight years after the peak in 2007. As I stated in the summer of 2009, this trend is not going to reverse anytime soon, despite hopeful predictions. While the population of the State continues to grow, albeit at a much slower rate, all of this growth will be in the major cities. I also stand by my prediction that this will lead to a crises in our local economic and policy systems, which are founded on rapid growth through real estate development.

Certainly the crisis had already come in terms of government finances, which are anchored on rising real estate values. Also, since I first posted on the subject the state’s political atmosphere has turned strongly against its own governmental entities (the defeat of Amendment 4 being just one aspect of this) and, led by a new Governor, has begun to dismantle Florida’s growth management commitments and policy implementation systems. Within a few years we will be both without signs of population growth and without government at any level with the ability to spur new economic activity.

Population decline has taken some of the pressure off of the destruction of the region’s natural environment. I am sure many environmentalists and smart growth advocates applaud this, at the moment it is about their only hope for preservation of what is left undeveloped.

Essentially, we are still in a moment of pause between the free-for-all frontier that is the history of Florida population growth (especially in the less-dense counties like Volusia) and something else that will come. That something else may be stagnation and decline or it may be a transition to a new economic engine, perhaps even a more sustainable one. The difference today is that government is removing itself as a player in this future. So that leaves only individual citizens, citizen groups, universities, and other non-profits to work with businesses and their interest groups to determine our economic future.

|| Remarks on Conflict and Civility in Contemporary America

Notes from a panel discussion sponsored by the Stetson Diversity Council,
Stetson Room, Carlton Union Building, Stetson University. 7pm, Thursday, January 27, 2011
(See also Bill Nylen’s remarks from the same event)

I’d like to offer a few thoughts on these issues of violence and civility in American society.


First, about political violence:

I don’t think it’s safe to say that Americans are more violent now in politics than before.  I think it’s safer to say that the United States has experienced ebbs and flows in violence, civil and political, while Americans have had more or less access to guns throughout American history.

One measure of political violence are assassinations of government leaders.  The only serving U.S. Congressperson ever to be killed was killed back in 1978, as part of the infamous Jonestown massacre.  The first U.S. President to be assassinated was Abraham Lincoln way back in 1865, and two more presidents were assassinated – James Garfield in 1881, and William McKinley in 1901 – before John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963.  This is not to mention the scores of attempts and plots to kill presidents that have occurred through much of U.S. history.

By at least this measure then, Americans are not clearly more politically violent now than previously.


A different and just as interesting question is whether or not Americans are polarizing, or growing more divided politically.  On this question, there appears to be more debate.
One one hand, the political scientist Morris Fiorina has made a name for himself by arguing that most Americans are not polarizing, but the small political class of activists and government leaders are growing more polarized.
On the other hand, authors like Michael J. Weiss and Bill Bishop find evidence that Americans are quietly self-segregating into socially and politically more homogenous communities or lifestyle enclaves.
My own sense is this:

a)    Americans, like most people, seem to incline to homophily, that is, they like to hang out with people like them.  As I tell my students, in life, the reality is not at all that opposites attract.  They don’t.  Instead, birds of a feather flock together.  And interestingly, as the fascinating merging of consumer and political research indicates, people with similar lifestyles often share similar political beliefs (thus, researchers find, Republicans are more likely to own dogs, and Democrats more likely to own cats).  The trouble with this seemingly innocuous tendency to hang out with those who are like us is that people who are alike are more likely to become intolerant of difference and extreme in their viewpoints when they are together, especially when they see others as threatening.

b)    Fortunately, even if Americans are clustering in communities of like mind and lifestyle, there is evidence that most Americans (not all, but most) incline toward moderation and pragmatism rather than extremism and dogmatism in their viewpoints.  Moreover, there is evidence that Americans are becoming more tolerant of social differences as education levels rise, and as younger, more tolerant Americans replace older, less tolerant Americans.


What kind of citizen is best for democracy?  In answering this question, we face an interesting dilemma: research shows that the more active in politics people are, the more they know and become devoted to politics, but also the more their views tend to move to the extremes.  In contrast, the less active in politics people are, the less they know and care about politics, but also the more moderate their political views.

Political scholars nowadays are mulling over two types of good citizens: the activist, and the deliberator.  The activist is passionate about her/his issue, and works with like-minded others to advance that issue.  The deliberator, on the other hand, is calmer, considers conflicting views and information, then forms an opinion.

Moderate Americans would incline to the deliberator rather than the activist.  However, some recent research suggests that the deliberator is less likely than the activist to participate in politics in various ways, including voting.

So here’s the question: do we wants more citizen participation, yet also more passion and incivility?  Or do we want more moderation, yet also less citizen participation in politics?  At least some scholars argue that we can’t have it both ways – we can’t have both high engagement, and civility.


As ambivalent the picture I draw here is, I’d like to conclude with a more certain prescription: Good citizens aren’t born.  They are made.  If we want active, informed yet also tolerant citizens, we have to make them.  How do we make good citizens?  Through institutions, especially schools and governments.  Just as Coca-Cola doesn’t assume its product will sell itself, governments and schools should not assume that citizenship will sell itself, especially when citizenship competes with Facebook, Playstation, Garth Brooks, and Dancing with the Stars.

This means more schools should make citizenship education central to their missions.  And this means governments should invest in encouraging active, tolerant citizenship just as they invest in roads and bridges.

|| Civility and Democracy in America

Democratic politics is not always pretty.  One could even define democracy as institutionally constrained conflict, with an emphasis on both conflict, which is necessary to expand and protect the scope and reach of civil/political rights to all citizens, and institutional constraint, which is also necessary to keep such conflict within the bounds of legality and basic human rights.1

This fact is recognized in both of the philosophical roots of Western Democracy: republicanism (with its focus on the need to construct “civic virtue” of social consciousness to temper humans’ ‘natural’ selfishness [e.g. Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville]), and liberalism (with its focus on institutional designs that minimize the deleterious effects of conflict without either outlawing the conflict itself or trying to ‘improve’ those taking part [e.g. James Madison]).

So … if “civility” is defined as being respectful of one’s political opponents, that’s not necessarily the norm in conflict-laden democratic politics (witness, for example, the question and answer sessions in the British Parliament,2 or even the debates among delegates to our own Constitutional Convention: the much-venerated Founding Fathers).  A measure of incivility is clearly part of the game, and we shouldn’t be too thin-skinned about it.

At the same time, democracy doesn’t seem to work in many societies divided by intense fears and hatreds.  In such societies, certain words and slogans can be harmful and even deadly.  And though it may be hard to know where to draw the line between constructive and destructive incivility, I think we all intuitively know that such a line exists and needs to be respected for democracy’s sake.

Now, let’s move away from democratic theory for a moment and look seriously at American political history.  Like few other comparable rich democracies, this is a country with a violent political history.  This is a country with four presidential assassinations, two more who survived being shot, and at least eleven other serious assassination attempts.  Other political leaders have joined a long list of political martyrs and almost-martyrs: Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and George Wallace among them.  This is a country that reacted to its initial urban labor movement with extreme violence; this is a country that reacted to its post-slavery racial relations with extreme and protracted violence.  One could say that this is a country frequently on the edge of destructive incivility in the form of political violence.

To the extent that we are currently witnessing a rise of destructive incivility in American politics, I would argue that it is rooted in a combination of five interrelated phenomena that have presented themselves in the last 30 years or so.

First, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’: the root cause of discontent is the ongoing structural transformation of the American economy from industrial to post-industrial service/financial; this has generated an attendant rise in economic inequality and financial insecurity for a growing number of Americans;

According to NYU economist and author, Edward Wolff, wealth inequality fell in this country from 1929 to the mid-1970s.3 Since then, however, it has almost doubled. In 2003, the top 5 percent owned more than half of America’s wealth.

Or to put it another way, the top 5 percent had more wealth than the remaining 95 percent of the population, collectively. […] The bottom 20 percent basically have zero wealth. They either have no assets, or their debt equals or exceeds their assets. A household in the middle — the median household — has wealth of about $62,000. $62,000 is not insignificant, but if you consider that the top 1 percent of households’ average wealth is $12.5 million, you can see what a difference there is in the distribution.

This clearly contradicts Americans’ sense of fairness (as shown in the chart reproduced here),4 and it contradicts their perceptions of the actual distribution of wealth. YET even as 80% of Americans scramble for 15% of the pie (and shrinking!), they don’t organize and politicize along ‘have’ vs. ‘have not’ lines.  Why not?

Second, civic disengagement: vast numbers of citizens  ‘drop out’ of the democratic game of citizenship because

(Read More. . .)

|| Public Participation Project for DeLand 2050

My students and I are working with the City of DeLand to host a series of public participation forums on DeLand 2050, which is a joint planning project the City is conducting with Volusia County to develop a vision for the long term future of the greater DeLand area. We have completed our first meeting and will be conducting five more over the next month. The public’s input will be used by the City and the County to inform a series of joint planning agreements. The announcement for the series of meetings follows:

DeLand 2050deland2050_first

The City of DeLand is working with Volusia County and partnering with
Stetson University to plan for the future of the DeLand region. DeLand
2050 is aimed at creating sustainability that protects and enhances
quality of life; uses resources efficiently; and invests in efficient
and sustainable infrastructure. This will ensure that future residents
of this area enjoy a quality of life that is as good or better than what
we have now.

How you can contribute as a citizen :

Attend one of the public meetings scheduled for this Fall around the
DeLand region. At the meeting, you will discuss the present and future
of the DeLand region with other citizens and provide input on DeLand 2050.

Public meeting schedule and locations :

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 – 5:30 p.m.
City Hall Commission Chambers
120 S. Florida Avenue

Thursday, October 14, 2010 – 6 p.m.
Southwestern Middle School
605 W. New Hampshire Avenue

Wednesday, October 27, 2010 – 6 p.m.
Stetson University, Carlton Union Building
421 N. Woodland Blvd.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 – 6 p.m.
761 E. International Speedway Blvd.

Saturday, November 13, 2010 – 10 a.m.
First Christian Church
1401 W. New York Avenue

Thursday, November 18, 2010 – 6 p.m.
First Assembly Church
551 South Kepler Road

If you cannot attend one of the meetings, you will also be able to learn
about the project and provide input at the DeLand 2050 website:

Your input through the public participation process will shape future
joint planning agreements to be made between DeLand and Volusia County
for the DeLand region.

|| Toward a Democratic Ethic for the New Academic Year

In his autobiography, famed “founding father” Benjamin Franklin enumerated thirteen virtues which he believed led to a morally more perfect life if systematically mastered: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, humility.  Franklin’s virtues are considered a classic expression of the so-called “Protestant ethic,” a disciplined lifestyle and set of cultivated habits which sociologist Max Weber argued nurtured capitalism.franklin

Just as capitalism requires a certain kind of ethic or code of conduct to thrive, so does democracy.  This is all the more so when democracies like the United States are now facing simultaneously increasing political polarization and disengagement.  If democracy, as popularly defined, means government of, for, and by the people, then the people’s disposition toward participation in government proves critical to democracy.

A meaningful democratic ethic cannot simply mean belief in representative government and individual rights since neither of these alone urge participation.  Rights to participation are not imperatives to participation, and representative government at its worst entails the abdication of government to a ruling minority.  A willingness to pay attention and vote once every one to four years when an election rolls around would be a step forward for many citizens, but hardly a democratic ethic to be proud of.  A meaningful democratic ethic is not a periodic act, but an ongoing lifestyle, a set of everyday actions and attitudes that allow democracy to flourish the more citizens practice them.

With a new academic year upon us, with its ritual reflection on how we can become better persons, I propose the following three elements toward a democratic ethic:

A Public Disposition

First and arguably foremost, democracy demands citizens disposed to engage with each other to pursue public goods and tackle public problems, from local green space and neighborhood safety to global warming and disease.  This disposition to engage in public life with neighbors, strangers and even foreigners as fellow citizens (whether of a locality, a nation, or the world) must be as strong if not stronger than the temptation to withdraw from public life into what political scholar Alexis de Tocqueville called our “small, private circles” of family and friends.

Friends and family are far more likely than neighbors and strangers to be of like mind, and being among the like-minded is far more comfortable.  Yet engaging those different from us in ongoing, constructive ways is much more important and potentially rewarding in a world marked at once by interdependence, division, and threat.  Building meaningful, ongoing relationships with those different is difficult, and this is why the world needs citizens with a public disposition, that is, an inclination to work with neighbors, strangers and foreigners to address common issues.

(Read More. . .)

|| Participatory Institutions in Latin America — the Next Generation

meetingTen years ago, Rebecca Abers published the first scholarly book in English on participatory budgeting in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre: Reinventing Local Democracy (2000). Since then, a score of books have come out on the subject, including one by this author, as well as numerous scholarly articles and doctoral dissertations. Empirical trends have been no less striking: “cases of participatory innovation … are surprisingly common and appear to represent a growing trend toward experimentation with participatory forms of democracy in local governments throughout Latin America” [Selee and Peruzzotti, ix].

All this attention reflects widespread concern with multiple ‘quality deficits’ among contemporary Latin American democracies [Diamond, Plattner, and Brun (2008); Diamond and Morlino (2005); O’Donnell, Cullell, and Iazzetta (2004)]. The ‘Participatory Promise,’ celebrated in many of the first generation of studies of participatory budgeting in Brazil (i.e. 1990s to early 2000s), resurrects the hope that human agency — democratic human agency — can and does matter even in the face of Latin America’s longstanding social inequalities, democratically debilitating corruption, and political clientelism [In addition to Abers (2000), a list of such ‘first generation’ book-length studies would include Avritzer (2002); Avritzer and Navarro (2003); Baiocchi (2003); Chavez and Goldfrank (2004); Fedozzi (2000); Nylen (2003); and Vilas Boas (1994)]. By and large, the first generation studied successful cases of PB, mostly in Brazil and many focusing on Porto Alegre. Findings indicated that PB tends to uphold the Participatory Promise that participatory reforms can be efficacious in ‘democratizing democracy.’

Ten years and many more empirical cases later, some of us are not so sure. A second generation of studies of PB and other mechanisms of participatory innovation (PI) — some of which are listed below — has since brought to bear a range of sophisticated and varied methodologies and applied them to cases of both success and failure, and of various ‘in-between’ outcomes. And while many analysts continue to study experiences of local-level PIs in Brazil, Porto Alegre’s PB is no longer presented as the norm; on the contrary, it is widely recognized as something of an anomaly. (Read More. . .)

|| Private Individualism and Political Withdrawal, Part 4.

This is the fourth in a series of articles on politically disengaging forms of individualism.  This series explores the connections between individualism(s) and politics through in-depth interviews I conducted with young (20s and 30s) American professionals for a book I am writing on American political culture. Individualism is a word familiar to academics and non-academics alike.  Academics and political liberals often equate individualism with selfishness. But individualism as Americans speak it and live it is not simply selfishness, though it has profound and often problematic implications for whether and how Americans connect with government and politics.  Part 4 looks further into the language of choice, and a corresponding “self-determining” individualism.

The language of choice is part of the vocabulary of contemporary American individualism, and that vocabulary nurtures and is nurtured by a particular individualistic self.  A number of major modern developments have likely spurred the advance of this individualistic self, including an extensive division of labor, massive expansion in consumer choice, and the proliferation of niche markets and diverse lifestyles.  Americans have long been viewed as individualistic, but that individualism has evolved in part in line with these major modern developments in work and leisure.  One important component of this evolution of the individualistic self has been a long-standing, gradual movement from a felt sense of social obligation to family, man_starechurch, employer, party, government, etc. to a sense of individual choice (Bellah et al 1985, Yankelovich 1982, 1998, Wolfe 2001).  Contemporary Americans are in some sense freer than they have ever been in the history of the United States, if not the world.  Sociologist Alan Wolfe explains (2001: 199-200):

Never have so many people been so free of moral constraint as contemporary Americans.  Most people, throughout most of the world, have lived under conditions in which their morality was defined for them.  Now, for the first time in human history, significant numbers of individuals believe that they should play a role in defining their own morality as they contemplate their proper relation to God, to one another, and to themselves….Moral freedom has become so ubiquitous in America that we sometimes forget how pathbreaking it is.  We simply no longer live in a world in which women are encouraged to stay home and raise the children, government’s word is to be trusted, teachers can discipline as well as instruct, the police enforce laws against what is considered immoral conduct, and religious leaders are quick to offer – and their parishioners are quick to accept – unambiguous prescriptions for proper Christian conduct.

Similar to other scholars’ generational findings (e.g., Jensen 1995, Putnam 2000, Zukin et al. 2006), Wolfe believes that those Americans who experienced the Great Depression and/or World War II as children were, Wolfe argues, the last generation of Americans to consider this “moral freedom” strange (2001: 211):

Had you asked most Americans in 1950 whether they lived in a free country, they would have quickly answered in the positive.  And had you asked them whether this meant that they could pretty much live in any manner that best seemed to fit their inclinations – that they could join or quit any church at will, enter divorce as frequently as they entered into marriage, join or not join the armed forces as they saw fit, and pick the school that, in their opinion, would best educate their children – they would not have understood the question.

The trend toward what Wolfe calls “moral freedom” or what I will call a self-determining individualism is by no means uniformly negative.  For instance, if Americans now feel that they have a (Read More. . .)

|| Review of Sirianni, Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance.

Sirianni, Carmen. 2009. Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press (978-0815703129).

Occasionally, a book is so well written and of such importance that it really catches your attention.  Such is the case for me with a recently published book, Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance, by Carmen Sirianni (Brookings Institution Press, 2009). This book provides some real substance on why there is a special role for government – local, state, and federal – in making greater civic engagement happen, and what these governments can (and should) do to play this role.  In chapter 1, Sirianni provides a very convincing argument for the government role, or what he calls “Government as Enabler.”  Here he suggests that the social costs of engagement and participation have increased, and that in the absence of public investment in the capacity for people to participate, participation will continue to decline.  Perhaps equally important, Sirianni accepts the premise that peoples’ ability to govern themselves – the very fabric of democracy in the U.S. – is at stake.

In chapter 2, the discussion generalizes the role of government into elaboration of eight core principles of collaborative governance and the design of public policies to support collaborative governance – core principles that are derived from a wide array of studies and thought.  These core principles include: co-production of public goods, where public policy should encourage and enable the work of citizens in co-producing public services; mobilization of community access, where policy should take advantage of existing community assets, skills, and talents to address problems; sharing of professional expertise to mobilize professional expertise in order to ensure that regular citizens learn from that expertise; enabling public deliberation to ensure public discussion and reasoning; promoting sustainable partnerships among various relevant stakeholders in decision making;  building fields and governance networks that support the civic organizations and infrastructure that undergirds civil society; transforming local institutional cultures to become “learning organizations” focused on problem-solving; and ensuring “reciprocal accountability” to maximize responsiveness to local problems.

With these core principles articulated, Sirianni proceeds to examine three excellent case studies.  (Read More. . .)

|| Forum on the Public’s Role in Planning for Growth and Development.

We (the students enrolled in my Civic Education class, myself, and the other contributing editors of hosted a public deliberative forum at Stetson University on April 20, 2010. I plan to share the results and reflections on that event in some detail. First up is the formal press release we issued at the end of the evening:

Forum on the Public’s Role in Planning for Growth and Development

News Release
For Immediate Release
April 20, 2010

On Tuesday evening, April 20, a forum on the public’s role in planning for growth and development was held at Stetson University. Approximately 120 citizens from around Volusia County attended to discuss different approaches to the issue.

The evening kicked off with a keynote address by the Frank Bruno, chair of the Volusia County Council. Most of the evening was devoted to deliberation among the growth forum 1participants who were seated in 8 groups, each facilitated by a moderator. The participants looked at four distinctly different but commonly held approaches to defining the public’s role before developing responses of their own.

The summit was sponsored by the Political Science department at Stetson University, with support from the University’s Community-Based Research program. The event was organized and led by political scientist Dr. William J. Ball and the students enrolled in his Civic Engagement course.

“We had a very diverse group here tonight. People came from all over the region and ranged in age from 19 to senior citizens,” notes Dr. Ball, “There was a great mix of community residents, students and academics, business people, community activists, local government officials, and professional planners.”

Although the largest number of participants who identified their home communities were from the DeLand area (49), the rest represented a large number of communities in the central Florida region, including 13 from Daytona Beach, 6 from DeBary, 5 from Deltona, 4 each from New Smyrna Beach and Ormond Beach, 3 each from Orange City and Port Orange, 2 from Lake Helen, and 1 each from Bradenton, Edgewater, Flagler Beach, Lake Mary, Orlando, and St. Petersburg.

As they arrived, participants in the summit were surveyed on their backgrounds and the view on the public’s role. There was quite a range of familiarity with the topic. When asking to respond to the prompt “I consider myself to be knowledgeable about the issues to be discussed at this forum,” 29% indicated that they strongly agree, 43% agree, 22% neither agree nor disagree, 4% disagree, and 1% strongly disagree.

One of the most discussed topics at the forum was Amendment 4 (Hometown Democracy) which will be on the fall Florida ballot. Although there is no reason to believe that the group attending the forum was representative of the voting public, they were surveyed on their view on the amendment in order to assess the diversity of opinions in the room. The results of the survey question were:

“If the fall election was being held today, how would you vote on Florida Amendment 4 (Hometown Democracy)?”

11%  I don’t know what the amendment is
7%  I know what the amendment is, but I don’t know how I would vote
41%  I would vote for the amendment
41 % I would vote against the amendment

After discussing the initial approaches, participants worked in their groups to develop specific responses on which a majority in each group could agree. The most common responses developed include:

    •    Question the sustainability of growth. Can we balance private property rights with the public good?
    •    Create an educated public that can understand the issues and that understands the public’s duties and responsibilities to guide growth and development decisions.
    •    Offer civic education from grades K-12, and adult education through Citizens Academies.
    •    Reinforce the responsibility of engaged citizens to engage others.
    •    Inspire, educate, and encourage the public to think in long-range terms, grounded in community norms and values.
    •    Create a new, ongoing process for citizens and government to work together.  Address the significant level of public distrust of elected officials.  Ordinary citizens need to have an equal voice and standing in public meetings including rebuttal time, relative to experts, lawyers, and politicians.
    •    Extend government outreach by encouraging agencies to expand their notification radius to inform, educate, and consult with citizens.  Facilitate local and neighborhood organization and meetings on the issues (e.g., homeowner associations, community meetings).
    •    Cultivate fair, unbiased, and competent media contributions to communication and education on sustainable growth issues.

During the final phase of the program each participant provided individual comments on the issue.

“Our goal tonight was to bring together citizens of different views to have a direct discussion with each other as a means to finding the common ground among them.” Dr. Ball commented, “The statements they drafted represent the beginning of a process of finding common ground without glossing over the differences among deeply held values. We look forward to staying in touch with people who wish to continue to work in this spirit and to facilitate their civic engagement.”

|| Politics and Democracy as Conversation.

Each person’s life is lived in a series of conversations1

In the most basic sense, politics is a set of conversations in which proponents of one position or candidate attempt to secure support from the opponents and/or the undecided. Conversations flow from the public to policy-makers, between policy-makers and from policy-makers to the public. Who is engaged in initiating, framing and carrying out the conversations has significant effect on the policy and personnel of government. At best the conversations lead to consensus; at worst to deadlock where the participants do little more than to agree to disagree. Most often the result is a temporary compromise generating further rounds of conversations.

The conversation analogy for politics is a particularly useful since all of us engage in non-political conversations and will readily recognize the behaviors and strategies which either move or frustrate us. As importantly, the analogy allows us to build on the robust research and logic from sociology, psychology and linguistics that while seldom focusing on politics offer useful insights into political conversations.

dockThe conversational perspective naturally generates the image of the town square or general store cracker barrel with everyone having a say in a rational dialogue. While a comforting image supporting the ideals of direct democracy, it would be naive to see the contemporary political conversation in such terms. Not all conversations involve equal partners nor are based on logical deliberation. Some conversations are virtually dictated from the top. Emotion and illogical content often carry the day. Just because conversations fail our standards for the logical application of facts to a well-defined problem resulting in a reasonable set of actions, does not undermine their basic characteristics as conversations.

Politics deals with those preferences and policy options over which reasonable people can, and should, disagree. Conflicting points of view are part and parcel of the political process. While you may have your own “right” answer, there is seldom a societal “right answer” for how policy should proceed. If a right answer is so apparent that virtually everyone can see and agree to it, it can be handled in a bureaucratic way. The potential of conversation is to narrow the gap between individuals, identify potential compatriots and outlines ways in which a coalition can be created to more the process forward. A “good” decision in politics is one where the participants accept the decision-making process and which can be supported by the larges coalition of supporters. The idea of a coalition is that not everyone involved agrees on the goals or methods, but can accept the decision to act.

Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time. If you believe that members of the public are ultimately fools, and that all politicians degenerate into knaves, you might as well nip off this conversation in the bud, for what follows will sound like the foolish ranting of a naïve Pollyanna.  One does not have to believe that all is well with our democratic ideal to believe that it does often work, even if it is in fits and starts. Also by outlining an ideal, we are given a target toward which to aim our attempts at improvement.

Stop for a moment and note down those characteristics you find pleasing in a “good” conversation.

You might have come up with ideas such as:

1.    All the participants have a chance to speak.
2.    Courtesy and civility reign
3.    Participants put as much effort in listening as in talking
4.    Participants bring in new and relevant information, not just preferences or vacuous slogans
5.    Rationality is more important than emotion
6.    Falsehoods are nipped in the bud. Sources are noted.
7.    Brevity is important—Don’t “beat a dead horse.”

Consider these criteria, and those you developed and think about the degree to which the contemporary political conversations in America stack up. Think about who is at fault, if the processes are lacking, and don’t forget to include yourself in the potential blame.

What have YOU done this week to improve the political conversation?

Adapted from Stephen Frantzich, The Conversations of Democracy, Paradigm Publishers, forthcoming


[1] Deborah Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, New York Ballantine Books, p. 13.

|| The Poor State of Florida’s Civic Health.

The 2009 Civic Health Index ranks Florida 44th in terms of its civic culture, concluding “it is, in fact, one of the worst in the nation” (2). The overall ranking is a composite of sub scores, ranking the state 34th in voter turnout, 37th in citizens working with others to address community problems, 48th in attendance at public meetings, and 49th in the percentage of citizens who volunteer.

While the Civic Health Index doesn’t attempt to account for the causes of Florida’s poor civic health, the authors point to research by the Corporation for National and Community Service (which also ranks Florida 49th in volunteering) that suggests causes for low levels of volunteering: low attachment to the community, long commutes to work, low levels of education, high levels of poverty, and low capacity in civic associations to recruit and manage volunteers. If the Corporation’s hypotheses are correct, it is not hard to see why Florida has such poor civic health– a state particularly characterized by a highly mobile population, many of whom do not consider it “home,” low financial support for education, and high levels of poverty.Florida's Poor Civic Health

The authors of the Civic Health Index offer some possible avenues to improve the situation in Florida: strengthening the (K12) education system, involving seniors in public life, facilitating the growth of social networks, and taking advantage of new technologies. However there are two major players that aren’t featured in this analysis: government and universities.

Government should be particularly concerned about the state’s low ranking on public meetings. Low turnout means participants that do attend are highly unrepresentative of the population, usually bringing in the door only the most extreme or self-interested view points. This in turn makes public meetings a negative experience for everyone and unuseful for formulating public policy. The proper response is probably not more meetings but meetings that build interest in civic life. The purpose of public meetings itself needs to be re-examined. The government organizers of public meetings should be making design choices that emphasize bringing in new sectors of the population that are currently not attending, and, most importantly, making the experience of participating in a public meeting an affirming rather than alienating experience for the public.

Many colleges and universities are engaged in traditional civics education. Indeed the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida and the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida (two contributors to the Civic Health Index report) are to be commended for their initiative to bring civics education to middle schools in Volusia county and elsewhere in the state. In addition, volunteerism and community service are more prevalent and institutionally supported than ever on college campuses throughout the country. But there is yet more than can be done.

The Civic Health Index reports points to a more fundamental source of the symptoms that lead to low rankings: the lack of personal identification with a shared community among the citizens of the state. Creating, among the citizenry, identification with the community (a desire to find the common good) combined with efficacy as public actors (the traditional goal of civic education) is the undiscovered country of civic research and practice for colleges and universities. These institutions should be bringing together schools and governments, nonprofits and businesses, parties, interest groups and the underrepresented to study the problems of civic community building and to assist all of these partners in jointly creating what has come to be called “bridging social capital.” Everyone needs to be in the room together for this to happen, not just the usual suspects limited to the trained representatives of opposing views. Indeed, given their missions and the nature of the enterprise of high education, colleges and universities are probably the only social institutions capable of creating bridging social capitol of this sort. By reason of default then, it has become their responsibility if our civic health is to improve.


Corporation for National and Community Service. Volunteering in America. Online at:

National Conference on Citizenship. 2009 Florida Civic Health Index. Online at:

|| Private Individualism and Political Withdrawal, Part 3.

This is the third in a series of articles on politically disengaging forms of individualism (part 1 and part 2). This series explores the connections between individualism(s) and politics through in-depth interviews I conducted with young (20s and 30s) American professionals for a book I am writing on American political culture.

Individualism is a word familiar to academics and non-academics alike. Academics and political liberals often equate individualism with selfishness. But individualism as Americans speak it and live it is not simply selfishness, though it has profound and often problematic implications for whether and how Americans connect with government and politics.  Part 3 examines the common American language of choice, and its political implications.

In the course of my interview with Madison, a married bank credit officer in her mid-twenties, “Rock the Vote” – a non-profit offshoot of the music industry officially dedicated to increasing youth voter turnout and political hc_protesterengagement – came up as an example of an organization whose approach to engaging citizens she approved of (italics below are mine):

Madison: I think that Rock the Vote, that sort of thing, they really made a valid attempt. Granted I don’t know, you know, how successful they were, but that’s a great start to just to keep people more informed, like, what the heck, you know?

Paul: What’s a great start? What is it about Rock the Vote that’s good?

Madison: Just that they encouraged people that normally wouldn’t listen, probably the younger demographic, to say “listen you have the power to – as an individual – you could be part of this group that could change something.”  Go for it, if you want to.  If you want to, go for it.  They didn’t force anybody to do it, but they made people want to be involved, you know, and that’s cool.

“Go for it” is such a common expression in American speech that it can seem patently uninteresting, merely a way to encourage a person or group to pursue a line of action.  But in listening to my respondents, and in reading the transcripts of our interviews, it became apparent to me that several of my respondents used this mundane expression “go for it,” and they used it in the same or similar way Madison uses it – not just to encourage, but to signal a choice, an opportunity – not an obligation, individual or collective.  The expression “Go for it” is part of a language of choice, and that language generally frames actions instantly or ultimately as individual choices rather than social artifacts, whether these social artifacts are commands, felt obligations, shared ethics, situational norms, or else. 

Madison was not alone in asserting politics as a choice.  Most of my interviewees did not identify with the activist or “political animal,” but they nonetheless encouraged those who feel so inspired to pursue their passion for politics.  As Jane, a single health researcher in her mid-twenties, colorfully responded to the political animal, “Fantastic, rock on! I hope your views are good.  Represent women’s health and health care in general….I admire their moxie….they’re doing something and they are being true to themselves and they’re being genuine about it, so—that’s what it’s all about.”  In addition, in the course of my interviews, several of my respondents, mostly unsolicited, expressed preference for political organizers who convey the importance of voting without prescribing who to vote for, who fairly present different political choices rather than seeking to sway people toward one choice.  No one argued contrary to these sentiments.  Also, when I asked my respondents the following question:

Which of the following statements seems to you a more effective approach for an individual to pursue to change people’s minds or behavior?
1) Lead by example. 
2) Join with others in a group working toward the same goal. 
3) Seek to persuade people you know by engaging them in discussion.
4) Pray, and have faith in God. 

(Read More. . .)

|| A Manifesto for Educational Democracy.

Schools as “Leader Training Grounds”

A couple of years ago, I received news from Deerfield Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts and my high school alma mater, that its headmaster, Eric Widmer was to become the first headmaster of the newly formed “King’s Academy,” in Madaba, Jordan.  As Deerfield’s alumni newsletter indicated, The King’s Academy aspires to be a “training ground for the region’s next generation of business, community, and government leaders.”

Sounds altogether laudable.  It is, after all, perhaps the highest aspiration of ambitious schools – especially preparatory schools and many colleges and universities – to become “training grounds” for the best known “leaders” since such boosts a school’s prestige, and higher prestige brings more student and faculty applications, selectivity and funding.

studentsBut does this “leader training ground” approach to education advance the public good?  Surely it does if students are selected from far and wide according to their academic merit rather than their social status, right?

Contrary to common belief, this approach fundamentally undermines the public good regardless of how meritocratic it may be. Determining what is the public good can be an endless debate, but if we as modern people maintain that democracy is a critical part of any public good there is good reason to question the “leader training ground” aspiration of most schools.

Behind the Meritocratic Mask

Many if not most well-meaning people in modern societies see education as the rightful engine for social progress.  Underlying this belief is the modern conviction that merit – rather than birth, tradition, race, gender, class, religion, age, sexual orientation, etc. – should determine advancement up the social “ladder” or hierarchy.

Such meritocracy is a nice idea except for at least two problems.  First, those who apply to good schools and do well in school come disproportionately from privileged families, which tend to have more time, taste and money for education.  So, no matter how meritocratic the school, most of its student and faculty applicant pool hails from middle and upper class families.  Second, no matter how meritocratic the school, current meritocracy rarely questions the social ladder’s height, let alone its existence.  Meritocracy simply seeks to ensure free movement up and down the ladder so that those most capable rise while those least capable fall.

Accordingly, far from reducing social inequalities, meritocratic schools perpetuate and intensify inequalities.  As prestige-conscious school administrators know well, a school’s prestige thrives when it attracts and produces elites, people who command the highest positions in major political, economic and cultural institutions.  Schools may well seek to achieve need-blind admissions and advance knowledge for the common good, but these efforts leave intact the ways they deepen social inequalities through their taken-for-granted practices, including the following:

(Read More. . .)

|| On the “Political Wetlands.”

In a series of recent articles David Matthews, President of the Kettering Foundation, has offered the concept of  the “political wetlands” as a wellspring of an organic and deliberative form of democracy.1 He argues that the political wetlands lie underneath the superstructure of institutional politics where in “informal gatherings, ad hoc associations, and the seemingly innocuous banter that goes on. . .problems are given names, issues are framed for discussion, decisions are made, and the results are evaluated.” According to Mathews “we are seeing ways of acting, of generating power, and of creating change that are unlike what occurs in institutional politics.” He also refers to this process by the term “organic,” in other words, things “that are natural or close to ordinary life.” The political wetlands outlined by Matthews is a positive place, a place where, like real wetlands, the toxic by products of our civil society can be filtered out and public life can be refounded on civility and a desire to work together to solve a community’s problems.wetlands_doorway

Yet recent research in informal politics strongly indicates that there is nothing organic or positive about these political wetlands, if they exist at all. Two studies in particular cast doubt on the existence of political wetlands as a counter to the negativity and divisiveness of institutional politics. Katherine Cramer Walsh spent three years listening to the informal talk of a group of “old timers” (supplemented by additional groups) and how they constructed their social identities while discussing politics and other issues.2 She found that informal talk among organic affinity groups consists primarily of distinguishing “us” from “them,” most often, in her key study group, along racial lines. Public issues are then filtered through these self-constructed social identities, usually resulting in unquestioned attachment to one side of the issue. Her qualitative research points to her conclusion that “not only do people self-select into associations in which they are not exposed to cross-cutting points of view but in this interaction they reinforce communities of concern that further diminish the potential for future discussion with people of different perspectives.”   The use of national, large sample quantitative data by Diana Mutz resulted in exactly the same conclusion.3 Further, Mutz found that the more voluntary associations one belonged to, the less likely one is to have conversations with people of a different point of view. This birds of a feather phenomenon is becoming increasingly known in political science not as the political wetlands but as the “dark side of social capital” — it may well be roots of the problems with our institutional politics rather than the solution.

Beyond these studies a cautionary tale lies in the two-part posting by Bill Nylen (The Promise of Local Government, below). As he details, the local institutional political scene is hideously complex, even in a small town. It creates daunting prospects for groups of  ordinary citizens to find common ground and work together to effect change. The obstacles to a better form of politics at the local level lies in both the citizens themselves and in their political institutions.

Yet, while I argue that we cannot look to an organic political wetlands to fix what is wrong with our institutional politics, I do not mean to suggest that the decades of work by Matthews and Kettering on the problems of democracy have been misdirected ( Indeed, they are all the more vital once the true scope of the problem is more systematically assessed. A political wetlands that brings citizens of differing perspectives together in a civil and deliberative manner to work with local institutions to solve the community’s problems will never emerge organically, it would always be an artificial and highly fragile place. Yet it is probably the only hope for a more satisfactory political system overall and thus is a goal worth pursuing with eyes open to the inherent difficulties that lie before us.


1 Matthews, David. 2009. “Afterward: Ships Passing in the Night?” in Barker, Derek W.M. and David W. Brown (eds). A different Kind of Politics. Dayton, OH: Kettering. Also available online in slightly different editions at The Broker or on the Kettering website.

2 Walsh, Katherine Cramer. 2004. Talking about Politics: Informal Groups and Social Identity in American Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

3 Mutz, Diana. 2006. Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

|| The Promise of Local Government as a ‘School of Democracy’ (Part Two): The City of DeLand, Florida.

“Not only did citizens see their local governments as more relevant; they were also more accessible.  Relevance and accessibility, de Tocqueville argued, translated into active citizen participation — in local government bodies and in numerous voluntary associations — and what political scientists today would call high feelings of personal efficacy.” [from Part One of this blog post]

If Alexis de Tocqueville and his many contemporary followers are correct, a close and engaged citizen-government relationship at the local level fosters a habit of political participation among citizens; and such a habit (or ‘political culture’) is essential for the functioning of democratic governance at all levels of government.  Without citizen participation in multiple public decision-making processes, as opposed to only on election day (if even that!), democracy too easily ‘trickles up and away’ to become an elitist affair of the well-heeled, well-connected and well-placed.

So let me turn to my hometown — DeLand, Florida — as a case study of contemporary North American local-level governance.  What I describe below is a system that only loosely resembles the relevant and accessible “secondary institutions,” and the efficacious participating citizenry, of De Tocqueville’s story of democracy in America.1


First, it’s hard to avoid the fact that the City of DeLand functions primarily as a deliverer of services.  When you drive into the parking lot of DeLand’s brand new city hall, a bank of parking spaces is labeled “customer parking” — not ‘citizen parking.’  Residents’ most common interaction with the city is when they pay their monthly water bills (with penalties for late payment, including shutting off water if payment is a few days late).  Other basic services, such as sewage, garbage collection, police and fire services, and parks and recreation are primarily paid for in the annual property tax bill.  In recent polls commissioned by the city, DeLand residents expressed their overall satisfaction with the services delivered by the city, even when they don’t necessarily enjoy paying the taxes that make those services possible.  Stetson University Sociologist, John Schorr, who carried out the polls, argues that in DeLand, “democracy at the local level is often seen by city residents as the effective provision of services.  Polls of residents can be a form of democracy since their results are presented to the City Commission in open public meetings.”2 Actual citizen participation, however, is not part of the service delivery equation … until service rates need to be increased.  As Mayor Bob Apgar told me, “People participate when they’re mad.”3 So when they do participate, they don’t often do so in a ‘civically-conscious’ manner.  Citizen-customers, according to Mayor Apgar, have a “fast-food mentality” (also described as an “instant-gratification mentality”): they expect a high level of quality of city services, but they’re “ill-informed” about what it takes to actually produce those services even though they’re very aware of the price they pay, and get very impatient and angry when the price increases.  In the current economic crisis, increased property taxes on declining property values have fueled this impatience and anger, and have fed into local manifestations of the anti-tax and anti-‘Big Government’ sentiment seen all over the country.

(Read More. . .)

|| Private Individualism and Political Withdrawal, Part 2.

This is the second part of a piece started in this post.

Private individualism’s third inclination is to define freedom in individual rather than collective terms.  Freedom is commonly considered a, if not the cardinal American value.  Contrary to political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville’s early sense that Americans value their equality more than their freedom, it seems fairer to argue at least for contemporary Americans that they value their freedom more than equality.  But whereas Tocqueville spoke of political liberty, contemporary Americans like my interviewees have a very different meaning of liberty in mind.  Given its cardinal value, the meanings Americans ascribe to freedom have enormous implications for whether or not freedom advances or undermines citizen engagement and democracy.  For this reason, I asked my interviewees to tell me what freedom means to them.  In one of the questions I posed to them, I presented them with four definitions, and asked them to choose their favorite, then explain their choice.  The question I posed went precisely as follows:woman_alone_stadium

Which of the following definitions of freedom better expresses your understanding of what freedom means?

  1. My ability to be what I can be, to develop myself to my fullest potential.
  2. My ability to do what I want so long as I don’t interfere with others.
  3. My voluntary submission to the common good of my community.
  4. A group’s ability to govern themselves as a group, to together determine the conditions of their group life.

There is abundant scholarship on freedom, and those scholars who study freedom are well aware of the body of thinkers who have advanced collective rather than individual conceptions of freedom, including such disparate figures as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Karl Marx.  Countless liberal thinkers have, rightly or wrongly, expressed concern if not horror at the implications, theoretical or actual, of collective conceptions of freedom such as those of Rousseau and Marx (e.g., concerns for minority rights, private property, individual privacy).  Yet at their debatable best, many collective notions of freedom simply, basically insist that freedom entails collective self-government, and social self-development.1 Nonetheless, whether or not academics who study freedom embrace or reject collective freedom, it is, as noted, a familiar concept to them.  The same, however, cannot be said for my interviewees.

(Read More. . .)

|| Age, Race, Ethnicity, and Electoral Competition in the 2008 Election.

To state that the 2008 presidential election was historic is, of course, now a bit passé.  The election, however, was historic.  Not only did 2008 witness the first African-American and female candidates with a legitimate chance of winning the presidency (and the first woman on the national Republican ticket), the American electorate, in fact, elected the country’s first African-American president. Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 was in part the result several forces (a very unpopular incumbent president, an equally unpopular war, and an historic economic crisis just before the election) that came together to advantage the Democratic candidate and disadvantage his Republican rival, John McCain.

In a recent paper, Seth McKee and I argued that another factor crucial to Obama’s victory was his ability to change the composition of the electorate by bringing in traditionally low participation groups such as the young (18-29), African-Americans, and Hispanics (McKee and Hill, 2009).  Turnout for all three groups increased between 2004 and 2008 with African-Americans experiencing the largest increase of any demographic group (eight points) and young and Hispanic citizens witnessing smaller but nonetheless noticeable increases.  Most other demographic groups (e.g. older Americans, whites as a group) also experienced modest increases in turnout.

The increases noted above are based on data taken from the Census Bureau’s 2004 and 2008 Current Population Survey: Voter Supplements and represent national trends. Presidential elections, of course, take place within the context of the Electoral College, and thus there is variation in the nature of the presidential election across states. Specifically competition levels across states vary considerably, with some states being highly competitive (e.g. Florida and Ohio) and other states (most of them) uncompetitive (e.g. Massachusetts and Utah).  Electoral competition is crucial to turnout because it stimulates interest in the electorate and more importantly induces the parties and candidates to expend resources to win the votes of potential supporters.  Because of the great variation in competition across states, Seth and I hypothesized that the increases in turnout among our three groups of interest (the young, African-Americans, and Hispanics) would be greater in competitive states than in non-competitive states.

(Read More. . .)

|| Private Individualism and Political Withdrawal, Part 1.

This is the first in a series of articles on politically disengaging forms of individualism.  This series explores the connections between individualism(s) and politics through in-depth interviews I conducted with young (20s and 30s) American professionals for a book I am writing on American political culture. Individualism is a word familiar to academics and non-academics alike.  Academics and political liberals often equate individualism with selfishness. But individualism as Americans speak it, and live it, is not simply selfishness.  Yet it has profound and often problematic implications for whether and how Americans connect with government and politics.  The first article, in two parts, examines what I call “private individualism.”

two reading the paperHistorically, if it can be said that there has been a broad trend in the United States toward the rejection of politics since the late nineteenth century, that rejection has taken two forms.  First, in certain ways there has been a shift from collective to individual political engagement, e.g., from public to private voting, from grassroots political parties to professional, money and media-driven parties, plus a steady decline in labor union membership.  Second, there has been a more recent shift, dating roughly from the 1970s onward, from political to civic action, as politics becomes a dirtier word due in part to the watershed that was Watergate, and as more and younger Americans opt for civic ways to help others or “give back.”  This rejection of politics springs in part from certain forms of individualism some if not many Americans share.

To briefly define individualism, it’s arguably most fundamental principle is a belief in the intrinsic value or sacredness of the individual.  Beyond this core principle, individualisms develop in different ways in different times and places.  Yet however they may diverge, individualisms all tend to have implications for the public life of citizens in a democracy because they fundamentally define how people should understand and relate to each other.  This brings us to what I call private individualism, the first in a series of forms of political disengaging individualisms I have found in interviews with contemporary young Americans.

(Read More. . .)

|| Brief Review: Leighninger, The Next Form of Democracy.

Leighninger, Matt. 2006. The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance — and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press (082651541X).

Matt Leigninger, executive director of the newly formed Deliberative Democracy Consortium, has provided a volume that exceeds the quality of what is typical on the theme, i.e. a series of inspirational case studies with little basis for useful generalization by the reader. The Next Form of Democracy is certainly replete with local case studies of citizen participation in governance. Yet even in these alone Leigninger improves upon previous works by conveying not only how participatory efforts can get off the ground, but also the myriad ways in which they mostly fail to become self-sustaining in the end. Moreover, he approaches the citizen-government relationship from all points in the community, from that of government and nonprofits as well as that of citizens.

The real value in the book, because it is so rarely found in works by practitioners, is the content that can be generalized from individual case studies and thus provides workable knowledge for everyone in the field. While not engaging in empirical analysis, nor rising to the level of what I would call “theory,” Leighninger does have a way of summarizing experience with wisdom and presenting it in a refreshing manner. For example early on one encounters “The Seven Deadly Citizens,” the error of treating citizens solely as voters, consumers, socializers, volunteers, advisors, the disempowered, or deliberators. Similar passages can be found on the problem of scaling up participatory democracy, community organizing, building new “citizen structures,” and others. In addition to these useful summaries of experience the author regularly connects individual cases to broader issues of governance in the relevant policy domain (e.g. education, race relations) and to the rise and institutionalization of the participatory governance movement in North America.

The book’s limitations are primarily organizational. The overarching structure is disjointed; there is not a logical progression of topics from earlier to later chapters. The summaries noted above can occur almost anywhere in a chapter, and don’t occur uniformly across them. Yet The Next Form of Democracy is clearly written from the perspective of someone who has directly observed the rise (and fall) of a wide variety of individual local efforts and at the same time understands the driving forces at work in a broader national struggle for participatory governance. It’s a worthwhile read as a result.

|| Reconnecting with America’s Invisible Democracy.

Ask Americans to tell you whatever comes to mind when they think of the word “politics” and to no one’s surprise, a lot of what they say will be negative.  But beyond the negative association with politics, there is another pattern less often noted yet perhaps just as significant for democracy in America: when most Americans think of politics they think of national politics, and particularly presidential politics – not state politics, not county politics, not municipal politics.

Ask Americans whether they vote, and many will claim they vote always or most of the time.  Then ask those supposedly avid voters whether they vote only in presidential election years.  If they are honest, many will admit that they will vote only when there is a presidential election, and this does not mean that they vote for all offices down the ballot. Many voters simply do not know who their U.S. Representative or U.S. Senators are, let alone where they stand, let alone who their state, county, or municipal representatives are, or what they do.

Of course, none of this is new to political scientists, or anyone who pays attention to statistics on voter turnout and political knowledge.  But there are political statistics, and then there is political culture. Political culture can help explain the statistics.Voting Booth

For a couple of years now, I have been asking the above questions of young Americans as part of a book I am writing on how they think about politics, community and citizenship.  What is striking is not just the turnout and knowledge statistics, but the political imagination these kinds of questions reveal.  What questions like these indicate is that when Americans are prompted to think about politics, the vast majority of democracy in America – the enormous and enormously consequential apparatus of government below the U.S. president – does not even occur to them.  And when prompted to think about that vast majority of democracy, many Americans not only know little about it, but refer to it, often dismissively, as “local politics.”  The contrast with Alexis de Tocqueville’s account of the 19th century American citizen proudly and busily engaged in local government is striking.

Here are a few facts to give a sense of the magnitude of that democracy so many contemporary Americans dismiss or simply don’t see:

There is just one federal government, but there are 50 state governments, 3,034 county governments, 35, 933 city, town and village governments, and 13,506 school districts across the United States.  That’s 1 federal government, and 52,523 “local” governments.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, our federal government employs 4.9 million people, including full-time, part-time, and full-time equivalent (FTE) employees, civilian and military.  In contrast, our fifty state governments employ nearly double that number: 9.5 million people.  Our municipal governments employ over five times the federal number: 26.4 million people. That’s 5 million employed at the federal level, and 36 million at the “local” level.

Dogmatic conservatives, of course, cringe at so much government.  They see nothing but inefficiency, failure, and corruption.  I see opportunity, whether for good or bad, for engaged democracy or unaccountable bureaucracy.

Most of American government need not be invisible to Americans.  I am sure readers of this blog can all quite easily imagine ways to make state, county and municipal government more salient in the minds and lives of Americans.  Clearly, news media, as one of the major shapers of Americans’ political imaginations, have a large role to play, though the decline of newspapers and the intensifying profit focus do not bode well for news media as engines of political education.  But there are other possibilities.

(Read More. . .)

|| The Closing of the Florida Frontier?

Recent feature articles in the New York Times (August 29, 2009) and Orlando Sentinel (August 17, 2009) have highlighted the beginning of the decline of population in Florida. After a century of rapid population growth that provided the mainstay of economic development and dominated state politics, Florida appears to be entering a new era.

It is easy to be fooled into believing that the decline is only temporary and rapid growth will soon resume. For example check any existing population projection for the state or its counties and you will see a steadily upward reaching line out to 2030 and beyond. However all projections are based on past trends and thus inevitably miss the reversals in trends. Instead of looking at projections, take a look at estimates of actual population as they become available. For example, I have graphed the U.S. Census bureau’s population estimates for my home region of Volusia County, Fl.

From U.S. Census estimates by Bill Ball

From U.S. Census estimates. Graph by Bill Ball.

The rapid growth in population in the county in this decade slowed significantly in 2007 and the population actually declined in 2008. Note that this decline happened before the real estate crises and subsequent current recession. It is not hard to imagine what the trend will look like for 2009. It won’t be pretty for an economy driven by cheap, fast residential growth.

Indeed I will make a couple predictions:

  1. Volusia county will not see a return to rapid population growth, not next year, not the year after, not for the foreseeable future.
  2. This will create a crisis for the current economic system and policy regime that are built around rapid growth, a crisis that lasts beyond the current recession.

These are daunting prospects in a region whose sole competitive advantage is cheap land and where there is relatively little industry or agriculture, dwindling water resources, no investment in education, and where incomes are well below the national average.

Also, the current political system is not designed to meet a challenge like this. Indeed, the campaigns leading up next fall’s vote on the Hometown Democracy ballot issue will only make the search for common ground on the future of economic growth harder. Both sides are gearing up to paint the issue of construction-led growth as a black-or-white, take-it-or-leave proposition.

Well times of crisis are times of opportunity. The opportunity to redefine the engine of economic growth in the region is presenting itself. Will we take this opportunity?

(Read More. . .)

|| The Promise of Local Government as a ‘School of Democracy’: Alexis de Tocqueville (part 1).

TocquevilleAlexis de Tocqueville is widely considered to be the founding father of studies in community-based empowerment and participatory democracy.  Researching and writing his famous Democracy in America back in the early 1800s, he was the first to argue the relationship between, in the first instance, a particular democratic institutional design (“administrative decentralization,” and vibrant local-level “secondary institutions” and “voluntary associations”) and, subsequently, a cooperative democratic political culture (“self interest properly understood”).

De Tocqueville found in the Northern states of the early North American republic a political arrangement very different — clearly better, in his mind — than what existed in his native France.  The central, or federal, government in the U.S. was relatively limited in its size, scope and reach.  At the same time, state and especially local governments grappled with issues that were of great daily and practical concern to most citizens.  Not only did citizens see their local governments as more relevant; they were also more accessable.  Relevance and accessibility, de Tocqueville argued, translated into active citizen participation — in local government bodies and in numerous voluntary associations — and what political scientists today would call high feelings of personal efficacy.  The next and highly significant step, according to de Tocqueville, was that local-level participation initially rooted in the pursuit of self interest would gradually be transformed into a “habit” (or culture) of participation; and as this habit developed, citizens would come to see the essential interconnectedness of their own interests with those of their fellow citizens.  Indeed, they would come to realize that their own interests could rarely be protected or promoted without, at the very least, considering, if not actually protecting and promoting the partially-overlapping interests of their fellow citizens as well.  Thus did administrative decentralization and local participatory institutions combine to foster a democratic political culture.  All three would then continue to interact with each other to produce a virtuous cycle of democratic public administration.

Well, one might say, that was then, and this is now.

Over the last 170 years or so since de Tocqueville published Democracy in America, the political-institutional design he so valued has changed significantly.  The federal government has grown exponentially, both in size and in responsibilities.  A great deal of that growth has been both inevitable and (arguably, of course) beneficial: the United States is no longer pre-industrial, isolated, and sparsely-populated; and it’s no longer acceptable that “We the people” include only white, literate males, or that the judicial system not apply to such previously ‘private’ domains as child labor, impure food and drugs, unregulated monopolies, and family abuse and violence.

But what about local governments?  Cetainly, they too have changed in both size and scope.  How has that change affected the relationship de Tocqueville so valued between local political institutions and democratic political culture?  Are local institutions still the “schools of democracy” so touted by Tocqueville?

NEXT:  A case study of my own town — DeLand, Florida — as an illustrative example of contemporary local-level ‘Democracy in America,’ and as a means to begin a fruitful discussion.