Sentient Citizen commentary and musings on The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance, by Matt Leighninger.
Have you ever tried to “get involved” in your local world? Perhaps you attend meetings regularly – and, you hate to admit it, but you’ve grown to dread going and you look for excuses to get out of commitments. Okay, not you, but you know someone like that. Uh-hum. Me too. This month’s author, Matt Leighninger, lets us off the hook in his book The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance. He maintains that many people feel befuddled at best and alienated at worst when trying to incorporate meaningful citizen engagement into their lives. He also says this is a driving force behind a growing preference to depart from government by experts in favor of democratic governance, where citizens are deeply involved in the planning, decision-making, and implementation of public administration projects.
The players on Leighninger’s stage are few in category – public officials, community organizers, and active citizens. And the themes throughout the book are very consistent – public happiness, well-rounded citizens, respect, building trust, knowing one another. Sounds like it should be simple, right? So simple, in fact, that a hopeful soul might find herself lulled into naïveté by the siren sounds of a Golden Rule solution: Treat others as you wish to be treated. Leighninger’s examples, which include Lakewood, Colorado’s Belmar development, point to fantastic experiences in communities across the country, but alas, the Golden Rule still proves to be too simplistic as a long-term solution.
I hear you asking yourself, public happiness?…what is that? It is defined in this book as an 18th century phrase used to describe a society where “…every individual is strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him.” (John Adams, p. 34) In modern society, Leighninger says it is ‘a unique kind of happiness that sustains active citizens.’ (33) I say it is a happiness bigger than individual community members can find alone. Many heartening examples illustrate that the places where public happiness resides are filled with well-rounded citizens; that is, those citizens who resist being put into the seven citizen stereotypes outlined by Leighninger. They are Citizen as voter, consumer, socializer, volunteer, advisor, the dispossessed, and deliberator. As is typical with stereotypes, a community is left with a mere trifle of potential when the citizen is seen through a single lens, rather than the kaleidoscope of interests and experiences that is every citizen. The concept of the well-rounded citizen is a clarion call to community organizers and public officials to put the active citizen at the center of the organizing structure, rather than their own agenda. Why? Because of the multiplier effect well-rounded citizens can have on a well-executed project.
It is at this point in my reading, I am yanked out of my enlightened bliss by this statement, “People feel hard-pressed to affect even the most basic quality-of-life issues on their street – problems like excessive noise, dogs without leashes, graffiti, and littering.” (41) THIS is what I’ve been looking for! Hidden in this statement are the questions I seek answers to. Why are we so powerless, we move instead of put down roots? How do we embrace our power as citizens, as consumers, as members of a community? To my misfortune, the author does not pick up this line of digression; so I ask myself, must local politics always be involved in citizen empowerment? They are different, yet they seem often inextricably linked.
Leighninger points to lessons learned in his examples of democratic governance and clearly believes that successful projects come from communities that already possess a strong sense of self. Does metro Denver have a strong sense of self? What does this mean? Mountains and skiers? Sports teams? Delineated neighborhoods? Is it our green-ness? What would a good democratic governance project be in metro Denver and would we be successful at it?
Almost every organization or entity in the author’s examples made impact, but many have also disbanded or faded into the woodwork. The author frequently circles back to this as evidence that the new generation of community organizing is still in a learning curve. I find myself wondering, however, if it is the nature of democratic governance to ebb and flow in its effectiveness. It might just be a keen strategy to avoid becoming myopic and turning a given democratic governance project into something focused on gaining more power, or limiting power for some, or consolidating power. The list goes on. Maybe human nature is our checks and balances tool in democratic governance.
A synonym phrase for the themes of this book might be found in a personal truth from my days of refurbishing furniture: the elbow grease is what makes a piece of garage sale furniture my own. The more care and effort I put into it, the more rewarding the experience as well as the product.
In keeping with the grammer theme, my choice of adjectives for the book itself is ‘enjoyable and engaging’. What do you think?
Stay tuned next month as The Sentient Citizen reads on…