The Power of Local Democracy

I think it’s time to reassert a fundamental Shakespearean truth.  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”  I’m not a fan of Cassius’ solution (assassination), but I agree with his diagnosis.  If we dislike the condition of our community, its politics, or our lives, for that matter, we should consider what we have done or are doing to use the power we possess to make things better.

I believe the current increase in anger, name calling, misinformation, and thoughtless criticism of those who do not share our view of the world is something like a tantrum that generates heat without shedding light.  It requires no discipline, study, or thoughtful analysis to blame others for our problems; and it is much easier to complain than it is to go to work and do something positive.

Reconciling the different views of a large group of people and translating them into beneficial public policies is hard work.  The easy way out is to attack or, like Cassius and Brutus, kill those who do not subscribe to our beliefs.  I’ve lived and worked in places where too many people choose the easy way.  Anyone who imagines life in our community would be better without the rule of law and a peaceful process for resolving disagreement has never experienced the alternative.

Taking charge of our future begins with a commitment to seeking the best information available.  Relying on popular media where the primary goal may be to attract attention rather than inform makes us underlings to those who would manipulate public opinion for personal gain.  We have amazing tools at our disposal that, perversely, give us access to a great range of data, while at the same time making it very difficult to choose or focus on what we need.  The great advantage of local government is that we don’t need to rely on others to find out what is going on.  Council meetings are open to the public; and many jurisdictions, including Albany, broadcast their sessions on the Internet and on cable television systems.  I believe those who regularly attend or watch Council meetings come to understand that the work of local elected officials is not easy and that controversial decisions are rarely as simple as they might appear to be in a short newspaper article.

Much of the anger and resentment directed against government comes from the belief that it is beyond our power to control it.  If that charge is true, the great American experiment has failed; and Lincoln’s resolve expressed in the Gettysburg address “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth,” no longer exists.  I am unwilling to accept this conclusion.  Throughout my career, I have seen countless local elected political leaders make many personal sacrifices to serve their communities.  We would be far better served if those who are angry about government would redirect their name-calling, personal attack energy, first to making an effort to understand the issues and, second, to involving themselves in constructive change.

There is great power in local democracy that often goes untapped by those who complain most loudly.  Cassius was right only insofar as we accept the role of underling and do nothing to change our status.