Thursday, December 27, 2012

January Excerpt: Democracy by Gar Alperovitz

Democracy: From The Ground Up
Gar Alperovitz 
Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
PHOTO: Tiffany Pan
Reprinted with permission by the author and the Democracy Collaborative. This article was originally published as Chapter Three in Gar Alperovitz, America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy, 2nd Edition (Democracy Collaborative Press and Dollars and Sense, 2011).

What of the central question of democracy itself ? Many have noted the trends of failing belief, the radical decline in voting, the massive role of money and corporate influence in lobbying, media, and elections–and in general, the large numbers who surveys show feel that “our national experiment in self-government is faltering.” That millions of Americans believe “people like me have almost no say in the political system” has been a wake-up call for many on the left, right, and center. 

Several lines of reassessment have become increasingly important as the crisis has deepened. The first, directed to foundational “grassroots” community issues, has come into ever more sharply defined focus in recent years.

The work of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam kicked off a major debate on one aspect of the problem.

Putnam probed well beneath such surface-level issues as the fall-off in voting to focus instead on local citizen associations, networks, formal and informal clubs, neighborhood groups, unions, and the like. Large numbers of Americans, he suggested, were now both actually and metaphorically “bowling alone” rather than in association with others. Putnam suggested that a decline in associational activity, in turn, had produced a decline in trust and “social capital”–foundational requirements of democracy in general. His response was straightforward: the nation should develop as many ways as possible to encourage local involvement–the only way, he held, Americans could hope to renew the basis of democracy throughout the larger system.

Quite apart from Putnam’s studies, general analysis, and recommendations (many of which were challenged by scholars), of particular interest was the explosive reaction to his argument–and the reorientation of strategic concern it represented. The outpouring of interest his first rather academic article on the subject produced revealed that Putnam had struck a powerful nerve. “Seldom has a thesis moved so quickly from scholarly obscurity to conventional wisdom,” observed former White House aide and political scientist William Galston.

Especially important was what was not at the center of attention: Putnam and many who responded to him did not focus on national parties, national interest groups, national lobbying, national campaign finance laws, or national political phenomena in general. What he and they focused on was the “micro” level of citizen groups and citizen involvement. Here, at the very local level, was now the place to begin to look for democratic renewal. The heart of the larger foundational argument–and this is a critical emphasis–might be put thus: Is it possible to have Democracy with a Big D in the system as a whole if you do not have real democracy with a small d at the level where people live, work, and raise families in their local communities? If the answer is no, then a necessary if not sufficient condition of rebuilding democracy in general is to get to work locally.



If you would like to read more from Gar Alperovitz's article in Empirical, the January issue is now available at your local bookstore. 


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