If you want to change the world, start sitting in on county board meetings — and leave your protest signs at home. That’s the advice of Matt Leighninger, who has attended enough school board meetings, city council hearings, and neighborhood gatherings to leave even the most energetic grassroots activist awestruck.
Leighninger is a local government triage worker — a facilitator called in by nonprofit organizations and government units to help solve problems in communities across the nation. In the past decade, he’s helped citizens and local politicians hash out zoning ordinances, launch new schools, and fight crime — and he’s noticed a dramatic shift in the relationships between citizens and their government: Instead of leaving policy and lawmaking to the ‘experts,’ average Joes and Janes are engaged in the hands-on work of building bike trails, writing education policy, and reforming health care plans.
‘Culturally, people are more skeptical and less likely to blindly accept authority,’ says Leighninger. ‘But it’s a funny kind of combination that I’m seeing out there. Citizens have less time for public life, but they bring more skills to the table; they’re less connected to their community, but they’re better able to mobilize and find the resources they need to make change; they feel somewhat more entitled to what government has to give them, but less confident in government’s ability to deliver.’
This shift to what Leighninger calls ‘shared governance’ emerged from a grassroots, ad hoc desire for a new kind of inclusive politics, and he caught the first whiff of its significance at a mayor’s forum in Lakewood, Colorado, where a citizen snapped: ‘What we’ve got here is a parent-child relationship between the government and the people. What we need is an adult-adult relationship.’
In Leighninger’s book, The Next Form of Democracy (Vanderbilt University Press, 2006), he argues that anyone who wants to make change had better understand this new age of adult conversation. Traditionally, politics has been a game of confrontation and negotiation. Community organizers rallied the politically disenfranchised to confront power and compel negotiation: In the words of Saul Alinsky, whose Rules for Radicals is the bible of community organizing, the goal is to help ‘the Have-Nots to take power away from the Haves.’
This approach, which is still the dominant ideology of the left, assumes that a class of people, the Haves, jealously guard power that they use to their own personal advantage. It also requires that a second class of people, the Have-Nots, are excluded from power and so must seize it. Finally (and this is where the ideology gets its romantic juice), it assumes a third class of people, we’ll call them the Organizers, can intuit the needs of the Have-Nots and, given the right issues and skills, marshal them into a force to be reckoned with. It’s easy to see why these assumptions remain compelling: You’ve got a villain in the Haves and a hero in the Organizers. But the Have-Nots? Well, at the end of the day, they’re basically extras in this drama.
Sometimes these assumptions resonate. When lawyer-activists overturn a wrongful death row conviction, for example, they are correcting injustice on behalf of the powerless. More often, however, old-school political conflict leads to frustration and failure. ‘Community organizers schooled in this tradition are finding that they’re not getting the outcomes they want,’ says Leighninger, ‘while public officials feel scarred and wonder why they ever got into public service. And for citizens, even when they get their way, the process is so disempowering that they don’t come out with any sense that they have control.’
In its ideal form, the new style of self-governance Leighninger sees emerging calls on all parties to bring their best qualities to the table. Self-governance assumes that we are not cartoon villains and heroes, but equal parties with an equal stake in the issues and policies that affect our lives; that all of us, including public servants, are simply citizens who wish to place their expertise in service to the commons. And self- governance seeks, rather than a fight for what’s right, solutions that arise from collaboration and consensus.
‘The people who are being organized have a bigger role to play,’ Leighninger says. ‘We’re not just talking about negotiation versus confrontation. The more important piece is reaching out and bringing in a broader range of ordinary citizens, as well as other stakeholders — police officers, schoolteachers, people who maybe have been on opposite sides of the barrier.’
When activists surrender the role of righteous savior to collaborate with the cops and the oppressed, they sometimes have to set aside their pet issues. When a community organization in the blighted neighborhood of Delray Beach, Florida, embarked on a series of small-group meetings, for example, the group hoped to rally the neighborhood to protest rising rents, increased crime, and rampant unemployment, writes Leighninger. When recent arrivals from Haiti showed up, they spoke of their struggles, including run-ins with the police and social workers who didn’t understand Haitian culture. Through the meetings, residents began taking steps to solve their problems, including the creation of an outreach program between the immigrant community and local police.
While the ideas outlined in The Next Form of Democracy have had their greatest success locally, they also can work at the state and national levels. In the mid-1990s, Oklahoma’s League of Women Voters hosted small-group discussions where citizens, legislators, and law enforcement officials talked about criminal justice reform, in a state with the country’s third-highest incarceration rate and a bloated budget for prisons. At the local level, these meetings mobilized a force of newly coined citizen-activists who got involved in projects like church outreach programs and job partnerships with prisoners. In the statehouse, the discussions broke a long stalemate over a reform bill.
The most promising aspect of Leighninger’s vision for the future of American democracy is that it brings us closer to the ideals of true democracy: government by and for the people. The profound disconnect between leaders and citizens has never been more apparent — and while the sitting president makes a stunning example of that detachment, neither he nor his party has a monopoly on imperialism. ‘What’s happening at the local level is a sign of what’s to come,’ Leighninger says, and that provides a whiff of hope for liberty and self-rule.