Monday, June 15, 2009

Priorities reveal competing notions of citizenship & community

Our dedicated and talented webmaster, Jim Moran, wrote a post in this space prior to our local election in which he argued for a "balanced" approach to leadership and the distribution of town resources, as well as to the consideration of our town's priorities. The argument was reasonable and fair minded, and it also reveals the dominant notion of Democratic citizenship and community in Longmeadow today.

Despite our founding as a classical democratic community where citizen participation in politics was embedded in our community's institutions and culture, we are now a thoroughly liberal individualistic "community" that expects elected officials to govern in the interests of voters. The classical notion of citizen governance alive at Longmeadow's birth lives on in the laments of the few active members of our community, and more importantly, in our form of government - the town meeting. Unfortunately, the present incompatibility between our operational theory of citizenship and our form of government has caused considerable harm our politics. Frustrated by (and unaware of) the conflict between our behavioral and theoretical assumptions about community and citizenship, many townspeople become angry and bitter. The result is more acrimony in our politics and more townspeople opting out of politics to avoid the bickering. This leaves us often with the worst of both worlds; elite participants operating in a system designed for mass participation. One need only look at the Masslive Longmeadow forum to see how this arrangement deranges the perceptions of some residents.

Longmeadow's politics has too often been reduced to a competition for scarce resources; a competition that pits different constituencies in town against each other. The most enduring rift seems to be between those for whom our schools are most important, central to our town's character and identity, and those for whom our schools are important, but no more so than other town "services." Our language clearly illustrates both this division and the reigning individualistic assumption that this dispute requires "balance" and a "fair distribution" of resources between "competing priorities/interests." We talk about the "town-side and the schools-side. We seem to agree that notions of our town's priorities should be clearly articulated by leaders and should be funded according to their order of priority. These linguistic themes are treated as common sense and we are thus thoroughly entrenched in a liberal individualist political culture, without any consciousness of how this liberal approach clashes with our participatory governing institutions and communitarian aspirations.

If the people of Longmeadow wish to live in a liberal-individualistic political community that sees politics as a competition for resources between disparate visions of the public interest ("ambition v. ambition") it can and should do so, but it cannot continue to be operationally Madisonian and institutionally and rhetorically Tocquevillian. Either we must change our institutions and expectations to fit our present liberal-individualistic behavior, or we must seek to re-invigorate the more communitarian notions of democratic citizenship and community upon which our town was founded and our form of government was designed.

Should we define the public interest of our town the way every place else seems to in America, as the result of compromise between competing and distinct interests? Or, should we try to re-build the notion of citizenship and community that made Longmeadow distinct from other places; a notion of community in which members equate their self interest with that of the community, much like family members. An effort to revive "self interest rightly understood" would be my personal preference because, among other things, it would help mitigate the disconnect between the standards by which we judge politics in our town and the institutions and procedures through which we conduct it.


Jim Moran, LongmeadowBiz said...


I had a little difficulty following your commentary given my training as an engineer/scientist and not as a political scientist.

I suspect because of the positive comments that you made in the first paragraph... that you disagreed with me but I wasn't completely sure... could you dumb it down a little bit and make it clearer?

Jerold Duquette said...

Sorry about that. I am basically arguing that your view (dominant in Long., and America)represents one view of citizenship and community, but that our form of government (town meeting) was designed for a very different view, that of our town's founders who were not liberal individualists, but rather were very communitarian, meaning that they saw the townspeople as a family where in everyone made personal sacrifices for the betterbent of the town without ever thinking of it as unfair or concieving of town resource allocation as "competitive." For example, if the schools were considered the center piece of the town's identity and long term advancement, then even townspeople without kids would consider it more important than "services" which they personally enjoyed.

It is not per se "wrong" to conceive of citizenship and community as we do today, but it is out of step with our town meeting form of government. The mismatch between form and function contributes to ugly politics.

BTW, the compliments are legitimate pandering, not merely an effort to soften a disagreement.