Localized Democracy and Public Good

To give balance to recent blog posts, I’ll share my thoughts that arose with a discussion I had with my dad.

He is definitely a conservative in most ways, fiscally and socially. However, he is intelligent and well informed which has caused him to adjust his views over time. I often use him as a way of testing the direction of political winds, specifically which way mainstream conservatism is blowing.

I can lean strongly left at times and my father can lean strongly right. This often leads to disagreements, but maybe just as often leads to certain kinds of agreements. As conservatism and liberalism meets in the middle, the right-wing and left-wing meets in the political desert.

It’s my dad’s fiscal conservatism that saves him from the ideological blindness of partisan politics. He is an economically practical man who has worked in and taught business management. It has been his business to consider new information. My leftism has maybe served a similar role. It’s basically within the general realm of libertarianism that my father and I can find common ground, although neither of us is an ideologically committed libertarian.

The discussion we were having was fairly typical, not unlike any number of other discussions we’ve had. I guess it stood out to me because I sensed my dad was struggling with new info and so reassessing a bit. There is a newsletter he reads and the financial advisor who writes it doesn’t seem particularly conservative. He was reading this newsletter and the info was food for thought.

For example, my dad is slowly coming around to taking environmentalism more seriously. He was reading about how we as a society can’t continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere. This might seem obvious to those on the left, but this is the type of info my dad has spent a lifetime avoiding and the conservative media has helped him avoid it.

Environmentalism isn’t the main issue my dad brought up, rather economics as it relates to politics. Environmentalism only connected because my dad was considering the commentary that oil will no longer play the role as a cheap energy source. This is problematic as our entire society has been literally fueled by cheap energy and it could be a while before we develop a new cheap energy.

The economics and politics angle, I think, related to developing new energy sources. My dad was telling me about how this financial advisor was saying debt itself wasn’t the problem, but whether deficit spending was being used toward pragmatic investments or not. This goes against my dad’s fiscal conservatism.

Both my dad and I agree that bailing out banks was a bad idea. I was telling my dad about Iceland and he wasn’t familiar with that example.  I also mentioned Sweden that is doing well, even with a massive welfare state relative to GDP. I used this as a jumping off point for explaining my personal theory (or rather set of theories), and my dad agreed.

My dad is wary of what he calls ‘populism’, but I pointed out that the policies in Iceland and Sweden seem to have been popularly supported in those countries. My speculation is that these countries represent optimal conditions for societal and economic health.

I see several essential factors. First and foremost, democracy seems key which doesn’t imply any single form of democracy, moreso just the general principles of democracy in society overall (not just politics, but also in social institutions, community organizing and economic systems). I suspect that democracy only functions well under certain conditions.

There are obvious differences between the US and countries such as Iceland and Sweden. The US is massive in terms of both population and geographical territory. This might be the most important part as I have yet to see it proven that genuine democracy can function at all on the largescale. With this massiveness, there also comes massive diversity that disallows easy organizing and governing. In the US, every special interest group seems out for their own private good. There isn’t a single shared culture to create a sense of social solidarity and common good.

For these reasons, you can only find some well functioning democracy on the local level of American politics. And even on the local level, well functioning democracy in the US is more rare as local communities have been undermined and in many cases decimated. The federal government helped to end much oppression and corruption on the local level, yet often just shifted the problems to the federal level. The closest the US has ever come to something akin to the Northern European social democracies is, to use one of my favorite examples, the early 20th century municipal socialism of Milwaukee.

To my mind, democracy and local governance go hand in hand. However, that local governance has to be supported by a shared local culture. The problem of  many post-colonial countries is that their boundaries were created according to political demands and compromises. This has meant that a single country might contain multiple tribal cultures while any single tribal culture might be divided between multiple countries. Unsurprisingly, these are conflict-ridden societies.

The US seems to be in an impossible situation. I see no likely way of getting democracy to function in the US, definitely not on the federal level and probably not even on the state level. There are just two many special interests and too many lobby groups, not to mention that most of the founding elites never wanted democracy.

My sense of democracy is somewhat open-ended. Democracy maybe isn’t a single ideological system in the way capitalism is. Democracy applies to all aspects of society and can allow for many possible ideological systems. My ideal well functioning democracy could manifest quite diversely depending on the local culture. It could be more capitalist or more socialist or even more religious.

This does seem to be a more libertarian interpretation of democracy. This could be minarchist democracy, but I don’t know that it wouldn’t also allow larger political alliances that might resemble the government of a larger country or union.

The problem with actual functioning capitalism is that it is completely opposed to my vision of democracy. If capitalism is supposed to be a free market, I don’t know what kind of freedom this is or whose freedom it is. It certainly isn’t a democratic economy.

My dad could agree with much of what I said, but he struggles with the notion of a democratic economy for his fear of ‘populism’. Nonetheless, the fact that a mainstream conservative like my dad could agree with my general argument is impressive. There is already a lot of agreement in American society, but the anti-democratic system gets in the way.

I wonder when global society and local communities will get shook up enough to begin implementing something entirely new, beyond a few exceptions found in isolation.

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