Ohio State University

The “Neighborhood Conversations”: A Positive Sign for Democratic Revitalization by Kasey Powers @ The Ohio State University

On January 31, 2018, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther held the first installment of his “Neighborhood Conversations” sessions at a community center on the city’s south side. The conversations were designed to take the place of the one traditional State of the City speech given at the start of every calendar year. Instead of one address given by one individual, the Mayor decided to split the conversation into five topic-specific discussions featuring panelists doing work in those issue areas within Columbus, along with the chance for citizens to ask questions and voice their concerns.

Importantly, this first discussion on the topic of “neighborhoods and public safety” was held in an area of the city that struggles with many of these issues, from gang violence to truancy to police distrust. The problems have been exacerbated by an opioid epidemic that has hit Ohio particularly hard, a crisis which some say contributed to a record number of homicides in Columbus this past year. As for their credentials, the panelists included community leaders in the public and nonprofit sectors working to address issues ranging from recidivism to economic development. Although the Mayor gave the opening remarks, the majority of the evening was given over to these panelists to shed light on issues and developments in their areas of expertise, as well as sustain a direct dialogue with citizens in the crowd.

The event was a positive sign of participatory democracy amidst a national political environment that’s criticized as increasingly technocratic and unresponsive to the needs of ordinary citizens. In fact, many view this growing distance between government decision makers and the public as a primary catalyst for the swell of populist support that landed Donald Trump in the Oval Office just over a year ago. Sheri Berman, in her paper “The Pipe Dream of Undemocratic Liberalism,” writes that technocracy and populism grow together like “evil political twins,” over-correcting each other’s faults and damaging democracy in their own unique ways. She claims that the more the establishment is seen as unresponsive and unaccountable to the public, the more that populist candidates who claim they will put the government back in the hands of the people become attractive.

The recent elections in Europe and the United States give clear evidence for this relationship, with populism borne from disdain of public policy-making systems that no longer seem to involve the public at all. America in particular has long been at the mercy of decision makers insulated from public accountability. To many of us, it can seem like the country is not directed by “the people,” but by policy experts, economists, scientists, generals and a cadre of special interest groups so strong it drowns out even the most cohesive public outcries.

This issue is especially salient at the moment, as the U.S. just welcomed a new face to serve as one of the nation’s top technocrats. Jerome Powell took office as Chairman of the Federal Reserve in early February, a position with vast power to set monetary policy, control inflation and influence employment in the world’s largest economy. However, he does not make decisions according to the will of anyone outside the Fed itself, nor was he selected by any public process save for the deliberations of the President and Senate. Regional reserve presidents are even more insulated, selected only by a private board of directors. While some believe this independence from politics and public opinion is crucial to the function of the Fed, it is easy to see why many in the public view this process as yet another major area of policy in which they have no say. Many argue that as public officials that act in the public interest, members of the Federal Reserve should be selected in some way that involves the people they’re intended to serve.

The Fed is an obvious example, but technocrats likewise occupy places throughout government, making decisions based on their expertise rather than on public support. So why is it problematic that these unelected officials influence policy to a high degree? In Ellen Lust’s view, a lack of accountability is one of the main contributing factors to democratic backsliding. Vertical accountability in particular is at stake when we as citizens cannot effectively check state agents and public officials in such a way that constrains their behavior. This is a key characteristic of technocracy, and to Berman, this kind of “undemocratic liberalism” poses an even greater danger to society than illiberal democracy, partly because it fuels fervor for populist leadership that seeks to undermine democratic institutions for the sake of ousting the elite.

Berman asserts, however, that a cure for both populist sentiments and technocracy is the pure revitalization of democracy–giving people concrete chances to participate and make their voices heard by leaders. The Neighborhood Conversations hosted by Mayor Ginther are a pure example of this, where citizens can voice their concerns directly to the experts and decision makers, gain information from them and impart crucial perspective in return. Moreover, the discussions are a chance for citizens to hold the Mayor directly accountable for the agenda he put into action last year in a very public forum.

Fortunately, participatory democratic initiatives at the local level have been on the rise elsewhere in America as well. A recent trend of “participatory budgeting” has now spread to several major cities, including Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and New York City. It’s a process by which citizens are given the power to decide how to spend discretionary funds on various neighborhood improvement projects. In one Chicago ward, city bureaucrats aren’t even involved in selecting the slate of projects to be voted on–community resident volunteers go through that deliberation themselves. While these initiatives may seem like small achievements, they’re important because they demonstrate to constituents that their leaders are willing to be receptive to their preferences and deliver on them. More significantly, they’re a small step toward fighting the technocracy fueling popular resentment of the establishment.

While we as citizens often suffer from ignorance on the more technical aspects of policy, we still have a fundamental desire to ensure that our government hears our voices and represents us accordingly. Yes, our issues are complex and multifaceted, but it is wrong for us to assume the public simply doesn’t want to be involved or informed. To revitalize our democracy, we need the kind of discussion seen at Columbus’s first Neighborhood Conversation. We need experts and community members to exchange ideas in an open forum, leaving people genuinely more informed on the issues while also feeling like they were listened to for a change. It starts at the community level, but the lesson is one our state and national decision makers should pay close attention to.

Photo by Kasey Powers.

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