I was thinking about my friend’s experience and the very recent calls to get people involved in civil religion through the ritual of voting. In talking to my neighbors about a decision being made by city commissioners here in North Port – a decision that is opposed by most of my neighbors – I find the same sense of powerlessness. Their vote in the last election was the only form of participation in democracy available, and they recognized the almost total insignificance of the act. The difference of power between individuals and those who govern seems unbridgeable. And yet, it shouldn’t be and doesn’t have to be. As I wrote my friend in Orange County, “Too little control exists at the neighborhood level. When neighbors don’t interact with neighbors, they lose their collective freedom.” In other words, residents of a place should have a voice, a collective voice, in decisions that affect that place. A law restricting the ownership of chickens should not cover an entire county. Ideally, neighbors should have decision-making power to decide issues that affect them, and not those outside the neighborhood. The decisions (again ideally) should exist in the form of agreements based on relational conditions (covenants) rather than laws. Covenant agreements are made between subjects; under law neighbors become objects . That layer of decision-making might exist in a few neighborhood associations but even there, few neighbors get involved. Many of the reasons are revealed in a book by Matt Leighninger, The Next Form of Democracy.
And one reason?
A major advantage of decision making at a neighborhood level (or a neighborhood block level) is that a consensus can be achieved through dialog rather than a divisive vote-taking which results in the formation of two camps – winners and losers. Dialog takes place where there is face-to-face horizontal relationship between persons in small groups. There is no dialog in a college lecture, and dialog is purposely inhibited by Robert’s Rules of Order. Only through dialog can we create a “communion of intuition”, a shared understanding of the issues we care about. Dialog is also necessary for the development of critical thinking skills, something which is desperately needed today in order to solve complex social issues.
One story in Leighninger’s book seems especially relevant to my friend’s chicken problem:
The story is also relevant to my motivation to create a network of small groups of neighbors within walking distance. I listed some of the benefits that could be realized by the creation of such groups here , including political power. However, as I explained on the page, if the purpose of the group becomes an effort to create political power, most of the other values listed would not be realized.
In a country that is becoming increasingly polarized, and where citizens are becoming increasingly frustrated by the failures of “expert rule”, the kind of participatory democracy that is made possible by Neighbors Gatherings is not only desirable, but critically important.
If we wait til the chickens get kicked out, it will be too late.