The Next Form of Democracy

Matt Leighninger

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How Expert Rule is Giving Way to Shared Governance…and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same
Matt Leighninger
296 pages (Vanderbilt University Press, 2006)

This book describes a shift in American public life: a move away from rule by experts and elected representatives, and toward the direct involvement of citizens in the decisions that affect their communities. Although there is certainly room for debate about the extent, significance, and future of this phenomenon, Matt Leighninger, the executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, makes a compelling case that something new is, in fact, transforming the way in which decisions are made by local governments and school boards, and sometimes even at the state and national levels.

We are all familiar with the frustration involved in the typical public hearing. Individuals and community group representatives step up on the podium and share their responses to a proposed action – in under five minutes each. There is rarely a chance for dialogue. The participants wonder whether officials are listening. Even with governmental bodies that have reputations for being responsive to “citizen input,” when controversial or unpopular proposals are on the table, open hostility and impatience are inevitable. This maddening process remains the most typical course for decision making in our country.

The problem is exacerbated by the growing tendency of public bodies to see their communities not as collections of citizens, but rather as individual consumers. They don’t engage citizens as potentially active decision makers, but instead seek to meet their needs as consumers of high-quality services. The author describes this trend as consistent with the oft-noted depoliticization of American life, reflected in the steady decline in party affiliation, in electoral participation, and in participation in unions and service and recreational clubs.

Leighninger argues, however, that a countervailing tendency is developing in “shared governance.” Although most of his case histories provide positive examples of what shared governance can accomplish, he’s not afraid to share stories about limited successes or failures. Herein lies the strength of his book. Leighninger provides sufficient information for readers to draw their own conclusions about the significance of the transformation. In his vision, experiments in shared governance can and should move beyond short-term, single-goal efforts, toward the institutionalization of increased citizen control of the decision-making process.

Another strength of this book is Leighninger’s excellent analysis of the issues that citizen empowerment efforts need to address if they are to be successful in recruiting mass participation and actually effect solutions to community problems. His insights should prove useful to citizen activists attempting to create organizations capable of empowering average citizens in the public decision-making process.

Leighninger is careful to distinguish the new movement for shared governance from earlier models intended to empower citizens. For example, the shared governance efforts he discusses need not adhere to the confrontational model pioneered by Saul Alinsky in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in 1930s Chicago, in which have-nots are enlisted in zero-sum games against the establishment. Increasingly, Leighninger writes, all neighborhoods – rich and poor – will benefit from more citizen involvement. In the end, the book may be overoptimistic in its interpretation of the extent and significance of this movement. At one point, the author waxes poetic about the revolution signified by San Jose, Calif., providing each of a number of neighborhood councils with direct control over $50,000 for community improvements. Each of those neighborhoods is more or less the size of a small city, and nobody would be impressed if, say, Santa Cruz, a town of 58,000, announced that the collective neighborhood organizations rather than the elected City Council would get $50,000 to spend on their priorities. The number of citizens involved in Leighninger’s examples is less than one tenth of 1 percent of the population of this country.

More critically, the book never really does examine how we can realistically hope to engage citizens in sustained efforts at shared governance in a society that systematically narrows the realm of democratic decision making, one that alienates students from the process of their own education and workers from the control of their work. Modern society is pushing us in the opposite direction, creating increasingly anomic communities in which citizens are driven apart by the economic necessity of relocating to new neighborhoods or regions to seek work.

Nonetheless, this book does offer a glimmer of light in what has become a very dark and long tunnel. Many of us who have been engaged in public life, either as public officials or employees, or as citizen activists attempting to empower communities, will have a great deal to learn from this thoughtful assessment. And those of us committed to the democratic experiment can hardly afford to dismiss the potential that exists in shared governance. Indeed, we might benefit from applying what we learn to our own democratic community efforts.

Mike Rotkin is a lecturer and the director of field studies in the community studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has been mayor of Santa Cruz four times and is currently serving his sixth term on the Santa Cruz City Council.