Community Is Possible: Reviving American Populism on the Local Level

A new wave of American populism is on the rise. Spurred by the crash of 2008 and a subsequently gridlocked government, many Americans have come to a realization: they are losers in a system whose beneficiaries are gatekeepers to the country’s most influential institutions, and can thus effectively block all attempts at serious structural change. The national mood was embodied by movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, both of which I believe were born out of a sincere frustration with the status quo, and, at least initially, sought to address the same basic issue: to re-democratize a government that had proven itself to no longer be responsible to the demands of the people, but to the demands of donations. 

A recent study has shown that the amount of money given to a particular cause has significantly more impact on policy outcomes than public opinion, and in the aftermath of Supreme Court rulings on the FEC’s legal battles with Shaun McCutcheon and Citizens United, political donations have been legally reclassified as free speech and considered a constitutional right. Leading up to the 2014 congressional election, professor at Harvard Law and long-time advocate of campaign finance reform Lawrence Lessig established MayDay PAC, a platform for aggregating small contributions from individuals and routing them towards five specially-selected candidates in highly contested House races who expressed a commitment to addressing soft corruption.

As we now know all too well, these initial post-crash reactions to the brokenness of American democracy proved to be less successful than one might have hoped. Occupy, while successful in fostering a national dialogue about inequality and corruption, failed to develop into a force for real structural change (alas, a movement that fashioned itself to be about everything ended up being about nothing), and the Tea Party was swiftly co-opted by the very individuals and groups who most benefited from the status quo. Even Lessig, an experienced lawyer and political theorist who one might have expected defeat in the first round of the MayDay project, posted one of the saddest public proclamations of failure I have ever read on his blog after MayDay candidates severely underperformed in the 2014 congressional election. Disgruntled citizens tried to organize on a national level, and, at least the first time around, failed to successfully build effective institutions to challenge those already existing. Such movements posed important critiques of the status quo but were tragically unable to constructively challenge it. Subsequently, a national despair seems to have to set in. Americans seem to like Nickelback more than Congress, and more and more, particularly among young people, I notice a frustrated detachment from the “political system.” People know they aren’t represented, and the dominant narrative doesn’t seem to be particularly empowering.

The sad truth is that national politics, at least right now, has no easy fix, and might be too forgone for immediate, substantive, structural change to take place. Real reform on the federal level is possible, but I do not think it will become a reality until a majority of Americans re-engage in local politics and develop a national culture of cooperation, accountability, and stewardship that begins at the community level. I think the way we talk about politics—as a distant hodgepodge of senate race statistics and presidential addresses—is gravely dangerous to our national future and to our democratic way of life. Politics isn’t about knowing who unseated the incumbent in some swing district in Oklahoma in the 2012 House race. Politics exists in the everyday interactions between people; politics is the way we talk to each other, the way we decide how we want to spend our time and money; it exists everywhere, in our schools, neighborhood centers, community gardens, art spaces, in our churches and temples and synagogues and mosques, in the agendas of district board meetings, in the casual discussions in public libraries and public parks, and in the cafes and bookstores and pizza places that define the healthy locality and rich character of a true community.

The purpose of this new column is to shed light on the prospective shift in our political culture from one of outward-looking despair to one of inward-looking hope. How can we seek to address issues of alienation, prejudice and gridlock on the national level if we don’t even know how to convene with our neighbors, coworkers, and classmates and address these issues in our neighborhoods? Community Is Possible, drawing its name from Harry Boyte’s somewhat outdated but no less inspiring chronicle of community actualization in localities across the Midwestern United States, will focus each week on particular communities that are successfully working towards realizing self-ownership, economic democracy, and local autonomy. Things are changing. People are talking more and more about working on the grassroots level to address the local problems that they no longer have faith in distant national institutions to resolve. Americans, as a people, are not known to be a dependent or helpless lot. It is not in our history, nor in our spirit. My hope is that this column will join the concert of voices in support of an exciting, participatory future for communities across the country, should we choose to work together to reinvigorate the spark of economic populism in towns and cities across the USA. Community is possible!

Cover image by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons.

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