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Divided We Fall

Why we're working at cross purposes

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Democracy in America is a curious phenomenon, endlessly touted but rarely exercised. Much discussion followed the low turnout in November's elections, with the conclusion that Americans are involving themselves less and less in the running of their country. The Charlotte Observer even suggested that most local people didn't bother voting because they were satisfied with the state of our city. This is a euphemistic way of saying we're an apathetic bunch.

But those Mecklenburg residents who did vote sent a very confusing message, and nowhere was this more evident than the restructuring of the school board to include new members from the wealthier, predominantly white suburbs, vocal in their demands for new schools in their neighborhoods. To meet this mandate means a lot more money; but these funds are controlled by the County Commission, and just last year these same citizens voted in Republicans who made cutting taxes their bedrock principle.

Now, even to a humble alien who isn't allowed to participate in this political process (despite paying taxes) this doesn't make sense. If people pay fewer taxes, there's less money for public projects. Yet the same voters want more, expensive, schools built for their children.

The mathematical sleight of hand required to resolve this paradox could simply mean that the new suburban board members will take money from inner city schools that teach mainly black kids, and use it to build schools for their white children. But, at least for now, I credit them, and us, with more decency than that. I think it's simply that voters are confused, voting one way on one issue, another way on a second issue, and not understanding the connections or the consequences of their actions.

Given the design of American democracy, this isn't very surprising. After the rebellion against British rule, the framers of government in this country intended the process to be fractured as a safeguard against the consolidation of too much power in a limited number of hands. In his 1835 treatise on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville praised the new nation's structure of government, but noted that the checks and balances that made it secure against the kind of despotic interference common in Europe at that time, also made it inefficient. He especially noted the absence of centralized administration in daily life, and understood the intention of the Constitution's architects that the "tyranny of the majority" be countered by splitting up local government into many small bodies with restricted jurisdictions.

This is an important, singular principle, but taken as a whole, the methods designed for small-scale rural society in 1787 don't work well in our globalized, post-industrial world. In the face of urban sprawl that's out of control, school systems that can't provide enough seats for all their students, and air and water that are becoming more polluted, a single city or county is powerless to provide solutions. Problems transcend boundary lines on maps. If one municipality enacts smart growth policies, but its neighbor continues to sprawl, the end result is chaos. Only coordinated, collaborative action on a regional scale can solve these problems, and this means regional government.

But a larger unit of government exercising power over several counties is exactly what the American system is designed to thwart. Some functions are coordinated by individual states, but day-to-day governance has always been a function of local bodies, on the presumption that local people know what's in their best interests.

Our recent elections, however, reveal otherwise. We are confused, we don't see the big picture, and local government is so fractured that it's often at odds with itself. In our advanced, complex age of interdependence, where geographical borders between towns and counties are increasingly meaningless, our system of myriad, competing authorities is broken; it simply can't produce the kinds of solutions required for contemporary problems.

In the opinion of many American observers, Dutch, German or British cities do a better job of managing their growth and resources than their counterparts in America. By democratic consensus, European cities produce regional plans for housing and job growth, coordinate school construction and cultural facilities with population increases, provide the infrastructure for public transit, conserve farmland and protect environmental resources. And developers follow the plans! Why? They have to. This system works because community values count for more than individual property rights.

This isn't socialism; the system works under rightwing, centrist, or leftwing administrations. Some might argue that this planned consensus represents the same tyranny of the majority that so frightened the Constitution's authors, but there's little doubt that the European system produces towns and cities that are more attractive and sustainable than American urban areas. They consume fewer resources and pollute the planet less. Our emphasis, by contrast, is on ourselves, and our private rights to the exclusion of our public responsibilities.

The question facing Charlotte is a stark one as we grapple with problems we can't solve on our own. Which do we value more: our individual rights, or our communal future?

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