America is undeniably a fractured nation. But it has been divided before, and the assumption — or at least hope — is that once again a seismic event or inspired leader will emerge to bring us together.
But what if this time is different? What if there are forces at work that make unity across such a broad and diverse population impossible? What if the competing interests of so many disparate groups defy consensus building?
What if democracy as it has evolved in America no longer works?
That’s what Doug Ross fears is happening. And his answer is to go local.
“At the national level we can’t seem to put together enduring majorities to do important things,” says Ross, the former state commerce director and longtime education reformer. “We should pass responsibility back to local communities, which tend to be less partisan and thus more capable of solving big problems.”
Ross, of Birmingham, along with co-authors Mike Hais and Morley Winograd, spells out his theories in a new book titled “Healing American Democracy: Going Local,” available from Amazon.
What they’re advocating sounds like a return to the federalism that guided the Founders. The premise is that the federal government should reserve its attention for universal issues, such as national security, economic crises and protecting civil rights, while everything else — from immigration to who can use which bathrooms — are decided at the community level.
“Different places can come up with their own solutions, within a constitutional framework, of course,” Ross says. “They can apply their own preferences and community values.”
Over time, Americans will either gravitate to cities and towns that suit their outlooks, or work with like-minded neighbors to change their communities.
That’s the way things used to work in this country. But each decade has brought a greater centralization of power and resources in Washington, which in 2018 will spend about $4 trillion of total taxpayer dollars, compared to $3.68 by all of the states and local units of government.
Increasingly, the policies that affect the lives of Americans are set in Washington, rather than in the town halls where they live.
That’s led to a growing resentment and disenfranchisement among citizens who believe they have little ability to influence the decision-making.
“Returning responsibility to local communities will allow democracy to flourish,” Ross contends. “People can go to their local city council and school board meetings. They can voice their opinions directly to those who will be voting on the issues. That will give them a greater sense of empowerment and satisfaction with the process.”
Getting the federal bureaucracy to relinquish authority and tax dollars is a monumental challenge. But Ross sees an existential threat in continuing on the current path.
“We’re concerned that the growing disillusionment with government will lead to a loss of faith in democracy itself,” Ross says. “If we lose that, we lose our national identity, and ultimately our democracy.
“The notion that there’s someone out there who can bring us together seems increasingly unlikely.”
So perhaps the way to make America great again is to make its local communities its strongest pieces.
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