Detroit, Stockton and San Bernardino go bankrupt, blame democracy?

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In a recent piece titled “Detroit’s Death by Democracy,” columnist George Will argued that Detroit’s problems arose not from economic bad luck but from our very system of government: democracy. Will wrote that the Motor City’s recently filed bankruptcy provokes “worrisome questions about the viability of democracy in jurisdictions where big government and its unionized employees collaborate in pillaging taxpayers. Self-government has failed.”

This sort of argument is a very old one – and a very American one, because we demand so much of ourselves. “For the functions of the citizen are not, as has hitherto been the case in Europe, confined to the choosing of legislators, who are then left to settle issues of policy and select executive rulers,” wrote the 19th-century British diplomat Lord James Bryce. “The American citizen is virtually one of the governors of the Republic.”

Lord Bryce’s observations remind us that we don’t live in a democracy but in a democratic republic—one that depends on civically engaged citizens and virtuous representatives. And in this “new normal” era of diminished budgets, it has become harder for both sides in this relationship to hold up their ends of the bargain.

Detroit was an important warning about the costs of limited and self-interested civic participation. In my state of California, we have many examples of cities gone wrong: San Bernardino, Stockton, Vallejo, Bell. The theme that connects them is public surprise; citizens were unaware of their city’s financial status until it was too late. Bell’s problems began at an underused ballot box, where only a few hundred total votes established Bell as a “charter city,” removing it from state regulations on pay for its council and employees. In San Bernardino, most residents didn’t know their municipal government was going to declare Chapter 9 until the night of the council meeting.

There are certainly many stories of similar failures to come across the nation, and addressing these problems will require more of both leaders and citizens. On the leadership side, government must be made easier for the public to understand. Writers from the left (like Cass Sunstein in his latest, Simpler), and right (Phillip K. Howard – many books) are making compelling arguments for the importance of making government at all levels simpler. The performance of our governments must also be more rigorously measured. Even more important, we have to find the courage to shut down programs that simply don’t work.

Much of this should lead to “de-layering.” In George Will’s follow up piece to the one quoted above, he interviewed Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, who described Detroit as a “bureaucracy on steroids,” finding “more than two dozen layers of approval for planning and zoning.” Civic engagement simply won’t work in a policy-making environment that is this opaque.

Civic engagement also requires opportunities. In Los Angeles, an experiment to get more regular people into government is underway. The Liberty Hill Foundation, a nonprofit, has set up a “boot camp’’ to encourage and train people from all over the city to qualify for membership on public commissions and thus add to the pool of candidates for appointments.

Citizens need to seize these opportunities – and others. In my experience, a constant challenge is that too many people view themselves not as “citizens” but as “customers,” people who deserve a certain treatment by their government because of taxes paid.

Yes, there are times when we as citizens demand proper service from government – whether it’s from the water district or the public works department – but seeing ourselves only as clients of our government is fiscally unsustainable and fundamentally undemocratic.

And when we make decisions, we need to be careful to consider the long term. For all the speed of contemporary life, politics remains, as the sociologist Max Weber once surmised, “the slow boring through thick boards.” One of the essential trade-offs we all face is to make and support decisions that might benefit future generations, and not just our own.

In Federalist #1, Alexander Hamilton, wonders whether the American experiment may become the first government formed by “reflection and choice” as opposed to the centuries of “accident and force.” It would be hard to say fates like those of Detroit or Stockton are the results of “accident and force.” But they’re certainly a warning about what can happen when citizens and officials are not sufficiently committed to reflection and choice.

Pete Peterson is executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine and a candidate for California Secretary of State. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.