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The Historical Context: Transformations of Community and Democracy in America

No one can deny that, since the founding of the nation, local community in America and its relationship to established political, cultural and economic power has changed dramatically. Indeed, changes such as these have been reflected in communities all around the world:

  • With growth in the size of populations and their concentration in cities, elected political representatives are serving many times more constituents, thereby diluting popular representation, diminishing the ability of ordinary citizens to access and influence political power, and making wealth and economic status much greater factors in determining access to elected officials;
  • With the growth of a global economy, the everyday ties that once bound people into local economic relationships have greatly loosened; people often commute long distances to work, where they spend their days with co-workers and customers who often live far from their own local communities; near neighbors, conversely, don’t know one another;  small independent businesses find it harder to survive in a global marketplace, leading more people to find work as dependent corporate wage-earners who are not masters of their own time and have less freedom to devote to community concerns; meanwhile, local economies are increasingly dependent on corporate multinationals who use the threat of going elsewhere to diminish the power of communities to impose taxes or regulate corporate environmental and labor practices
  • The development of national media has changed politics and community; the quality of political speech has degraded into superficial soundbytes to meet the requirements of television; the national media focuses more of the public’s daily attention on distant people and issues, reducing local awareness and local political community; political parties and other institutions that used to maintain a presence in local communities to stay close to the people now communicate from a distance via television; a handful of wealthy corporations controls most of what appears in our newspapers, on our radios and on our television screens; political figures and business leaders become distant celebrities of popular culture alongside movie stars and musicians; the boundaries between entertainment and news reporting are blurred; to behold those in power requires craning the neck higher upwards and not democratically across
  • The rise of a university-trained professional “expert class” has given rise to large, hierarchical government bureaucracies that exclude ordinary citizens from meaningful participation
  • The worldwide mobility of peoples and a highly-technical economy has created, in America and elsewhere, societies of unprecedented diversity in terms of religion, race, ethnic and cultural background and belief systems, and in terms of job function and socio-economic and educational classes, with the result that our culture is fragmented into a great many pieces that have not yet learned to understand one another well or work cohesively to the benefit of all.

In the past, communities have been relatively homogeneous, in social and racial makeup, in beliefs and cultural practices, and in economic function (only two hundred years ago nearly 95% of Americans were still farmers). This relative homogeneity made it easier for people to function collectively within a shared framework of understanding. That’s now longer how things are. Today, we live in communities that are characterized by complex demographics, including diverse ethnic and racial populations, a vast range of cultural and religious practices, job functions so specialized that many people can hardly explain what they do to their friends and families, and extreme disparities in wealth and access to power and privilege. When communities attempt to come together today, the result is often more about the clash of differences than about collaboration.

[Cut and summarize above?] Changes in the nature and scale of economic relationships, the development of national media and mass communication systems, the extraordinary growth and influence of corporations in economic and political life, transformations in population size and demographics – all these have profoundly changed the nature of communities and their relationship to power everywhere.

Many of these have changes have opened wider divides between citizens and government, between citizens and the economic actors who affect them, and between citizens themselves in their communities. 

Underlying all of these changes is the growth of a global economy powered by extraordinary technological innovations. Since the beginning of the industrial era, human beings have been spellbound by the feats of modern technology and economic globalization. Collectively, we have marveled at the many ways in which technology has surpassed the limitations of natural human power. We have seen the truly astounding developments within only a few generations: communications and transport systems that cross enormous distances far beyond the capacity of mere human legs, computers that instantly perform calculations no human brain could perform in a lifetime, machines that far surpass the strength of mere arms and hands to move earth and manufacture goods, instruments of observation that go way beyond the ability of eyes, ears, nose and tongue to see or hear, taste or smell. Together, all of these modern technical feats and others have created extraordinary economic activity and a corresponding global infrastructure for the production and exchange of information and goods. These changes have had many consequences on the present-day experience of community and the nature of public decision making.

Once consequence comes from the fact that, along with the growth of modern economic activity and its huge infrastructure, there has grown the need to govern and regulate its operation and development. This task has fallen to government representatives, business leaders and the professionals who advise them. These groups together make decisions on a level significantly removed from, but greatly affecting the lives of, the vast majority of ordinary men and women whose lives have grown to depend on them.

With this increased dependency of everyday peoples on the decisions of distant “leaders”  -- whether these are at City Hall, the White House and Congress, in universities or corporate boardrooms – large numbers of people have come to feel powerless to change their collective lives. Citizen participation has become mere “input,” the form of pleas or special perspectives directed at decision makers. Witness the role of ordinary people at the “public meetings” organized by government today. Rarely if ever do citizens with diverse perspectives enjoy the chance to develop shared understanding and collaboratively work out creative solutions that satisfy everyone. The public, in other words, doesn’t get to get in on constructive dialogue; people are generally limited to speaking for or against isolated positions. At the grassroots level, this breeds conflict, cynicism about political participation, and distrust in government.

Another consequence of our longtime fascination with technologies that surpass natural human limitations has been the general weakening of our relationships to our neighbors, to the local and handmade, to simple and natural values for the god-given things of the earth. Our focused attention on developing systems and technologies that link up the globe into a single system have in some sense also made individuals and the local communities smaller, diminished in power, and more dependent upon forces and decisions determined elsewhere, by unseen actors. More than ever, people feel disconnected from their neighbors and from the natural world, and many feel that their options for meaningful work to support themselves and their families are few.

Most individuals and communities now feel powerless to affect what’s on television, what’s taught to their kids in school, how the planet’s resources are used, what goods are marketed to their families, where their food comes from, how their healthcare decisions are made, and so on. There seems to be little that individuals can do to affect the materialism, violence, selfish individualism, crass sexuality, low self-esteem, unstable families, breakdown of community support networks, and hopelessness and depression that are all too common in our society.