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The New Localism: The Turn to Citizen Involvement

Building on the American Town Meeting Tradition

This renewed concern for local community cohesion and action, returns us to the prescient  solution that Thomas Jefferson suggested years ago when he identified the oversight the U.S.  Founders had made.

In his later years Thomas Jefferson came to believe that America’s greatest democratic innovation was the New England Town Meeting, where one or more times a year the whole community gathered to discuss important matters and give direction to their representatives. He saw this direct-democratic institution as the primary generator of the vision, energy and collaborative skill that gave rise to and accomplished the American Revolution. And near the end of  his life he came to see in the institution of the town meeting a new potential for hope and renewal, what he deemed no less than “the salvation of the Republic.”

As Jefferson looked back at the work of the Founders, identifying what he felt was the essential shortcoming of their work, he proposed incorporating something very much like the local town meeting into the U.S. Constitution. Jefferson he suggested dividing the entire country into small, local political units, “little republics” he called them, that would in effect to provide a place for all people to participate in self-governance. These little republics, he said, would nourish the larger Republic and assure that representative government would remain the servant of the people. At one time in American history, the institution of the town meeting was spreading out from New England to towns across the country. But as new economic forces came into being, as demographics rapidly changed and for other reasons affecting the nature of local communities, the institution began to die out and has become little more than a memory. [Recent book that claims the model still thrives in some parts of New England.]

Since Jefferson wrote about his hope that the model of the New England town meeting would save representative democracy, many leading Americans [thinkers worldwide(?)] have subsequently proclaimed a similar opinion, including statesmen, religious leaders, philosophers, poets, architects and historians such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, John Dewey, W.E.D. Dubois, Mary Parker Follett, Lewis Mumford, Hannah Arendt, Christopher Alexander and many others.

And today, as the old arrangements have proved incapable of dealing with new challenges, more people and organizations are becoming aware that the only hope lies in greater citizen involvement and self-mobilizing communities.

Today, faced with new challenges, many are becoming aware that citizen involvement and greater community participation have become critical to addressing issues that government can’t solve alone. [Agenda 21, Precautionary Principle, Lappe, etc.]. With the all the hype about globalization, a less loudly announced but phenomenon has also come about: a new, widespread awareness and concern for the local: local economy and business, local community and self-governance, local culture, local participation in regional, national and global governance. [List of exemplars: ICLEI, Mander & IFG, subsidiarity, Michael Shuman, BALLE, Putnam, Gary Hart, Kotler, Ostrom, Governing by Network, Collaborative Governance, Lietaer on Complementary Currencies, K. Sale, McKnight, Bookchin, Alexander, Jacobs, Fitts, CCIs (Comprehensive Community Initiatives), Neighborhood Councils, etc.]  Gary Hart.

A new awareness is growing:

the power of participatory and self-organizing, democratic networks over top-down hierarchical management.

Innovations are being developed for bringing large groups of people together and better representing the public voice.

Methods for participation that bring together a greater diversity of voices and are more sensitive to and able to accomodate the diversity of learning and communications modes across different cultures and forms of expertise.

But fulfilling this vision and reviving the town meeting across America is surely easier said than done. The world is asking, how? NAN provides a new and powerful answer, and it’s being proved in many different ways.