Bob’s Former Home Page Essay, Sept. 7-23, 2019
It’s fall. Vacation’s over. So let’s join our Enfield children in heading back to the classroom. I promise. I’ll keep this lesson short.
My study of Representative Democracy has taught me that the Founding Fathers had several theories of governance, principles carried forth to this day. They stand as principles we can apply here in Enfield.
(Prof. William Eskridge Jr, joined by others including the late Cornell President Elizabeth Garrett, has intelligently analyzed these theories in Cases and Materials on Legislation; Statutes and the Creation of Public Policy. Prof. Chafetz teaches from this text at Cornell Law School. I have the 4th Edition.)
There’s a so-called Republican Theoryof governance. (Please, don’t confuse it here with the political party. We’re talking small “r” republicanism.) Republican theorists, I’m taught, see elected representatives as trusteesof their constituents’ interests. To them, direct democracy is too dangerous, too susceptible to the passions of the moment, of the majority. Think of the guillotine and the French Revolution. Trustee representatives are to be more detached; more deliberative; less responsive to public passion.
As James Madison wrote in The Federalist #10, elected trustees will “refine and enlarge the public views” by their wisdom whose exercise “may best discern the true interests of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
From my observations of this year, a Trust Us attitude pervades the current thinking of the Enfield Town Board.
One example: The Board’s majority believes that a highly-restrictive 57-page Wind Law is best-suited for our Town. Councilperson Becky Sims has accurately described the draft as an effective “ban” on commercial wind power. But please acknowledge reality. The committee members who drafted this Wind Law, good people though they certainly may be, are passionate activists all. They do not represent a true cross-section of citizen viewpoint. The committee’s composition deserved more balance. It never got it.
Likewise, the Board in August chose to overrule the recommendation of our County’s Commissioner of Planning and Sustainability and retain within our new Solar Law a stipulation that solar farms can occupy no more than 60 per cent of the lot on which they sit. Why? Because the Board’s majority concluded that a supposed consensus among those surveyed for a roughed-in, not-yet-adopted Comprehensive Plan demanded we “maintain the rural character of our community.” I, for one, don’t recall ever being asked. Were you?
When I stand to speak under Privilege-of-the-Floor, the town timekeeper focuses meticulous attention to her smart phone to ensure I stray not one second beyond my allotted three minutes. Then later, that same officer takes to the floor or to social media to impugn my honesty, character, or civility.
If this is how Enfield’s governing “trustees” apply Republican Theory, I want none of it. I choose, instead, to be a Pluralist. Here’s why.
Democracy in its purest form would resemble a New England Town meeting. Any representative would be, as Prof. Eskridge terms it, “descriptive of the larger group, a microcosm of the collective.” In reality, of course, in representative democracy, that’s not practical. America—and Enfield—is diverse. We don’t all think alike.
More workable is the Pluralistconcept that envisions a representative as an agentof the people. States our professor:
“In most extreme form, the representative’s every action must be explicitly authorized by her constituency… but a [more] moderate position would urge the representative to act as she thinks her constituents would have her act if the constituency were in her position and knew all that she knows.” [My emphasis.]
Pluralism’s key role is in balancing disparate factions. The Founding Fathers, sadly, never envisioned the two-party system. Instead, they viewed the political landscape as an amalgam of special interests; farmers in one camp; blacksmiths and barrel makers in another. In a more contemporary context, it rather resembles today’s Enfield. Think of our volunteer firefighters; our Food Pantry volunteers; our ENSAW fracktivists.
James Madison feared the power of factions. He believed factions must be controlled to safeguard the common good. When a faction—or as we know it today, an interest group—becomes too powerful, its passion-driven preferences could, he thought, become “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” (Federalist #10).
Can you see the connection to our time and our town?
Nonetheless, when responsibly exercised by conscientious leaders, pluralism’s beauty lies in its balance, and also its inclusiveness. Competing interests are weighed. A Town Board becomes more than just a rubber stamp for those with special access to power. Those with the loudest megaphones don’t always prevail. As Prof. Eskridge writes:
“Optimistic pluralists are not concerned that the resulting policies will be ill-conceived or contrary to the public interest; instead, a political environment with many groups actively competing will tend to produce moderate and well-considered policies. In part, moderation results because of the connections among interest groups. All of us belong to many groups, and our overlapping memberships provide an effective restraint on the extremism of any one group.”
Moreover, pluralistic interplay encourages negotiation. We learn to play in the sandbox together. We respect our differences. We resolve conflicts amicably. It’s not just “I win; you lose!”
The Republican Theory fails—and arguably, has failed here—because many in the theoretically-detached Governing Class reject the Madisonian model of the above-the-fray, good-government idealist. Factionalism can infect the ranks of chosen just as easily as those of the commoner. When it does, those “trustees” who lead us become the problem, not the solution. And it too quickly occurs when a community’s citizens disengage from public debate. Witness it here. Too few of us attend our Town Board meetings. Apathy is Democracy’s enemy. Disengagement spawns the worst of both worlds: an entrenched, institutionally insulated leadership advancing a partisan agenda perhaps contrary to the majority’s will; yet doing so with an elitist air of entitlement. It’s a toxic combination.
The antidote is a bottom-up cleansing by a reinvigorated electorate. That’s you, my neighbor. It may be Tea Party conservatism on the Right, or Alexandria Ocasio Cortez progressivism on the Left. Pick the model that best suits you.
But to work, pluralism requires equal access. Just as in bridging America’s racial divide, properly-functioning pluralism demands that each of us, in our community of 3,500 citizens strong, sit at the table of Enfield politics. Anti-wind activists should not overpopulate our Renewable Energy Advisory Committee. Both ENSAW and contra-ENSAW partisans deserve to be heard in fracking debates. Before we adopt new noise ordinances, junk laws, or deal with that Sad House at #198 Enfield Main Road, all of our diverse factions should step to the podium. And moreover, each of us deserves to feel welcome. Some of us today do not.
Note that pluralist governance requires much of the Enfield lawmaker. He or she must #1) keep his or her ear to the ground to gauge the public will; and just as important, #2) remain abreast of issues affecting our Town so as to encourage varied, vibrant, and informed constituent opinion.
No, I do not have all the answers. Nor do I seek to impose my own preferences upon you. That may be why I’m different—and why that from some sectors, I’ve become Target Number One. As I often say:
“A good Town Councilperson does not dictate policy. He or she responds to you, the people. We are servants, not kings. We serve one Enfield!”
If you elect me Town Councilperson, I won’t give a damn about that arbitrary three-minute time limit. If my colleagues choose not to enforce the limit, neither will I. Nothing would make me happier than if you, my constituents, my people, packed our Town Board meeting room each Wednesday night to discuss an issue—any issue—and then kept us there until 3 in the morning. For me, Privilege-of-the-Floor is not an obligation to be endured; it’s an opportunity to be encouraged.
Then, as now, I welcome your calls, your emails, and our chance meetings at Walmart. I need your opinions; your suggestions. Because, once again, I don’t have all the answers. More importantly, I need your direction as to how you’d vote were you standing in my shoes. Because, for me, in spirit, you will be.
There. Lesson over. Let’s break for recess. See you on the campaign trail.