May 7, 2004 - From the May, 2002 issue

Jay Harris Gives Context To Growing Call For An Inclusive Form of Regional Governance

While many believe the approval of the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights mandates that Americans be dutifully represented, many forget that governance is a work in progress and must be maintained if we are to continue to be represented fairly and equitably. In light of a dulled public sensibility toward government and democracy, Jay Harris, former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News and current president of Deep River Associates gave the following speech "The Regionalist's Season" to the Alliance for Regional Stewardship's May Leadership Forum. MIR is pleased to excerpt Harris' thoughts on the continually evolving democratic experience.


Jay Harris

In an address nearly a century ago the American scholar/activist W.E.B. DuBois observed a timeless truth. "[A]t all time(s)," he said, "human life must be a balance of limited means against infinite ends and the poverty of human energies and resources forces us always to choose the more weighty and important and let the others wait."

I make that point to underscore my belief that it is not only alright but also entirely proper that we are focused here on regionalism and stewardship. After all, metropolitan regions in the U.S. hold 80% of the national population, account for 84% of all jobs and 85% of the nation's economic output.

We no doubt have a variety of causes between us that arouse our passion and commitment. But we have in common a commitment and a shared sense of responsibility to work for solutions to community-specific challenges that can only be achieved regionally. And there is the equally strong motivator to seize opportunities that can only be had in the same way.

The particular challenges and opportunities that bring us here differ from region to region. What each region has in common is the absence of a process for governance, a structure of government, or a tradition of broad-based, multi-sector regional collaboration that each must have to meet the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities. In probably every case there is some element of misalignment of government with the requirements of the people and their communities. No unit of government has the ways, means, scope or multi-sector linkages to address key regional situations.

We know as well that even a regional government – with unbounded scope and resources– would not be up to the challenge, for the complex challenges our regions face cannot be successfully addressed by government alone. Business must be involved. Civil society in its myriad dimensions must play a role. And most of all the people, who are sovereign and therefore the ultimate source of power, must be involved or at the last give their sanction.

[A] great American scholar Robert Hutchins, a former president of the University of Chicago, once observed that when citizens become disengaged from civic affairs, sensing that the political life of their community has little connection to the life they lead, when politics is neither guided nor under-girded by a strong political philosophy, politics becomes "nothing but the exercise of power." And this is a dangerous situation indeed in our or any democracy, or for that matter, in any form of government.

"Politics," Mr. Hutchins said, "is and ought to be the science of the common good."

"The common good is a good that accrues to every member of the community because he belongs to it; he would not have it if he did not belong to it. The task of politics," he concluded, "is to define the common good and to organize the community to achieve it." And that, I want to argue from a committed non-partisan stance, is part of what we must consider here. How to revitalize the political life of our community – as it involves the citizen as well as the office seeker – with a commitment to the pursuit of the common good as its highest priority.

This is hardly the first time Americans have faced such a challenge. It is a challenge that our nation and its civic leaders faced in the infancy of the United States. And how the Founders of our nation and the Framers of our national Constitution dealt with the challenge is instructive.

"In Federalist Paper 39," John Gardner wrote in his foreword to Brian O'Connell's compact masterpiece, Civil Society, "James Madison candidly admitted that what we were creating was ‘a political experiment' and that it depended ‘on the capacity of mankind for self-government.'" John would say if he were with us today that the "American experiment" as he called it continues and today we are responsible for it, we are the leading figures on history's stage.

It's tough work, often against entrenched and conflicting centers of power. Figuring out what to do is tough enough. Convincing other stakeholders of the wisdom of your vision frequently seems a distant hope at best.

You see, the "American experiment" does continue. We are part of it. Through our conduct in public life and that of our fellow Americans we are the experiment. In our work to advance regional solutions, in our role as responsible stewards, when we draw on what we have "learned from experience" we should not limit ourselves to our experience in our home region, or the experience of our contemporaries in other regions. We can and should approach our work and stewardship responsibilities as the Framers did, drawing on the "experience" and insight, the successes and failures of those who plowed the same fields before us, plowed them back as far as the days of Aristotle and Athenian democracy.

In some ways the task we face – although smaller perhaps in geographic scope and less daunting in terms of precedent – is not unlike that that our forebearers confronted in 1787.

John [Gardner] observed further that the need is "urgent for new patterns of collaboration among the governmental, business and non-profit sectors, collaboration that includes neighborhood associations, the professions, labor, minority groups, churches, schools, civic organizations and neighboring governmental jurisdictions."

Advertisement

In his book on civil society, Brian O'Connell gives a good example. "Many of the threats to our civil society relate to the misunderstanding of what it is and its relevance to the functions and preservation of democracy," he writes. "The history of other democracies teaches us that the greatest threat often comes from within – from the inattention and neglect of citizens," O'Connell continues. "Recall Edmund Burke's, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing.'"

The American experiment has always been an experiment that could fail. Americans like you have always worried that the experiment might fail and they have always found a way to keep it moving forward toward the bright and constant North Star of our highest ideals. This has been true through all the days of the Republic.

Brian O'Connell [adds], "[D]espite my general optimism I worry, and most of what I worry about is whether 250 years beyond our founding it is really practical to expect that people will realize that it could still come apart and whether they will do everything possible to keep that from happening.

"Though it seems eminently logical that rational people would never let such a democracy unravel, I've been around long enough and read enough to know that people and history can be tragically irrational.

"I find myself worrying what the consequences would be if in the course of the new century we experience a worsening of such factors as selfishness, taking liberty for granted, governmental limits on citizen participation, the influence of special interests on public officials, separation between the haves and have-nots, intolerance, and incivility. How much deterioration of our civil society would it take to weaken democracy irreparably?

"Gibbon's observation on the decline of Athenian democracy keeps ringing in my ears

"‘In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life and they lost it all-security, comfort and freedom When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.'"

Once again, John Gardner [opines], "One might imagine that the straightforward path to repair the civic faith of Americans would be to make government worthy of their faith. But the plain truth is that government (and other powerful institutions) will not become worthy of trust until citizens take positive action to hold them to account.

"Citizen involvement comes first."

"Advocacy is equally important. Voting is of course the most basic form and low voter turnout is distressing. But advocacy should extend far beyond the voting booth Government needs the goading and support that citizens supply Tough-minded politicians know that citizens can make a difference."

Part of the work we need to do in the drive for change involves organizing what we have come to call the "grassroots." We all want to build a "grassroots movement" for change. But keep in mind as you do, as you contend with elected officials who are in love with their power and opposed to any change that might diminish it, that almost every blade of grass in a "grassroots movement" is a sovereign American citizen, and if not a citizen they are sovereigns of the human race.

Top down won't work [b]ut sovereign up will. That is this country's "great idea."

And so it falls to us in our time to keep the "American Experiment" and the American Dream alive and moving forward. Remember, and never forget John Gardner's essential message to us all: "Freedom and Responsibility, Liberty and Duty – That's the Deal."

<

Advertisement

© 2023 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.