Home rule means “we, the people,” can participate broadly in the government decision-making that affects our lives.  We call this democracy.  However, Aristotle pointed out that you can’t have extremes of rich and poor and seriously talk about democracy.  He favored reducing poverty over reducing democracy.

It’s extremely unlikely that what are now called “inevitable results of the market” would ever be tolerated in a truly democratic society.  One can take Aristotle’s path and make sure that almost everyone has “moderate and sufficient property” – in other words, “middle-class.”  Or, you can take Madison’s path and limit the functioning of democracy.

Noam Chomsky writes “the big transnationals want to reduce freedom by undermining the democratic functioning of the states in which they’re based, while at the same time ensuring the government will be powerful enough to protect and support them.  That’s the essence of ‘really existing market theory.'”

Alexis de Tocqueville admired the relative equality he thought he saw in American society.  He exaggerated it considerably, but pointed out quite explicitly that if a “permanent inequality of conditions” ever developed, that would be the death of democracy.  He called our “manufacturing aristocracy” “one of the harshest in history.”  He said if it ever got power, we’d be in deep trouble.

It’s ridiculous to talk about freedom in a society dominated by huge corporations.  What kind of freedom is there inside a corporation?  They’re totalitarian institutions – you take orders from above and maybe give them to people below you.  There’s about as much freedom as under Stalinism.

When enormous, private, tyrannical institutions are granted the same rights as – or more rights than – human beings, freedom becomes something of a joke.  Only the limited public authority that still exists guarantees whatever rights workers have. The solution isn’t to undermine freedom and democracy – it’s to undermine the private tyrannies.

Chomsky writes, “If people become aware of constructive alternatives, along with even the beginnings of mechanisms to realize those alternatives, positive change could have a lot of support.  The current tendencies, many of which are pretty harmful, don’t seem to be all that substantial, and there’s nothing inevitable about them.  That doesn’t mean constructive change will happen, but the opportunity for it is definitely there.”

Citizen involvement exists to capitalize on those opportunities growing from citizen interest in participating in the events and decision-making that affects their lives.  Most citizens want to make a positive contribution to a democratic, informed, genuinely open and truly free society.

How much should the public pay to encourage citizen involvement in government?  It should pay more than it presently pays for prisons and prison guards.  Presently, there is one guard for every three prisoners.  In contrast, there is one teacher for every thirty students in our public schools (in Portland, Oregon).  If we invested in progressive community building, instead of in oppressive reaction, we would be safer, saner and kinder as a society, with fewer problems.

Without citizen involvement at each stage of decision-making, community is disorganized and personality dependent.  The issue for governments is often not budget savings, but power.  Citizen involvement is under concerted assault by special interests and those who respond to them because it is effective, not because it is weak.  Citizen involvement deserves to be supported by any and all citizens who do not have fortunes and lobbyists to work for them.

Citizen involvement is one of the only real counterbalances to the growth and development industry in existence. The pattern, described here is clear: real citizen involvement is under present and concerted assault.  Neighborhood, community-based citizen activists should decide and act on these important issues quickly.  Hopefully, they will oppose orchestrated public process and demand top priority for genuine citizen involvement.

While the rich and powerful may not like dealing with real citizen involvement, it’s still, technically, the people’s government.


Americans are searching for ways to effectively influence their government and many have turned away from traditional means of involvement to construct new ones, or to destroy old ones.  Local government has to deal with the consequences of these changes, and it is important to understand why this is happening and to know that this has been going on for a long time.   These are generational strategists, representing corporate and elitist interests, yes, a new aristocracy – would-be.


While Bush and Gore were running for President, millions of Americans, including 100,000 Oregonians, voted for new political parties.  Many, such as the Green Party, are grassroots-based, membership-run, and progressive, and hope to be nationally competitive alternatives to the Republicans and Democrats.  Their long-term goal is a far more inclusive system of American politics, egalitarian in distribution of opportunity and reward, and centrally based in ordinary citizen organizations than the existing system.  Such reform requires a third party, electorally threatening to the other two, as a practical prerequisite for reform.  That’s why they are building them.

To be successful, a new party must be low-key, anti-heroic, long play, and position itself as a “different kind of third party” able to make the climb.  A successful third party must also:

  • Build a value-centered organization, competing less on personalities than on an alternative vision of American governance, as Nader attempted.
  • Avoid wasted votes by running where they can win, as Jesse Ventura did.
  • Offer a programmatic vision reducible to no single special interest, constituency, or the simple sum of such groups, as both Nader and Perot did.
  • Compliment its election work with “non-electoral” work – issue campaigns, political education and membership training – to advance democratic politics.
  • Promote a style that recognizes that winning for principles requires competence and verve as well as conviction.

Personal questions are posed by a new party membership: How does this add up for me?  Do I value democracy?  Do I think the argument for reform is right?  If so, am I prepared to act upon it?  If not, just how do I suppose American party politics will ever substantially improve?  Third parties remind us that there are alternatives and more inclusive solutions.  By this gauge, third parties don’t waste or spoil votes, they inform, change and strengthen them.


Most Americans admit that we need government.  But American government is troubled.  We may blame bureaucrats and politicians, or recognize that government is overwhelmed by social problems.  We may want everyone to rally to help fix it, but many citizens are moving away from their institutions, and some deny any responsibility. How do we rebuild government and community relationships?  Ten ways that work:

1.  Set out to fix your neighborhood, your community, or the county – not the “system.”

2.  If you don’t beat city hall the first time, try again using a new idea.

3.  Think of new solutions, not new rules.

4.  Make sure you provide a setting in which it is comfortable for others to offer new ideas.

5.  Be out front rather than left or right.  Don’t worry about political labels.

6.  Remember that the weak should not be blamed for trouble caused by the strong.

7.  Don’t expect anything different to happen if you do the same thing over and over again.

8.  Think laterally. Imagine the solution you want, and then figure out how to get there.

9.  Make a couple of mistakes, and then learn from them.

10.  Use your experts, not theirs.  If you can’t find an expert, become one yourself.

“History ain’t ‘Sesame Street, writes Sam Smith. “It doesn’t always break our way.  On the other hand, intelligent citizens have caused social and political change by seeking out their own facts and developing their own solutions.”

INDEPENDENCE DAY Tom Paine wrote, “We have it in our power to begin the world over.” It’s important to pass this message to each new generation.  Students themselves suggest.

1.  Teach politics differently.  “We need to learn and practice how to understand issues, hold political discussions, and make decisions with others.”

2.  Help students to discover that politics can create change.  “We need to see that our elders care, and to see examples of citizens working together to make a difference.”

3.  Educate students about the roots of democracy.  “We seem to have little sense of what lies at the core of democratic politics.”

4.  Watch what we “say” about politics.  “If the message being received is that politics is irrelevant, so much for any future participation in the political process.”

5.  Challenge students to take up politics.  “Students care about the world, but to ignite their interest, they must believe that the political process can in fact create change.”

The best place for students to learn local civics is the local neighborhood association.  Get involved and include your kids.  Our democracy depends upon all of us.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Eighteen years in professional local government Citizen Involvement activities.

1989 – 2002:  EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, Office of Citizen Involvement, Multnomah County, OR, (ret.) a chartered, independent county office, reporting to a citizen volunteer policy board, advocating for and facilitating timely citizen participation in government policy development.  Worked with all levels of local, state and national government, and grassroots organizations.

1984 – 1989:  CITIZEN PARTICIPATION COORDINATOR, Office of Neighborhood Associations, City of Portland, OR.  Fiscal and contracts officer, citizen budget advisory committee coordinator, neighborhood needs manager.]

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