All Democracy is Local BY LEILA LEVINSON MAKING DEMOCRACY WORK Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. By Robert D. Putnam. 204 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press. $14.95 softcover. DEMOCRACY ON TRIAL. By Jean Bethke Elshtain. 138 pp. New York: Basic Books. $20. IT IS EASY TO FEEL DESPERATE. The nation’s rightward tilt on its axis has thrown progressives into disequilib rium. The refrain among my friends is a plaintive “What can we do?” And we certainly are getting no clues from our Democratic leaders, who all seem to have become sick with the flu. The bulldozing of decades of legislation protecting the environment, minorities’ rights, children and consumers is happening with such dizzying speed that an adequate response, any response, seems beyond our ken. But after reading Democracy on Trial by Jean Bethke Elshtain and The Making of Democracy by Robert D. Putnam, I began to think we may not be powerless yet. But to be effective we must surrender to an irony that is more bitter than the proverbial bitter pill: The Republicans have been right about one thingwe do need to stop relying on Washington to rescue our values. We do need to realize the principle of self-help and focus on our immediate world for social and political action. We must define our community and what project might give that community an identity and will. Such group activism is a prime example of what both Elshtain and Putnam present as a requisite for healthy democracy: “civic networks.” These networks are essential to a democracy because they create trust, an emotion neither gang members nor Rush devotees nor Congressional freshmen have for people outside their group. When a society lacks a history of such networks or when the networks disintegrate, alienation and resentment replace trust, perverting people’s instincts to beple to violence or demagoguery. None of this is new. But the provocative possibility these two books stir is that even Writer Leila Levinson lives and attends school committee meetings in Austin. with a history of civic networks, when the democratic state plays a strong, central role as ours has increasingly done since the 1930s, it undermines local networks and in so doing, threatens the very foundation upon which it stands. Rather than figuring out ways in which our communitiesbe they communities of neighborhoods, of religion, of shared interestsmight achieve goals, have we erred in expecting government to embrace our agendas? But I am jumping ahead of myself. First, let us consider our present political culture, depressing as it is. Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Ethics at the University of Chicago, argues that the culture’s placing individual rights over the value of community has placed democracy at risk: We have come to regard rights as “possessions” rather than as immunities. One group’s rights compete with another’s, weakening our sense of reciprocal responsibility and of a common good, essential to a civil society. The extreme emphasis on individual rights erodes the boundary between the public and private realms, creating what Elshtain calls “the politics of displacement.” There is no distinction between what is political and what is cultural, ethical, or moral. Everything, even sexual behavior, becomes political. And what is public is privatized: How will I benefit from health care? In this politics there are no “we’s” unless “it is that of the discrete group with whom the ‘I’ identifies.” We expect that the state rather than the local community will redress grievances. Such expectations are frequently disappointed and disillusionment, cynicism and the delegitimation of government result. When people perceive centralized government as serving special interests, a “culture of mistrust” develops. “I will get mine no matter what happens to the other guy.” TO READ PUTNAM’S BOOK after Elshtain’ s creates both hope and dismay. Hope because his study of the efficacy of Italy’s regions, shows how critical a history of an associational life is to the success and vitality of a democracy, and the United States has that history. Dismay because that history alone does not guarantee the future, and we’ve experienced an astoundingly rapid loss of the essential product of associational life, what Putnam calls “social capital,” the willingness to trust. Yet there is a clear path back to our democratic potential, one that requires sobering reassessment of our relationship to government, particularly of what we mean by civic engagement and community and how we live out those understandings. “In the 1970s a tumultuous period of reform broke with Italy’s century-long pattern of centralized government and delegated unprecedented power and resources to the new regional governments.” Putnam and his associates used this unique historical moment to begin a two-decade study of what conditions create “strong, responsive, effective representative institutions.” Though the 20 regions have identical constitutional structures and mandates, by the beginning of the, 1990s there was an immense range in their effectiveness. Some regions, predominantly in northern Italy, have achieved great economic and political gains while others, predominantly in the south, have hardly improved the lives of their citizens. As Putnam’s study progressed, a “stark pattern” emerged. “One could have predicted dinary accuracy from the patterns of civic engagement of the region a century earlier.” By civic engagement he means: How much trust exists between citizens? What are their norms of generalized reciprocity? What are their networks? How able are people to collaborate for shared interests? Rather than sitting around waiting for you to prove your trustworthiness, I say, “I’ll do this for you now, trusting that somewhere down the road, you’ll return the deed.” Such dynamics, “self-reinforcing and cumulative” result from “a history of associational life,” and, according to Putnam, therein lies the source of the tremendous chasm between the north and south of Italy. Southern Italy was conquered by the Normans in the 1100s and remained a feudal monarchy for some 200 years, with a lasting legacy of “vertical” authority: people depending upon a king or other centralized authority for protection and economic support. Putnam quotes a noted Calabrian proverb: “He who behaves honestly comes to a miserable end.” In such an atomized society, individuals see the arrogation of power to be their only way of helping themselves. In contrast, the north’s history is one of independent communes and republicanism 16 JUNE 30, 1995
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