"Echo Populism" -- Civic Engagement and Lawmaking

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Civic engagement is essential to modern, fast-paced lawmaking. Historically, laws came from longstanding, pragmatic customs observed by a community, tribe or family. Laws did not surprise anyone because they evolved over long periods of time, and the law merely codified behavior standards the community had already agreed to follow through its customs. Although local leaders might be the only ones who could read or write, everyone innately understood the rules of communal life and business because the laws echoed practical needs, and because communities shared local history, cultural norms, and experience. Thus, lawmaking had a solid practical and psychological foundation.

Today, change overwhelms the psychological underpinnings of lawmaking, and sometimes the pragmatic component as well. We are by and large a transient society, moving in and out of communities at will. Families are often broken, blended, or scattered geographically and emotionally. Businesses are multinational. Hometown norms or values may never develop in manufactured suburbia. Expertise is not centralized in an elite group of educated leaders, and certainly not only in the government. And local customs - for both business and individual behavior - can quickly disappear, even in comparatively old cities like Ventura. As a result, many people find themselves both fearful of and resistant to change, including changes in the law. We see this manifested today in what may perhaps be considered "echo Populism," i.e., resistance to top down lawmaking as a result of distrust of state and national government.

Civic engagement provides a pragmatic solution to lawmaking problem.  Local government - which in the western United States is a direct product of the first Populist rebellion - has the means to pull communities together so that the lawmaking process more closely resembles the ancient process in which everyone had a role and, more importantly, ownership of the result.  By convening a forum to develop a shared community vision before identifying problems or offering solutions, the affected people - stakeholders - have a much better chance of understanding the inherent community needs at stake.  And nowadays we are a society of experts; leaders need not be the sole technical experts.  Local government can and should draw effectively on community members who have more experience or technical knowledge of a particular problem.

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This page contains a single entry by Ariel Pierre Calonne published on January 15, 2009 11:36 AM.

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