Terry McAteer: Democracy is fading in Nevada County
Ever since the outdoor raucous May meeting of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors in which speaker after speaker publicly berated and threatened our elected officials, I’ve come to notice a troubling trend that our democratic norms are crumbling in our own backyard.
Democracy is not an inherited trait but a learned one. We are not born understanding parliamentary procedures or democratic ideals. We usually do not learn them at home, as most homes are run on an authoritarian model: Mom and Dad rule the roost.
We actually learn and experience democracy at school and in our own communities. Americans have, in the past, been a belonging group of people whose understanding of democratic principles have come through our associations with people and groups.
When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, he was amazed at our ability to unite through a variety of associations: “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools.”
In essence, associations in communities throughout the country unite around a principle of “the common good.” The “common good” principle denotes that the community rallies around what is good for most of its citizens.
Thomas Jefferson, who when writing the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, coined the phrase, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” was not interested in individual happiness but collective happiness — the happiness that was collectively reached by a community when seeking the “common good.”
These community associations, which de Tocqueville noted, became the incubators of the principles of democracy and of the “common good.” It was through associations like the PTA, the Elks Lodge, the church council, Scouting, the labor union, the city council and the nonprofits that serve the needy where we began to learn valuable, democratic principles.
Those principles included learning governing norms for the role of chair, vice chair, secretary and treasurer. We learned that democracy is slow in creating change.
We learned how to speak up and voice our concerns and opinions with a rational voice. We also learned how to accept defeat at times since all of these democratic incubating associations worked for the “common good.” Mainly, we learned to listen and value the opinion of others.
I fear that we, locally, have lost the sense of understanding the “common good” and replaced it with “what is good for me.” It is easy to witness the demise of these democratic incubators: the PTAs are nearly non-existent; the Elks Lodge and similar organization memberships are way down; the church council begs for participants; the Boy Scouts and labor unions are both suffering; the city council has few attendees; and local nonprofits can’t find board members. This all speaks loudly to the demise of our local democratic incubators.
It is no wonder, then, when people who attend the Nevada County Board of Supervisor meetings rail about their needs, showing utter contempt for the democratic process, to understand that most of them have never been a part of one of the democratic incubators. They don’t know the norms of democracy, and they do not understand that democracy is instituted to work for the “common good.”
They have neither learned the skills of listening nor the ability to speak with a rational voice. They have never experienced defeat through democratic means, as they have lived their lives in an authoritarian model.
Nevada County is no different than every other community in our nation where the incubators of democracy are crumbling before our eyes. The need for two-income families, the mobility of our 21st century society, the increase of partisan television watching and the demise of the family unit are all reasons accounting for the lack of involvement and ownership in community and the continued demise of our personal and collective associations.
This loss of civic engagement and working for the “common good” portends a further demise of our democratic principles.
Terry McAteer, of Grass Valley, is a retired Nevada County superintendent of schools.
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