Monday Jun 27

Remaking American Democracy

Kick-Starting the Public Powers and Power-Leverage of Popular Assemblies

If we believe that the individual struggle for life may widen into a struggle for the lives of all, surely the demand of an individual for decency and comfort, for a chance to work and obtain the fulness of life, may be widened until it gradually embraces all the members of the community and rises into a sense of the common weal. —Jane Addams[1]

The Takedown of American Democracy

The appeal to remake American democracy from the bottom up has persisted for decades,[ii] although it’s usually rejected out of hand as a pipe dream. But perhaps now, in response to the existential threat to our electoral democracy, there is a glimmer of interest in this visionary strategy to end the political infirmity[iii] of the demos.[iv] The depravity of authoritarianism is casting a shadow over our political culture and institutions, blinding us to the commonweal.[v] The menace is not theoretical, since it has become the raison d'être of Republican-dominated state legislatures and governors, the Republican members of Congress, and the politicized agenda of the SCOTUS.[vi]

Even now, no countervailing institutional response has emerged with any hope of deflating the white grievance, nativism, and “Great Replacement”[vii] rhetoric set loose by Trump[viii] and steering the Republican party from the rear.[ix] In the absence of an antidote, the MAGA movement has become a runaway populist train of reactionary[x] nationalism,[xi] driven by Trump with the imprimatur of the brotherhood of billionaires,[xii] rolling toward a destination of fascist oligarchy.[xiii] The inexhaustible fuel of Trump’s authoritarian drive is the non-WASP[xiv] population’s swelling size and assertiveness, politically, economically, culturally and socially.[xv] Magnifying our peril, the consciousness of the public, diverted from political affairs by the pandemic’s threats to well-being, may cause the end of our democracy[xvi] to pass undefended by most of the electorate.[xvii]

Internet media and the mainstream press are awash with predictions that without a major countervailing initiative, the institutions of American democracy will be moribund by the end of the 2024 presidential election. But neither the Democratic Party,[xviii] nor the Congress, nor the President, nor the SCOTUS, nor corporate-America[xix] has demonstrated the wherewithal or the desire to put the brakes on this runaway train.[xx] And, given that its planned route is almost entirely by way of Republican-controlled state legislatures (since Congress has failed to pass major electoral reform legislation,[xxi] which has been blocked by Republican filibustering), the end of the line for American democracy looms ahead.[xxii]

But even if electoral reform legislation had been signed into law in time to slow down or stop the Republican efforts at suppression and subversion, there is no reason to think the SCOTUS would have upheld those reforms when challenged by right-wing forces.[xxiii] The likely effect of such legislation, had it passed, would have been to delay but not permanently derail the U.S. from becoming a fascist oligarchy. Although this may sound far-fetched, it has the potential to become our inescapable history given the inertia and momentum of the forces already in play, especially our historic level of “pernicious polarization” following a “. . . demographic shift that poses a threat to the white population that has historically been the dominant group in all areas of power, allowing political leaders to exploit insecurities surrounding their loss of status.”[xxiv]

The Painful Path of Salvation

We have had a multi-decade demonstration of the futility of political and policy strategies to reverse the historic U.S. economic inequality[xxv] and the morally unhinged use of the reactionary political power it has generated.[xxvi] The corruption of the Republican party, the conservative take-over of the SCOTUS, the Republican domination of state legislatures, and the right-wing control of both traditional and Internet media are not incidental developments but the long-term strategic objectives of the billionaire brotherhood.[xxvii] Presumably, the electoral crisis is their win-or-die strategy to transform the nation into the capitol of a fascist oligarchic empire.

Given their attacks on our foundational institutions—think public education,[xxviii] criminal and civil justice,[xxix] electoral districting and administration,[xxx] Congressional law-making,[xxxi] public health,[xxxii] and media monopolization[xxxiii]—now waged openly on their behalf by the reactionary MAGA-movement’s threats and intimidation tactics,[xxxiv] many of these institutions no longer demonstrate the potential for self-correction, which would seem to require a reversal of the country’s economic inequality and an empowering response to the “discoordination” of the demos.[xxxv]

Without a plausible alternative, we have no better hope to revive our democracy and see it thrive than deepening direct political participation. K. Sabeel Rahman has observed, “. . . the United States has a civic and political infrastructure that is not oriented towards the building of capacities for shared self-rule . . .” [xxxvi] And Benjamin Barber, in his highly regarded book, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, noted:

. . . America still has no nationwide system of local civic participation. For this reason, the first and most important reform in a strong democratic platform must be the introduction of a national system of neighborhood assemblies . . . in every district in America.[xxxvii]

This is hardly a new idea. The linchpin of Thomas Jefferson’s visionary corrective for the new republic was his proposal to subdivide the counties into small, inde­pendent governments resembling New England towns. He envisioned town-like “little republics,” direct democracies that would afford opportunities for every citizen to act in government.[xxxviii] Several decades later, Wendell Phillips, an abolitionist, articulated the most compelling reason to root democracy in directly democratic neighborhood assemblies:

Trust the people—the wise and the ignorant, the good and the bad—with the gravest of questions, and in the end, you educate the race. At the same time, you secure, not perfect institutions, not necessarily good ones, but the best possible while human nature is the basis and the only material to build with.[xxxix]

To revive commitment to the commonweal will require millions of us working together to build face-to-face public organizations of self-governance, overcoming the challenges, because that’s the only practical way we have to rebuild trust in one another,[xl] without which we will have neither commonweal nor democracy. Empowering that participation would anchor politics in the verity that there is no better judge of what’s good for the demos than the demos itself; that there is no greater political satisfaction than knowing that what we have, we have chosen for ourselves. That strategic outcome calls for vesting public powers[xli] and power-leverage in the demos, which now appear to be the only means to undermine the ideology of fascist oligarchy and bring down the reign of the billionaires.

Perhaps the first step to remake our failing democracy by the addition of participatory self-governance is the recognition that it will not result from voluntary relinquishment of power by the wealthy and powerful or by multiple grassroots campaigns on a plethora of worthy issues. History teaches it will only come from the initiative and sacrifice of millions who join in a multi-decade, unified struggle[xlii] to ensure the triumph of democracy. No transformative American movement for the commonweal has ever been built on voluntarily devolved power or in the absence of a widely shared strategic moral vision—not the American revolution, not the anti-slavery movement, not the labor movement, not the populist movement, not the women’s suffrage movement, not the civil rights movement, none of them.

This vision necessarily describes a painful path to our national salvation, a decades-long struggle against ruthless opposition to remake the structure of our democracy, stirred on by witnessing either its continuing decline, or a guerrilla-terrorism version of civil war, or much worse.[xliii] It’s also true, however, “Most countries that were able to avoid a second civil war shared an ability to strengthen the quality of their governance. They doubled down on democracy and moved up the polity scale.”[xliv]

As the takedown of our democracy approaches the point of no return, the mission before us is clear, should we decide to accept it: Remake our democracy. Start at the grassroots. Begin the struggle for direct citizen control of representative government and the major corporations. Do the groundwork for the all-out battle to dethrone the billionaire oligarchs who have raised themselves up on the ruin of the country. Because that’s the least of what it will take to restore the U.S. as a model democracy.

The Field of Action

The implied organizing strategy calls for encouraging every American to reject the role of consumer cipher and instead to take on the responsibility of citizenhood[xlv] by participating directly in the institutionalized wielding of public powers. Citizens are not advisors or critics but legally entitled discussants, decision-makers, and actors, because every one of us has an irreplaceable part to play. No one can represent our individual demands for relief from poverty, oppression, and injustice. No representative can stand in for our sacrifice and risk-taking to remake our democracy out of love of God, family, community, and nation. And representatives cannot replace our individual will to self-governing freedom, given that “Representation is incompatible with freedom because it delegates and thus alienates political will at the cost of genuine self-government.”[xlvi]

The urban city stands out as the venue in which to institutionalize direct decision-making in governance as a right of citizenship. The city governs closest to the demos, and it is the most politically accessible government with significant public powers, ground-zero of the nation’s poverty, oppression, and injustice, the nerve center of capitalist wealth, and the heartbeat of the global economy. As the urban municipality continues to evolve into the “global city,” scholars of public administration tell us that these cities will increasingly dominate information, communication, and manufacturing technologies,[xlvii] the profit-centers that empower the fascist oligarchs and, in turn, their corruption of democratic institutions.[xlviii]

The directly democratic popular assembly, patterned on the “open-town” governments of New England, stands alone as the most promising organizing model to radically remake democracy. This home-grown form of local government can come to life in our cities as the lower tier of two-tier[xlix] municipal governance. Imagine your city no longer governed by a handful of elected representatives, exclusively in control of all the public powers and claiming to represent constituencies of tens or even hundreds of thousands, but that some of those powers have become shared with and accountable to popular assemblies, neighborhood governments. Those assemblies would have a partnership role in decisions about zoning, public safety, public utilities, public health, and much more.

The Fuller Court. The Supreme Court in 1892, under the chief justiceship of Melville Fuller, a few years before the Court’s trio of pro-capitalist rulings.

One of the most significant lessons taught by the four-century success of popular assemblies in New England is that “ordinary” citizens can learn the deliberation and decision-making of self-governance, responsibly exercising the public powers. The history of open-town meetings also confirms that self-governance has not been voluntarily devolved by higher authorities; it has resulted from the initiative and involvement of citizens prepared to claim their right to it and to administer it responsibly.

Doubts about this vision of directly democratic exercise of public powers by neighborhood popular assemblies are numerous and substantial, several of which we will consider below. But mostly they do not reflect distrust of the popular assembly per se or its adoption in a two-tier system of government, as in New England, where the towns, which remain broadly popular, are a lower tier of government within counties.[l]

Moreover, most moderates, liberals, and progressives favor granting some of the public powers directly to the people at-large. In fact, the last three-quarters of a century of community and faith-based organizing has been focused on building “people power,” reflecting an unarticulated Jeffersonianism, while enigmatically disallowing the necessity or possibility of restructuring our political and economic institutions.[li]

The Roots of a Strategic Moral Vision

Does an American form of local government innovated centuries ago make sense as a model for directly democratic popular assemblies nowadays, as urban neighborhood governments, to restructure American democracy? We may begin to answer that question by considering early open-town meetings in New England, which affords insight into their longevity, popularity, and worldwide acceptance as the truest expression of the democratic ideal.[lii]

Looking back to those early years, we can see members of a community working together in what appears to be an unremarkable activity. The settlers are constructing a modest building. It could be a place to satisfy a practical need, like the storage of communal tools. But we learn that throughout their lives it will be their church, where they meet to consider how they are governed by God; and it will be their civic meetinghouse, where they consider how to govern themselves, according to what they believe God requires of them.

Most of the early settlers were Puritans who shared strong ethical and spiritual convictions. Persecuted in England for their religious beliefs,[liii] they emigrated to America beginning in the early 1600s. The settlers were biased against hierarchical authority and instead favored local lay control; thus, they adopted the “congregational” system of church governance. As Alexis de Tocqueville saw it, “Puritanism was not merely a religious doctrine; but it corresponded in many points with the most absolute democratic and republican theories.”[liv]

The New England towns were founded as self-ruling polities for the sake of the commonweal, according to a moral-spiritual regimen that would ensure dedication to the commonweal. Their history is in sharp contrast to our own society’s two-track degeneration of morality and politics—to wit: our narcissistic devotion to amoral personal autonomy and self-entitlement,[lv] and the corruption of “representative” political institutions, many of which have lost their moral and ethical footing and have betrayed the commonweal.[lvi]

When thinking about the effects of contemporary secularism,[lvii] it may be helpful to understand the moral spirituality of the town citizenry, since its influence on their self-governance has been fundamental to the success of their assemblies, even though its narrow religiosity had sharply diminished by the eighteenth century. The early immigrant population of New England possessed a moral vision of achieving a good life, and they were fleeing from what they regarded as a morally corrupt society. Their ethos encompassed a commitment to “civic godliness,” which included improving the condition of the poor and increasing literacy.[lviii]

The Puritan legacy in New England includes accountability of officeholders, recognition of the rights of the individual, and the sovereignty of the people, which influenced both civil and religious institutions.[lix] However, of all the attributes of the towns, their “freedom” of self-governance continues to be the most inspiring. That freedom, unlike rule by representatives, demands face-to-face meeting of the citizens. Regardless of comity or conflict in their interaction, the town meeting was not shaped for the sake of comfortable participation in civic affairs but for the freedom of self-rule, perhaps because they intuitively understood:

Men and women who are not directly responsible through common deliberation, common decision, and common action for the policies that determine their common lives are not really free at all, however much they may enjoy security, private rights, and freedom from interference.”[lx]

Ralph Waldo Emerson described the effect of that freedom: “In every winding road, in every stone fence, in the smokes of the poorhouse chimney, in the clock on the church, they read their own power, and consider the wisdom and error of their judgments.”[lxi]

From their early years onward, the open-town assemblies show us how to actualize our freedom. Their mutual moral commitments, the basis of their trust of one another, nurtured the political will needed to free the colonies from the oppression of the British Empire and, eventually, to establish the government of the United States. “Town meeting fueled the spark that ultimately led to the American Revolution, and was lauded and studied for more than a century to follow.”[lxii]

Admirers and Critics of Open-Town Governance

The nineteenth century observers of the popular assemblies, particularly de Tocqueville[lxiii] and James Bryce,[lxiv] were convinced that the open-town meetings were both an ideal form of self-governance and nearly perfect “schools of democracy.”[lxv]

But among modern scholars, there are unabashed critics of the towns. My reading of their analyses raises questions about their relevance to present-day community organizing that looks to the New England town as a model for shared urban governance.

Perhaps the best explanation for the end of the praise of open-town government, which was replaced by sharp criticism in the Progressive era, is American industrialization and the shift of the population from rural-agrarian to urban-industrial. Local, direct democracy in assemblies came to be seen as irrelevant to urban governance which, given the size of its constituencies, was deemed necessarily representative. It required the development of new forms of direct democracy, such as the initiative, referendum, and recall.

While the critics mostly do not dispute the date-and-event history of the towns, some fault them as less than true democracies, because majority rule was not always the rule at the outset; women, non-landowners, and non-church members were not enfranchised; and indigenous neighbors were not accepted as equals.[lxvi] But does a government exist anywhere, regardless of how democratic and inclusive its present form, that would continue to be called a democracy if judged by its beginnings?[lxvii] The point is, the New England towns evolved over the centuries and now they are at least as inclusive as any other form of government in the United States.

Some critics fault the founders of the towns because they were not ideologically dedicated to creating an ideal form of democracy. Such criticism betokens academyopia. Only in the ivory tower does one imply that how actions were intellectually conceived, regardless of their evolved actual effects, determines their contemporary rightfulness. Presumably, the early settlers were living within the culture of their times, struggling to find the least burdensome, most efficient self-governance that would ensure their survival and the success of their communities—which happily turned out to be open-town direct democracy.

Although the view of the open towns in both the popular imagination and academic literature has gained and lost approbation over the centuries, the consensus of current opinion holds that the assemblies survive as ideal expressions of democracy in action.

The Nitty-Gritty of Doubt

The pivotal question about directly democratic popular assemblies as the lower tier of urban city government is whether their adaptation would be successful. We may be inspired by the history of these assemblies in New England, but doubts about their relevance to our current crisis of democracy may leave us far from motivated to support a movement that would rely on them to vest public powers in the demos. This section is an attempt to address some of those doubts, beginning with one of the most recently raised.

Wouldn’t an urban popular assembly with public powers, a neighborhood government, be vulnerable to hostile take-overs?

Would the New England-style popular assembly be vulnerable to hostile take-overs by anti-democratic forces, such as right-wing Republicans intent on electoral subversion and suppression? This concern may be assuaged by familiarity with the inherent strengths of the towns’ unique form of government.

Open-town leaders do not make attractive targets for corruption. One of the benchmarks of the towns has been the advisory role of their elected leaders, the selectmen (which now includes women). Adapted to urban governance, the selectmen (probably renamed) would call annual and special meetings, propose laws and policies, and generally supervise a range of neighborhood government activities. But while they might plan programs and services and the tax assessments to pay for them, those plans would not have the force of law until the citizens “signify their satisfaction” in an open-town meeting. Thus, in the history of this model, there is no evidence in the town records of any serious encroachment by selectmen on the prerogatives of the town meetings.

There is no history of corruption of a New England open-town government. To corrupt the polity, it would be necessary to corrupt most of the citizenry, since every citizen is both a direct producer and consumer of town ordinances, administrative policies, and services, in addition to acting directly on rare occasions to alter the structure of the government itself (e.g., adding finance committees, town managers, and more meeting days). Jefferson believed that given town self-rule, “. . . every man in the state will let his heart be torn out of his body sooner than let his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or Bonaparte.”[lxviii]

Another disincentive for hostile take-overs would be the costs and difficulties versus the prospective benefits. Taking over a state government or urban municipality holds out the promise of commandeering significant powers and resources, and the criminal justice system in this country makes it possible to avoid legal consequences for corruption of public officials.[lxix] But any single neighborhood government would not possess such attractive powers and resources, and its basic structure and culture would make it invulnerable to corruption as an organization.

Can we recreate New England open-town governments in American cities?

If we establish directly democratic popular assemblies as neighborhood governments in urban areas, undoubtedly, they will look and feel very different than the towns in New England. But some of the best features of direct democracy in the towns would follow their adaptation to urban governance, including repudiation of special interests, nonpartisan and non-ideological politics, incorruptibility of elected officials, and a combination of efficiency, equality, and accountability in public administration.

Can neighborhood governments be efficient and effective elements of urban city governance?

Public administration scholars claim that neighborhood governments cannot play a useful role in the governance of urban cities. They regard them as impractical, primarily because they are thought to work only with small constituencies, and because the demands on urban government arise across district-wide and metropolitan political and economic boundaries.

Notwithstanding these negative views, the potential of urban assemblies to deepen democratic participation has become increasingly attractive on the street, as indicated by the “right to the city,” “new municipalism,” and “sortition” movements,[lxx] and the popular efforts to establish facsimiles of such assemblies in several major cities.[lxxi]

The question of the efficiency and effectiveness of neighborhood government warrants serious investigation. My conclusion is that the academic perspective is mistaken because it doesn’t consider “vill economics”[lxxii] and the histories of the U.S. municipal reform and public choice movements[lxxiii] in the context of two-tier governance.

What would be the minimum and maximum size of the citizenry of a neighborhood government in a large city, like Los Angeles, and would those numbers be practicable?

Popular assemblies with smaller populations have clear advantages. Ideally, they would have under a thousand voting members, but then the total number of assemblies would needlessly divide urban populations that have mutual concerns, artificially inhibiting common action. However, directly democratic assemblies with constituencies of 10,000 are practicable.[lxxiv] In fact, towns in Massachusetts with fewer than 6,000 residents must adopt the directly democratic open-town form of government.[lxxv]

In a city like Los Angeles, theoretically we could have more than 400 popular assemblies to encompass the municipal population of just under four million (which is now divided into 15 council districts of about 250-300,000 each), although certainly not every neighborhood would be motivated to form its own government. In any event, at first blush the possibility of hundreds of neighborhood governments in one city sounds preposterous.

When considered at length, that reaction is unsurprising. The early kings and their ministers may have experienced it when facing the demands of the nobles for a larger role in governance; the kings and nobles may have experienced it when facing the demands of legislatures; and now legislators and their patrons may experience it when facing the demands of the demos. In such circumstances, there is the likelihood of a defensive reaction to the decentralization of power that will deepen democracy. And typically, in that response, rationalizations of elite-concentration of public powers—justified as “divine right,” “noblesse oblige,” “meritocracy,” “technocracy,” etc. by those in power—become injected into the mainstream culture, so that the fear of radical democratization ironically extends even to the public, which itself has been deprived of any meaningful role in the exercise of the public powers.

The question of whether any number of popular assemblies in a city is ideal ought not to be answered in the abstract, and certainly not from the top down by public administration theorists and practitioners of municipal government. Too often, wittingly or unwittingly, they reflect the powerful covert interests served by morally pliant elected officials. Although they are professionals with ethical associations and standards, they nonetheless often remain inert if not complicit in the face of the corruption of urban municipal government,[lxxvi] particularly the endemic “soft” variety.[lxxvii]

The question can justly be put only to the residents in the multitude of historical, cultural, and ethnic neighborhoods, especially those that are middle- to low-income and working-class. They have the potential of citizenhood to deliberate and decide whether they want to establish a popular assembly with public powers, one that would operate according to pre-defined citywide ordinances and procedures, based on the New England model of open-town government, and then only after a public education campaign carried out by nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations.

How would the boundaries of neighborhood government jurisdictions to be determined?

Boundaries would be set within the councilmanic districts of the city. They could not be set by geometric design, which would be arbitrary in relation to history, culture, and ethnicity, and to fixed landmarks, such as rivers, mountains, and freeways. Whatever criteria were employed to establish the boundaries, they should reflect the preferences of the citizenry. The traditional method of forming governmental entities would seem the most appropriate and popular; that is, by petition and election of a self-defined, contiguous citizenry, carried out by an officially recognized and bonded organizing committee of volunteer citizens.[lxxviii]

Limitations set by ordinance through initiative would be likely to include upper and lower population numbers encompassed by the proposed jurisdiction, and restrictions against gerrymandering, to prevent malevolently manipulated racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, or partisan dominance (which, if challenged, would be resolved by a judge of the Superior Court). Some neighborhoods might encompass smaller populations, but probably no less than a thousand,[lxxix] while others would come closer to the upper limit of ten thousand.

Wouldn’t wealthy neighborhoods in effect secede from the city, leaving the poorer ones to fend for themselves?

This concern may reflect the misconception that governments are either decentralized or centralized. In this scenario, the mistaken belief would be that neighborhood governments would be the only means of municipal governance. But they would be part of a polycentric structure of city, county, state, and federal governments. It would be impossible for wealthier neighborhoods to secede with their resources (tax-base) from the authority of the larger jurisdictions, especially from their regulatory and judicial powers. And where distribution of resources for ensuring equity is threatened, state and federal programs, regulatory legislation, and enforcement activities would continue to have a mitigating effect.[lxxx]

In the present political-economy of many urban cities, the relationship between wealthy and impoverished districts resembles not equitable appropriations for city services to low-income areas but tax-exploitation of the poor.[lxxxi] Under the circumstances, low-income and working-class residents would have much to gain from limited grants of public powers, acquiring the legal means to man­age their own development and resource-claims, without the handicap of neglect and exploitation by much more powerful players.

Why should anyone believe that usually apathetic citizens would participate in the deliberations and decision-making of neighborhood governments?

“Apathetic” is a label we attach to people whose experience and feelings we don’t understand. But it doesn’t take much political insight to know that citizens’ consistent experience of powerlessness in the decisions of elected representatives leads to their belief in the futility of political participation. Attendance at city council meetings, school board meetings, advisory commissions and neighborhood councils reinforces that conviction.[lxxxii] Barber notes: “They are apathetic because they are powerless, not powerless because they are apathetic. There is no evidence to suggest that once empowered, a people will refuse to participate.”[lxxxiii]

De Tocqueville saw that “. . . the most powerful, and perhaps the only, means of interesting men [and, presumably, women] in the welfare of their country . . . is to make them partakers in the Government.”[lxxxiv] The meeting of a popular assembly with public powers, where every citizen’s will would be officially empowered, presents the possibility of a very different kind of political experience, especially if the assembly’s agenda is directly responsive to the will of the citizenry. Then their exercise of power for the commonweal warrants their active participation and sagacity.

What might stimulate the active participation of neighborhood residents? Mutual concerns might prompt their assembly, allied with others, to hold city, county, and state officials accountable; to ensure the safety, security, physical, and esthetic condition of their neighborhood; to take advantage of needed but otherwise unavailable programs and services; and to demand a role in setting the taxes and fees they pay.[lxxxv]

Examples of desirable programs and services might include: a low-cost option to install solar panels;[lxxxvi] a low-cost walk-in, neighborhood medical clinic, staffed by a nurse-practitioner, to do initial diagnosis and treatment of minor ailments, referral to higher levels of health care, and on-site health education;[lxxxvii] a low-cost Internet connection and cable-TV service;[lxxxviii] a neighborhood-administered public safety program, based on local recruiting and supervising of public safety officers (to deal with domestic disputes, mental health referrals, traffic control, gang suppression, etc.);[lxxxix] and a low-cost neighborhood mediation service (to resolve disputes between neighbors and between them and various organizations).[xc]

What level of meeting turnout would be needed to establish the “legitimacy” of the urban popular assemblies?

Is “popular assembly” a sham if only a relatively small number of citizens attend most meetings of the assembly? That’s often the view of academic critics who suggest that a less-than-ideal percentage of residents attending assembly meetings indicates something less than their legitimacy as popular assemblies.

But then, what do they make of the meetings of corporation stockholders? They too vote directly and have the power to change the leadership and direction of the corporation, yet we rarely see more than a handful of shareholders at annual meetings. For them, the question of whether to attend is answered by the items on the agenda, whether they are of sufficient relevance and consequence, and whether there is a likelihood of preferential or damaging decisions. No one suggests that the failure of stockholders to attend the meetings makes those meetings a sham or that the stockholders can’t justify their share of ownership in the corporation.

The history of open-town government, like all voluntary organizations with powers to affect the lives of their members and constituents, confirms that attendance at their meetings rises and falls with controversial agenda items that may enhance or threaten the commonweal. Which may explain why New England open-town meetings generally do not have a quorum requirement.[xci]

How can a popular assembly of 10,000 work administratively in practice?

Modern New England towns rely on full-time managers, selectmen, and a variety of committees, plus specialist staff responsible for roads, schools, tax collection, planning, etc. Managers, selectmen, and finance committees were not present in the early towns. But they were inevitable innovations because, as already noted, the citizens act as both the producers and consumers of their town’s laws, administration, and practices. So, if their government becomes onerous, incompetent, wasteful, etc., they have a direct stake and the political wherewithal to cure the defect. The popular assembly thus has the inherent potential of structural self-correction, which cannot be said about any representative government.

Urban neighborhood governments would also form committees to study and recommend actions by their full assemblies; they too would hire professional managers to supervise their day-to-day operations; and undoubtedly, they would make structural self-corrections in response to changing conditions. For instance, some might decide to allow limited use of the “Australian ballot,”[xcii]—that is, voting without attending the meeting of the assembly.

But how is it possible for 10,000 citizens to meet as a “popular assembly”?

We can have a popular assembly with several thousand in attendance if we use available technology. Imagine that the citizens of a neighborhood government have downloaded the app for citizen participation; that they are “warned” of an upcoming assembly meeting, the agenda items set by the selectmen, and the deadline for submitting comments about the agenda items;[xciii] that the relevant committees have reviewed the comments and prepared a summary of the pros and cons (like sample-ballot booklets) to be presented on a large screen as well as on individual smart-phones during the actual meeting (held in a high school or college auditorium, etc.); and that citizens have the option to vote within a set timeframe using their app.

Employing technology to manage neighborhood government meetings of outsized assemblies does not change one vital aspect of traditional town-meeting government: Neither the selectmen, nor the committee leaders and members, nor a full-time manager (if one is hired), nor anyone else has the power to implement any proposed ordinance, budget, or policy until it is approved by the full assembly, and every citizen over the age of 18 may vote on such proposals.

But doesn’t the technologizing of the assembly preclude actual deliberation, civic education, and meaningful relationship-building?

It may seem that the technologizing of the popular assembly means that all the human interaction and relationship-building of the open-town model will be lost, leaving nothing more than a formal process with little or no face-to-face deliberation or shared civic education. But consider: much of the deliberation regarding upcoming business in the meeting, like that of the open town itself, would take place beforehand—across back fences, in homes, carwash waiting areas, market check-out lines, post office queues, parks, libraries, places of employment (like schools, hospitals, health clubs, businesses, etc.), barber shops and beauty salons, and of course, after worship services and other activities at synagogues, churches, and mosques—which may be why some critics of town meetings have mistakenly claimed that the meetings amount to little more than rubber stamps.

If all the citizens of an urban neighborhood government were to receive the meeting “warning” on their cell phones, which showed decisions pending that would materially affect their lives, they would talk about them with relatives, friends, and neighbors who would also be affected. And we have reason to think that most residents would attend those assembly meetings with their relatives, friends, and neighbors.

Other organizations that serve the neighborhood would also become settings for conversations about the upcoming assembly agenda, just as they are now regarding items of concern on the agendas of city council meetings when occasionally publicized. If prepared to act, their objective would not be to pressure or logically convince a handful of council members to support their position, but instead to launch educational efforts to inform the residents of the neighborhood.

All this activity would be likely to produce much more face-to-face interaction, discussion, and deliberation of the agenda items before the voting on them than is the case for the agenda items of typical city council meetings.

But isn’t it true that without face-to-face deliberation in the meetings of the assembly, neighborhood government would be little more than representative in fact?

Citizens acting through their neighborhood government would experience the freedom of self-governance by virtue of personally exercising the power to approve or reject the actions of their government. Still, it may be argued that by removing the deliberative heart of the town meeting—recall the town settlers in their meetinghouse—what remains is only a marginal improvement to the existing representative system. But that claim ignores two factors:

First, there is no assurance that when most voters support a particular issue or candidate in a representative system, their vote will influence a particular policy-outcome. In the U.S., especially in urban cities with large electoral constituencies, voting and government policy have at best become only distantly related.[xciv] Then, too, in many respects one’s actual policy preferences never appear on the ballot. Most Americans want much more rigorous gun-control laws and much higher taxes on the wealthy, neither of which appear on any ballot. But in a directly democratic popular assembly, the agenda is set by the people themselves and their will determines the law-making, policies, and practices of their government.

Second, the absence of traditional small-town deliberations does not necessarily mean the absence of deliberation, only the necessity to devise new ways to enable it. For example, it’s possible to increase the numbers, mandates, and roles of committees, and add requirements for participation in their deliberations by citizens who submit agenda items. Procedures may be adopted to ensure that major issues do not appear on the assembly agenda until they have been reviewed by the appropriate committee and that pro and con views have been talked out for presentation to the assembly. Housemeetings, inviting deliberation, may be encouraged by designating them priority sources of assembly agenda items. Break-out sessions preceding assembly meetings may be used. If 500 people were projected to be in attendance, the first two hours of a three-hour assembly meeting would be devoted to break-out meetings of ten groups of 50, each talking out their views of their agenda item to be presented to the full assembly. Finally, given the ubiquitous presence of cell phones, we can expect that as proposed agenda items and summaries of the discussions of them are sent to every member of the assembly, conversations about them would ensue all over the neighborhood.

In two-tier urban governance, city governments would continue to manage economic spillovers, coordinate city-wide development, and provide area-wide and vertically integrated services (e.g., water purification, trash collection, rapid transit, detention centers, and costly police laboratory and training facilities). Neighborhood governments would expand influence on and ownership of government policy, increase and improve needed neighborhood programs and services, serve as an institutional mechanism to monitor and confront municipal corruption, and potentially emerge as a powerful means of holding higher levels of government accountable. Surprisingly, upon closer consideration, they might also play a useful role in addressing climate change.[xcv]

Doesn’t everything depend on the culture of the population, both in creating urban assemblies and in their success as the “anchors” of American democracy?

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of establishing urban popular assemblies as neighborhood governments would be cultural. How could we ensure their nonpartisan and non-ideological character, and their commitment to the commonweal, which would be largely unfamiliar to the current generation of urban Americans? How could citizens come to appreciate that, at least in the popular assembly, they would no longer be the potential victims of elected officials representing special interests, but instead the official decision-makers themselves, empowered directly to will action that addresses their mutual concerns? How could they be sure that the initiatives or other legal strategies to establish such assemblies would respect their values?

These questions challenge us to think beyond the desired outcome of neighborhood governments with public powers. In every city, that outcome would require a founding organizing committee, a group of fundraising trustees, an attorney with expertise in government law and public administration, and a canvass-organizing campaign of grassroots education and popular support. And all the foregoing, and all the participants in their development and implementation, would have to be committed to creating the culture that could sustain the movement and ensure its eventual success.

The heart of the cultural challenge is the call for citizenhood, coming to see ourselves acting together as responsible citizens of a community, committed to moderating the natural conflict between our own will and the will of others, and prepared to negotiate and live with compromise civilly if not graciously. It would require talking with and listening to each other, not for the sake of achieving unity or a voting-majority but simply to uncover mutuality in common action.[xcvi] It would require empathy, becoming attached to one another despite our conflicts, bound together in pursuit of our commonweal, aware that citizenship is “. . . the moral identity par excellence. For it is as citizen that the individual confronts the Other and adjusts his [or her] own life plans to the dictates of a shared world.”[xcvii] It’s a civics morality lesson that would necessarily be repeated endlessly to ensure that it would merge into the cultural wallpaper of the movement, becoming a universal expectation.

Why should we think such an extraordinary transformation is possible? From the history of the New England towns, from our faith-based community organizing, and from the knowledge of professionals engaged in community and national development,[xcviii] we have reason to believe that the moral-spirituality of most Americans’ faith will sustain them to remake American democracy in the ways proposed here. That belief reflects decades of organizing in which disillusioned members of alienated groups, virtually all more or less believers in the values promulgated by the three Abrahamitic faith traditions,[xcix] talked, decided, and acted together to build organizations for their commonweal.

While the task is daunting, it is familiar to professional base-building community organizers, those of us who have been building organizations with nonpartisan, non-ideological culture, dedicated to a moral vision of power-building for the sake of the commonweal. Although the results of our work of the last half-century may be disappointing in some respects when compared to what has been achieved by the reactionary right, the culture of our grassroots organizations should be a source of pride to their members, leaders, and organizers.

The culture we would seek to create in the new popular assemblies should not be expected to emerge full-blown at the end of a lengthy process but instead to come to fruition day-by-day, hour-by-hour over years and decades.

When all is said and done, why should anyone believe that neighborhood governments will have any leverage on city, county, state, and national governments, or large corporations?

The usefulness of urban popular assemblies with public powers may seem doubtful if one thinks they will never have power-leverage; that in high-stakes conflict, neighborhood governments, even hundreds of them allied on an issue, with public powers, will not have any leverage on higher levels of government or large corporations.

This imagined limitation may begin to be allayed by knowing more about the formation and the potential of such governments when acting together with common purpose. Their acquisition of public powers, which potentially entails much more than simply achieving a formal change in the structure of governance, offers some insight.

Consider what happened when the residents of one Central California neighborhood discovered they were without a water supply for their homes. The private company that had been providing water had not maintained its equipment for decades, and when the equipment failed, the owner absconded. As a resident of the neighborhood at the time and actively involved in the response of the residents, Khulda Bat Sarah has related her experience:

If someone had asked me before the water crisis: Do you think you and your neighbors have what it takes to form a government and to govern yourselves, at least in regard to the water supply? Or do you really think you have the ability to negotiate the legal process with LAFCO?[c] I would have answered: no, and why would we want to do that anyway? But after the crisis, after going without water to drink or flush toilets, after standing in line with plastic containers to receive emergency water supplies from a U.S. Air Force tanker, my neighbors and I in our working-class neighborhood decided we would have to put our heads together and figure out, one step at a time, how to proceed. The amazing thing is that, despite the fact that none of us (to my knowledge) had any experience of forming a government, we did.

Under such conditions, we may reasonably infer that, “In direct personal participation . . . people both learn the skills of citizenship and develop a taste for freedom; thereafter they form an active rather than deferential, apathetic, or privatized constituency for state and national representation, an engaged public. . . .”[ci]

Certainly, there are limits on neighborhood government activities,[cii] regardless of the public powers they may acquire, since they, like the special district mentioned above, would be subject to the laws and judicial orders of city, county, state, and federal governments. Empowered neighborhoods would have no possibility of becoming self-directing “constitutional republics” in their own right.[ciii]

Nevertheless, because of their potential to achieve a transformation of governance by becoming the lower tier of urban government; plus, their potential for cultural transformation, going from dependency as ignored residents to citizens of neighborhood popular assemblies; there is the prospect that, conscious of the combined strength of their citizenhood, they would eventually take advantage of a radical power-lever.

Directly Democratic Power-Leverage

My understanding of power-leverage comes from the potency of the labor strike, used to extraordinary effect during the first half of the last century.[civ] The labor movement’s power originated in countless “locals,” established over a half-century, at the cost of face-to-face workplace organizing, which was not deterred by unrelenting oppression and physical violence. They eventually unified nationally in an institutionalized structure that combined the might of the CIO industrial unions and the AFL craft unions, which was brought to bear on opponents by the power-leverage of the strike.

Reaching back to our founding as a nation, we can identify another power-lever, one which was a tactical innovation and the “key event”[cv] of the Revolution, the Boston Tea Party. It was a rejection by a lower level of government, the colonies, and their citizenry, of the authority of the British Crown. The tactic was tax-action by governments acting together to effect a negotiated reconciliation with a higher government.

Prior to the Tea Party, the colonies protested the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act, which caused the British Parliament to repeal those taxes and, eventually, remove all the taxes except on tea. American outrage was not about the financial burden of the tea tax, which was only pennies a year for the average family, but the lack of representation of the colonists in Parliament.[cvi] Their demand was for some control over the public powers, which, remaining unresolved, eventually led to the Revolutionary War.

We can easily see the parallels to the current money-corruption of representative government in the U.S., perverted by massive corporate and billionaire special interests, effectively alienating the demos from the exercise of the public powers.

Individual tax resistance typically aims to make a principled statement against what is believed to be unjust or illegitimate activity of the national government. The usual outcome is that the individuals are arrested, tried, and sentenced, or at least fined, for their violation of federal law. The picture changes dramatically when we imagine thousands of citizens acting together through their directly democratic assemblies, which they have already done in New England,[cvii] but in the future taking the profound step of negotiating reconciliation of their tax obligations.

Tax reconciliation differs from tax resistance and refusal because it seeks neither to rebel against nor avoid taxation. Instead, the aim would be to negotiate neighborhood government economic support of higher levels of government based on agreement by them to give the neighborhoods some control over services, regulations, and legislation. The initial goal would be to reconcile through tax-liability negotiations the demands of the citizenry for greater control of the public powers.

This David-and-Goliath matchup of neighborhoods trying to influence municipal, county, state, and national governments may seem ridiculously optimistic. But consider: The earliest recorded American labor strike was in 1768 and it wasn’t until the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) that the right to strike was protected by federal law. Before the NLRA, “Bosses persuaded the courts to issue injunctions to declare a strike illegal. If the strike continued, the participants would be thrown into prison.”[cviii] During the nineteenth century, the idea that craft unions would come together to exert power over massive corporate monopolies, like Standard Oil, probably would have seemed ridiculous to most unionists.[cix] But the strike, which some union members may have regarded as a futile gesture in the early days, eventually became the irresistible leverage of organized labor to effect local, state, and national policy.

Can we imagine any tactic to short-circuit municipal, county, state and federal governments from prosecuting or otherwise harassing thousands or even hundreds of thousands of individuals who refuse to pay their taxes? Won’t homeowners fear losing their homes if they refuse to pay their property taxes? And how can it be possible to avoid paying sales tax?

David Ben-Gurion once said, “All the experts are experts on what was. There are no experts on what will be.”[cx] We can’t know all the strategic and tactical possibilities today; any more than the organizers and leaders of any movement know at the outset the strategies and tactics they will eventually devise. But we do know that necessity is the mother of invention. We also know we will find examples to learn from, not in the history of principled individual tax resistance but in the unprincipled schemes of corporate tax avoidance.

Powerful corporations enhance their power by offloading their tax obligations through lobbying and tax-liability negotiations with the IRS. In addition to those tactics, governments, even small ones, as Robert Moses so effectively demonstrated with New York’s public authorities[cxi] (like California’s special districts), can also enhance their powers to achieve similar ends by initiating highly technical, low-visibility revisions to government codes, thereby sidestepping the some of their initial limitations.

As an opening gambit, a more straightforward approach to empower neighborhood governments by way of tax policy was proposed by the late U.S. Senator, Mark Hatfield. Hatfield submitted his “Neighborhood Government Act” in 1973 and for several years after that. The Act, SB2502, was essentially “A bill to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 to provide a tax credit for contributions to a neighborhood corporation and to provide other financial assistance to such corporations under State law to furnish their own neighborhood services.”

Hatfield was motivated by “. . . the imperative to decentralize power . . . and the requirement of government, if it is to be democratic, effective and responsive, to be rooted close to the people.” His articulate defense of the Act was comprehensive and inspiring. But, opposed by officials steeped in the municipal reform ideology, which historically was promoted by corporate tycoons,[cxii] and lacking an organized movement dedicated to its passage, the Act passed away without awakening a supportive constituency. The National Review noted the Neighborhood Government Act was “embraced by many New Leftists . . . and libertarians. . . . Naturally it went nowhere.”

Could an urban alliance wage a successful campaign for a city charter-reform initiative to authorize the formation of neighborhood popular assemblies with limited grants of public powers? Could they reintroduce at the state level a variation of Senator Hatfield’s Neighborhood Government Act, this time with the support of an energized constituency? Could they eventually deliver a statewide ballot initiative to require that in qualifying jurisdictions, a limited percentage of local sales tax be credited to neighborhood government escrow trust accounts pending “reconciliation” with higher-level taxing authorities? Imagine taxes paid into such accounts, supervised by directly democratic assemblies, disbursed in turn to the appropriate governments when negotiated tax reconciliations have been endorsed by a vote of the citizens of the assemblies.

The Rocky Path to Social Salvation

Surely, the remaking of American democracy demands structural change that directly empowers the demos, which appears to be the only plausible force to defeat the metastasizing fascist oligarchy. Our personal experience and history should tell us that, given the corruption that has enervated our democratic institutions, the remedy can’t be simple, quick, or painless. Moreover, as community and labor organizer Jonathan Rosenblum reminds us:

. . . a potent, sustained movement must rest on more than economic and political principles. It also must draw upon the values that emanate from our deepest human emotions and desires for justice and community. The call for spiritual morality, whether advanced by organized religion or secular humanist yearnings, has played a decisive role in leading struggles throughout history. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s and the abolitionist movement of a century earlier are but two examples of struggles that were propelled forward by powerful calls for spiritual morality. Today, the embryonic movements that fuse direct action with a spiritually based call for justice offer similar promise.[cxiii]

Thus, to fulfill our vision of a thriving democracy will require much more than grassroots power-building:

  • It will demand the unflagging faith and hope of both the organizers and those becoming organized, which will be needed to sustain the sacrifices we will be called upon to make;
  • It will depend on rebuilding communities of trust and mutuality, with a commitment to the flourishing of every life as the root and measure of our commonweal; and
  • It will direct us on a path not only of enlightened participatory politics and public administration but moral-spiritual goodness.

Our fidelity to that goodness may be reinforced with six unmistakable guideposts from our sacred religious texts,[cxiv] which can help keep us together on the path to our social salvation: Righteousness, Truth, Justice, Freedom, Peace, and Kindness[cxv]—because we can only build historic movement to remake our democracy on a widely shared moral vision of the future.

And isn’t that now the call of ethical patriotism?[cxvi]


A wave of authoritarianism has been sweeping over the world. Despairing national leaders have spoken of their disappointment that American democracy, for so long a model for other nations, has been in decline and may fail entirely. If it is true that the antidote to authoritarianism, short of violent revolution and civil war, is neither politics nor policy but instead, permanently vesting public powers in every individual of the demos, then we can make the renaissance of the popular assembly in urban American a model of flourishing twenty-first century democracy for the rest of the world. 

Moshe ben Asher has organized for ACORN, Citizens Action League of California, and one of the PICO projects (OCCCO); he was Assistant Director for Organize Training Center; and he taught sociology and social work at California State University, Northridge.

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© 2022 Moshe ben Asher & Khulda Bat Sarah


[1] From Democracy and Social Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1902—Kindle edition), loc. 1867.

[ii] See: Robert A. Dahl, “The City in the Future of Democracy,” American Political Science Review, 61(4):953-70 (December 1967); Milton Kotler, Neighborhood Government: The Local Foundation of Political Life (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1969); Douglas Yates, “Neighborhood Government,” RAND Corporation (1971) []; Donna E. Shalala, “Neighborhood Government: Has the Time Come?” National Civic Review, 61(4):185-89 (April 1972); Mark O. Hatfield, “Bringing Political Power Back Home: the Case for Neighborhood Government,” Ripon Quarterly, 1(1):19-26 (Summer 1974); Robert B. Hawkins, Jr., Self-Government by District (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1976); Michael Silver [NKA Moshe ben Asher], “Political Liberty and Neighborhood Government,” USA Today, 107(2402):24-25 (November 1978); Michael Silver, “Neighborhood Government Through Special Districts,” Self-Reliance, No. 26 (July 1981); Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 261-290; Jeffrey M. Berry et al., The Rebirth of Urban Democracy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1993); Shirley Svorny, “Advisory Councils Lack Clout to Effect Change,” Los Angeles Times (July 19, 1998); and Bryan Cohen, “Retired ‘neighborhood government’ advocate enters District 3 race as fourth Sawant challenger,” Capitol Hill Seattle Blog (May 6, 2015) [].

[iii] See: Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, 12(3):564-581 (September 2014); and Kay Lehman Schlozman et al., The Unheavenly Chorus, Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[iv] “The people or commons of an ancient Greek state, esp. of a democratic state, such as Athens: hence, the populace, the common people: often personified,” in The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 188.

[v] Adrian Vermeule, “Supreme Court Justices Have Forgotten What the Law Is For,” New York Times (February 3, 2022), describes the loss of commonweal: “The common good is no abstract idea; its absence is keenly felt today. In the past few decades, Americans have discovered that individuals and families cannot flourish if the whole community is fundamentally unhealthy, torn apart by conflict, lawlessness, poverty, pollution, sickness, and despair. Gated residences, private schools and Uber have not sufficed to immunize even the affluent against the consequences of living in a decaying, fractured and embittered polity. No family or civic association is an island, and the health of civic society and culture are themselves dependent upon the health of the constitutional order.”

[vi] See Nancy McLean, Democracy in Chains, The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (New York: Penguin Books, 2017).

[vii] See: Paul Stocker, “The great replacement theory: a historical perspective,” CARR—Center for the Analysis of the Radical Right (September 19, 2019) []; ADL—Anti-Defamation League, “‘The Great Replacement:’ An Explainer” (n.d.) []; Jacob Davey and Julia Ebner, ‘The Great Replacement’: The Violent Consequences of Mainstreamed Extremism (London, UK: Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2019) []; Charles M. Blow, “Tucker Carlson and White Replacement,” New York Times (April 11, 2021); Michael Kranish, “How Tucker Carlson became the voice of White grievance,” Washington Post (July 14, 2021); and Mark Potok, “Tucker Carlson Is The Most Dangerous Anchor in America,” RANTTMEDIA (October 18, 2021) [].

[viii] See: Lilliana Mason et al., “Activating Animus: The Unique Social Roots of Trump Support,” American Political Science Review, published online (June 30, 2021); and Diana C. Mutz, “Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote,” PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(19):E4330-E4339 (May 8, 2018). Trump uses the political power inherent in stoking nativism and white grievance by agitating on immigration issues, a widely used method. See Ian Shapiro, “Lecture 1: Introduction to Power and Politics in Today’s World,” Yale Courses (August 29, 2019) [].

[ix] See Robert Draper, “Michael Flynn Is Still At War,” New York Times Magazine (February 4, 2022), which reports: “One year since Trump’s departure from office, his Make America Great Again movement has reconstituted itself as a kind of shape-shifting but increasingly robust parallel political universe, one that holds significant sway over the Republican Party but is also beyond its control.” See also Steve Phillips, “The Party of White Grievance Has Never Cared About Democracy,” The Nation (May 26, 2021).

[x] “Reactionary” is defined here as a quest to return to a time of dominant, unselfconscious cultural white supremacy and rule by political-economic white oligarchy.

[xi] See Ganesh Sitaraman, “Countering Nationalist Oligarchy,” Democracy, 51 (Winter 2019) [].

[xii] “Brotherhood” is meant to convey that U.S. billionaires have common interests about which they communicate with one another, and a common purpose, plan, and operation, with roots reaching back more than 150 years. They vehemently oppose “. . . any group or government meddling with the market,” manipulating law and policy to insulate themselves and their wealth from government regulation. See: Nancy MacLean, “Democracy in Chains, the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (New York: Penguin Books, 2017—Kindle edition), loc. 36; Kurt Andersen, Evil Geniuses—The Unmaking of America: A Recent History (New York: Random House, 2020—Kindle edition); Benjamin I. Page et al., Billionaires and Stealth Politics (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018); Kristin A. Goss, “Policy Plutocrats: How America’s Wealthy Seek to Influence Government,” PS: Political Science & Politics, 49(3):442-448 (July 2016); Chuck Collins and Omar Ocampo, “Trump and His Many Billionaire Enablers,” Institute for Policy Studies (January 11, 2021) []; Vicky Ward, “The Blow-It-All-Up Billionaires,” Huffington Post (March 17, 2017) []; Jane Mayer, Dark Money, The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (New York: Doubleday, 2016); Mateo Gold and Robert Barnes, “Growing array of pro-Trump groups train cross-hairs on GOP lawmakers,” Washington Post (April 2,  2017); and Adanjesus Marin and Michael Kink, “It’s not the ‘Freedom Caucus.’ It’s the Billionaires’ Caucus,” The Hill (June 8, 2017) []. For an example of the billionaire-brotherhood role in the Tea Party, frequently described by the media and its own members as “populist” and “grassroots,” see: Amanda Fallin et al., “To quarterback behind the scenes, third-party efforts: the tobacco industry and the Tea Party,” Tobacco Control, 23:322-331 (2014); Jess Nesbit, “The Secret Origins of the Tea Party, How Big Oil and Big Tobacco Partnered with the Koch Brothers to Take Over the GOP,” Time (April 5, 2016); and Jane Mayer, “Trump’s Money Man: The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency,” The New Yorker (March 27, 2017). On plutocrats boosting white supremacy, see Clay Risen, “William H. Regnery II, 80, Dies; Bankrolled the Rise of the Alt-Right,” New York Times (July 16, 2021).

[xiii] “Revived today in conditions of inequality as a politics of eternity, fascism serves oligarchs as a catalyst for transitions away from public discussion and towards political fiction; away from meaningful voting and towards fake democracy; away from the rule of law and towards personalist regimes.” See Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom (New York: Tim Duggan Books, Penguin Random House—Kindle edition, 2018), loc. 267.

[xiv] I.e., the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority that has dominated American culture, politics, and economy since the founding of the country.

[xv] As of December 2021, 66 percent of Republicans agree or somewhat agree, “The growth in the number of immigrants in the country means that America is in danger of losing its culture and identity.” 49 percent of Republicans strongly agree, agree, or agree somewhat that “The growth in the size of minority communities in the country will likely result in the declining influence of white Americans.” See University of Massachusetts Amherst, Department of Political Science, “Toplines and Crosstabs December 2021 National Poll: CRT & Race in America” (January 14, 2022) [].

[xvi] It may be more accurate to refer to our system as an “anocracy,” neither an autocracy nor a democracy “. . . but something in between,” something transitional, moving toward autocracy, in which “Citizens receive some elements of democratic rule—perhaps full voting rights—but they also live under leaders with extensive authoritarian powers and few checks and balances.” See Barbara F. Walter, How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them (New York: Viking Press, Crown, 2022—Kindle edition), loc. 284.

[xvii] See: Roni Caryn Rabin, “Overdose Deaths Reached Record High as the Pandemic Spread,” New York Times (November 17, 2021); Tara Parker-Pope et al., “Why 1,320 Therapists Are Worried About Mental Health in America Right Now,” New York Times (December 17, 2021); and Kevin B. Smith, “Politics is making us sick: The negative impact of political engagement on public health during the Trump administration,” PLOS ONE (January 14, 2022).

[xviii] Some insight into the inability of the Democrats to achieve complete party discipline, primarily in relation to electoral and tax law (the principal means of the continued enrichment and empowerment of themselves and their patrons), is offered by H.R. Shapiro in The Bureaucratic State: Party Bureaucracy and the Decline of Democracy in America (New York: Samizdat Press, 1975), who wrote, “Political parties are not and can never be instruments of representative government. The ideal never-achieved goal of party leaders is to render themselves, through their mutual cooperation, utterly immune to the citizenry and to reduce all politics to the self-serving machinations . . . which means the death of politics and the permanent rule of irresponsible power.” Current opinion on the left seems to be that the outcome of the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol will be something like “the truth will set us free,” although none of the truth revealed over the past five years—in multiple hearings, feature news coverage, and two impeachments—regarding Trump and his MAGA-enablers and followers have had any effect whatsoever to slow down their anti-democracy momentum. Maybe we’re at a turning point, but possibly not, because the threat to white supremacy and privilege seems not to be diminishing. Then, too, if the investigation of the January 6 attack leads to a referral to the AG for criminal prosecution of Trump, which the AG acts on, the upshot may not be MAGA-disillusionment with Trumpism but increased right-wing mendacity, civil unrest and violence.

[xix] See Carl Rhodes and Peter Fleming, “Forget political corporate responsibility,” Organization, 27(6):943-951 (June 2020).

[xx] See Elizabeth Dias and Jack Healy, “For Many Who Marched, Jan. 6 Was Only the Beginning,” New York Times (January 23, 2022).

[xxi] In the absence of such legislation, Matthew A. Seligman, “A Realistic Risk Assessment of the Presidential Election of 2024,” SSRN (January 26, 2022) [], outlines a plausible scenario in which the election is stolen by Trump.

[xxii] If this prediction seems hyperbolic or simply in error, the primer on the subject is historian Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017). Snyder lays out the history of the road to tyranny and calls for a recalibration of the existential threat to our democracy. Anyone still in doubt should also read the recent five-alarm-fire statement of 200 scholars of democracy. See New America, “Statement of Concern, The Threats to American Democracy and the Need for National Voting and Election Administration Standards” (June 1, 2021) [htps://]. For a comprehensive legal and constitutional analysis of the incremental loss of democracy, see the treatment of “constitutional retrogression” by Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg, “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy,” 65 UCLA Law Review (2018), in which the authors describe in extraordinary detail what “. . . occurs more slowly through an accumulation of piecemeal changes, each perhaps innocuous or even justified in isolation” (pp. 83-84); and for a projection of alternative outcomes of the present anti-democratic trend, see Alan Waring, “Future Scenarios for Radical-Right Influence: Grim or Grimmer?” CARR—Center for Analysis of the Radical Right (November 16, 2021) []. See also Timothy Snyder, “The American Abyss,” New York Times (January 9, 2021); and Brian Klaas, “Why Republicans won’t learn anything from their defeat in Georgia,” Washington Post (January 7, 2021). The most disturbing threat to American democracy is convincingly described in the newly published scholarly assessment of our current vulnerability to an outbreak of civil war. See Walter, op. cit. For a thoughtful review of Walter’s book, see David Remnick, “Is A Civil War Ahead?” The New Yorker (January 5, 2022).

[xxiii] Stanford Law professor Nathaniel Persily, a constitutional law scholar and former counsel at the NYU School of Law Brennan Center for Justice, has stated he “. . . would be surprised if newly enacted voting restrictions are struck down,” since “The Supreme Court has not sent a signal they will protect the right to vote.” See David G. Savage, “How the Supreme Court tilted election law to favor GOP,” Los Angeles Times (June 5, 2021). For a preliminary confirmation of Persily’s expectation, see: Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court, in 5-4 Vote, Restores Alabama’s Congressional Voting Map,” New York Times (February 7, 2022); and Linda Greenhouse, “The Supreme Court Has Crossed the Rubicon,” New York Times (February 9, 2022). For a worst-case scenario of SCOTUS overriding the outcomes of democratic elections, see Harry Litman, “Why the Supreme Court is one of the biggest threats to American democracy,” Los Angeles Times (August 24, 2021).

[xxiv] See Jennifer McCoy and Benjamin Press, “What Happens When Democracies Become Perniciously Polarized?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (January 18, 2022) [], whose research reveals that “The most common outcome of episodes where democracies reached pernicious levels of polarization was some form of major democratic decline.”

[xxv] Michael J. Thompson, The Politics of Inequality (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), notes: “. . . progressive responses to inequality remain weak and ineffectual” (p. xi). “To protect their gains, economic elites have captured enormous political power in national and state governments, and the problem of oligarchy has now become a concern for mainstream social scientists” (p. xii). William W. Franko and Christopher Witko, The New Economic Populism, How States Respond to Economic Inequality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), describe limited empirical data that states are acting to reduce economic inequality, but evidence exists that some are acting to make inequality worse by limiting union power and enacting regressive tax cuts (p. xii). As reported in Mackenzie Mays, “New push to tax ‘extreme wealth,’” Los Angeles Times (February 21, 2022), even in what is probably the most progressive state in the country, a proposal to place a 1 percent tax on those with a net worth of $50 million and a 1.5 percent tax on those with net worth more than $1 billion can't make it to legislative committee hearings despite a Democratic supermajority in the legislature.

[xxvi] See: Linda Faye Williams, “The Issue of Our Time: Economic Inequality and Power in America,” Perspectives on Politics (December 1, 2004) []; Kate Andrias, “Separations of Wealth: Inequality and the Erosion of Checks and Balances,” 18 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 419 (2015-2016); and Peter Coy, “Wealth Inequality Is the Highest Since World War II,” New York Times (February 2, 2022).

[xxvii] McLean, op. cit.

[xxviii] See Richard Neumann, “American Democracy in Distress: The Failure of Social Education,” Journal of Social Science Education, 16(1):5-16 (Spring 2017).

[xxix] See: Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church and Kiely Barnard-Webster, “Understanding Corruption in Criminal Justice as a Robust and Resilient System,” The Fletcher School, Tufts University (December 2017) []; Oguzhan Dincer and Michael Johnston, “Measuring Illegal and Legal Corruption in American States: Some Results from the Corruption in America Survey,” Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University (December 1, 2014) []; and Rocío Avalos et al., “California Justice Gap Study,” Executive Report (2019), The State Bar of California [].

[xxx] See J. Gerald Hebert and Marina K. Jenkins, “The Need for State Redistricting Reform to Rein in Partisan Gerrymandering,” Yale Law & Policy Review, 29:543-558 (2011).

[xxxi] See: Benjamin I. Page, “How Money Corrupts American Politics,” Scholars Strategy Network (June 19, 2013) []; Dean McSweeney, “Parties, Corruption and Campaign Finance in America,” in (Robert Williams, ed.) Party Finance and Political Corruption (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000); and Jonathan Shaw, “A Radical Fix for the Republic,” Harvard Magazine (July-August 2012).

[xxxii] Republicans in state legislatures are now restricting public health authorities from requiring masks, ordering business closures, and other steps to mitigate the spread of disease. See: Network for Public Health Law and National Association of County & City Health Officials, Proposed Limits on Public Health Authority: Dangerous for Public Health (May 2021) []; and Frances Stead Sellers and Isaac Stanley-Becker, “As coronavirus surges, GOP lawmakers are moving to limit public health powers,” Washington Post  (July 25, 2021).

[xxxiii] The Future of Media Project, “Index of US Mainstream Media Ownership,” Harvard University (May 2021) [].

[xxxiv] See: National Terrorism Advisory System, “Summary of Terrorism Threats to the U.S. Homeland,” Bulletin, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (February 7, 2022); Henry J. Gomez, “Fueled by Trump-inspired grievance, attempts to terrorize public officials escalate,” NBC News (November 21, 2021); Lisa Lerer and Astead W. Herndon, “Menace Enters the Republican Mainstream,” New York Times (November 16, 2021); Catie Edmondson and Mark Walker, “One Menacing Call After Another: Threats Against Lawmakers Surge,” New York Times (February 9, 2022); Jeff Martin, “Bomb threats made to historically Black schools across US,” AP News (January 31, 2022); and Carolyn Thompson, “Schools Step Up Security in Response to Threats on TikTok,” U.S. News & World Report (December 16, 2021).

[xxxv] See Matias López and Joshua K. Dubrow, “Politics and Inequality in Comparative Perspective: A Research Agenda,” American Behavioral Scientist, 64(9):1199-1210 (2020).

[xxxvi] Rahman, “Realizing Democracy,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2020), posits that “A structural approach to democracy reform . . . would focus on eliminating . . . systemic drivers of our democracy crisis and building the rules, associations, and institutions we need to ensure a more equitable balance of political power and a more inclusive economy” (pp. 4-5).

[xxxvii] Barber, op. cit., p. 269, however, proposed that the assemblies initially have an advisory role, a period of building participation, only acquiring public powers after a period of development.

[xxxviii] In a letter to Governor John Tyler, as if anticipating the need for two-tier urban government at the metropolitan and neighborhood levels, Jefferson mentions the subdivision of the counties and general education as “two great measures . . . without which no republic can maintain itself in strength.” Six years later he de­clared, “the article nearest my heart is the subdivision of the counties. . . .” See: Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Governor John Tyler, May 26, 1810, in (Albert Ellery Bergh, ed.) The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907), p. 393; Letter to John Adams, October 28, 1813, in (Paul Leicester Ford, ed.) The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 11 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1905), pp. 343-46; Letter to John Taylor, May 28, 1816, in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 11, p. 529; Letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816, in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 12, p. 9; Letter to Samuel Kercheval, September 5, 1816, in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 12, p. 16; Letter to Major John Cartwright, June 5, 1824, in (Thomas Jefferson Randolph, ed.) Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Boston: Gray and Bowen, 1830), p. 396.

[xxxix] From Phillips 1857 Phi Beta Kappa address at Yale College on “The Republican Scholar of Necessity an Agitator.”

[xl] David Brooks, “America Is Having A Moral Convulsion,” The Atlantic (October 5, 2020), reminds us that responsible citizenship reflects mutual trust based on reciprocal moral behavior, or in his words, “. . . [such] trust is a collective moral achievement.” That dynamic is well-known to community organizers. My first organizing in south-central Los Angeles began following a neighborhood organizing drive in an area with about one-third Anglo, one-third Latino, and one-third Black residents. When talking to them at their front doors about their concerns for the neighborhood, many spoke of the others as horrible people who were ruining the neighborhood. After the organizing drive and a founding meeting of the neighborhood organization, nearly a hundred residents came together in a church basement for a Christmas party. You could have cut the good fellowship with a knife. The warmth and excitement were palpable. They recognized their shared moral outrage at the gang killings in their neighborhood and how great it was to be working together. They built relationships and trust in their dedication to the commonweal. I have had that experience a half-dozen times in the last 50 years.

[xli] “Public powers,” which are the powers of governments, controlled by those we regard as “in power,” include the power to enact civil and criminal laws and regulatory policies, to tax, to spend public monies, to police (i.e., take rights and property without compensation for the public’s health, welfare, and morals), to take property by eminent domain (with fair-market compensation), and to market tax-free bonds.

[xlii] According to Barber, op. cit., p. 263: “Historically, the great reform movements have been organized around a series of innovations whose radical character lay in their common vision and force.”

[xliii] According to Walter, op. cit., locs. 2345 & 2357: “If America has a second civil war, the combatants will not gather in fields, nor will they wear uniforms. They may not even have commanders. They will slip in and out of the shadows, communicating on message boards and encrypted networks. They will meet in small groups in vacuum-repair shops along retail strips, in desert clearings along Arizona’s border, in public parks in Southern California, or in the snowy woods of Michigan, where they will train to fight. They will go online to plan their resistance, strategizing how to undermine the government at every level and gain control of parts of America. They will create chaos and fear. And then they will force Americans to pick sides.” On the other hand, Paul D. Eaton et al., “3 retired generals: The military must prepare now for a 2024 insurrection,” Washington Post (December 17, 2021), warns that “The potential for a total breakdown of the chain of command along partisan lines—from the top of the chain to the squad level—is significant should another insurrection occur. . . . Under such a scenario [a contested election with loyalties split] it is not outlandish to say a military breakdown could lead to civil war.”

[xliv] Walter, op. cit., loc. 2761.

[xlv] “Citizenhood” exists when one is acting as a citizen, while citizenship is the status of being a citizen.

[xlvi] Barber, op. cit., p. 145.

[xlvii] See: Saskia Sassen, “The Global City: Introducing a Concept,” Brown Journal of World Affairs, 11(2):27-43 (Winter/Spring 2005); Josefina V. Cabigon, “Cities in Globalization,” Asia-Pacific Social Science Review, 6(2):73-102 (April 2006); Juan Pablo Pérez Sáenz and Katherine Andrade-Eekhoff, “Local Development in the Global Economy,” NACLA—North American Congress on Latin America (September 25, 2007) []; and Sarah Colenbrander, “Cities as engines of economic growth,” Working Paper, IIED—International Institute for Environment and Development (October 2016) [].

[xlviii] The so-called soft corruption of urban municipal government is neither exceptional nor typically held to account legally. If the fundamental purpose of representative democracy is to serve the commonweal, then the widespread slavish accommodation of private and corporate special interests, which is usually hidden from public view, can only be regarded as ubiquitous corruption, typically rationalized in the name of trickle-down economics. Sheila R. Foster and Christian Iaione, “The City as a Commons,” Yale Law & Policy Review, 34(2):281-349 (2016), contend that, “As public officials relax local regulations and other rules to accommodate the preferences of powerful economic interests, the poor and socially vulnerable populations are being displaced by an urban development machine largely indifferent to creating cities that are both revitalized and inclusive” (p. 281).

[xlix] For an introduction to the “two-tier solution,” see Robert L. Bish and Vincent Ostrom, Understanding Urban Government: Metropolitan Reform Reconsidered (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1973), pp. 12-15; and Vincent Ostrom, The Political Theory of a Compound Republic: Designing the American Experiment (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987).

[l] See Moshe ben Asher, “New England Town Government: A Model for Popular Assembly in Two-Tier Metropolitan Government,” Gather the People (1980, 2020—originally authored under my former English name, Michael Silver) [].

[li] Historian Lawrence Goodwyn (d. 2013) pointed out several decades ago, based on his classic study of Populism, that even committed reformers accept the idea that their reforms will not significantly transform the structure of power-inequality. See The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. xi. In Democratic Promise, The Populist Moment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 531, Goodwyn writes that after the election of 1896, “The idea that serious structural reform of the democratic process was ‘inevitable’ no longer seemed persuasive to reasonable reformers. . . . A consensus thus came to be silently ratified: reform politics need not concern itself with structural alteration of the economic customs of the society. . . . The reform tradition of the twentieth century unconsciously defined itself within the framework of inherited power relationships.”

[lii] See: Frank Bryan, William Keith, James Kloppenberg, Jane Mansbridge, Michael Morrell, and Graham Smith, “Collective Interview on the History of Town Meetings,” Journal of Public Deliberation, 15(2): Article 8 (2019); and Frank M. Bryan, Real Democracy, The New England Town Meeting and How It Works (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[liii] See Michael Walzer, “Puritanism as a Revolutionary Ideology,” History and Theory, 3(1):59-90 (1963). Walzer notes that the Puritans lived with “the fear of sudden and violent death” (p. 79). What they feared most, however, was social disorder, and “. . . righteousness was a consolation and a way of organizing the self for survival” (p. 83). Puritanism was thus a way of coping, “. . . self-confident and free of worry, capable of vigorous, willful activity” (p. 84). The Puritans viewed political activity as “. . . a form of work: it required systematic application, attention to detail, sustained interest and labor” (p. 85). They were revolutionaries in their aim to transform society according to their own means of salvation. They destroyed the hierarchy of the old order, replacing it with “. . . collective control of themselves, of each other. . .” (p. 89).

[liv] Alexis de Tocqueville (Henry Reeve, trans.), Democracy in America, Vols. I and II (1835-1840—Kindle edition), loc. 1179.

[lv] See: Joshua D. Miller et al., “Narcissism and United States’ culture: The view from home and around the world,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(6):1068-89 (December 2015); and Jon Sverre Owrenn Remme, “Narcissism and Morality: A study of morality with regard to individualism and inter-subjective concern,” UiO:DUO Research Archive (Master thesis, 2002) [].

[lvi] See: Matthew M. Yalch, “Dimensions of psychological narcissism and intention to vote for Donald Trump,” PLOS ONE (April 15, 2021) []; Brooks, op. cit.; and Michael Gerson, “The moral decay of our politics,” The Spokesman-Review (October 9, 2019).

[lvii] Twenty-first century American society is characterized by epidemic narcissism, overwhelming materialism, and commercialization of almost every aspect of life; decline of traditional values, such as fidelity, loyalty, honesty, and productivity; widespread rejection of traditional institutions, such as family, church, and community; and mindless abandonment of responsible citizenship. Dr. Robert Lustig’s research demonstrates that four major crises of American well-being—the healthcare crisis, the Social Security crisis, the opioid crisis, and the depression crisis—have a shared provenance: “The systemic confusion and conflation of pleasure with happiness.” Virtually all the pleasure-producing activities, focused as they are on sensuality and materialism, commonly lead to addictions that are self-destructive and damaging to others in one’s marriage, family, community, commerce, and nation (the last, given the economic and national security consequences of metabolic syndrome diseases). See Robert Lustig, “The pursuit of pleasure is a modern-day addiction,” The Guardian (September 9, 2017) [], in which he observes: “Too much dopamine and not enough serotonin, the neurotransmitters of the brain’s ‘pleasure’ and ‘happiness’ pathways, respectively. Despite what the telly and social media say, pleasure and happiness are not the same thing. Dopamine is the ‘reward’ neurotransmitter that tells our brains: ‘This feels good, I want more.’ Yet too much dopamine leads to addiction. Serotonin is the ‘contentment’ neurotransmitter that tells our brains: ‘This feels good. I have enough. I don’t want or need any more.’ Yet too little serotonin leads to depression. Ideally, both should be in optimal supply. But dopamine drives down serotonin. And chronic stress drives down both.” More definitively, see Robert H. Lustig, The Hacking of the American Mind (New York: Avery, 2017).

[lviii] The beneficial confluence of nonpartisan political purposes and moral-spirituality should be familiar to community organizers by virtue of their extensive faith-based organizing and by the support they have received from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the Jewish Funders Network, Lutheran Services in America, and many other denominations, and more broadly, from the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization. See: Mark R. Warren and Richard L. Wood, “Faith-Based Community Organizing: The State of the Field,” comm-org (January 2001) []; and Brad R. Fulton and Richard L. Wood, “Interfaith Community Organizing: Emerging Theological and Organizational Challengers,” International Journal of Public Theology, 6:398-420 (January 2012).

[lix] See Erik Owens, “The Boisi Center Interviews: David Hall,” The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College (October 18, 2011) [].

[lx] Barber, op. cit., pp. 145-146.

[lxi] From Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Historical Discourse” (at Concord), in (Edward Waldo Emerson, ed.) The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Miscellanies (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904), p. 49.

[lxii] See AnnMarie French, “The Evolution of Town Meeting,” Town & City Magazine (February 2007) [], a publication of the New Hampshire Municipal Association.

[lxiii] Alexis de Tocqueville, American Institutions and their Influence (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1851).

[lxiv] James Bryce, The American Commonwealth (New York: Macmillan, 1888).

[lxv] According to Bryce: “The town or the township with its primary assembly is best . . . it is the most educative of citizens who bear a part in it. The town meeting has been not only the source but the school of democracy.” James Bryce, The American Commonwealth (New York: Macmillan, 1912), p. 601.

[lxvi] William S. Simmons, “Cultural Bias in the New England Puritans’ Perception of Indians,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 38(1):56-72 January 1981), relates that in Puritan society it was normative to believe “. . . in God, Satan, demons, witches, the moral significance of plagues, and other-worldly intervention in personal as well as national affairs” (p. 57). It’s not surprising, then, that the Puritans who settled in New England believed that “. . . the Indian inhabitants . . . worshipped devils . . . and that the Indians themselves were bewitched” (p. 56). However, Daniel R. Mandell, “Indigenous People and the New England Town Meeting: Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 1730-1775,” Participations, 15(2):123-147 (2016) reports that Mohicans “. . . participated in town meetings and elected ‘traditional’ leaders to typical New England offices.” Meetings were “. . . conducted in the Mohican as well as the English language. . . .”

[lxvii] For example, see Donald Ratcliffe, “The Right to Vote and the Rise of Democracy,” Journal of the Early Republic, 33:219-254 (Summer 2013).

[lxviii] Thomas Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson [letter] to Joseph C. Cabell, 2 February 1816,” Founders Online (National Archives) [].

[lxix] See: Peter J. Henning, “It’s getting harder to prosecute politicians for corruption,” The Conversation (February 16, 2018) [ corruption-91609]; and Leah Litman, “The Supreme Court Says Sorry, It Just Can’t Help With Political Corruption,” The Atlantic (May 8, 2020).

[lxx] See: Mark Purcell, “Possible Worlds: Henri Lefebvre and the Right to the City,” Journal of Urban Affairs, 36(1):141-154 (2013); Bertie Russell, “Beyond the Local Trap: New Municipalism and the Rise of the Fearless Cities,” Antipode, 51(3):989-1010 (2019); and John Gasti and Erik Olin Wright (eds.), Legislature by Lot, Transformative Design for Deliberative Governance (London & New York: Verso, 2019)

[lxxi] For examples, see: Juliet Musso et al., “Toward ‘Strong Democracy’ in Global Cities? Social Capital Building, Theory-Driven Reform, and the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Experience,” Public Administration Review, 71(1):102-111 (Jen/Feb 2011): and Alberto Corsín Jiménez and Adolfo Estalella, “The atmospheric person—Value, experiment, and ‘making neighbors’ in Madrid’s popular assemblies,” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 3(2):119-39 (2013).

[lxxii] See Moshe ben Asher, “Vill Economics,” Gather the People (1978) [] (authored under my former English name, Michael Silver).

[lxxiii] See Moshe ben Asher and Khulda Bat Sarah, “Directly Democratic Metropolitan Government: Envisioning Beyond Oppression, Rebellion, and Reform,” Social Policy, 46(1):6-19 (Spring 2016).

[lxxiv] Barber, op. cit., p. 269, suggests that “Neighborhood assemblies can probably include no fewer than five thousand citizens and certainly no more than twenty-five thousand. . . .”

[lxxv] Massachusetts Constitution, Article LXXXIX, 192nd General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts [].

[lxxvi] Regarding municipal corruption generally, see Richard Fausset et al., “’It’s the Human Way’: Corruption Scandals Play Out in Big Cities Across the U.S.” New York Times February 5, 2019). Specifically, in my city of Los Angeles, “Generations of Los Angeles leaders have fostered a corrupt political culture in the city, centered on real estate development.” See Editorial, “The Englander indictment,” Los Angeles Times (March 11, 2020); and for more on the extent of the recent corruption of city officials, see also: David Zahniser and James Queally, “DA’s office will review campaign contributions from donors with ties to Sea Breeze developer,” Los Angeles Times (October 31, 2016); David Zahniser and Emily Alpert Reyes, “City Hall facing a crisis of trust,” Los Angeles Times (April 2, 2020); David Zahniser, “L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar charged in federal corruption probe,” Los Angeles Times (June 23, 2020); Steve Lopez, “Arrest at City Hall. Ho-hum, say Angelenos,” Los Angeles Times (June 23, 2020); Michael Woo, “L.A. Needs New Corruption-Fighting Tools,” Los Angeles Times (June 25, 2020); Matt Hamilton, “Former L.A. County Assessor John Noguez again faces corruption charges,” Los Angeles Times (July 28, 2020); Susan Shelley, “Corruption, legal and otherwise, at Los Angeles city hall,” Daily News (May 4, 2021); and Soledad Ursúa, “Corruption? In Los Angeles?” City Journal (November 2, 2021). At the time of these reports, California was not even in the top ten states for political corruption. See Statista, “The Worst U.S. States For Corruption” (February 20, 2020) [].

[lxxvii] See: William E. Schluter, Soft Corruption: How Unethical Conduct Undermines Good Government and What To Do About It (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017); James McCusker, “We have to address ‘soft corruption,’ and it won’t be easy,” Herald Business Journal (November 8, 2019) []; and David Plymyer, “A culture of ‘soft corruption’ in Baltimore County,” Baltimore Sun (January 3, 2022).

[lxxviii] In California, this tradition has been replaced by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), county-level agencies empowered by state law to review and approve or deny the major structural changes proposed for lo­cal governments, which does not include municipal charter reform when it does not affect overall boundaries. They may make absolute or conditional orders, and their deci­sions are not subject to review by higher agencies of government. Membership normally consists of five persons, two appointed by the county supervisors from among their own number, two appointed by a committee of representatives from cities within the county, and one representative of the “general public” ap­pointed by the other four members. Under certain conditions a LAFCO may ex­pand its membership to seven with representatives from special districts. LAFCO policy favors annexation and op­poses formation of new public organizations. While they are not county agencies, the coun­ties must pay their operating costs. The commissions are also dependent on the coun­ties for staff, facilities, legal counsel, and other support. Withal, it is hardly sur­prising to find them biased toward the county viewpoint. Moreover, with four-fifths of their members tied to the interests of existing cities and counties, the ar­rangement approaches a cartel: the decision to allow entry of an organiza­tional competitor is placed in the hands of confirmed monopolists.

[lxxix] Minimums may be set to ensure that a handful of citizens in an area dominated by corporate headquarters or manufacturing facilities cannot form and dominate a neighborhood government.

[lxxx] Notable examples include Head Start services, and the American Rescue Plan, which provides comprehensive support for children and families to “address system inequalities.” See Office for the Administration of Children & Families, “Office of Head Start” and “American Rescue Plan,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2021) [].

[lxxxi] Regarding long-term inequities in city services, see: James J. Feigenbaum and Andrew Hall, “How High-Income Areas Receive More Service from Municipal Government: Evidence from City Administrative Data,” SSRN (August 13, 2015) []; Mitchell F. Rice, “Inequality, discrimination, and service delivery: A recapitulation for the public administrator,” International Journal of Public Administration, 1(4):409-433 (1979); Ben Poston and Peter Jamison, “Inequity is ‘baked in’ when it comes to L.A. city services; where you live matters,” Los Angeles Times August 28, 2015); and Jessica Trounstine, “Minority groups perceive unequal treatment from local governments,” LSE Phelan US Centre (March 11, 2014) []

[lxxxii] As Barber, op. cit., p. 236, explains: “Of course, when participation is neutered by being separated from power, then civic action will be only a game and its rewards will seem childish to women and men of the world; they will prefer to spend their time in the ‘real’ pursuit of private interests.”

[lxxxiii] Barber, op. cit., p. 272.

[lxxxiv] De Tocqueville, op. cit., loc. 5111.

[lxxxv] “Perhaps the first tax revolt in North America occurred in 1631 when members of the Congregational Church in Watertown near Boston protested a tax to build fortifications to protect the colony. The Watertown minister and congregation objected when the General Court [i.e., state legislative body] enacted the tax without the consent of the people.” See Constitutional Rights Foundation, “Puritan Massachusetts: Theocracy or Democracy,” Bill of Rights in Action (Fall 2013) [].

[lxxxvi] See Useful Community Development, “Neighborhood Solar Solutions Could Be Cost Effective” (2017) []; and for additional perspective, see U.S. Department of Energy, “A Guide to Community Solar: Utility, Private, and Non-profit Project Development” (2010), [].

[lxxxvii] See: Jennifer E. DeVoe and Rachel Gold, “Community of Solution for the U.S. Health Care System: Lessons from the U.S. Educational System,” Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 26(3):323-26 (May-June 2013); Andrea Kline Tilford et al., “A Description of Nurse Practitioner Practice,” Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 26(1):69-74 (2012); Nan Liu et al., “A new model for nurse practitioner utilization in primary care: Increased efficiency and implications,” Health Care Management Review (January-March 2014); Medical Group Management Association, “NPP [non-physician practitioner] utilization in the future of US healthcare,” MGMA Research & Analysis Report (March 2014) [ Resources/NPPsFutureHealthcare-final.pdf], which cites David Gans (MSHA, FACMPE senior fellow) to note: “In primary care practices, they [NPPs] can provide 80 percent or more of services with equal or better patient satisfaction at a lower cost than a physician” (p. 15); C.M. Brown et al., “A neighborhood-based approach to population health in the pediatric medical home,” Journal of Community Health, 40(1):1-11 (February 2015); A. Feinberg et al., “Launching a Neighborhood-Based Community Health Worker Initiative, Harlem Health Advocacy Partners (HHAP) Community Needs Assessment” (December 2015), A joint report by the NYU-CUNY Prevention Research Center, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, New York City Housing Authority, and Community Service Society [].

[lxxxviii] For an example of the benefits of town public powers, see Editorial Board, “Corporate giant tries to kill small Maine town’s broadband plans,” Press Herald (November 23, 2021).

[lxxxix] For the advantages of neighborhood-based public safety forces, see Elinor Ostrom et al., “Do We Really Want to Consolidate Urban Police Forces? A Reappraisal of Some Old Assertions,” Public Administration Review, 33(5):423-432 (September-October 1973), which concludes: “(1) small police departments can provide higher levels of service than larger departments, and (2) high degrees of specialization and professionalization are not required for effective police services. On the basis of this, we believe more serious attention should be paid to proposals for creating small jurisdictions within large cities to provide generalized patrol services while enhancing opportunities for community control. At the same time, a large-scale police jurisdiction in the same city may be needed to provide the more technical services which require specialization of personnel and equipment. Conceptualization [of] reform as either total consolidation or total decentralization may not lead to better police services in metropolitan areas. Conscious use of overlapping jurisdictions of varying sizes may be necessary to combine the advantages of both small and large scale” (p. 430). See also Eric Lack, “Bill De Blasio Still Loves New York,” The New Yorker (February 20, 2022), in which the former mayor describes Bill Bratton, the former New York police commissioner: “. . . his over-all impact has been profoundly progressive, because he understands most essentially that you cannot create public safety without the community. That’s what neighborhood policing was, and neighborhood policing will eventually be understood as the model that works.”

[xc] Wendy E. Hollingshead Corbett and Justin R. Corbett, “Community Mediation in Economic Crisis: The Reemergence of Precarious Sustainability,” Nevada Law Journal, 11(2):458-480 (Spring 2011) notes: “The premise of community mediation is simple: to provide the public with a voluntary way to resolve conflict in a productive,

collaborative manner that relies primarily on self-determination. Community mediation strives to keep justice in the hands of the people and provide a receptive forum for their enhanced voices. Over the past several decades, the unique grassroots-orientation of community mediation has proven to be highly effective in resolving interpersonal conflict at the local level. Community mediation is a grassroots, neighbor-to-neighbor form of alternative

dispute resolution that has seen growing acceptance nationwide since its inception in the mid-1970s. The premise of community mediation is simple: to provide the public with a voluntary way to resolve conflict in a productive, collaborative manner that relies primarily on self-determination. Community mediation strives to keep justice in the hands of the people and provide a receptive forum for their enhanced voices. Over the past several decades, the unique grassroots-orientation of community mediation has proven to be highly effective in resolving interpersonal conflict at the local level.”

[xci] Galvin, op. cit.

[xcii] Legal limitations may be placed on any individual’s use of the Australian ballot, such as specifying a limited number of instances in any given year, used only to elect officers, etc. Accommodations could be made for those who are hospitalized, home-bound or restricted to congregate living, such as nursing and convalescent homes. Those who could not afford cell phones might be assisted in obtaining them from charitable sources; those unable to use cell phones because of age or disability, might be paired with another member as a citizen-enabler, who could be recruited, trained, and assigned through various faith communities.

[xciii] The “warning” is a requirement of New England open-town procedure. In Massachusetts, “Two hundred registered voters or 20% of the total number of registered voters, whichever is less in number, may request a special Town Meeting,” which the selectmen must call within 45 days. The “warrant” for a town meeting, issued by the selectmen, sets the time, place, and agenda. However, a minimum of 10 registered voters signing a written request may insert articles in the warrant. For details of Massachusetts town procedures, see William Francis Galvin, “Citizen’s Guide to Town Meetings,” Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (n.d., retrieved online January 31, 2022) [].

[xciv] See: George Tyler, Billionaire Democracy: The Hijacking of the American Political System (Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, 2018; Samar Khurshid, “Experts Target Influence of Big Money, Voter Apathy,” GothamGazette (April 10, 2015) []; Steven Rogers, “Electoral Accountability for State Legislative Roll-Calls and Ideological Representation,” American Political Science Review, 111(3):555-571 (August 2017); and Shane Goldmacher and Rachel Shorey, “Billionaires Big Checks Shape Battle for Congress,” New York Times (February 1, 2022).

[xcv] Benjamin R. Barber, Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017) observes that “. . . Climate change is the most urgent challenge facing humankind . . .”  (p. 1). His proposed alternative to the mostly failed efforts of national states and political parties is “. . . a politics of participation that devolves power back to the people closer to where they actually live: back to cities. Shift the focus down to municipalities and over to civil society . . .” (p. 10).

[xcvi] Barber, op. cit., Strong Democracy, p. 185.

[xcvii] Ibid., p. 224.

[xcviii] See: Paul M. Bisca and Renekka Grun, “Higher power to deliver: The overlooked nexus between religion and development,” Brookings (February 25, 2020) []; Jenny Lund, “The Role of Religion, Spirituality and Faith in Development; a critical theory approach,” Third World Quarterly, 30(5):937-951 (2009); Rachel M. McCleary, “Religion and Economic Development,” Policy Review (April & May 2008) []; and Anne-Marie Holenstein, “Role and Significance of Religion and Spirituality in Development Co-operation,” Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation SDC (March 2005) [].

[xcix] The religious life of Americans has been in significant transition, especially their organizational affiliations, for more than a decade. See Pew Research Center, “Faith in Flux” (April 27, 2009) []. Despite the extent of social change in recent decades, there is also significant evidence—both from our professional experience and scholarly research—that, nonetheless, traditional values persist. See Ronald Inglehart and Wayne E. Baker, “Modernization, Cultural Change, and the Persistence of Traditional Values,” American Sociological Review, 65(1):19-51 (February 2000). While the values may persist in cognitive form, they may seem to have disappeared because they remain unexpressed in action without positive reinforcement, such as the benefits that accompany participation in organized social action.

[c] The Local Agency Formation Commission, an independent regulatory commission created by the California Legislature to control the boundaries of cities and most special districts. (See related note above.)

[ci] See Hanna Fenichel Pitkin and Sara M. Shumer, “On Participation,” Democracy, 2(4):43-54 (Fall 1982), p. 51.

[cii] For a review of the forms of neighborhood empowerment, see Stephen R. Miller, “Legal Neighborhoods,” Harvard Environmental Law Review, 37(1):105-166 (2013).

[ciii] For the absurdity of such fantasies, see Kyra Gottesman and Jennie Blevins, “Oroville is now a ‘constitutional republic’—what does that mean?” East Bay Times (November 12, 2021).

[civ] The history is briefly surveyed in G. William Domhoff, “The Rise and Fall of Labor Unions in the U.S.,” Who Rules America (February 2013) [].

[cv] See Boston Tea Party Historical Society, “Boston Tea Party, the Key Event for the Revolutionary War,” (2008) [http”//].

[cvi] Ibid

[cvii] For examples, see: Nancy Shulins, “Vermont Towns Vote to Prohibit Nuclear Plants,” Lewiston Evening Journal (March 2, 1977); and David Scribner, “Resistance to gas pipeline spreads across Western Mass.,” Berkshire—The Edge (July 2, 2014) [].

[cviii] See, “Labor vs. Management,” U.S. History Online Textbook (2021) [].

[cix] Strikes were not an early craft-union tactic; their leverage consisted primarily of economic tactics. See Wolfgang Streeck, “Labor Unions, Union Organization and Union Growth,” International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2d ed. (2015), pp. 199-204 [].

[cx] Quoted in Shimon Peres, “In Homage to Ben-Gurion,” New York Times Magazine (October 5, 1986), p. 104.

[cxi] See Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Knopf, 1974).

[cxii] See Samuel P. Hays, “The Politics of Reform in Municipal Government in the Progressive Era,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 55:157-166 (October 1964), quoted by John J. Harrigan and Ronald K. Vogel, Political Change in the Metropolis, Seventh Edition (New York-San Francisco-Boston: Longman, 2003), p. 85. For a contemporary study on the policy preferences of the wealthy in contrast to the general public, see Benjamin I. Page, “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” Perspectives on Politics, 11(1):51-73 (March 2013).

[cxiii] See Jonathan Rosenblum, “Unions in the Trump Era,” Tikkun (email broadcast 1/2/17) [].

[cxiv] All three Abrahamitic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—promulgate the values of righteousness, truth, justice, freedom, peace, and kindness, although each with its own unique theological interpretation and forms of practice. Nonetheless, they share convictions in the application of these values to civil society. So, for example, although their particular theological views of “truth” vary, the expectation that public officials have a moral duty to be truthful is widely shared. For examples of their particulars, see: Sam Berrin Shoukoff, “Pursuing Righteousness,” My Jewish Learning (n.d.) []; L. Nelson Bell, “Righteousness,” Christianity Today (June 9, 1958); Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmed of Qadian, “Righteousness,” Chap. 11 in The Essence of Islam, Vol. II (London Mosque, 1981) []; Rabbi Louis Jacobs, “Truth and Lies in the Jewish Tradition,” My Jewish Learning (n.d.) []; John Caldwell, “What Is Truth?” Christian Standard (March 1, 2021) []; Quran Explorer, “Speaking Truth In Islam,” Education in the Light of Sunnah and Qura’an (February 1, 2021) [’an/speaking_truth_in_islam]; Rabbi Toba Spitzer, “Tzedek: The Jewish Value of Justice,” My Jewish Learning (n.d.) []; Smith Hopkins, “Justice and the Christian,” Olive Creek Church of Christ (January 20, 2018) []; Yasien Mohamed, “More Than Just Law: The Idea of Justice in the Qur’an,” Yaqeen Institute (February 7, 2020) []; Encyclopaedia Judaica, “Freedom,” Jewish Virtual Library (2008) []; Michael A. Milton, “What Is True Freedom in Christianity?” (June 29, 2011) []; Abdul Sattar Kassem, “The Concept of Freedom in the Quran,” American International Journal of Contemporary Research, 2(4):165-173 (April 2021); My Jewish Learning, “Jewish Ideas of Peace and Nonviolence,” (n.d.)]; Volker Stümke, “The Concept of Peace in Christianity,” De Gruyter (2021) []; Juan Cole, “The Idea of Peace in the Qur’an,” Scholarly Work at the John W. Kluge Center (August 19, 2016) []; Rabbi Maurice Lamm, “Day to Day Judaism: Kindness,” aish (n.d.) []; Stephen Witmer, “Kindness Changes Everything,” desiringGod (September 4, 2016)]; and Muhammed Habib, “What does Islam teach about kindness?” (December 6, 2019) [].

[cxv] It is not only the moral-spiritual power of these particular values that draws us to them, but the integrated character of their effects, because when there is no righteousness, there is no truth; when there is no truth, there is no justice; when there is no justice, there is no freedom; when there is no freedom, there is no peace; and when there is no peace, there is no kindness.

[cxvi] Ethical patriotism emphasizes a country’s “moral identity and integrity” to create a “just and humane society” [in contrast to the current ubiquitous performative patriotism]. See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Patriotism,” 2.2.5 Ethical patriotism (December 16, 2020) []. 

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