Bringing politics home

From Shadows of Hope
Sam Smith, 1994

This book has been about politics, but it has also been about home and the distance between the two.

The distance hasn’t always been that far.

In 1816, Columbus, Ohio, had one city councilmember for every hundred residents. By 1840 there was one for every thousand residents. By 1872 the figure had dwindled to one to every five thousand. By 1974, there was one councilmember for every 55,000 people.

The first US congressional districts contained less than 40,000 people; my current city councilmember represents about twice that many. Today the average US representative works for roughly 600,000 citizens. This is double the number for legislatures in Brazil and Japan, and more than five times as many as in Australia, Canada, France, Great Britain, Italy, and West Germany.

It isn’t just a matter of numbers. Back in the early days of television and the late days of the Daley era in Chicago, Jake Arvey was an important man in national Democratic politics. At Democratic conventions, Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley would ponder what Arvey was going to do; presidential candidates would seek his blessing.

Yet Arvey’s power base was not a national organization nor telegenic charisma, but rather the 24th Ward of Chicago, from which he helped to run the city’s Democratic machine.

Another Chicago politician described it this way: “Not a sparrow falls inside the boundaries of the 24th Ward without Arvey knowing of it. And even before it hits the ground there’s already a personal history at headquarters, complete to the moment of its tumble.”

There was plenty wrong with the Daley machine and others like it. One job seeker was asked at a ward headquarters who had sent him. “Nobody,” he admitted. He was told, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

Among those whom nobody sent were women and minorities. The old machines were prejudiced, feudal and corrupt.

And so we eventually did away with them.

But reform breeds its own hubris and so few noticed that as we destroyed the evils of machine politics we also were breaking the links between politics and the individual, politics and community, politics and social life. We were beginning to segregate politics from ourselves.

George Washington Plunkitt would not have been surprised. Plunkitt was a leader of Tammany Hall and was, by the standards of our times and his, undeniably corrupt. As his Boswell, newspaperman William Riordon, noted: “In 1870 through a strange combination of circumstances, he held the places of Assemblyman, Alderman, Police Magistrate and County Supervisor and drew three salaries at once — a record unexampled in New York politics.”. Facing three bidders at a city auction of 250,000 paving stones, he offered each 10,000 to 20,000 stones free and having thus dispensed with competition bought the whole lot for $2.50.

Tammany Hall was founded in 1854; its golden age lasted until the three-term LaGuardia administration began in 1934. For only ten intervening years was Tammany out of office. We got rid of people like Plunkitt and machines like Tammany because we came to believe in something called good government. But in throwing out the machines we also tossed out a philosophy and an art of politics. It is as though, in seeking to destroy the Mafia, we had determined that family values and personal loyalty were somehow by association criminal as well.

Plunkitt was not only corrupt but a hardworking, perceptive and appealing politician who took care of his constituents, qualities one rarely find in any plurality of combinations in politics these days. Even our corrupt politicians aren’t what they used to be. Corruption once involved a complex, if feudal, set of quid pro quos; today our corrupt politicians rarely even tithe to the people.

Politics, Plunkitt said, “is as much a regular business as the grocery or the dry-goods or the drug business” and it was based on studying human nature. He claimed to know every person in his district, their likes and their dislikes:

I reach them by approachin’ at the right side . . . For instance, here’s how I gather in the young men. I hear of a young feller that’s proud of his voice, thinks that he can sing fine. I ask him to come around to Washington Hall and join our Glee Club. He comes and sings, and he’s a follower of Plunkitt for life. Another young feller gains a reputation as a baseball player in a vacant lot. I bring him into our baseball club. That fixes him. You’ll find him workin’ for my ticket at the polls next election day. . . I rope them all in by givin’ them op¬portunities to show themselves off. I don’t trouble them with political arguments. I just study human nature and act accordin’.

Plunkitt also believed in sticking with his friends: “The politicians who make a lastin’ success in politics are the men who are always loyal to their friends, even up to the gate of State prison, if necessary . . . Richard Croker used to say that tellin’ the truth and stickin’ to his friends was the political leader’s stock in trade.” These principles had become largely inoperative by the time of Lani Guinier.

His prescription for becoming a statesman was to go out an get supporters. Even if it’s only one man, “go to the district leader and say: ‘I want to join the organization. I’ve got one man who’ll follow me through thick and thin'” and then you get his cousin and his cousin and so on until you have your own organization. It was a principle that worked well for Tammany Hall, which at its height early this century had 32,000 committeemen and was forced to use Madison Square Garden for its meetings. In contrast, when the Democratic National Committee decided to send a mailing to all its workers a few years ago, it found that no one had kept a list. The party had come to care only about its donors.

But most of all Plunkitt believed in taking care of his constituents. Nothing so dramatically illustrates this than a typical day for Plunkitt as recorded by Riordon:

Plunkitt was aroused a two am to bail out a saloonkeeper who had been arrested for tax law violations. At six he was again awakened, this time by fire engines. Tammany leaders were expected to show up at fires to give aid and comfort. Besides, notes Riordon, they were great vote-getters.

At 8:30 am he was getting six drunk constituents released. At nine he was in court on another case. At eleven, upon returning home, he found four voters seeking assistance. At three he went to the funeral of an Italian, followed by one for a Jew.

At seven PM he had a district captains’ meeting. At eight he went to a church fair. At nine he was back at the party clubhouse listening to the complaints of a dozen pushcart peddlers. At 10:30 he went to a Jewish wedding, having “previously sent a handsome wedding present to the bride.” He finally got to bed at midnight.

Concluded Riordon:

By these means the Tammany district leader reaches out into the homes of his district, keeps watch not only on the men, but also on the women and children, knows their needs, their likes and dislikes, their troubles and their hopes, and places himself in a position to use his knowledge for the benefit of his organization and himself. Is it any wonder that scandals do not permanently disable Tammany and that it speedily recovers from what seems to be crushing defeat?

These glimpses are instructive because they contrast so markedly with the impersonal, abstract style of politics to which we have become accustomed. It was, to be sure, a mixture of the good and the bad, but you at least knew whom to thank and whom to blame. As late as the 1970s the tradition was still alive in Chicago as 25th Ward leader Vito Marzullo told a Chicago Sun-Times columnist:

I ain’t got no axes to grind. You can take all your news media and all the do-gooders in town and move them into my 25th Ward, and do you know what would happen? On election day we’d beat you fifteen to one. The mayor don’t run the 25th Ward, Neither does the news media or the do-gooders. Me, Vito Marzullo. that’s who runs the 25th Ward, and on election day everybody does what Vito Marzullo tells them. . .

My home is open 24 hours a day. I want people to come in. As long as I have a breathing spell, I’ll got to a wake, a wedding, whatever. I never ask for anything in return. On election day, I tell my people, “Let your conscience be your guide.

In the world of Plunkitt and Marzullo politics was not something handed down to the people through such intermediaries as Larry King It was not the product of spin doctors, campaign hired guns or phony town meetings. It welled up from the bottom, starting with one loyal follower, one ambitious ballplayer, twelve unhappy pushcart peddlers. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude.

Sure, it was corrupt. But we don’t have much to be priggish about. The corruption of Watergate, Iran-Contra or the S&Ls fed no widows, found no jobs for the needy or, in the words of one Tammany leader, “grafted to the Republic” no newly arrived immigrants. At least Tammny’s brand of corruption got down to the streets. Manipulation of the voter and corruption describe both Tammany and contemporary politics. The big difference is that in the former the voter could with greater regularity count on something in return.


In fact, we didn’t really do away with machines, we just replaced them. As Tammany Hall and the Crump and the Hague and the Daley organizations faded, new political machines appeared. Prime among them was television but there were others such as the number-crunchers, policy pushers and lawyers running Washington, as well as a new breed of political professional, including campaign consultants, fundraisers and pollsters.

The curious, and ultimately destructive, quality of some of these new machines — particularly the media and the political pros — was that they had such little interest in policies or democracy; rather they were concerned with professional achievement or television ratings or making a buck. When one of the most skilled of the new pros, James Carville, was asked whether he would take a post in the Clinton administration, he admitted candidly that he only knew about winning elections; he didn’t know about governing. And his Clinton campaign side-kick Paul Begala once remarked, “Someone says issue; I say gesundheit.”

Of course, some of the new machines were very much interested in politics. Whether in the guise of public interest groups, trade associations or corporate PACs, these organizations became our surrogates in politics.

The political action committees, created (it is hard to believe) as a reform, helped to legalize and institutionalize corruption. And even those organizations professing the most noble causes often came to be run with all the democratic spirit of, say, the American Asbestos Promotion Council. Increasingly they began to emulate the operational style of their most detested opponents, seeing their own members largely as a source of funds and over time coming to accept the Beltway assumption that amending line 3 of Section 1 of Title 6 was the moral equivalent of progress.


For some it’s all taken the point out of politics. Said Geri Rothman-Serot as she pulled out of a race in Missouri:

This year, as I once again pursued a Senate seat, I found myself, by all accounts, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. During this process, my eyes have been opened to the frustrations of this profession. Our political system and the way it works makes it difficult to be successful and to maintain your principles. In the face of the new American politics, many conclude there is little place for them.

Teresa Heinz, the widow of Sen. John Heinz, could have been a strong contestant in the 1994 race for senator from Pennsylvania. Instead she announced:

I’ve decided to take my own path . . . The best ideas for change no longer come from political campaigns. Today, political campaigns are the graveyard of real ideas and the birthplace of empty promises.

The people of the country recognize the problem but are understandably confused as to what to about it. It is, for example, hard to devise a plan of action if the media consistently shuts its eye to new ideas or programs not part of the existing system. To be noticed, an idea must first be successful, but to be successful it must first be noticed. The media tends to takes a pass on this conundrum, accepting the notion that those things that are wrong must be corrected by and within the system. Yet it is somewhere in that assortment of readily dismissed new proposals, concepts and schemes that the solutions to our crises inevitably lie.

Writer John Gall has said that “systems tend to oppose their proper functions.” The ideal proper function of the American system is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet as it gropes its way through its third century, the system in reality increasingly endangers human life, denies personal liberty and represses individual happiness.

It is not a particularly graceful or perceptive way in which to end our era of empire. We have no DeGaulle or Mountbatten to help ease the way from the imperial to the more mundane. Indeed, most of our leaders seem possessed of one or both of two notions: either that the system is working despite all contra-indications or that history can be reversed by a few pieces of well-chosen legislation or by a cleverly designed propaganda campaign: Just Say No to Facts. Clinton has tried both approaches.

Unfortunately, complex failing systems have little capacity to save themselves. In part this is because the solutions come from the same source as the problem. The public rarely questions the common provenance; official Washington and the media honor it. Even a failure as miserable as that of Vietnam had little effect on the careers of its major protagonists, those men who not only were wrong but were wrong at the cost of 50,000 American lives. They remain quoted copiously, cited as experts and transmogrified into statesmen. Failure compounded with notoriety is worth still more. Thus, Henry Kissinger and Oliver North can count on much larger lecture fees than, say, Marion Wright Edelman or Barbara Jordan.

Complex systems usually try to save themselves by doing the same they have been doing badly all along — only harder. This is because the salvation of the system is implicitly considered far more important than the solution of any problems causing the system to fail. We have seen some dramatic examples of this phenomenon in recent times. The Vietnamese War quickly became a battle to justify the decision to enter it. As it lost all other purpose, the system became incapable of facing either battlefield or political reality until confronted with a proto-revolution of the young.

In the Alaskan oil spill, we found ourselves relying upon the world’s largest government and the world’s largest corporation to repair the damage caused by their policies. We became angry when we discovered it wasn’t working as well as it should, although there is no logical reason for these flawed systems to work better in crisis than they had in ordinary times.

And then there is the miserable, ineffective, and hypocritical “war on drugs.” Armed with such mindless principles as “Just Say No” and “Zero Tolerance,” our drug policy has been driven by its military metaphor. The drug problem is really an outward and visible sign of a multitude of other crises. It is a symptom of the bored, underpaid or underfulfilled worker; the teenager without hope; the parent alone and adrift; the city without community; the education without meaning; the graduate without moral vision; the culture without purpose.

That the situation might have more in common with a health epidemic than with a military engagement is hardly discussed. That we might never win, but only mitigate, is rarely considered. And to question whether the country should trash its constitution in order to prevent a small number of people from making fools of themselves is sometimes considered just short of drug trafficking itself.

Yet the war itself has been a failure. No one can prove otherwise. We are no longer fighting the war on drugs to save the lives of addicts or to protect citizens accidentally in its line of fire. We are certainly not fighting to cure the problems that fuel drug use.

If this were not so, we would at least notice the absurdity of building more prisons when, for example, 40% of the homicides in Washington result in no arrest, one-third of the arrestees have their charges dropped, and a third of those going to trial are acquitted. . We would note the hypocrisy of demanding a tougher approach to violent crime while jamming our court system with minor drug cases. We would be concerned that the number of gangs in LA has doubled since the war on drugs was revived in 1985, that we have effectively declared war against our inner cities and that the chances of the young urban black male dying in his hometown is greater than it was for blacks fighting in Vietnam. We would pay some attention to the resilience of hard-core drug use, the correlation between our efforts to eradicate it and urban murder rates, and the minimal sums we allocate to treating the disease of addiction.

In truth, just as in Vietnam, we are fighting the war on drugs in order to justify the decision to have begun it in the first place. We are fighting to protect the jobs and the budgets of those who still insist, in the face of massive evidence, that it will work. We are not fighting against drugs; we are fighting for the drug war system.


The question we ought to be asking is not what a failing system should be doing but whether such a system can do anything except to make matters worse, all the more so by trying to do something about it. The problem is similar to that illustrated by President Eisenhower’s bumbling agriculture secretary Ezra Taft Bensen. When Bensen announced that he would be working day and night on the farm problem, another politician wisely commented, “I wish he wouldn’t. He was causing enough trouble when he was just working days.”

Ironically, we have come to our present unhappy state in no small part because of our willingness to turn over individual and communal functions to the very systems we now ask to save us.

Functions formerly performed by community, family and church have now been assumed not only by government but to an increasing but unappreciated degree by the private corporation. Consider the modern shopping mall, a common contemporary replacement for a town business district. Although these complexes clearly serve a public function (and are often built with considerable public concessions), they are in fact controlled by a single corporation. This corporation may, without any consultation with the persons who use the mall, enact a wide variety of laws that will be enforced by the public police. There have been repeated cases where corporate owners have sought to deny the public its constitutional rights (such as those of the First Amendment) on the grounds that the petitioners were on private property. The village square has thus been privatized.

High-rise apartment buildings offer another example of corporate autocracy. High-rise owners sometimes brag in their advertising of the wonderful ‘community’ they have created for their tenants, but unlike a traditional community, the rules for trash collection, control of pets and barbecue grills, and security, are not decided by an elected council but by the corporate lord of the manor.

Meanwhile, both liberals and conservatives (although consistently denying it) act repeatedly on behalf of state centralization, the difference being that conservatives tend to want the government to assume controlling functions while liberals and progressives want government to take over caring functions. Thus under conservatives, we get more missiles and prisons, while under liberals we get more day care centers and farm subsidies. Since few of these programs evaporate upon a change of administration, there is a growing bipartisan intervention of government in our social and cultural lives.

Government and corporations are poor surrogates for families and community. Since, however, much of their growing influence comes in the arguable name of progress, we seldom address the long-¬range effects of such change. As the system becomes more cumbersome, we happily embrace solutions that seem to offer individuals at least a fighting chance in their struggles with it. We willingly suspend seemingly abstract doubts in order to survive. We may, for example, wonder what children raised in corporate or government day care centers will actually turn out to be like, but we do not wonder too long or too loudly because our economic system appears to offer little other alternative.

In fact, this is not really true. We can ask the how of what we do as well as the what; it is simply that the nature of our political conversation seldom seems to allow us the opportunity.

In 1910, G. K. Chesterton described two characters, Hudge and Gudge, whose thinking evolved in such a disparate manner that the one came to favor the building of large public tenements for the poor while the other believed that these public projects were so awful that the slums from whence they came were in fact preferable. Wrote Chesterton:

Such is the lamentable history of Hudge and Gudge; which I merely introduced as a type of an endless and exasperating misunderstanding which is always occurring in modern England. To get men out of a rookery, men are put into a tenement; and at the beginning the healthy human soul loathes them both. A man’s first desire is to get away as far as possible from the rookery, even should his mad course lead him to a model dwelling. His second desire is, naturally, to get away from the model dwelling, even if it should lead a man back to the rookery. But I am neither Hudgian nor a Gudgian. . . Neither Hudge nor Gudge had ever thought for an instant what sort of house a man might probably like for himself. In short, they did not begin with the ideal; and, therefore, were not practical politicians.

Much of American politics follows the Hudge-¬Gudge model, producing failure for both conservatives and liberals — the former offering us an army of the homeless and the latter presenting us finally with drug-infested housing projects.

To break this cycle, we must not only change our political policies but the very way we regard politics. Until we bring politics home — devolving its power, abdicating its phony expertise, and undermining its arrogance — ¬we will remain trapped in a temple to a false god.

Bart Giamatti, long before he became baseball commissioner, wrote:

Baseball is about going home and how hard it is to get there and how driven is our need. It tells us how good home is. Its wisdom says you can go home again but that you cannot stay. The journey must always start once more, the bat and oar over the shoulder, until there is an end to all journeying.

True politics, in imitation of baseball, the great
American metaphor, is also about going home. Members
of Congress consider it the sine qua non of their routine. Presidential candidates engage in an elaborate if disingenuous ceremony of finding the American home during primary season. And in between, everyone in politics pays extraordinary attention to political shamans like Gallup and Roper whose magical powers center upon their understanding of what’s happening “at home.”

Yet like so much in our national life, we are only going through the motions, paying ritualistic obeisance to a faith we no longer follow. In fact, we have lost our way home.


A few years back I attended a planning session for a liberal conference that was to focus on the Bill of Rights. Several of us suggested that we might consider what the Bill of Rights left out and proposed a panel on the “natural rights” of Americans. The idea excited me because it offered an opportunity to examine what it meant to be a real live American human, not merely an American legal or economic entity. It might be the beginning, for liberals at least, of restoring the idea of the actual individual — rather than the aggregated individual — to the center of their thought and policies.

The idea was quickly shot down, in part because it was argued that the poor and the suffering did not have the luxury of such “New Age” concepts. Locke, Rousseau and Madison were not exactly proto-hippies and the Declaration of Independence was not written by Jerry Brown, but these traditional liberals simply could not see beyond the question of economic rights.

We had touched on the hidden debate of American politics. On one side stand the liberals, the conservatives and the marxists and on the other the libertarians, greens, and decentralist progressives. What, we were really discussing, is politics about?.

In one corner — the one preferred by capitalists, marxists and many liberals — are those who see the individual as possessing certain rights, but still being at heart primarily an economic creature.

In the other corner are those who see the human franchise extending far beyond matters of survival and fiscal equity to include the right of privacy, the right of the individual as inherently superior to that of a corporation, the right to follow one’s own moral vision, the right to make one’s own mistakes in peace, the right of a community to govern itself and the right of a citizen to be served by the state and not be a servant of that state. Oh yes, there is also the oft forgotten right to be happy.

Somehow it had seemed relevant that on the 300th anniversary of what might be called liberalism’s first position paper — in which John Locke argued that the state exists to preserve the natural rights of its citizens — that we spend some time on humans as other than creatures of government. Three hundred years later, however, these leading American liberals couldn’t understand what Locke was talking about.


Such issues may seem far removed from the drug wars of our cities. Yet the armed zombies wandering our streets are grim examples of what can be produced by a society that pretends they don’t matter. By caring only marginally for the economic survival of our inner cities and not at all for their soul or culture, by denying individual dignity and worth to their residents, by refusing them money, power or even adequate audience, the system has created the environment in which the drug wars have flourished.

Here is the payoff for not caring about the intangibles of human existence; for providing education, shelter and social services on the cheap; and for excessive faith in a megasystem that cannot respond to a reality that stretches only a few blocks. Following the advice of Daniel Burnam, we have made no small plans and thus we find ourselves, finally, with no solutions applicable to the small and real places in which each of us live.

We cannot hope to work our way out this dilemma by more great plans and massive “wars.” We must take the time to recreate what we have destroyed. Just as we are cleaning up the toxic wastes, the fouled rivers and the noxious atmosphere that is our environmental legacy, so we must confront the ecological destruction of our political system. We must do this to have a reason for America to continue to exist. The conflict can no longer be the phony battle between liberals and conservatives that leave us the Hudge-Gudge choice between control by huge corporations, huge government, or a conspiracy of the two. The question is whether we can restore the individual and the community to the center of American political life.


Given the glum evidence cited in this book and elsewhere, it certainly seems unlikely. The little icons of hope appear too trivial to matter. Not much on the evening news encourages us and the growing number of Americans who describe themselves as victims suggests a nation determined not to recover from its various traumas.

On the other hand, what psychiatrist Steven Wolin and his wife, child development specialist Sybil Wolin, reported in their study of troubled families may work for communities, cities and our country as well.

Like many psychiatrists, Steven Wolin had originally adopted a damage model of human psychology. The Wolins, in their book The Resilient Self, describe this model as one in which troubled families “are seen as toxic agents, like bacteria or viruses, and survivors are regarded as victims of the parents’ poisonous secretions. . .The best survivors can do is to cope or contain the family’s harmful influence at considerably cost to themselves.”

But as Steve Wolin deepened his work with troubled, and particularly alcoholic, families, he found a surprising number of adult children who had not repeated their parents’ drinking patterns nor become psychological disaster areas. They had developed an alternative, a model in which they were not unharmed, but had used adversity to build a satisfying life, developing such compensating virtues as insight, independence, relationships, initiative, creativity, humor and morality.

The Wolins continue:

In the 1980s in this country, the Damage Model seeped down from the professional to our popular culture in a big way. The survivor-as-victim image became the rallying point for a recovery movement that is still growing today. As the movement has spread its influence, diseases, addictions and human frailties have occupied the limelight of our awareness, and resilience has fallen into the shadows. We are fast becoming a nation of emotional cripples, incapable of managing the expectable problems that life doles out every day.

What the Wolins were saying went far beyond the problems of individuals or the profession of family therapy. The damage model is the same one we commonly used to describe America’s communities and our politics.

Consider, for example, the LA riots. In the thousands of words pouring out after the LA uprising you could easily search in vain for one sentence implying that anyone — victim, participant or would-be reconstructionist — had any real hope for our inner cities other than partial salvation through moral conversion or partial recovery through endless subsidy. The reaction to South Central LA brought to mind Gertrude Stein:

“There ain’t no answer. There ain’t going to be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer. ”

But what, if just for a moment, we had put aside our fatalism and asked ourselves a different sort of ques¬tion:

How could we turn South Central LA into a good place to live?

Simply mouthing the words reframes the issue. It is a revolutionary question because, by asking it, we bring the people of South Central LA out of the shadows of stereotypes, statistics and sob stories. We begin to view their problems as we might that of a neighbor rather than that of an abstract crisis to whose amelioration we must dutifully but futilely tithe in the name of doing something.

The people living in a community like South Central LA are mostly normal people in abnormal circumstances. To be sure, such communities have an excess of social deviants, but they are deviants of their own community’s norms as well as those of America in general. It is one of the libels of our times to assert that the failure of these communities is a failure of morality or of courage. Walk down any inner city street in America and you’ll find more people with more courage, resilience and integrity than you’ll find in your average bank, college administration or offices of the President of the United States. These are not folks living on the hidden welfare of old boy networks, sinecures granted by virtue of college degrees, or tenure achieved by election to public office, but people who every day have to face the most extraordinary strains on their dignity and self-respect.

Back in the 1960s, when I was editing a center city newspaper, I thought it would be interesting to list all the churches within our 2 square mile circulation area. It turned out there were over a hundred, ranging from a couple of Catholic parishes to the Revolutionary Church of What’s Happenin’ Now. Yet this same community was, we were told even then, in the grips of pathology.

The first, easiest and cheapest positive step anyone thinking about America’s cities can take is to eradicate words like ghetto, pathology, at-risk, culture of poverty, and permanent underclass from their vocabulary. These words are powerfully self-fulfilling rhetoric and alibis for indifference. Until we see these communities as real places with real people entitled to the same pursuit of life, liberty and happiness as any other American, we will continue to regard them as targets of triage rather than as an integral part of our society. We will see them as inevitable victims rather than probable survivors.

Our sense of victimization, our self-fulfilling description of failure, is not limited to central cities. Our political discourse has bogged down in its acute and debilitating understanding of what’s wrong. The Wolins describe well an alternative:

Our lives are a story. There are as many stories as there are lives, and each of our stories is many stories. As authors, we are free to script and cast ourselves as we choose. Out of our complicated and varied experiences, we each select the events that have meaning for us and interpret them to fit our inner picture of who we are. Then we arrange the details in a plot that defines us — our problems, our strengths and our possibilities. In turn, the story we write exercises a powerful influence on how we feel and behave. As we construct our story, it constructs us.

The reframing that Dr. Wolin suggests to his patients can be applied as well to the national story or the story of our own community. To free ourselves from the political machines that overwhelm us we must first free ourselves from their story.

The best politics, it seems to me, moves effortlessly from what we were to what we should be without denial, indifference or denigration. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has noted, a community without a history is like an individual without a memory. Part of our reframed story must restore our memory of what it has meant to be an American. Recovering our past in both its rights and wrongs is essential to a new politics.

We can also free ourselves from the orthodox version of events by such technological means as cable television and computer bulletin boards and such non-technological means as gathering in small groups and telling each other stories. Utne Reader has had considerable success encouraging the revival of salons where people come together just to socialize and share common interests. There are other models such as book clubs and Swedish style study circles. On my list of untested personal projects is a living newspaper — a gathering of people who would tell the most important news of their week to each other. In one case, the story might be personal; in another a snippet from a novel; in another the president’s health care program. I strongly suspect that the random editing of this living newspaper would produce more interesting copy than the careful compiled morning edition on our doorsteps. Finally, resting almost forgotten in our past, is the notion of the political club, premised on the inseparability of politics from our culture, our friends and our sense of fun. Nothing would so herald the regeneration of democracy in this country as the revival of political clubs.

Such ideas may seem puny, but only because we have come to accept the notion that the enormous institutions of government, media, industry and academia as natural to the human condition. In fact, as ecological planner Ernest Callenbach has pointed out, “we are medium-sized animals who naturally live in small groups — perhaps 20 or so — as opposed to bees or antelopes who live in very large groups. When managers or generals or architects force us into large groups, we speedily try to break them down into sub-units of comfortable size.”

Too often, however, we fail. Today, if you want to tell it to the boss, you may have to travel a couple of thousand miles just to get to the receptionist. All of our systems appear to be on steroids. And, as with the drugged athlete, nature eventually pulls the plug. The institutions that have imposed a tyranny of size upon us not only fail to accomplish what they set out to do but are now themselves disintegrating.

The collapse of huge institutions is one of the primary characteristics of our times. The Soviet Union falls apart and no sooner have we declared the Cold War won than a new American administration tells us it will not be able to carry out the normal functions of a government because — although not saying it quite so bluntly — it believes we are nearing bankruptcy. Corporate icons like Sears and IBM totter. The savings and loan industry hits the mat. Our city governments are in extraordinary disarray.

We see it and yet we don’t. Our loyalty to our assumptions and ideologies as well as our natural difficulty in accepting mortality even in non-human systems lead us to underrate such changes, to keep trying to do things the old way one more time.

There is growing evidence that in the wake of this decay, traditional ideological conflicts such as those between left and right , and between capitalism and communism, are becoming far less important. As writer Thomas Martin has noted, a new ideology is rising, the ideology of devolution — or decentralizing — demanding the transfer of power to lower levels of government.

Already this ideology of scale has swept through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Its voice is heard in Spain, in Quebec and in Northern Ireland. It is the voice of people attempting to regain control over societies that have become increasingly authoritarian, unresponsive, and insensitive, a revolt of ordinary humans against the excesses of the state, reflecting the global gap between the peoples of the world and their own governments.

America is not immune from these forces. All around us is evidence of the disintegration of effective government and a growing alienation of the people from that government as a result. Our systems of governance have become too big, too corrupt, too inflexible and too remote from democratic concerns to respond equitably and rationally to the changing needs of the people.

There are far more engagements in this struggle of scale than the media would lead one to think. In fact, much of the positive change since the sixties has involved moving the idea of devolution out of the commune and into the community and the nation. The statist marxists are fading; new progressives want the utility controlled by their city and not by a national administration.

The greens and the libertarians, whose emphasis on decentralization removes them from normal left-right characterization, are advance troops for human scale. Their work is backed by the practical ideas of community land trusters, co-housing groups, more than 30,000 cooperatives, students of human ecology, community school boards, neighborhood development corporations and community councils, supporters of civic enterprise (i.e. community ownership of utilities and businesses) and centers of devolutionary thought such as the E. F. Schumacher Institute. In black school districts in Chicago and white villages in New England, citizens are carrying out a quiet revolution against the inefficiencies and cruelties of bigness.

It will take time because we have come to make false assumptions about the benefits of large-scale economies (based on accounting that, among other things, ignores ecological costs), we are daily intimidated by the megasystems in which we work or under whose shadows we live, and it has become increasingly difficult to imagine ourselves influencing anything.

There are actually things we can do to moderate the ill-effects of these megasystems. We could, for example, regenerate the spirit of populism, the one native American movement that understood and challenged the industrial revolution’s assault on freedom. We could, for example, start treating our largest corporations more like public utilities, demanding, as we did once, that they function in the public interest, convenience and necessity. We could press for real anti-trust enforcement, for public members on the boards of large companies and elected corporate regulatory commissions. We could create an American Association of Working People — modeled more on the AARP than on the AFL-CIO — to organize the masses of non-unionized employees of America into an effective political lobby. We could create state and city banks, countering the redlining of America’s financial institutions by providing loans to excluded home-buyers and small businesses. And we could encourage as public policy the growth of cooperatives and community or worker owned companies. In short, we could finally recognize that much of today’s political struggle is not between conservatives and liberals, but between corporatism and democracy.

There are also things we could do to moderate the excessive power of the modern presidency, a position so bloated that it undermines the Constitution, obscures its alternatives and daily forces its monomaniacal presence upon us. But here the task is more difficult and more subtle, because it involves not only laws and regulations but our own view of the matter. The power of the president rises and falls with our willingness to grant that power. It is the same power possessed by Madonna and Jesse Jackson and Mother Teresa and Rush Limbaugh.

To be sure, the media plays an extraordinary role in determining our views, but we retain the choice should we desire to exercise it. Nothing in the Constitution speaks to whether we must believe in a mythic presidency and the tyranny such a faith inevitably produces. Imagine, for example, if we taught our school children the dangers of excessive power in government with the same assiduousness that we teach the dangers of drugs; if we encouraged safe democracy as well as safe driving; if our children learned how to discern the inner meaning of a White House news release as well as that of a poem; if more than 50% of our Ivy League students knew the names of their own senators as well as that of the chief executive. Such circumstances would, I think, lead to a different sort of presidency.

Reforms like these, however, speak primarily to controlling power rather than transferring it. Can the latter really happen? Well, it has in the past. From the American revolution to the underground railroad, to the organizing of labor, to the drive for universal suffrage, to the civil rights, women’s, peace and environmental movements, every significant political and social change in this country has been propelled by large numbers of highly autonomous small groups linked not by a bureaucracy or a master organization but by the mutuality of their thought, their faith and their determination. There is no reason it can not happen again.

What is lacking is not devolutionary theory, nor grand schemes, nor even useful experiments, but rather a practical politics of devolution. We need to apply these theories and experiences to the every day politics of ordinary citizens. If we do, I think we will be surprised to discover where the American mainstream really flows.


The rules of the game: A good place to start is with the rules of the game. We live in one of a declining number of countries that use the demonstratively undemocratic winner-take-all electoral system A winner need only be first, not necessarily the choice of the majority of voters. Nor is there any serious provision for political parties other than the two major ones. This latter defect has been elevated to a virtue by the obeisance paid it not only by representatives of the two parties but by the media, which quickly warns that any retreat from political duopoly will result in “instability” — a phrase that does not readily spring to mind when one considers Germany, Norway, Switzerland and the Netherlands, all countries with a multi-party system. As election scholar Douglas Amy notes, in America “You have the right to vote, you just don’t have the right to be represented.”

In fact, when you look at the major democracies of the world, including the new ones of the former Soviet bloc, you find that the United States is electorally largely in the company of countries that once comprised the British Empire. Even here there are defections: New Zealand has recently moved towards proportional representation and the Australian Senate uses preferential voting.

The American system fails on a number of counts:

* It does not provide for a majoritarian decision. For example, both the present and former mayor of Washington were chosen by less than 35% of the vote in primaries that were tantamount to election. Clinton was elected with only 43% of the vote and in only one state did any presidential candidate receive a majority of the popular vote. The center-right parties got only 39% of the votes in the 1993 French elections but 80% of the seats. In Canada, the Progressive Conservatives in 1993 won 16% of the vote, but no seats.

* It clearly discriminates against minorities and minority views. The district system used for elections to the House, for example, has traditionally produced under-representation of latinos and blacks. The attempt to squeeze civil liberties into the district voting system has resulted in the degrading and ineffective anomaly of “minority districts,” a sort of separate but equal politics that guarantees decennial attempts at gerrymandering. Further, non-geographically defined or under-represented groups — such as gays or women — are not helped by such artificial machinations. For example, while women make up only about ten percent of the American Congress, they constitute at least a third in Scandinavian countries, and over 20% in the Netherlands.

The difference can be seen dramatically in those countries that use both systems. In the German Bundestag, half the members are elected by proportional representation. Of these, 29% were women. The other half of the Bundestag is elected by district on a winner-take-all basis. Only 7% of these seats are held by women. An almost identical result holds in Australian where the upper house uses PR and the lower uses winner take all. As Helena Catt of New Zealand’s Electoral Reform Coalition has explained, under proportional representation, “when parties prepare their lists they will strive to select balanced teams of candidates with broad appeal to voters. It will be very obvious if a party puts up a team with few women on it.”

It discourages voting. If you are a minority by race, sex or inclination, there is little opportunity for your views to be heard, let alone represented under the American system. This contributes to the extraordinarily high level of voter apathy in the US compared to those countries with proportional representation. For example, the Washington Post’s Lou Cannon reported that in the first round of the 1993 voting for mayor in Los Angeles, only 4% of the city’s 918,000 adult latinos cast ballots.

It gives too much importance to personalities and too little to issues: With only two parties pretending to represent the country’s entire political spectrum, it is nearly impossible for either party to propose a coherent program or even a new idea. Too many intra-party compromises have to be made. Since the political parties don’t have much ideological meaning, it is inevitable that American elections tend to focus excessively on the personalities of the candidates. We end up talking about draft dodging, for example, while avoiding any real debate over health care. As Will Rogers noted, “We only get to vote on some man; we never get to vote on what he is to do.”

* It is not flexible. The genius of a well-working democracy is its ability to adapt to new social conditions and values. The first-past-the-post and district election system places an artificial barrier in the way of the country adjusting to new realities. When combined with election laws cynically protective of the existing major parties, these barriers become a broad moat around the status quo, almost guaranteeing that change will be dilatory and quarrelsome at best, and chaotic and violent at worst.

Fortunately, there are few constitutional bars to correcting this situation. The Constitution does not mandate congressional or legislative districts nor does it prevent the preferential election of senators. By state action, larger states could switch to proportional representation for their legislatures and for the US House now. By congressional action, the House of Representatives could be enlarged — despite our enormous population growth it is still the same size as in 1910 — to allow other states to do likewise. And while the electoral college would need to be abolished by constitutional amendment, nothing in the Constitution prevents the use of proportional representation in choosing electors.

There are a variety of specific ways that America could improve its elections. Each has advocates who can verge on the fanatical. There are, as well, political scientists and statisticians who can offer comprehensive, if sometimes opaque, analyses of the effect of each of the systems, factoring in such matters as strategic voting (i.e. the voter trying to get an edge on the system through, say, bullet voting when several votes are allowed).

Then there are the non-objective considerations. Can the public understand the system? Does it seem intuitively fair? Whose ox gets gored?

New Zealand dealt with all these problems by naming a national commission to study and present to the public, in clear and unbiased fashion, the major alternatives. The result was a vote for the German system, which combines the virtues of the district system and proportional representation. By contrast, France in 1986 handled the matter as pure politics. The Socialists killed PR because they thought they could do better with a run-off system. Seven years later this came back to haunt them as center-right parties with only a plurality of votes won an overwhelming majority of legislative seats.

Given the vagueness of the Constitution on the matter, we have the option of testing out various systems. One state might choose the German approach, another pure PR, another preferential voting and so forth. Presumably, over time, the virtues and defects of each would become clearer.

Any of the standard alternatives would more closely approximate real democracy than our present system, by ending gerrymandering, giving more voice to minorities, increasing voter turnout and providing a forum for issues not heard about in our current two-party campaigns.


To understand the various possibilities it helps to make a distinction between single-office contests (the presidency or mayor of a city) and multi-seat contests (Congress or a city council). Here are the major alternatives for single-office contests:

First-past-the-post: This is our current system. Under it, in a three-way race, for example, the winner might theoretically get as few as 33.5% of the votes.

Run-offs: In a single-office contest, a run-off system — as used in the America south and in France — is at least arguably better than the first-past-the-post now common in the US. One of the major problems with run-offs, however, is the expense of holding a second election and the fall-off in voter turnout.

Preferential voting (also called the alternative vote): In the classic system of preferential voting, if no one wins a majority of the votes the votes of the least successful candidate are redistributed according to his or her supporters’ second choice. Let us imagine that an election produced the following results:

Karen South: 3700

Kwami East: 3400

Maria Norte: 2200

Bill West: 700

Under the current system, South would be the winner even though she fell quite short of a majority (5,001 votes). In typical preferential voting, the votes of the last place West would be redistributed according to the voters’ second choice. Since this would still not produce a majority for any candidate the votes of Maria Norte would be redistributed in like manner. Given the closeness of the race, either South or East might win in this instance.

There is also a variation of preferential voting known as the Bucklin System. In it, if there is no clear winner, all the second place votes of all the candidates are added to the first place votes.

Approval voting: Under this system, used by a few professional associations but as yet untested in a major political context, voters get to check off every candidate of whom they approve, but not in order of preference. Advocates claim this produces a fairer result, although there is the practical question of whether voters wouldn’t prefer to rank the candidates.

Here are the major choices for multi-seat elections:

District and at-large elections: This typically American form of election is responsible for many of the least appealing aspects of US politics. The main virtue of district voting is that the district has someone with power at the seat of government. But it also leads to gerrymandering, minority disenfranchisement and intensely parochial decisions on the part of legislators. The typical legislator spends more time fixing problems for constituents than acting as a legislator. Geography is considered more critical than race, sex, economics, age, ideology and so forth.

At-large elections, in which the voter has as many choices as there are seats available, leads to the majority of a community magnifying its power to the exclusion of minorities, and has been frequently subject to successful assault in the courts on civil rights grounds.

Proportional representation: Typically, various parties produce lists of candidates between which the public chooses. These lists can be either “open” or “closed.” In the latter, the party determines the order of the candidates, in the former voters have some influence. Under PR, if the Sunny Day Party wins 45% of the vote, it gets 45% of the seats in the legislature. In most cases there is a minimum threshold and the legislature is broken up into multi-member districts, within which the proportional representation occurs, thus allowing PR and regional concerns to work in tandem.

Single Transferable Vote: This is essentially the principle of preferential voting applied to a multi-member body. Voters rank the candidates and those surpassing a mathematically derived quota are considered elected. To determine the other victors, the choices of the least successful candidate are distributed to the other candidates. This is the system that has been used for years in Cambridge, MA, and is used in Ireland.

Mixed proportional representation: This is the system used in Germany in which half the legislature is selected by district and half by PR. It is the system recently adopted by New Zealand after public consideration of the various alternatives.

Strange as proportional representation may seem to us, it has a history in this country going back to the progressive era when nearly two dozen cities used it — including New York, Sacramento, and Cleveland. It disappeared not because it was ineffective, but because the urban elites and machines didn’t like it, just as the French socialists killed PR in their country because they thought they could gain more power without it.

The story of Cincinnati is instructive. Theodore Berry, a black member of the Cincinnati city council won election in 1953 under proportional representation. Because he was the highest vote-getter among councilmembers, local tradition declared he should have become mayor, but his election was blocked. In 1957, opponents of Berry convinced the city to do away with PR entirely. Berry was finally elected mayor under a conventional voting system in the 1970s, two decades after a major American city could have had its first black mayor.

The ways in which government, working on behalf of the two major parties, rigs the rules for elections is mind-boggling. There is a whole newsletter, Ballot Access News, devoted to following the efforts by citizen groups to overturn them — challenging petition requirements, filing deadlines, registration rules, and so forth. One of the least noticed but most important are strictures against third parties temporarily allying themselves with major parties on fusion slates as a means of increasing their power. These anti-fusion laws not only fly in the face of normal definitions of democracy but some specifically violate international human rights agreements such as those in the Helsinki Accords.

The Senate poses a special problem, since its unique nature is determined by the Constitution. As it stands, women, latinos or blacks comprise 61% of the American population, but make up only 7% of the US Senate. If the Senate were a school district, it would be under court-ordered bussing. If it were a private club you’d want to resign from it before you ran for public office. Without altering the constitution, it is difficult to democratize the Senate, but not impossible. For example, the admission of the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico as states would improve the minority composition of the Senate. Splitting large states like California, Florida and New York into two or three states — all possible without a constitutional amendment — would increase the electoral chances of minorities and women. In fact, a strong case can be made for granting statehood to ten or twenty of the largest metropolitan areas in order to correct the egregiously anti-urban discrimination inherent in the current composition of the Senate.

With such measures, the smaller voices of this country could be heard within the political system rather than only through the media or by protest or violence. As an Ashtabula, Ohio, newspaper said in 1915 after that town’s first election conducted by proportional representation: “The drys and the wets are represented, the Protestants and the Catholics; the business, professional, and laboring men, the Republicans, Democrats, and Socialists; the English, Swedes and Italians are represented. It would be hard to select a more representative council in any other way.”


Natural and constitutional rights: Fair elections, however, are only the start. A central problem is to give back to the people their natural and Constitutional rights — starting with the forgotten amendments of the Bill of Rights, namely the ninth and tenth:

Amendment Nine: The enumeration of the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment Ten: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Together, these amendments should be bulwarks protecting our natural rights and repelling authoritarian federal government. But habit, the lack of civic education, media ignorance, and the stealthy usurpation of power by Washington, have conspired not only to deprive us of the benefits of these amendments but to conceal the fact that they even exist.

Beyond the question of rights are also some practical reasons for a dramatic devolution of political power in the United States. Under our present over-centralized system:

* Citizens lack access to politicians and politicians, responsible for oversized political units, rely heavily on bureaucrats or “experts” who are unresponsive to the citizen.

* The expense and difficulty of making changes in the political structure is magnified. From civic committees to militant demonstrations, from community organizing to riots, citizens in recent years have experimented with a variety of methods to achieve the political change they could not achieve within the political system. They have had minimal success.

* Both the politician and the bureaucrat become scornful of the democratic process as they become less dependent upon it. The citizens become more scornful of the democratic process as it apparently fails them.

* The citizens’ contact with politicians increasingly comes through the images of the media rather than through direct or even second-hand contact.

We need alternatives to our failing centralized systems. And we need a way to function at a human level, with our thoughts and actions and words ecologically connected to reality rather than to propaganda and myth. We need, in short, a way to fly under the radar of America’s military-industrial-media complex.

Here are a few ways it could happen:

Neighborhood government: Real neighborhood government would not be merely advisory. It would include the power to sue the city government, to incorporate, to run community programs and business, to contract to provide services now offered by city hall, and to have some measure of budgetary authority over city expenditures within its boundaries. Not the least among its powers should be a role in the justice system, since it is impossible to recreate order in our communities while denying communities any place in maintaining order. We should move closer to the “small republics” that Jefferson dreamed of, communities where every citizen became “an acting member of the common government, transacting in person a great portion of its rights and duties, subordinate indeed, yet important, and entirely within his own competence.”

Budgetary authority (not the actual money) could be granted over one percent of a community’s pro rata share of a city’s budget. In DC, this would mean an extraordinary $1 million for a neighborhood of 20,000 people. Federal revenue sharing of a similar magnitude would produce another million dollars for each such community in the country. Consider what could be done in your own community for $2 million a year and then try to figure out what happens to the money now.

While one community might choose to spend its money on education, another might choose more police patrols or recreation facilities. There would be mistakes, but they would be our mistakes, easier to understand and to rectify. Further, by permitting error we would again also be permitting genius.

Neighborhood government also offers an antidote to the chronic gap between government and governed, There is, after all, little reason to cling to the notion that the solution to our problems is to spend more money on a form of government that has increasingly shown its incompetence. To say that because the crime rate is rising sharply we should therefore double the size of the same police force that has thus far been unable to cope with it; to reward with more concentrated power a city government that has spent decades on absurd, disruptive and cruel planning; to continue to vest the power of educating our children in an administrative system that appears to lag as far behind the human intelligence norm as the children its miseducates do in reading and math — surely this can have little logical justification.

Neighborhood government is another way. It is not some utopian scheme but a pragmatic approach. It is, in fact, contemporary large city governance that is utopian in that there is no empirical evidence that it works. It is under this form of government that we generally find the worst crime, the worst education, the worst health, the worst pollution, and the highest unemployment.

Neighborhood government is pragmatic economically. We know, for example, that the per-capita costs of government begin to soar as jurisdictions increase in size. Further, the larger the jurisdiction the greater the tendency to deal with problems through the application of money and bureaucracy. Imagination narrows into a budget item; the specific offspring of the budget item becomes far less important than the fact that it costs X dollars.

Small government works differently. It tends to pay more attention to detail and substance. I recall attending a PTA meeting at which the chaos produced by major teacher reassignments was discussed. It did not take long before someone pointed out that while we must deal with citywide issue, we must also continue to teach the children no matter what happened. A committee was quickly formed to seek volunteers to help fill in the gaps caused by the transfers. Big government doesn’t work that way.

To be sure, neighborhood government takes time. I know. For two years I was a neighborhood commissioner dealing with politics at its most minute level. On one occasion, I spent five hours at a meeting attempting to mediate a dispute over where a recreation center’s tennis backboard should be placed. But I do not begrudge the time nor the hassles; it was one of the great experiences of my life. Besides, there was no need for term limits; I happily retired after one.

Neighborhood government is also pragmatic politically. Much political dissatisfaction comes from the inability of residents to make their concerns felt at city hall. Problems are specific; big city government by its nature is general. If you don’t fit the average or the generalized model you get left behind.

Back in the early 70s, Senator Mark Hatfield made the remarkable proposal that citizens be allowed to funnel a portion of their tax dollars to neighborhood organizations. In defense of this profoundly radical idea, he cited some figures that dramatically show how some of the nation’s social problems can be broken into smaller and more manageable parts:

If, for example, every church and synagogue were to take over the responsibility of caring for ten people over the age of 65 who are presently living below the poverty level there would be no present welfare programs needed for the aged If each church or synagogue took over the responsibility for 18 families who are eligible for welfare today, there would not be any need for federal or state welfare programs to families. If each church and synagogue cared for less than one child each the present day care program supported by federal and state funds would be totally unnecessary.

Community control of public schools: Under a headline, PARENTS TELL DC SUPERINTENDENT: CUT BUREAUCRACY, NOT 430 TEACHERS, the Washington Post reported that a parents’ group had calculated that in 1979 the DC school system had 114,000 students and just over 500 administrative employees. By 1991, the student population was down to 83,000 but central staff was up to over 1000.

Such absurdities can not be handled effectively by playing endless budgetary cat and mouse games with administrators whose primary function and skill is keeping their own jobs. The problem needs to be addressed directly through community control and the dismantling of school bureaucracies. In the sixties there was a strong movement for community control, but because it came largely from minority communities and because the majority was not adequately distressed about public education, it faltered. The issue has recently revived, it shows strength and should be pushed.

Community justice: The decline of the American city is intimately related to the problem of crime. One need not get into a chicken-¬and-egg argument to recognize that the failures of urban policy contribute to crime and crime contributes to the failure of cities. The question is: how do we interrupt this destructive cycle? The conventional answers — more police and more jails — not only haven’t worked, they are beginning to bankrupt a number of cities.

There are other things that could be done, but none are more important than restoring the community to the center of our attempts to obtain social order. Most law and order stems from personal and community values or from peer pressure of one sort or another. Yet our prescription for law and order ignores such influences, using as their surrogate vastly over-extended police departments and courts.

Consider what happens today. A young person engages in some minor offense such as vandalism or fighting and we call the cops. The city police immediately remove the offender from the very community against which the offense has been committed. From that point on, the community is ignored; the offense becomes one against the larger and far more abstract city. It is small wonder that so many youths fail to learn what living in a community entails.

There is no substitute for organic social order, as even totalitarian countries have discovered. To create this organic system, we must return to the community and build our justice system up from it. Community courts and neighborhood constables are one way of re-creating community law and order. Community courts could deal with misdemeanors using such correctives as community service and various forms of restitution. They must, however, represent the community and not merely be in it, as is the case with a number of current decentralized court experiments.

Neighborhood constables or sheriffs would have the power of arrest and would become a symbol not of the city’s law and order, but of the community’s. Strange as this idea might seem, downtown business districts and shopping malls regularly practice it; their constables are called security guards. Neighborhoods should be entitled to similar protection.

States’ rights: While maintaining federal preeminence in fields such as civil rights and the environment, we need to be strong advocates of states’ rights on issues not properly the federal government’s. We need, for example, to end the current practice of the federal government passing laws mandating state or local action, but without the funds to accomplish it. In particular we should oppose the use of federal green-mail — forcing states and localities to take legislative measures at the risk of losing federal funding — as a clear end run around the 10th amendment of the Bill of Rights. As the Supreme Court noted in Kansas v. Colorado, this amendment “discloses the widespread fear that the national government might, under the pressure of supposed general welfare, attempt to exercise powers which had not been granted.” It might, has, and today does, with great regularity.

Such talk greatly offends many liberals who persist in their faith in the beneficence of big government. They have slipped into the trap of defending a theory that defies the teachings of common eyesight. Many liberals think that to talk about a smaller government is to consort with reactionaries. In fact, while Reagan talked of getting government off our backs, one of his first acts was to eliminate the Carter-originated office of neighborhoods. The government stayed on our backs; it was just that more of it was in military and police uniform. To date, neither political party has seriously considered devolving political power.

Revenue sharing: A similar liberal blind-spot leads to a chronic indifference to government waste. It’s not that liberals really favor waste, they’re just afraid that if you start talking about it, the next thing you know you’ll want to do away with social security. As with the issue of centralized authority, this liberal neurosis discredits many worthy ideas whose major problem may be only that they are being conducted inefficiently or by the wrong people at the wrong level.

One of the best ways to reduce the federal government while maintaining an adequate flow of funds for needed programs is through revenue sharing, yet another victim of that great phony decentralizer, Ronald Reagan. Whatever the problems of malfeasance or nonfeasance at the local level, they are almost guaranteed to be less than the misuse of these funds at the federal level. As Congress’s own auditor, Comptroller General Charles Bowsher, told a Hill hearing, “There are hardly any [federal] agencies that are well managed.”

In contrast, much of the best government is at the state and local level. It could do even better without the paperwork and the restrictions dreamed up in Washington to fill the working day. And even when that doesn’t prove true, you don’t have to drive as far to make your political anger known.

Decentralizing the federal government: The existing federal government could be greatly decentralized. There a number of federal agencies that already are. Interestingly, these agencies are among those most often praised by the public. The National Park Service, the Peace Corps, the Coast Guard, the Soil Conservation Service and US Attorneys all have dispersed units with a relatively high degree of autonomy and a strong sense of turf responsibility by their employees. A further example can be found within the postal service. While many complain about mail service, you rarely hear someone gripe about their own mail carrier, who is given a finite federal task in a finite geographical area.

I stumbled across this phenomenon while serving in the Coast Guard. At the time, the Guard had about 1800 units worldwide but only 3000 officers, many of the latter concentrated on larger ships and in headquarters units. Thus there were scores of units run by enlisted personnel who rarely saw an officer. Yet the system worked extremely well.

It worked because once competent individuals had been assigned and training and adequate equipment had been provided there was relatively little a bureaucratic superstructure could do to improve the operations of a lifeboat or loran station. Similarly, a former Peace Corps regional director told me that in his agency’s far-flung and decentralized system, there was no way he could control activities in the two dozen countries under his purview. Despite this generally presumed liability, the Peace Corps became one of the most popular federal programs of recent times. As with education, a bureaucracy in such circumstances can do itself far more good than it can do anyone in the field.

Can the success of these decentralized agencies be replicated, say, in housing or urban development? Why not give it a try? Why not have federal housing policy administered by 50 state directors, who like US Attorneys would be politically acceptable to the state and who would be given considerable leeway in the mix of programs they could fund and approve? Why does it surprise us that responsible people given responsibility might act responsibly? Is it because we no longer study human nature and “act accordin’?”

At least one major corporation found that such autonomy works. Johnson & Johnson, the Wall Street Journal reports, has averaged a 13% annual growth in its earnings per share over the past decade. It has 166 units around the world, each largely autonomous, “its contact with headquarters largely limited to reporting results. This places authority in the hands of managers nearest the marketplace, and frees top management to focus on broad trends.”

Economic citizenship: Our economics need to devolve as well, in part because in small scale economics, market forces can be mediated but by such non-economic factors as altruism, cooperation, initiative and sense of responsibility. As Jonathan Rowe has said of Korean family-run groceries, “a family operates on loyalty and trust, the market operates on contract and law.”

Small business has not only been the country’s major producer of new jobs, but micro businesses — those with fewer than 20 employers — created 47% of the new jobs between 1984 and 1990. Small business is more likely to hold on to its jobs, less often damaging to the environment and less physically harmful to its workers.

And it can be productive in surprising ways. Regardies Magazine, for example, did a study of what basketball player Patrick Ewing had produced for Georgetown University in return for his scholarship. Adding in everything from the obvious (ticket sales) to the not so obvious (a big jump in application fees to GU), Regardies found Ewing returning the university a profit many times over cost. No Fortune 500 company can make that claim.

We tend to underestimate the importance of small and unconcentrated business because political and media attention tends to follow size and power. Yet a Wharton Econometrics Forecasting Associates analysis a few years back found that bowling contributed roughly half as much to the American economy as did local mass transit. Health club memberships were even more important than bowling. In aggregate, amusement & recreation was a larger industry than textiles or apparel or coal mining. The sports industry was almost as big as auto manufacturing.

Obsessed with trade policy and domestic macro-economics, we tend to ignore other economies at home, both legal and illegal. For example, a 1988 estimate put the nation’s underground economy at $380 billion a year, including drugs, prostitution and numbers, various forms of tax dodging and unreported cash-based transactions. Hazel Henderson, author of Creative Alternative Futures, estimated the drug trade at $45 billion alone, almost as great as the sports and auto industries. Writing in the newsletter Green Revolution, Henderson noted:

Business Week points out rightly that this rapidly-growing subterranean economy not only discredits much traditional macro-economic analysis, but also accounts for much of its large error factor in measuring GNP performance, levels of total employment, rates of saving, investment and productivity — all of which are significantly understated.

Similarly, assuming that poor urban communities can be changed only by bringing them into the larger marketplace through such devices as urban renewal or enterprise zones, we have ignored the importance of creating self-reliant economies within these neighborhoods. The economic problem of such communities is not just an absolute lack of money, but what happens to it. Since the War on Poverty, little attention has been given to devices such as community credit unions, cooperatives and community-owned businesses that recycle and leverage money within neighborhoods. The potential is substantial. For example, zip code 20032, one of the poorest in DC, has a per-capita income of $9,039. By American standards that’s not much but it’s greater than the per-capita gross domestic product of Israel and almost as much as Italy and the United Kingdom. The total household income of this one poor neighborhood is $370 million a year. What happens to that $370 million after it gets to the neighborhood is vital to what happens to the people who earn it. At present, much of the $370 million simply flows through the community as though through a sewer.

The self-generating economy has a long history in America. Many of the country’s early communities were largely self-sufficient. This self-sufficiency, however, disappeared with the concentration of industry and land ownership. One study a few years back of the difference between the economics of a typical Ohio farm and that of an Amish farmer in the same state revealed the striking importance of land ownership. The research found that while an Amish farmer was making money on a bushel of corn the conventional farmer was not. Lack of land debt, while not the only reason, was a major factor. In fact, much of what is known as the farm problem is not agricultural at all, but stems from the way we have permitted land ownership to be managed in this country. Many rural communities could be much more self-sustaining if freed from some of their debt burden.

In cities, one can easily find self¬-generating economies although we seldom recognize them as such. The explosion of the legal profession, for example, reflects in no small part the ability of lawyers to create jobs for each other. The whole yuppie phenomenon can be seen as a self ¬generating economy: yuppies creating artificial needs for other yuppies and with some selling and others buying items that fulfill these needs.

There is also the economy that Hazel Henderson calls the counter-economy — the non-monetarized economy — which she says is “still invisible to most economists and policy makers. It is based on. . . altruism, volunteering, community and family cohesiveness, cooperation, sharing, respect for the environment and the rights of future generations, and conservation of all resources — human and natural.” The economic effect of this economy is enormous. For example, the UN’s International Labor Organization, studying the role of women in the non¬monetarized segment of the economy, has reported that women globally work 47 percent of all productive hours, but receive only ten percent of the world’s wages and own only one percent of the property. Orio Giarini, a futurist economist, claims that 80 percent of all the world’s capital investment is not monetarized.

Not only does our infatuation with the Fortune 500 and international trade blind us to our other economies and their contribution to our economic well-being, we often actually work against them. Legislators are prone to write regulatory measures with only big business in mind, ignoring the effects their actions will have on a mom & pop firm. In part this is because the legislators, like many of the activists pressing the measures, have never experienced the problems of running small business or because if they are they are lawyers, they are trained to serve a large corporate bureaucracy that can handle any amount of paper work.

For example, over the past few years my town has lost thousands of jobs through the simple expedient of over-regulating (or over-enforcement of the laws regarding) street vendors, gypsy cabs, artist studios, street performers, interior decorators, and home occupations. It would appear that every time someone thinks of a good way to make money outside of working for a major corporation, a city councilmember comes up with a law to make it as difficult as possible. The result is a reduction in employment, more ‘illegal’ activity and a growing tendency towards concentration in the particular industry involved, since only the most powerful are equipped to deal with the regulatory morass.

Thus the economic space between being homeless and being a junior partner is slowly emptied. Employment choices are limited; innovation and entrepreneurship are penalized; and workstyles are homogenized. That so many choose to ignore the rules and drive their gypsy cabs or run their illegal business from their homes is a tribute to the staying power of American economic initiative, but at some point we should start discussing why this has to be so. A politics of devolution would be the politics of small business, of self-generating economies, of cooperatives and neighborhood or worker owned companies and of other commercial activity that revitalizes and serves communities rather than merely drains them.

Planning for people: Most political, economic and physical planning in this country is done to achieve abstract goals and aggregated results. The problem is that net progress can be, for many, a gross disaster. For example, if a community in one year experiences 100 murders and 110 births it would record a net population increase yet few would cheer the fact. Nonetheless, at the national level we regularly debate issues — NAFTA is a good example — as though the net result renders insignificant any pain created in its achievement.

Such darwinian analysis has been traditionally applied to military adventures; battlefield cemeteries are a monument it. We also long considered the environment only in net terms, until we finally realized that not only had we been adding wrong but that you couldn’t ever really counterbalance destruction. So we began to think ecologically, another way of saying that the means are the end and that there is no free lunch.

Then there is the character of the planners themselves. In The Uses of Disorder, Richard Sennett says of urban planners:

Their impulse has been to give way to that tendency, developed in adolescence, of men to control unknown threats by eliminating the possibility of surprise . . . Buried in this hunger for preplaning along machine-like lines is the desire to avoid pain, to create a transcendent order of living that is immune to the variety, and so to the inevitable conflict, between men.

It is this impulse that drives Ira Magaziner to try to decide every health policy issue while he is still at the White House, that forces citizens into the sterile boxes and spaces of the planned city, and which creates order where the average human would much prefer a little serendipity and freedom.

Although citizens have regularly protested planning that excludes or minimizes their interests, there is not yet a politics aimed at changing the nature of planning itself or that fosters effective citizen counter-planning. That counter-planning can have impact has been demonstrated by such groups as Urban Ecology, whose international conferences on cities have produced far more imaginative and useful ideas than would have come out of HUD or the average city planning office. The Other Economic Summit regularly shows up at meetings of world leaders to witness the existence of an alternative economic reality. Citizen groups sometimes leap ahead of city officials, planning a portion or all of their neighborhood before downtown tells them what it’s going to look like.

But there is still a long way to go. To give just one example, the American city was designed on a couple of premises now widely considered to be not only faulty but anti-social. One was the presumption of clean fuel; the other was the presumption that men would go to work and women would stay home. We separated work from home and men from women and called it the suburban ideal.

Today we attack these presumptions, yet we have not connected our beliefs and our politics to our planning. We do not, for example, design cities that physically reflect the changed role of women. We continue to leave such matters to those we call experts, those trained in the profession that made the mess in the first place. This has to change. The deprofessionalization of planning in all its forms is absolutely essential for a decent politics.

Living together: A politics of devolution — a politics of the manageable — could also offer badly needed alternatives to the ethnic problems that plague us, many of which stem from our forced existence in huge systems that deny us other than group identity.

It’s not polite to say so, but the cause of civil rights is in trouble. Much of this is due to forces over which civil rights activists have little control, such as the rightward drift of both political parties and a growing culture of meanness exacerbated by the country’s economic problems.

Yet the advocates of thirty years ago faced even worst obstacles and still managed to raise an exceptionally powerful, focused, and moral voice on behalf of human justice. Today, instead, we find civil rights laws increasingly enmeshed in arcane legalisms, civil rights politics transferred from the street and the pulpit to the courtroom and the attorneys’ office, a growing if often needless conflict between civil rights and those of free speech, a persistence of deep segregation in places ranging from central cities to Ivy League campuses, administrative excesses by university officials in the name of a diversity constantly proclaimed but rarely achieved, a failure to even discuss discrimination in some of its more virulent forms such as in housing and public transportation, and a sense that the one true commonality flourishing among Americans is that they all feel they’re being screwed.

For multiculturalism to work, there have to be people working for it. For all the talk, the constituency for multiculturalism is surprisingly small. What does exist is an enormous, diverse and growing constituency for implacable jingoistic mono-culturalisms. Yugoslavia on the installment plan.

Relying on the law as our offense and defense, preferring litigation to negotiation, indifferent to the intercultual relations we claim to want, unskilled and apathetic in dealing with the practicalities of diversity, and stymied by mutual self-righteousness, multiculturalism may turn out to be far less pleasant condition than many of its advocates imagine, a place not of peace and justice but only of more hate, violence and lawsuits.

As long as the scale in which we function is so immense that we can only recognize each other by our ethnic channel number, by our ethnic ID, there is not much hope. Trapped in our large systems we not only make broad assumption based on sex and ethnicity, we become obsessed with the very distinctions we claim shouldn’t matter. For example, our laws against discriminatory practices inevitably heighten general consciousness of race and sex. The media, drawn inexorably to conflict, mentions race five times as often as taxes in covering urban politics according to one study. And the very groups that have suffered under racial or sexual stereotypes consciously foster countering stereotypes as a form of protection.

If humans were truly moral, the concept of race wouldn’t even exist. It has no biological, and only a limited taxonomic, justification, serving largely as an excuse for one group of humans to do harm to another. Still, our desire to separate ourselves from those unlike us is much deeper than we are willing to admit. As Ruth Benedict pointed out, a great many tribal names mean simply “the human beings. ” Outside the tribe are no human beings. “We are not,” she surmised, “likely to clear ourselves easily of so fundamental a human trait.”

Once we accept the unpleasant persistence of human prejudice, once we give up the notion that it is merely social deviance controllable by sanctions, we drift away from a priggish and puritanical corrective approach towards one that emphasizes techniques of mitigating harm, towards what Andrew Young has called a sense of “no fault justice” and towards emphasizing countervailing human qualities that can serve as antibiotics against hate and fear. We move from being victims to being survivors. We start to deal with some of the real problems of creating a multicultural community; we actually start to envision it, to build it not on false politeness but upon realistic interdependence.

Such communities, the sine qua non of a functioning America, will not be constructed by laws, pronouncements from deans of freshmen or civil rights leaders. Nor can we continue to treat multiculturalism like some overbearing parent saying to her toddler, “Now go make friends with that nice Nancy.’ It didn’t work when we were six and it’s not working much better now.

Multicultural communities will be constructed not by the hustlers of the diversity trade but by a growing local and personal regard for common sense, fairness and, yes, reasonable self interest. The new multicultural community will work because it is jointly and severally proud of itself, leaving behind the self-hate that so often accompanies the hatred of others. It will work because there are adequate jobs for people of every group — thus eliminating one of the primary causes of ethnic triage, and it will work because our educational system will teach not a prudish diversity but simply the way the world really is, which among other things, is very diverse. Our children will learn to enjoy and incorporate this diversity and as they do so will undoubtedly find it odd that their elders couldn’t get any closer to the matter than a rigid and legalistic sensitivity.

Perhaps this is why ethnic restaurants are among the most successful practitioners of multiculturalism in America. Why is it so hard for universities to deal with multicultural issues while the Arab carry-out across from my office offers a “kosher hoagie?” It is, in part, because most of us are like Bismarck who said when offered German champagne that his patriotism stopped at his stomach. It is also that the ethnic restaurant offers a fair multicultural deal: a good living for the owner in return for good food for the patrons.

For multiculturalism to work, we need a willing suspension of our politics as well as the creation of places where this can happen, both neutral places and places where we can participate in another culture that will leave us feeling that something good has happened. Outside of restaurants and ethnic nightclubs, this is now rarely available in America. We are not taught the pleasures of diversity, only its problems and burdens. We are seldom invited to enjoy other cultures, only to be sensitive towards them and — unspoken — to feel sorry for them. Thus, inevitably, we tend to think of multiculturalism in terms of conflict and crisis.

The restaurant analogy is not trivial. Political scientist Milton L. Rakove, credits Irish dominance in Chicago partially to the fact that the Irish ran saloons that “became centers of social and political activity not only for the Irish but also for the Polish, Lithuanian, Bohemian and Italian immigrants. . . As a consequence of their control of these recreational centers of the neighborhoods, the Irish saloon keepers and bartenders became the political counselors of their customers, and the political bosses of the wards and, eventually, of the city.” As one politician put it, “A Lithuanian won’t vote for a Pole, and a Pole won’t vote for a Lithuanian. A German won’t vote for either of them — but all three will vote for an Irishman.”

Cutting the cost of the middle: Government programs have come to contain enormous hidden subsidies for various intermediaries. Give a government grant to an academic researcher and the university takes 30-50% off the top. Give a college student a loan and it has to be funneled through financial institutions that skim a piece of the action. Give someone national health insurance under the Clinton plan and big insurance companies will take their cut. Want to bail out a failing industry? Don’t put up government equity, just guarantee credit so that banks can make risk-free loans.

Sometimes the superfluous middle is right on the government payroll. Many liberals cling to the notion that federal housing funds are used for housing, agriculture funds for farmers and so forth. In fact, an extraordinary percentage of these moneys are used to maintain a superstructure to carry out poor housing policy or bad farm policy. A basic principle of a devolutionary politics should instead be to get the money to the streets (or to the farms) as quickly — and with as few intermediaries — as possible.

The Clinton educational loan program is an excellent example of how this goal can be achieved. Yet the same White House took precisely the opposite approach on health care; its plan includes an enormous subsidy of the big insurers. Meanwhile, neither major party shows any interest in direct assistance for housing — such as a shared equity program — preferring instead elaborate policies that quietly and effectively funnel aid to various housing and financial interests.

Seizing the time: Finally, a politics of devolution would demand the freedom and time to practice it. As one activist artist told me, “you don’t have time to organize anything in this economy.” Barbara Brandt of the Shorter Work-Time Group of Women for Economic Justice notes that the time that men and women are spending at work has actually increased over the past 20 years. And Time wrote that “When Arlie Hochchild studied working couples in the San Francisco area . . . she found that ‘a lot of people talked about sleep. They talked about sleep the way a hungry person talks about food.’”

Shorter-work week advocates like Brandt, Harvard economist Juliet Schor, Eugene McCarthy, Benjamin Hunnicutt and William McGaughey, are on the cusp of a major revolution, one that challenges not only political and economic concentration but tyranny over time. The 12-18 hour workday was, after all, the product of the industrial revolution. As that revolution is replaced by whatever is happening to us now, our archaic allocation of time must be examined as well. And not merely the time Americans spend on the job. Time can also be a hidden form of inflation as when jobs and shops are moved further from one’s home or one is forced to wait longer for service in a store. In each such case, someone benefits financially by the time you are forced to waste.

The shorter work-week is not only crucial for economic and psychological reasons and to more fairly distribute jobs and income, it also would allow a shift in our cultural priorities. We would once again — as was the case through most of human history — be able to consider the needs of our communities and families as part of our “work” and not something we are always too tired or too important or too busy to do.

Even if many Americans do not understand the relationship of time to their other concerns, corporate America clearly does. Brandt quotes a 1990 survey of 200 CEOs, more than half of whom said they expected their managerial employees to work an average of 50-59 hours a week in order for their companies to compete internationally In another survey, 300 leading CEOs were overwhelmingly negative to the idea of a shorter workweek. Said one: “I cannot imagine a shorter work week. I can imagine a longer one both in school and at work if America is to be competitive in the first half of the next century.”


Coming home

These are just a few examples of how a politics of devolution might begin to come about. Such a politics is needed if for no other reason than it is our best defense against the increasing authoritarianism of government, the monopolization of economic activity, the dictatorship of time and the regimentation of human behavior. It is also needed because, without it, politics becomes little more than a choice between two increasingly interchangeable propaganda machines.

In the 1960s, Robert McNamara declared, “Running any large organization is the same, whether it’s the Ford Motor Company, the Catholic Church or the Department of Defense. Once you get to a certain scale, they’re all the same.”

And so, increasingly to our detriment, they are. In 1993 we “changed” administrations, but, unless challenged by a new politics, this will largely leave unchanged that which is administered. We must learn and teach, and make a central part of our politics, that while small is not always beautiful, it has — for our human ecology, our liberties, and our souls — become absolutely essential.


Politics, of course, is not a neat place. A young legislator once asked Earl Long whether ideals had any place in politics. “Hell yes,” said Ol’ Earl, “you should use ideals or any other damn thing you can get your hands on.”

Politics is the sound of the air coming out of the balloon of our expectations and it is the music of hope. Vaclav Havel says that genuine politics is “simply a matter of serving those around us, serving the community, and serving those who will come after us. ” James Michael Curley put it this way: “Wherever I have found a thistle, I endeavored to replace it with a rose.”

Politics is laundry lists and dirty laundry, new hospitals and old hates, finding out what others think about it, and the willing suspension of our closest beliefs in order to get through the next month or year. It is, suggested one writer, a matter of who gets what, when, where, and how. Not least, as Paul Begala says, “it is show business for ugly people,” a theater in which each voter and candidate writes a different morality play.

In the end, the only test of political faith is when it is put to work. It is a test that is graded on a curve — not by its proximity to perfection but by its improvement over all previous, adjacent and potential imperfections. Havel says that “It is not true that a person of principle does not belong in politics; it is enough for his principles to be leavened with patience, deliberation, a sense of proportion, and an understanding of others.” This is the part of politics that doesn’t appear in any platform. Done badly, it becomes demagoguery and manipulation. Done well it makes every voter a part of the office the politician holds. It is a standard to which every person in office, including our presidents, can be held.


We started by talking a lot about Bill Clinton, but as we got closer to what was really bothering us, he began to fade. Like much of the American system today, what he has to say keeps wandering from what is in our hearts. It is a curious thing to think of someone so powerful, but when you come right down to it, Bill Clinton is often, well, irrelevant. As a conscious, sometimes manic and often not very skilled reflection of our desires, he is in the end mostly waiting for us to tell him what to do.

We don’t usually give ourselves credit for such power, but it is there whether we choose to use it or not. If we choose, we can move empires. John Adams understood this. The American Revolution, he said, “was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people . . . This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.”

This book has been about reviving our rights before, as Jefferson put it, they expire in convulsion, about recovering our democracy before it is “reinvented” beyond recognition. It has been, in a sense, a letter from the battlefront of the American dream, part of the endless conversation and debate that keeps democracy from becoming something else.

I have offered a few suggestions but no panaceas. That’s all right, because the moment democracy is safe from its own destruction it is no longer a democracy. As Eugene Debs told his followers, he would not lead them to the promised land because if he could, someone else could lead them out again.

We can not be free if we turn our politics over to Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ross Perot, Pat Buchannan or Rush Limbaugh. And we can not be free without risking failure. The walls that we have increasingly built around ourselves in the name of safe streets, economic security, or acceptable speech, merely isolate us further from that which we profess to seek.

Finally, we can not be free if we can not retrieve the part of politics that once made it a natural, integral and pleasurable part of our lives, and if it now becomes so distant or so dirty or so cruel that we would rather not even think or speak about it. Someone else, to our great danger, will fill our silence.


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