Saving America from the bottom up

Sam Smith – If you look at just the big figures, it’s not pretty. For example, back in 1999 71% of Americans were satisfied with the way things were going in this country. That number is now down to 21%. Last year a Pew Research poll found that 81% of those 65 or older thought American was the greatest or one of the greatest countries in the world. For those 18 to 29 that number is down to 58%.   

These judgement are made, in no small part, on the success or failure of major institutions in our country such as in business, politics, media, entertainment and education. Thanks to our hyper powerful media, these have become the ones that have defined us. The importance of communities and other smaller assemblages of humans is given much less attention. Yet if you list the human groups that have most positively affected your life it’s likely to be the much smaller ones.

Over the past few decades, America has dramatically changed, most strikingly in its increasing surrender to the power of corporations and the politicians they have purchased. Among the damage is a lessened understanding of the potential power of local organizations and action. We seem to have forgotten that the civil rights, anti-war, environmental, women’s and marijuana movements all got started by efforts from the bottom up. 

As one who initially got involved in civic matters in the 1960s I find the current situation not only gruesome but far more difficult to overcome. Under today’s mass culture, if you seek decency from power you not only fail to achieve things, you are heavily distracted from approaches that might actually work.

The problem goes back a long way. In the small Maine town where I now live, the power of individual was once so strong that there was, some years back, a serious effort to prevent a town council replacing town meetings at which any resident could take part.

Even in large cities, there has been a huge change. For example, In 1816, Columbus, Ohio had one city councilman for every hundred residents. By 1840 the figure was one per thousand; by 1872 it was one per five thousand; one hundred years later it was one per 55,000.

We Americans are biologically and socially human beings. We are not bureaucracies, institutions, or public relations experts machines. To rely on the latter is, on a grander scale, not unlike parents turning the raising of their children over to some caretaker. We have surrendered much of our capacity for the intelligent, democratic and communal to external institutions that lack the capacity or desire to act as well as good human beings.

We can either let this trend continue or revive the sort of movements that change things from the bottom up. I learned about this in the 1960s not only by being part of organizartions causing national change thanks to local action but neighborhood groups like one we had on Capitol Hill in DC called the Emergency Recreation Council which helped produce not only more play space for kids but an indoor swimming pool that still exits and saved a farmer’s market the city wanted to get rid of.  

Part of the secret behind such efforts is that they are seen not as institutional or political but serving the needs of individuals, starting with those who know and live near each other.

Here are some ways we could revive the local and, in the process, help turn America back to some better days:

I was glad to have participated in a politics that was conscientious, unassuming and productive, the kind you get when you keep politicians within walking distance of their constituents. The kind you get when pressure is neighbors demanding you vote against a license for an Irish bar when you’d rather be in it, when a special interest group is a bunch of irate tennis players, when you know you’ve made a mistake because the guy across the street tells you, and when the whole business is treated not as a career for a few individuals, but an institution for everyone.

This may seem overly optimistic, but I have lived most of my life in three communities – two urban and one small town – where the local has had a strikingly high precedence in the way residents view other and their own life. And it works.