The issue that’s killing the left

Sam Smith


Rasmussen Reports has come out with a fascinating poll that goes a long way towards explaining why not only liberals are doing so badly, but the left in general, the Democratic Party and Barack Obama. Here’s what the poll found:

– Forty-three percent of U.S. voters rate the performance of their local government as tops compared to its counterparts on the state and federal level.

– Nineteen percent say state government is better than the other two.

– Just 14% think the federal government does a better job.

– And 25% aren’t sure.

– Fifty-six percent of all voters believe the federal government has too much influence over state government. Only 12% percent say the federal government doesn’t have enough influence over states, and another 26% say the balance is about right.

This is a huge matter that Democrats and progressives don’t even discuss, yet helps to create the sort of popular anger that has developed over the past year. Nearly two thirds of the voters think state and local governments are better than the federal version.

There are two ironies in this:

– The Democrats could do everything they should be doing – only far better – if they simply paid more attention to the level and manner it is done.

– Those expressing outrage at what the Democrats are doing think the level and manner is the same as its underlying virtue and thus end up opposing programs that would serve them well. And so they serve the interests of the very centralized authority they think they are opposing.

Neither side seems able to separate the question of what needs to be done from who should, and how to, do it. The liberals think it can only be done at the federal level which leads conservatives to conclude it shouldn’t be done at all.

Liberals are afraid to criticize big government because they think it makes them sound like Republicans. In fact, the idea of devolution — having government carried out at the lowest practical level — dates back at least to that good Democrat, Thomas Jefferson. Even FDR managed to fight the depression with a staff smaller than Hillary Clinton’s and World War II with one smaller than Al Gore’s. Conservative columnist William Safire admitted that “in a general sense, devolution is a synonym for ‘power sharing,’ a movement that grew popular in the sixties and seventies as charges of ‘bureaucracy’ were often leveled at centralized authority.” In other words, devolution used to be in the left’s bag.

The modern liberals’ embrace of centralized authority makes them vulnerable to the charge that their politics is one of intentions rather than results — symbolized by huge agencies like the Department of Housing & Urban Development that fail miserably to produce policies worthy of their name.

Still stuck back in the states’ rights controversy over integration, liberals fail to see how often states and localities move ahead of the federal government. Think, for example, of where gays would be if there were no local laws to help them.

As late as 1992, the one hundred largest localities in America pursued an estimated 1,700 environmental crime prosecutions, more than twice the number of such cases brought by the federal government in the previous decade. As Washington was vainly struggling to get a handle on the tobacco industry, 750 communities passed indoor no-smoking laws. And, more recently, we have had the local drive towards relaxing anti-marijuana laws and the major local and state outcry against the Real ID act.

Conservatives, on the other hand, often confuse the devolution of government with its destruction. Thus while the liberals are underachieving, the conservatives are undermining.

The question must be repeatedly asked of new and present policies: how can these programs be brought close to the supposed beneficiaries, the citizens? And how can government money go where it’s supposed to go?

Because such questions are not asked often enough, we find huge disparities in the effectiveness of federal programs. For example, both Social Security and Medicare work well with little overhead. In such programs, the government serves primarily as a redistribution center for tax revenues.

On the other hand, an environmentalist who ran a weatherization program once told me that she figured it cost $30,000 in federal and local overhead for each $1600 in weather-proofing provided a low income home.

A study of Milwaukee County in 1988 found government agencies spending more than $1 billion annually on fighting poverty. If this money had been given in cash to the poor, it would have meant more than $33,000 for each low income family — well above the poverty level.

The problem is not just with traditional liberals. My fellow Green Party members – heavily decentralist in many ways – fail to see the possibility for new alliances with others if the devolutionary principle were raised in a more visible and universal fashion. Similarly, localism is quite popular among environmentalists, but it only seems to apply to growing food and not to saving democracy.

And now we have a Democratic president who has, in one short year, managed to mangle two of the issues his party used to be good at – heath care and reviving the economy – in no small part because of an assumption that he and his grad school retinue are far better equipped to decide how to do it all than, say, the mayor of Cleveland or the state legislature of Montana.

The end result is that his programs have failed and the underlying policies have unfairly gotten a bad name.

How much saner it would be to recognize the desire of people to share not only in the benefits, but in the exercise, of power and adjust one’s policies to reflect this.

The point here is not to argue any particular solution, but to say that the ever increasing centralization of decisions at the federal level – thanks to both major parties – is a fundamental cause of both our problems and the anger about them.

As I wrote some time back, “What works so well in the manufacture of a Ford Taurus — efficiency of scale and mass production — fails to work in social policy because, unlike a Taurus, humans think, cry, love, get distracted, criticize, worry or don’t give a shit. Yet we keep acting as though such traits don’t exist or don’t matter. We have come to accept the notion that the enormous institutions of government, media, industry and academia are natural to the human condition and then wonder why they don’t work better than they do. In fact, as ecological planner Ernest Callenbach 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.'”

It’s time for liberals and progressives to bring their politics down to the ‘hood. They’d be surprised at the friends they would make.

SAM SMITH, PROGRESSIVE REVIEW, 1993 – A couple of summers ago at the annual convention of the longtime liberal group, Americans for Democratic Action, I proposed a resolution on the decentralization of power. Here’s a portion:

|||| There is growing evidence that old ideological conflicts such as between left and right, and between capitalism and communism, are becoming far less important as the world confronts the social and economic results of a century marked by increasing concentration of power in countries of widely varying political persuasion. A new ideology is rising, the ideology of devolution — the decentralization of power. Already it 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. . .

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. Government has many beneficial functions it can perform, but these can only be achieved when the government itself is structured so as to reflect — and not thwart — the will of the people.

Therefore we embrace the devolutionary spirit of the times and, recognizing that the ideology of scale must now be considered as carefully as the ideology of liberal and conservative, we urge that this nation begin devolving power back to the people — that we correct a decades-long course which has too often led to increasingly centralized power with increasingly ineffective and undemocratic results. To this end, we propose the following critical issues to fellow liberals and progressives to consider, debate and act upon while there is still time to reverse the authoritarian course of the American government:

– How do we end the growing concentration of power in the presidency and return to the tripartite system of government intended by the Constitution? How can Congress reassert its constitutional role in the federal government?

– How do we prevent federal government green-mail of the states — the granting or withholding of federal funds to force state legislation — from being used as a way around the powers constitutionally granted the states?

– How can we decentralize federal agencies to the state and local level?

– How do we create a new respect for state and local rights? The bitter struggle to establish the federal government’s primacy in the protection of civil rights of all its citizens has been used far too long as an excuse to concentrate all forms of power in Washington. That legal battle has been won. We must now recognize the importance of state and local government in creative, responsive governance and not continue to assume that good government can only come from within the Beltway.

– How do we reduce restrictions on federal funds granted states and localities in order to foster imaginative local application of those funds and to prevent the sort of federal abuse apparent, for example, in restrictions on family planning advice?

– How do we encourage — including funding — neighborhood government in our cities so that the people most affected by the American urban disaster can try their own hand at rebuilding their communities?

The principle that all government should be devolved to the lowest practical level should be raised to its proper primacy in the progressive agenda. We cannot overstate the peril involved in continuing to concentrate governmental power in the federal executive.|||||

The resolution proved too much for the traditional liberals of ADA and the resolution was roundly defeated in committee. Many voters, however, have divined the problem of excessive scale while remaining, unsurprisingly, confused as to what to do about it. False prophets on the right tout a phony “empowerment,” The media muddles the matter with its usual in-depth cliches. What is lacking is not devolutionary theory, nor grand schemes, nor useful experiments, but rather a practical progressive politics of devolution. We need to apply our theories and our experience to the every day politics of ordinary citizens. If we do, I think we will surprise ourselves and others in a discovery of where the American mainstream really flows.

Here, for starters, are a few suggestions of devolutionary issues progressives could press:

– Public schools: In the sixties there was a strong movement for community control of the schools. Because it came largely from minority communities and because the majority was not adequately distressed about public education it faltered.

– Neighborhood government: Real neighborhood government would not be merely advisory as is the case with Washington DC’s neighborhood commissions. It would include the power to sue the city government, to incorporate, to run its own programs, to contract to provide those of 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 create the “small republics,” that Jefferson dreamed of, autonomous 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.”

– States’ rights: While maintaining federal preeminence in fields such as civil rights, progressives should be strong advocates of states’ rights on issues not properly the federal government’s business such as raising the drinking age or the 55 mph speed limit. Such advocacy would help to form new coalitions and stir up the ideological pot. In particular, progressives should oppose the use of federal green-mail — forcing states and localities to take 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.”

– Federal spending: In an important and necessary break with liberal thinking, progressives should become advocates of a much smaller federal government by pressing for the direct distribution of funds to the state and local level. Whatever problems of malfeasance or nonfeasance may result, they are almost guaranteed to be less than the misuse of these funds at the federal level. As Congress’ own auditor, Comptroller General Charles Bowsher, recently told a hearing that “there are hardly any [federal] agencies that are well managed.” The flaw in liberal thinking is 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. The basic principle should be to get the money to the streets or the farms as quickly — and with as few intermediaries — as possible.

Further, progressives should challenge the presumption that the feds know best. At the present time, 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.

– Small business: Many progressives act as though an economy isn’t necessary. It would pay great dividends if the progressive agenda included support for small businesses. Small businesses generate an extraordinary number of new jobs. Further, small business is where many of the values of the progressive movement can be best expressed in an economic context. While ideally many of these businesses should be cooperatives, even within the strictures of conventional capitalism they offer significant advantages over the mega-corporation. Writing in the New York Times, brokerage firm president Muriel Siebert said recently: “Unlike monolithic Fortune 500 companies, small businesses behave like families. [A study] indicated that one reason for the durability of businesses owned by women is the value they place on their workers. It showed that small businesses hold on to workers through periods when revenues decline. Rather than eliminate workers, they tend to cut other expenses, including their own salaries. . . Nearly half of the workers laid off by large companies have to swallow pay reductions when they find new full-time work; two out of three work for at least 20 percent less money than before.” As Jon Rowe says of Korean family-run groceries, “a family operates on loyalty and trust, the market operates on contract and law.”

– Decentralizing the federal government: There are a number of federal agencies that are already quite decentralized. Interestingly, these agencies are among those most often praised. The National Park Service, the Peace Corps, the Coast Guard, 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 them gripe about their own mail carrier, who is given a finite 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, with many of the officers concentrated on larger ships and in headquarters units. Thus there were scores of units run by enlisted personnel who rarely saw an officer. The system worked extremely well. It worked because, once 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. As with education, a bureaucracy in such circumstances can do itself far more good than it can do anyone in the field.

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, yet the Peace Corps became one of the most popular federal programs in recent times. Can the success of these decentralized agencies be replicated, say, in housing or urban development? Why not give it a try? If federal housing moneys were distributed by 50 state directors who were given considerable leeway in the mix of policies they could fund and approve, we would, for starters, begin to have a better idea of which programs work and which don’t.

– Raising the issue: Every policy and piece of legislation should be subjected to evaluation not only according to the old rules of right and left but according to the ideology of scale. We must constantly be asking not only whether what is proposed is right, but whether it is being done at the right level of society’s organization.

These are just a few examples of how a politics of devolution might begin to develop. It is needed if for no other reason than it is our best defense against the increasing authoritarianism of the federal government and the monopolization of economic activity. It is also needed because, without it, democracy becomes little more than a choice between alternative 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 the certain scale, they’re all the same.” And so, increasingly to our detriment, they are. We must learn and teach, and make a central part of our politics, that while small is not always beautiful, it has — for our ecology, our liberties, and our souls — become absolutely essential.

WIKI ON: SUBSIDIARITY – Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. . . Subsidiarity is, ideally or in principle, one of the features of federalism, where it asserts the rights of the parts over the whole.

The word subsidiarity is derived from the Latin word subsidiarius and has its origins in Catholic social teaching. The concept or principle is found in several constitutions around the world (for example, the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which asserts States rights).

It is presently best known as a fundamental principle of European Union law. According to this principle, the EU may only act (i.e. make laws) where action of individual countries is insufficient. . . .

The present formulation is contained in Article 5(2) of the Treaty on European Union:

“In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community.”

SUBSIDIARITY IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH – The principle of subsidiarity was first developed by German theologian Oswald von Nell-Breuning. . . . Functions of government, business, and other secular activities should be as local as possible. If a complex function is carried out at a local level just as effectively as on the national level, the local level should be the one to carry out the specified function. The principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual, and holds that all other forms of society, from the family to the state and the international order, should be in the service of the human person. . .

“Positive subsidiarity”, which is the ethical imperative for communal, institutional or governmental action to create the social conditions necessary to the full development of the individual, such as the right to work, decent housing, health care, etc., is another important aspect of the subsidiarity principle.

The principle of subsidiarity was developed in the encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, as an attempt to articulate a middle course between laissez-faire capitalism on the one hand and the various forms of communism, which subordinate the individual to the state, on the other. .

Local democracy as well as local lettuce

Sam Smith, 2009

Voting for the first time in Maine, I have had the pleasure of another first: an election in which 50-70 percent of voters in my town agreed with me on six out of seven referenda (including supporting gay marriage). There was one city council member running unopposed and I haven’t heard yet about the three slots on the sewer district, but I took the advice of an old friend (and a Republican) on that one so it doesn’t really count.

The fact that I got to vote for who was on the sewer district, however, does count. After all I spent some four decades in Washington DC, trying to convince people that we should have an elected attorney general and comptroller and only now has a bill for the former been submitted to Congress. Submitted to Congress because DC is still a colony of the U.S. and the world’s greatest democracy doesn’t want its capital deciding for itself whether to have an elected attorney general.

The other evening I got another taste for what local democracy felt like. I attended a meeting concerning an alternative agricultural center whose manure runoff during the wettest summer in Maine history had helped cause the nearby clam flats to be closed.

The farm (with which I’ve been long involved) quickly removed cattle from the area and took other corrective steps; the meeting was about where to go from here. There were representatives from three state agencies, the local shellfish commission, the local clamming and oyster trade, the farm, not to mention the clam warden. It was all chaired by the head of the town council.

I calculated that attendance – around 50 – represented approximately six percent of the population of the town. In DC this would have meant a crowd of 3500, something I never saw. Secondly, in my former home the issue would have likely become highly controversial and full of superfluous rhetoric. I had been a neighborhood commissioner there and worked my way through problems like this and it wasn’t fun.

But the participants at the Freeport meeting made rational arguments and proposals, listened to the others present, were clearly interested in facts, and sought to find a solution that worked for everyone, both clammers and coastal farm. It was an extremely complicated issue including when and how the water sampling is done, identifying the cause of variations, relative fecal contamination of wild and domesticated animals, shifts in animal location, length of stay in that location, and geography of location.

By the end of the evening, both interests had joined to pressure the Department of Marine Resources to open the flats sooner than they had planned.

I mentioned to a friend afterwards that maybe we should send the whole lot down to Washington to work out a solution on the healthcare bill.

It was also nice, I thought, to be talking sensibly about real manure rather than, as during most of my life, ranting about the fake stuff that is spread so wantonly in Washington.

On election day, the one issue where I was in the minority concerned school consolidation. The state, inspired by the bureaucratic obsessives at the Brookings Institution, had required school districts to consolidate. A number didn’t like it for good reason: for example, it would cost money or the districts were too far apart. For more than fifty years, America has been consolidating school districts and the main effect has been to replace educators with bureaucrats and wardens,

But while Freeport voters supported the consolidation with a 62% majority, 79% of Pownal voters, the next town over – and ordered to consolidate with us at a considerable increase in expense – rejected the plan. Since the plan survived statewide, Freeport won and Pownal lost. It’s a hell of a way to start a relationship.

But it is part of the bureaucratic myth that we are all the same as long as the data says so.

The clamflat meeting – arranged within the community – and the school consolidation – imposed from outside – reflect the difference between what John McKnight called associations vs. institutions:

“The structure of institutions is a design established to create control of people. On the other hand, the structure of associations is the result of people acting through consent.”

Here are some of the characteristics McKnight found among associations in contrast to institutions:

– Interdependency. “If the local newspaper closes, the garden club and the township meeting will each diminish as they lose a voice.”

– Community is built around a recognition of fallibility rather than the ideal.

– Community groups are better at finding a place for everyone.

– Associations can respond quickly since they lack the bureaucracy of large institutions.

– Associations engage in non-hierarchical creativity.

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the importance of localizing food. It makes excellent sense but a question keeps coming to mind: why lettuce and not democracy?

One of my big disappointments in politics has been the indifference of liberals – the sort who boost local food – with keeping democracy close to home as well. They often talk about it as though it was some sort of holdover from the states’ rights days of segregation.

A growing number of people who identify with new liberalism see themselves as experts and take it for granted that the wisest decisions will be made at the top and then passed down as regulations.

These decisions – like school consolidation – tend to rely on data that wipes out the normal variations of human existence. This data turns judgment into an indentured servant instead of just informing it.

Thus we have a stimulus package that creates innumerable obstacles for state and local government, an education plan that wipes out the very system that taught America to be what it became, and a healthcare plan that absolutely no one understands.

Until we rediscover the value of community, it will only get worse. We will find ourselves increasingly, as Bill Mauldin once put it, fugitives from the law of averages.

Propelled by the rapacious ambitions of their members, neither national party cares about this. But then they don’t care about local food either and that didn’t stop that movement from coming to life. Our goal should be to bring democracy, as well as our lettuce, as close to home as possible.

Bringing democracy to the ‘hood

Sam Smith

WASHINGTON’S advisory neighborhood commissions came out of a time that seems distant today, a time before 9/11, George Bush, the closing of DC’s public hospital and the socio-ethnic cleansing of DC.

Sure, we were still recovering from the riots, but the very word ‘recover’ – one you don’t hear much today – implied that there was a least a chance you would. The writer Dorothy Allison described the spirit of the times: “I had the idea that if you took America and shook it really hard it would do the right thing.”

And so you proposed all sorts of new ideas and just talking about them made you feel hopeful. Central to a lot the talk was devolution – the idea that people could control things better if they were brought down to the local level. We tend to forget this now, but back then, decentralization and community power were important progressive ideas.

I wrote about them a lot in the 1960s and suggested that Washington needed neighborhood councils with members representing small districts that would get to approve the local police commander, help direct the schools, set up a neighborhood development corporation and so forth.

In the early 1970s, those of us in the new DC Statehood Party added the idea to our platform. We wanted:

– Neighborhood authorities and neighborhood housing banks

· Elected neighborhood legislative councils and neighborhood executives with power over selection of neighborhood police officials, selection of neighborhood school superintendent, school site selection and proposed roads.

· Community control of the schools

Then, as sometimes happens with ideas, something happened. Don Frasier, a progressive member of Congress from Minneapolis – where they already had advisory neighborhood commissions – added the plan to the DC home rule bill then under consideration.

It wasn’t well received by the local powers that wannatobe. Walter Washington, Walter Fauntroy and others who were in line to personally benefit from home rule weren’t happy to see some of their pending power being distributed to others. Someone – we never found out who – even snuck in a change in the Senate version of the bill that would have required a majority of all registered voters in the city – and not just those coming to vote that day – in order for the ANC referendum to be approved. Fortunately this con was caught in time.

The home rule bill was passed and the ANC referendum easily approved but the legislation had not fully defined the nature and power of the commissions. That was to be left to the new city government.

A group of us formed a citizens lobby for proposed rules under which the ANCs would function. At one meeting, someone suggested that the commissions’ views be given “great weight” by the city government.

“What does that term mean,” asked a lawyer.

“Damned if I know,” I replied, “but let’s put it in and find out.”

As luck would have it, the court case deciding what it meant would come out of my district and I would be one of the plaintiffs. It was a tough one for me for not only did it force me to betray my roots – it involved an Irish bar – but one of the owners, the bar’s lawyer and all of the complaining petitioners lived in my district. I had tried to get them all together but it didn’t work. In the end, the court handed down a decision on “great weight” that favored the commissions.

My own election had been somewhat problematical. It was the city’s first home rule vote and the ballots were being counted in the ballroom of the Shoreham Hotel. Some of them had already fallen off a pick-up truck on their way and were lost.

My wife was holding a Sunday School meeting that evening and I told her I thought I’d go to the Shoreham to watch the count. “Don’t you think you’re taking this a bit too seriously?” she asked. She had a point. My only opposition had been an older man who had hardly campaigned and, besides, I had seen scores of my friends come to the precinct.

When the morning count was finished, I was stunned. My opponent was ahead by a 7 to 1 margin. I got up my nerve and went to see Norval Perkins, the genial head of the Board of Elections, to ask for a recount. He shrugged and added my name to his growing list. Then I went and found where they were counting the afternoon votes and when they were finished I had won by a 4 to one margin. I went back to Norval and pointed out the dichotomy. “Well, Sam” he said, “it just looks like you have more afternoon than morning friends.”

As it turned out, all my morning votes had been accidentally given to my opponent and I now knew what Chicago politicians meant when they said “watch the count.” The point was reiterated the next morning with a Washington Post story saying that my district had gotten more votes than any in the city. The strange thing was that the numbers didn’t add up. Back at the Board of Elections I discovered they had added my correct morning and evening counts to the incorrect morning count. I now really knew what “watch the count” meant.

Our new commission worked remarkably well considering that all of us were playing it by ear. We made some simple rules that helped. For example, we would only deal with local issues. That way our national and citywide issue conflicts wouldn’t ruin our meetings.

And we also developed some good habits, such as retiring to the Zebra Room to debrief over drinks after each meeting. We accepted our differences and played by the rules, remained friends, and it all worked pretty well.

I was named chair of the education, recreation, and agriculture committee. I added that last term because we had the largest community garden in DC. Soon I wished I hadn’t because a big dispute developed over how long people should retain their garden rights on public land. I proposed what I thought was a modest seven years but the gardeners saw that proposal as the moral equivalent of eminent domain.

I had more luck with the Great Hearst Playground Dispute. A hundred and fifty tennis players came to me with a petition to have a backboard constructed at Hearst playground. Knee jerk politician that I was, I successfully pressed for the backboard. The Rec Department, however, constructed the backboard without consulting anyone and made a huge cinderblock wall that blocked some of the neighbors’ view of the playground. Next thing I knew, there was a petition from 150 neighbors wanting the backboard removed.

The matter was ultimately resolved during a five hour meeting with the Rec Department and disputing parties. I proposed that a new backboard be placed at a 90 degree angle so it didn’t block anyone’s view. Geometry worked where politics had failed.

I was overwhelmed with problems, some solvable, many not. I had far less clout that many residents thought but I worked overtime to conceal the fact. This didn’t help. Their expectations just seemed to mount.

As I looked around the city things weren’t going as well as I had hoped. For one thing, the rules the city council had passed deliberately restricted the councils’ power: no incorporation, no spending of public funds in joint projects with other commissions and so forth.

From the beginning, and to this day, the city government considered the ANCs to be an annoyance to be controlled more than to be included. I had argued from the start that our prime goal should be to take the “A” out of ANC. . . to make these bodies functioning units of government rather than merely advisory. Instead they were dismissed by the media and co-opted by politicians and bureaucrats until only the bravest and most self-reliant commissions dared to act as the law had envisioned.

From the start in 1974, city officials began to set up bureaucratic and fiscal hurdles for the fledgling commissions to jump over and they adopted the view that the ANCs were just another part of the city government. At workshops and in regulations, they treated the ANCs as subservient and ancillary. Many commissioners, unschooled in either ANC history, law, or politics accepted this more menial role without question. They also accepted the gross and widespread falsehood that ANCs were banned from meeting with one another. In fact, the law only prohibited them from spending city money to do so.

Instead of seeing themselves as a sleeping giant — a grassroots political system that could actually be run from the grassroots — the ANCs tolerated a lesser role.

This subservience continues to today.

The situation has not been helped by gentrification. There are unhappy reports of ethnic and cultural conflicts being played out in commissions just as elsewhere.

We seem to have forgotten how to share space with others. For example in one part of town we have churchgoers mad at a gay bar and gentrifiers mad at churchgoers’ double-parked cars. As a heterosexual agnostic I have no money on this race, but I know the answer is most likely to come when both sides accept the notion of reciprocal liberty – that we can’t be free to do what we want unless we grant others a similar right. Out of such an attitude can come, for example, valet parking on Sundays and a hefty contribution to a local rec center by the gay bar.

ANCs can be important at such times or they can add to the conflict. It’s one of the many choices their members have to make.

ANCs are still a sleeping giant. Don’t believe what city hall tells you about what they can and can’t do. They can do almost anything if they do it the right way.

For example, the chairs in a ward could get together each month at someone’s house and share what their commissions agree about. If they have differences, forget them for the time being. Look for the unity and then let your councilmember, school board member, mayor, and media know about it.

Practice this awhile and then try it citywide. Three dozen commission chairs working together could become a de facto lower house of the city government.

You don’t need city funding. Get a church or a bar to give you free space and get a few grants from a friendly funder. And when they tell you it’s against the law, just point to the First Amendment.

And it’s not just a local matter. In increasingly corrupt and anti-democratic America, local solidarity and action are oases of freedom and decency from which a new future can grow. As we find ourselves in a post-constitutional society where our leaders in politics and business consider themselves immune from either morality or legislation, we must constantly tend these community gardens of hope.

Just as during the century of segregation with no home rule, neighborhood organizations in DC were the voice and organizing strength of this city, so today our communities are where we must begin to make things work again with decency, democracy and fairness.

Our neighborhood commissions can be central to this if they remember the words of a woman who passed away just a few days go, Jane Jacobs: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”