Democracy and Community Leadership
(from Maine Townsman, October 1997)
By Chris Gates

EDITOR'S NOTE: The keynote address for the 1997 MMA Convention was delivered by Chris Gates who is president of the National Civic League, the nation's oldest organization advocating for the issues of community democracy. What follows is an edited version of that speech.

It’s a pleasure for me to be here with you today. I appreciate the opportunity to come and talk a little bit about democracy and community leadership.

First, I want to first take just a quick second to tell you a little more about my organization. A young Teddy Roosevelt was the main speaker at our founding in 1894 in Philadelphia. When the organization was founded, it was the National Municipal League; we changed our name to the National Civic League a decade ago. Roosevelt said something very revolutionary back then in 1894. He stood up and made the case against representative democracy. Stood up and explained that representative democracy should not be the model that we use at the local level.

If you think back to your old American history lessons, about what was going on in the late 1800s, there was a lot going on. It really caused the formation of this organization. Local government in the late 1800s was very corrupt. As a citizen, if you were lucky enough to live in the right part of town, in the right ward of the town, you could probably get lots of services; but if you lived in the wrong ward or in the wrong part of time, you probably didn’t get much in the way of services. So, what drove this organization was trying to find ways to better enhance citizens and government to make community work better

Roosevelt stood up that day and said, "If we move forward with the model of representative democracy, the signal that we are sending for our citizens is that if we simply vote once every two years, that your commitment to your community has been fulfilled. Then you’ve done your job as a citizen in a democracy and done your job as a citizen of your community, and that it’s somebody else’s job to take care of you."

If you think about this, Roosevelt made an amazing distinction. He made the distinction between cities and towns and communities, and he said that if our model of representative democracy prevails at the local level, then all of us will only live in cities and towns. But if we try to find a way to do business differently, we’ll find that we actually live in communities.

Everybody knows the difference between living in a town and living in a community. You say "hello" to each other. You help each other out. There’s some notion of civility and common good and shared obligation. You know when you live in a community.

So that day Roosevelt made the case for what he called "self government" where every resident of the community feels as if they have some obligation to the common good. And yes, government has to play a role. Yes, government needs to be a leader. Yes, government needs to be at the head of the parade getting things done. But, if it is simply government trying to get things done, then we’ll never get to where we want to go.

So, what we’ve really been about for the last 103 years is trying to find ways for citizens and government to work together better to create community.

Five Challenges

In my position, I travel around the country a lot talking with people like yourselves about how it’s going, what their challenges are, what’s working, what’s not working. What I hear consistently is that there are five challenges that now make these times potentially as tough as they were a hundred years ago.

Angry Citizens

The first is that we have incredibly angry citizens. But, I don’t hear local officials talk about angry citizens. Instead, I hear talk about "apathetic" citizens. They don’t volunteer to serve on boards and commissions as much anymore, they don’t turn out to vote much anymore, and they don’t come to the town meeting much anymore.

I say the emotion being expressed is not "apathy"; it’s "anger." People are choosing not to participate in a political process not because they don’t care. It’s that they have decided that their involvement doesn’t much matter anymore. And when you talk to people about why they think this, they say, "I’ve figured out the deal, and I’ve figured out that nothing that I can do matters – that I can’t make a difference – that my involvement doesn’t count, and I will not continue to be a part of this charade."

Cynical Media

The second thing that makes the times as tough as they’ve ever been is that we have an unbelievably cynical media. I’d like to tell you about a friend of mine who is a city reporter for a newspaper in a medium-sized community. His beat is city government . He was assigned to write a profile of the mayor of his community. So he thought the way to do this was to get the mayor to agree to let him shadow him for a couple of weeks. The conclusion that he came to was that the mayor was neither a horrible, bad, evil person or a hero. And he wrote a piece that was sort of the middle. There were some things that weren’t so good; but these were some things that were pretty good.

He told me about the day he walked into the news room, on the day that this profile had been published. People called out things like: "So, is that a new car you’re driving?" "So I hear you’re going to go work for the mayor?" "So, did you get some nice lunches out of it?"

A week later, a big story pops involving city government and city politics. His beat. But, they pull him from the story. They pull him from his beat because, in fact, the word was out that he had "gone soft" on city government, that he had gotten too close to his beat, that he had gotten too close to the mayor. Thus, he probably wasn’t the person to cover that story anymore.

That little vignette tells us volumes about the broken relationship between the media and the community, and it absolutely is one of the things that makes these times so difficult.

 Demolition of Responsibility

The third challenge is one that absolutely all of you know about: the demolition of responsibility. What is going on at the local level in this country is that more and more problems are falling into the laps of people in your positions. It used to be that we had this fairly clean hierarchy in our heads: the federal government did this; state government did that; local government did this. No more. The reason I say a demolition of responsibility is that invariably it doesn’t come with either the resources you need to deal with the problem or the authority to raise the resources you need to deal with the problem. What falls in your laps is the responsibility.

From our perspective, working with local officials, this big debate that the country’s having is about whether the federal government should make all the decisions, or state government should make all the decisions. The National Governors Association says, "Well, the federal government should just put their money into huge block grants and give them to governors and let the governors decide what they want to do."

From our perspective, it’s not that different if you’re the mayor or the town manager of your community; it’s not that different if the federal government is telling you what to do and how to do it or if the state government is telling you what to do and how you do it. You still don’t have much local control. This is one of the huge issues facing people in your positions these days.

Broken Politics

The fourth challenge is that Politics – with a capital "P" – are broken in this country. The Politics of buttons and bumper stickers and campaigns are broken. Forty-three million more people in the United States of voting age watched the Super Bowl than voted in the last Presidential election. The American public is learning from the rhetoric of our national elections that their participation doesn’t matter. Nothing that we say during those campaigns ever comes true from either side.

Remember the rhetoric Democrats used when Ronald Reagan was running for President. "This bad B-movie actor can never be the leader of the free world, and it will be an absolute disaster for the nation if this bad human being ever is reelected." Unbelievably heavy, super-heated, nuclear rhetoric. And what happened? He got reelected by a pretty wide margin, served two terms in office, and will probably go down as one of the more popular Presidents of our time. I think I can say this statement with a fair amount of certainty, "during his (Reagan’s) time in office, some things got better and some things got worse." The American public figured that one out.

Think about the rhetoric that the Republican Party used against Bill Clinton. Does anybody remember the ad campaign that came on the last 10 days of the ’92 Presidential election? There were these stark, black and white ads. Desolate shots of Arkansas with someone telling us the unemployment rate in Arkansas was 92.7% and the illiteracy rate was 97.6% and if we wanted Bill Clinton to do for the country what he did for Arkansas, then we should vote for Bill Clinton. And what’s happened? The pollsters tell us that he is the most popular President since FDR. I think I can say this with some certainty, "during Bill Clinton’s time in office, some things have gotten better, and some things have gotten worse."

Right? Well, the American public gets that. They understand that. So on the one hand, we say this really matters. If we don’t make the right choice we’re all going to hell in a hand-basket." Right? And then, you know what? Things sort of bump along.

As a result we view politics in the same way that we view sports these days in this country: It’s interesting, but it’s not necessarily relevant to our lives.

It wasn’t always like this. Politics used to matter to people’s lives. I’m reminded of a story a friend of mine told me about growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940’s. On a summer night when Franklin Roosevelt was on the radio speaking to the nation, his father took him out on the street. It was absolutely empty. No cars. No people sitting on their stoops. Everybody was inside listening to the President. And because it was a hot summer night, all the windows were open, and his father walked him down the middle of the street and they heard in stereo – through every window as they walked down the street – FDR talking. It mattered what was being said. People really were listening, because it counted.

Presumption of Bad Intent

The last thing that I think is a real issue for people at the local level is the notion of a presumption of bad intent. The way we view leaders in our communities these days is the opposite of the way we viewed them 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.

It used to be when you stepped up to be a leader there was some general understanding on the part of the community that you were doing so at a personal sacrifice Well now the phenomena that we’re seeing here is that the second that you stand up and say "I’m willing to be a leader", people immediately presume bad intent on your part. They presume that you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. When people now announce that they’re willing to run for office, one of two things are thought about. One is that they’re crazy. The other is just as bad: "Huh! So, I wonder what she’s really trying to do?"

It used to be that when you proposed an idea in your community, citizens would debate the idea. Now you propose an idea in your community, the first thing that happens is never a debate about the merits of the idea. What happens first is this deconstructive thinking process: "Okay, now they propose that we make that vacant lot a park. So what’s really going on here? Do they own the land next to it? Is their brother going to get the contract to maintain the park?" We take nothing at face value because we presume that there’s got to be a real story underneath. Right? And it’s because we presume bad intent, because we don’t trust each other to do the right thing.

Three Solutions

What has to happen is that we have to reinvent three things if we are to get out of the current crisis. First, we have to reinvent what we mean by leadership. Second, we have to reinvent what we mean by decision-making. And, third, we have to reinvent what we mean when we talk about democracy.

 Reinvent Leadership

If you look at the literature, the old model of leadership is dying away and new models are emerging. If you have not read the book Collaborative Leadership written by David Chrislip and Carl Larson (Jossey-Bass, c 1994), I strongly urge you to do so. It is the best summary of the new model of community leadership that is emerging in this country. It’s a great book.

This new model of collaborative leadership tells us that leaders these days understand that they have to lead in almost a totally different way than they led before. If you have the power to sign contracts and sign proclamations, but people don’t trust you to do the right thing, you’re probably not powerful. You may have some legal authority, but if people don’t presume that you’re going to make the right decision, people don’t presume that you represent them, then in the end, you’re not powerful. You don’t have that authority.

If the old model of leadership is about talking, then the new model of leadership is about listening. If the old model of leadership is about deciding what to do on issues, the new model of leadership is about empowering others to help collectively decide what to do about issues. If the old model was about arguing, the new model is about finding common ground. If the old model was about being closed and secretive, the new model is about being open and sharing of what’s going on. If the old model was about hoarding power, the new model is about sharing power.

One of the most consistent things that we hear from people at the local level is that if you want to find ways to increase the amount of power that you have in your community, the one guaranteed way to do it is to periodically take all power that you have and give it away. And say to the community, "This issue is so important I may have the legal authority to make the decision, but I want the community to make the decision on this." And what people find is that the power that eventually comes back to them is more than they originally started with because what they have, in fact, showed is that they are not afraid of the citizens, but they believe in the citizens. It’s a whole different dynamic when we think of leadership.

 Reinvent Decision-Making

The second thing that we have to reinvent is this notion of decision-making. And decision-making clearly has to find a new way of doing business.

On one hand, we say government should make all the decisions. At the other end of the spectrum is the notion that we should have an election on every issue. The reason elections on every issue don’t work is that one of the fundamental tenets of "small d" democracy is the notion of deliberation, and deliberation means that I can change your mind and you can change my mind, and we can convince each other of things. I can learn from you and you can learn from me. But that isn’t what happens in a voting booth. You just have to close your eyes and decide.

We have got to try and find that middle path between representative democracy and direct democracy, where, in fact, everybody can sit together around a table and have that conversation.

But clearly, decision-making is changing in this country and we are moving to a model where we are playing win-win politics and not zero-sum politics. We recognize now that if progress has to come through defeating our opponent, then we’re probably doing something wrong.

Last month I was with a group of elected officials in Wyoming and a mayor walked up to me and said, "We just had this big controversial issue, and my side won five-four. But it was an empty win. We knew there were still four people strongly opposed to the issue. So we told the other side we wanted to have some more conversation. We told them we wanted to see if we could clear up their concerns and figure out if there was a way to meet them."

In the end, the vote was seven to two. When they took the extra month, while they lost still, they were not angry, because, in fact, they’d gotten a shot. Somebody had said to them, "So what do you think? What are your concerns? We want to make sure that we understand them." And they didn’t walk out of that conversation feeling angry. They walked out of that conversation saying, "I got a shot." And, you know what? They’ll remember that the next time they’re on the upside of a vote, too. And that’s the way we’re changing the way that we do business.

Reinvent Democracy

Finally, the thing that we have to reinvent is the notion of what we mean by democracy. The biggest shift that’s going on in society today is the de-linking of government from democracy. Find an old thesaurus and look up the words "government" and "democracy," and you will find that the thesaurus lists them as synonyms – the same thing: government is democracy; democracy is government.

I think we are in the midst of a shift in this country where we recognize that government is part of what makes democracy work, but it isn’t the only thing that makes democracy work. Democracy is equally about a company adopting a school. Democracy is equally about the Rotary Club rebuilding a playground. Democracy is equally about a church volunteering at a soup kitchen. All of these are part of the "small d" democracy, and what we call the shift from "capital p" Politics to "small p" politics. People don’t have much faith in these kind of Politics, but people have incredible faith in the "small p" politics of community change.

You know, we’ve always considered volunteerism and self-help nice, but not essential, and over to the side. I think if you look at communities in this country that are working these days you will see that the government is sharing the public agenda. That everybody, no matter what their station in life, no matter what their position in the community, recognizes that they have some level of obligation to help get things done.

In Conclusion

I think it is not an anti-government statement to say that government can’t do it all. It is not an anti-government statement to say that citizens have to be involved. It is not an anti-government statement to say that in the future government will probably do less, and communities will have to do more. What we have to find a way to do is recognize that in the end the most important thing for government to do may not be to provide the services. It may not be to plow the snow. It may be that the most important thing for government to do is to lead, to frame the issues, to say what’s important, to bring people to the table. Then, what communities are going to have to do is find ways to participate more directly in solving problems and making things better.

We are encouraged about the state of affairs in America today, because we are sort of these civic "geeks" who study the state of democracy. People ask us all the time, "So, how do you think it’s going out there?" Because most people measure that "How’s it going?" question against Washington, DC , they think it’s going really, really poorly. But our experience tells us that while Washington may be unbelievably dysfunctional during this moment, that community after community after community in America is in the process of reinventing democracy and making it work. And making it work in a world where not only is government at the head of the parade leading, framing the issues, getting things done, making sure that things happen, speaking for the common good, but in communities where citizens are willing to pull on their gloves, pull on their boots, grab their shovels and go out and help.

I think that’s the model of democracy that will work in this country. I think you all are very brave people to be in the positions that you’re in. It is unbelievably hard to do the job that you are doing these days.

I will just remind you from a national perspective that while on a day-to-day basis you may think that what you’re doing is improving the trash collection, improving the snow removal, and dealing with the dispute between those neighbors – and that may feel like what you’re doing – the truth is what you’re doing is reinventing democracy and reinventing community in our country. There is no more important task in front of us.