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Next week citizens across Iowa will begin the most visible part of the
process by which the Republican Party chooses its presidential standard
bearer. Some have suggested that it is unreasonable to have a small farming
state like Iowa set the tone for the entire country on such an important
matter. I hope I won’t be suspected of flattery when I say that it is indeed
very reasonable for Iowa to take the lead, and for this clear reason: the
habits of local self-government and responsibility that are still typical of
Iowa communities. So even if Iowa is less representative of today’s America
than one might wish, it is very representative of the America we should be.
The political reformation of America will require that communities all over
America remember what it is like to take charge of their own affairs. In
much of rural America, that kind of responsibility is more than just a
Last week I said that I wanted to look more particularly at what must be
the principles and dynamics of a truly conservative program of community
renewal, particularly in the black community. The eve of the Iowa Caucus is
a good time to do so, for it reminds us that the quality of our communities
will be reflected in the political judgments those communities make. Imagine
that our goal is the transformation of a dysfunctional inner city into a
community fit to play the role in our national politics that Iowa plays
today. How would we begin?
It may surprise you to hear that I believe the critical first principle
of reform is the restoration of autonomy to distressed communities. We must
free ourselves from the assumption that community problems require national
solutions. This assumption made sense when applied to the black community,
but only as long as the early Civil Rights movement leaders needed to call
on the power of the federal government in the effort to overthrow “legal”
but unconstitutional discrimination and segregation. It makes no sense when
dealing with the problems that beset neighborhoods and communities today.
Neighborhood problems need neighborhood solutions — approaches devised and
carried into action by the people affected.
Of course, that’s easy to say, but it hardly seems feasible when the
people living in the neighborhoods effectually lack the power to do anything
about their situation. Therefore the concern with power, and the
distribution of power, that characterized some black thinking in the late
’60s was not entirely unreasonable. People without power cannot take
responsibility for themselves or their community.
But while power is a necessary condition for responsibility, it is not
sufficient. It is just as important that we give priority to the organic
institutions that best reflect our moral selves. The challenge we face is
thus to restore to decent people in our urban neighborhoods the power they
need to establish and maintain their moral integrity and authority.
This idea seems to escape just about everyone who addresses the question
from a political or economic perspective. Neither warmed-over socialism nor
primarily economic strategies of empowerment address the challenge
effectively, because they rest on an essentially materialistic concept of
power. Though some liberals see the need for community action, their
obsession with national solutions keeps them from promoting the development
of power at the appropriate, grass-roots level. Many conservatives see the
need for empowerment, but their preoccupation with individual economic
solutions keeps them from promoting the development of community-based
institutions. Liberals see government action as the main solution;
conservatives tend to see it as part of the problem. Neither has
rediscovered the key approach of providing for the restoration of the
community’s moral authority through an effective combination of private
enterprise and community self-government at the grass-roots level.
But the idea that local government is the classroom and laboratory of
democratic freedom is as old as America. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote
insightfully about the critical importance of local self-government as the
foundation of American democracy. Only by participating in the decisions
that shape their local community do people experience firsthand the
meaning of democratic power and the sense of responsibility it should
entail. The feelings of security, trust, and fulfillment they develop
concretely at the local level become the foundation for their allegiance and
patriotism toward the national community, which necessarily remains
something of an abstraction.
As a matter of tangible, daily reality, people live less in a nation than
in a neighborhood. How they feel about the nation depends to a large degree
on how they feel about their neighborhood. If they play no role at all in
governing their neighborhood, democracy can appear to be a cruel deception.
In the local governments that Tocqueville describes, people elected
representatives to make local laws, enforce them, and pass judgment upon
those who violated them. Thanks to the leadership and coordination of these
representatives, the inhabitants of the neighborhood could join together in
support of projects necessary for the community’s welfare, such as building
schools, developing and maintaining roads, and the like. The inhabitants of
the neighborhood could feel that they had an opportunity to influence what
happened in their community, because they had direct access to their
representatives, and could work to remove them if they failed to perform
Thanks to this direct access, they could also call upon the cooperation
and common resources of the community in support of projects they felt would
serve the public good. Individuals were moved to take the initiative
precisely because they knew where to turn to get others to join them. The
institutions of local self-government provided a meeting ground for the
community’s leaders. People active in churches or service organizations
could join forces with decent business and working people, civic-minded
professionals and interested home and property owners.
The critical point is that under such arrangements decent people in the
community did not feel isolated in their struggle to establish and maintain
the moral and material integrity of their lives. This empowerment extended
even to physical defense against criminal elements, since each citizen might
be armed and could participate in the militia (or later, the posse
comitatus), which was the neighborhood’s citizen police force. Through the
jury system, every citizen also had the effective right to participate in
the administration of justice. Each could aspire as well to be a
neighborhood magistrate, or justice of the peace. In a concrete sense, each
and every decent citizen could claim a share in the community and its
Thanks to its reliance on bureaucratic government, the liberal welfare
state inhibits or precludes the development of this kind of community of
self-government. But bureaucratic domination cannot keep people from
reaching for it, even in the poorest communities. One example has been the
tenant management movement in public housing projects. Yet even the
Republicans who championed tenant management seem to have missed its real
significance. Community empowerment, through institutions of self-government
such as tenant management councils, creates the conditions for economic
opportunity and home ownership. But the critical benefit is not the economic
opportunity. It is rather that giving decent people a corporate,
institutional identity restores their practical ability to resist the forces
of moral dissolution that are the real enemies of community renewal.
Tenant management of public housing is one step in the right direction.
Another is school choice, which would put parents back in control of their
children’s education, and end legal discrimination against people of faith.
The key to renewing distressed neighborhoods is a daring and aggressive
series of steps that restore authority and power to the decent people of
those neighborhoods, so that they can build the institutions of community
they so desperately need. People of character and faith live throughout
these areas, but they have been discouraged and intimidated by patterns of
government aid that seem designed specifically to exclude the possibility
that men and women of strong family and faith would come together to do what
is needed for their communities.
If we have the eyes to see what is possible, we can recast government
policy to stop preventing such people from coming together to form organic
institutions of authority and mutual aid.
If we really want to help heal those areas where material and moral
poverty are concentrated, we must recast that problem as the challenge of
empowering the morally healthy networks within those areas, particularly
networks of churches and intact families. We might just find that the way to
turn the inner city into a community ready to offer political leadership to
the nation is to ask the decent people who live there how they propose to
govern themselves, and how we can help.