Living right by Alexis de Tocqueville

It was probably our founders’ biggest idea – and assuredly their boldest – that a diverse people could self-govern.

Democracy-In-AmericaIn “Democracy in America”, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the uniquely American habit of “forever forming associations.”

There’s good reason for that. In a new country without a king, someone was going to have to make a few decisions.

Our first and strongest associations in America were with the people who shared a common geography and, amid many threats, likely a common fate: our neighbors. The town hall meeting was born early in our republic, and in one form or the other they’ve been happening ever since.

As metaphor, the town hall perfectly captures the very essence of the freedom we won from European monarchs – it’s the triumph of the common man over the sovereign. And, as a practical matter, it’s been how the business of American community has gotten done for hundreds of years now.

Even before electricity, muddling through local governance issues wasn’t likely our first choice on how to spend an evening. But now with the sheer volume of excitement we can experience from our couch, we’re less willing to suffer through the marginal entertainment value of the town meeting.

Today we’re also grappling with the consequences of rapidly changing technologies to a functioning democracy. While clearly offering a breathtaking array of new opportunities to associate with each other, we now know that an unintended consequence of the digital age is dramatically less direct contact with our neighbors, particularly the ones we don’t agree with politically. That’s a development with real danger to the underpinnings of democracy.

It was probably our founders’ biggest idea – and assuredly their boldest – that a diverse people could self-govern. Our nation became the first to embrace the “constant clashing of opinion” inherent to a people of varied interests. Alexander Hamilton wrote that conflicting opinion “promotes deliberation and circumspection, and serves to check excesses in the majority.” The framers constructed a government built on the notion that – not only could we muddle through our differences – we would actually protect our freedoms by the very act of disagreeing.

Now bunkered up at home with information sources that serve as a virtual amen chorus for everything we believe, we no longer embrace the power of diversity of opinion, and we can’t seem to tolerate some of the people we used to share town meetings with. Our decision to sit out the civic mix has left us unexposed to the broad range of thinking that is the lifeblood of healthy democracy. We are no longer having the conversations required to run anything as big as a country, or even as small as a one-stoplight town.

Lacking contact with our neighbors and inside an environment of “tribal” information sources, local disagreements tend to be seen simplistically through the prism of the divide on national issues, as skirmishes in a countrywide partisan war rather than the unique and complex local situations they usually are. It’s our national dysfunction taken root in hometown America, and it’s not helping us make good decisions where we live.

Thursday night – in partnership with the Tallahassee Democrat and Leadership Tallahassee – the Village Square will begin the second year in an annual series of local issue forums called “Our Town,” aimed at reviving the town hall in our hometown. Thursday’s offering will pair Democrat Editor Bob Gabordi with nine city and county commissioners to talk about Tallahassee. A week later on April 11th, you’ll have a chance to speed “date” leaders from across the community (at a table with six fellow citizens and we’ll treat for the pizza). Finally, you can learn about the latest cool new things in town with “Fast Forward Tallahassee” on Monday, May 6th. All forums are free, but require a reservation.

In his study of our democracy, Tocqueville argued that this unique American habit of associating was actually critical to our purpose. “In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.”

If we want a strong community, state and nation, the town hall is probably not optional.

We can’t promise you more fun than you’d have at home with remote in hand. But we can promise you’ll be keeping faith with the vision of our forefathers, as our hometown gathers with its colorful characters, varied grievances and occasional long-windedness – in the messy “clashing” on which our founders built a country.

Beats “Law & Order” reruns.

Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square, an organization devoted to growing civil and factual dialogue on issues of national, state and local importance. You can reach her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org