“American Idol” Style Democracy

Unless you’ve been cryogenically frozen for the past 9 months, you’ve probably grown sick and tired of the media bombardment of Donald Trump. I know I have, so I’ll do my best not to bore you with a “Why Trump is Winning” analysis. And if you just did wake from being cryogenically frozen, the year is 2016 and yes Donald Trump is leading the republican primary (or at least he was at the time of writing this). Tell me that plot wouldn’t make one hell of a dystopian sci-fi novel! If you aren’t sick of reading about the Donald here is some pretty good reads regarding his rise and possible fascist tendencies. And if you are too lazy to read then you probably aren’t reading this, but here’s a video anyway.

A couple things about Trump before I move forward with the purpose of this post—I genuinely thought that Trump running for president was a ploy by the Clintons. I know it sounds a little tin-foil-hat-ish, but seriously though, don’t they remind you of the Underwoods just a little bit?

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The reality is that Trump is just a narcissistic egomaniac, who will do anything to advance his own interests, and he’s done it all with our support or at least the support of the media. Yeah, I used to watch the Apprentice—but I was a teenager! Half the stuff I did as a teen and young adult doesn’t count!

Some of the success that the Donald has gained has to be attributed to the sideshows that are the primary debates. I’ve been trying to make sense of these debates, which range from the hilarious to the WTF. After cursing aloud at the thought of Trump (or even Cruz) becoming the next president, I’ve began really wrestling with the meaning of democracy, and being that the task of this blog is to frame topics through the lens of the local, I figured it was time to talk about local democracy in theory and practice. Now if your eyes glazed over after reading that—Quick watch this video!

American culture is obsessed with reality TV, which isn’t reality at all but some distorted superficial form of reality, because the actual reality would be too much to bear. I think certain philosophers refer to this as ideology. It should be no surprise that reality TV has seeped into politics (or maybe it has been there all along) and the coverage of such politics. It ends up being a vicious circle, Trump being the best example. Trump says some outrageous shit and the media eats it up to improve their ratings and blast him all over. Then, reasons I don’t understand, Trumps numbers go up and he continues on saying outrageous shit and the media goes on another frenzy.

Democracy, in a lot of ways, is treated as if it were a game show, sort of like American Idol. And while this is the farewell season of American Idol, our style of democracy isn’t going away any time soon. Think about it, we gather around a screen watch politicians “debate” the issues, and then we ROCK the Vote (sometimes). For many this is the democratic process. I’m not saying that we are mindless drones for participating in this way, but I’m speaking about how community participates in governances in a much broader sense. I’m not hating on voting or anyone who watches these type of game shows. They make it easy for us, accessible even, and that is not the case with participating in the democratic process. And can I be real for a second, son—Sanjaya’s “ponyhawk” is one of the biggest pop culture moments of the past 20 years. Also, I know this is a different show but where can I purchase one of those rotating chairs from The Voice? I’d love to have that chair in my future office, so I can slam the button whenever anyone walks in.

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The question of how to increase community participation in the local democratic process is a good one, but the wrong one. We should ask instead—How do we change or adjust institutions in order to make them more inclusive and accessible? There are plenty of examples of how this could take shape from around the world. This has been the specific focus of governance in countries throughout South America, with many of them guaranteeing the right to participation. I actually had the chance to experience this first hand, three summers ago while interning at the Ecuadorian Ministry of Public Health. I’m sure we don’t have to travel too far away for examples, there are plenty to find here in the US of A, such as this participatory budgeting process happening in Vallejo, Ca. Before I start talking about what community participation could look like locally, let me talk a little about what it does look like currently.

I attended a San Lorenzo “County Update” meeting a couple weeks ago. I wouldn’t have known anything about this meeting if I hadn’t been invited by the very nice people from the home association who responded to some of the questions I posed in my first blog post. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I just made sure to have an espresso right before the meeting so I wouldn’t fall asleep half way through, embarrassing myself and bringing shame to my newly acquired title of local San Lorenzo blogger. Guess what? It was actually quite informative! After speaking to various county people from the multiple agencies there, I was surprised to find out that they are genuinely interested in having more of a “community” presence. What do I mean by “community”? It’s not like the community room at the San Lorenzo library was empty; the turn out was pretty good, but as is the case with these sort of meetings, it was the usual suspects. This is how I imagine all community meetings hosted by local government are like:

Ah but what’s the problem with that you ask? If you care about what happens locally, shouldn’t it then be an individual responsibility to be involved? I don’t disagree with that; in fact I’ll take it a step further—Not only is it an individual responsibility, but a collective one! I don’t mean to generalize, but let’s not get it twisted, there is a reason why the folks who usually show up to public forums/meetings, at least in San Lorenzo, tend to be of a specific aging demographic and usually not youth/people of color/ immigrants (unless those groups are already organized in places with a history of doing so like Oakland or San Francisco). I could speculate the number of reasons why certain groups lack a representation in these types of meetings, but the question remains: How does government engage “community” and make local government more inclusive? How do you convince a working mom or dad or young person to come spend the little free time they have, to participate in some obscure government meeting, especially one that can be technical and almost always tedious (these are the meetings where community input is most valuable too)? It’s like trying to persuade a cool friend to come to your Dungeons and Dragons night, it ain’t gonna happen!

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For example, did you know that there is this local process called the Eden Area Livability Initiative? I found out about this in my attempt to address some of the questions in my first blog posts. The Eden Area encompasses the unincorporated areas of Castro Valley, San Lorenzo, Ashland, Cherryland, and Fairview and the initiative is

an integrated partnership between the community, the county and other public sector jurisdictions that have a stake in the unincorporated urban communities of Alameda County. The Livability Initiative is the strategic development of a shared vision that plans to build pride for the unincorporated urban communities of Alameda County.”

There are a number of working groups, each with their own set of objectives that meet regularly as part of Phase II of EALI (I’m honestly not sure what the significance of these phases are besides sounding really cool. For example, Phase II started in 2013 but I can’t find information on a timeline? Is there a Phase III? Will it consist of the abolition of private property?). The working groups were a result of a community forum held a few years back. The groups focus on Public Safety & Realignment, Economic Development, Governance, Agriculture & Environment, and Education. According to the website, YOU can get involved and stay informed by joining the Joint Leadership Committee, which provides oversight to the process and expands community involvement. Again, I’m not sure how they go about expanding community involvement and creating genuine participation, but isn’t that the million dollar question?

I’ve mentioned in prior blogs that demographics are shifting in the Eden Area, and I get the sense that peoples lack of political involvement is that things are “all good”.  That is to say, crime and violence are relatively low; unemployment isn’t quite as rampant as other parts of the area, so there isn’t much to worry about and therefore no need to get involved. It would be dangerous to limit our involvement in local government to expressing our dissatisfaction with things. Especially for us folks of color.

The fact that there is an attempt to build participation in the Eden Area is a positive sign, but how many people know this process is even taking place? I can say, and maybe this is naivety on my part, that if I hadn’t started this blog I wouldn’t have ever come across any of this information. So I’m asking these questions again because I don’t think I’ve even come close to answering them:

Is it an individual responsibility to participate in local democracy? How can we change the way we collectively participate in local government? How do we go about making local government more inclusive? What else need to happen in order to build a sense of ownership and belonging among residents?

 

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