Op-Ed: Can Big Government Learn from Community Government?

I was listening to NPR on a recent Friday afternoon.

EJ Dionne was sparring with David Brooks, when I realized I loved what both guys were saying. Mainly because each was not trying to paint the other with the a**hole brush. I listened and I learned, from both. What a pleasure to hear opposing views discussed in a non-strident way.

More importantly, it got me thinking about something I had never heard of but now know that I am: a communitarian. It turns out that this was a real movement with 19th century origins. It is a direct counterpoint to Ayn Rand’s “egotism.” In essence, when you choose to live in any community, you are committing to a social contract, defined by values, principles, guidelines and rules. Many of these are unstated but are manifested in the actions and behaviors of the community. Conversely, when such behaviors are confining to the “individualist” then that person should move away from others—perhaps to Montana.

All of this pondering led to a bigger question: What can Big Government learn from Community Government? What is the role of government for the greater good and “of and by” the people in all this? Do we want the One Musketeer, “all for me,” or the Three Musketeers, “all for one?” Or, do we need a real and moderate voice to help us return to our values and help us all work together? More interesting, do we have a solution already in place in “MIB-land” – our Caucus system? What can we learn from our unique form of government? Can those insights be scaled to a county, state and federal level? And aren’t there a lot of questions in this paragraph?

The non-partisan caucus system has a lot going for it as it focuses on the greater good of the community. Starting in Winnetka in 1917, many North Shore communities soon followed (Glencoe, Northfield, Kenilworth, Northbrook, Lake Forest, Lake Bluff, and of course the NTHS caucus). Per the History of Winnetka Caucus on their website —

In 1915, a group of leaders “grieving over the nonsense of municipal elections in which, except for personalities, there were no real issues,” organized what today is the Caucus Council. It has been nearly a century since Winnetka officially adopted the Caucus form of non-partisan self-government where everyone who has a vote has a voice. This means that any resident of voting age is a member of the Caucus and may vote on Caucus matters. 

So, what can we learn from this raw form of democracy? It is first worth looking at the more odious aspects of our current two party system: Dueling agendas cater to “the core,” campaign finance reform is a joke in light of secretive Super PACs, our politicians pander to and fragment the population, two year Congressional terms turn house reps into full time candidates, self-aggrandizement, and what is it with the Electoral College?

  • Dueling agendas – can’t happen with the Caucus. It all starts with the residents. The annual survey, which is really more of a giant focus group since the survey is self-reported rather than a random sample and thus not statistically valid, provides a voice for each resident to be heard.  The Caucus Council distills meaning from the ticked boxes and, importantly, from the comments.  Platform planks are established for each taxing body (Village, Schools. Parks, Libraries).
  • Campaign Finance – A $12,000 budget pays for website maintenance, printing a few surveys, and renting meeting facilities. At $3/HH, not bad. However, even though only a few hundred households out of 4,500 actually contribute, their $50 voices are not heard more loudly than those who do not contribute. Hard for a mysterious Super PAC to wedge its way in here.
  • Pandering – Can’t happen with the Caucus. Our November Town Meeting (in Winnetka) is “democracy in action,” and can be a bit rough around the edges, but it works.  Voices are heard.  And if there is a constituent or advocacy group that really feels strongly about an issue, they can revise or even turn over platform planks. Tough luck for those who could not spare a few hours per year to attend this festive event.
  • Fragmenting — While many voices are heard during the process, the Town Meeting leads to finished platforms in real time. Prospective candidates are asked to uphold the planks as Trustees and Commissioners. At the Spring Town Meeting, each board President must address how each plank has been handled during the past few months.
  • Candidate Selection – The Caucus selects candidates. No funding, no pandering, no campaigning, no false promises. Prospective candidates are sought and asked to raise their hands which leads to an application, an interview, an assessment and slating. The slate is ratified at the fall Town Meeting, and then voted on in the late winter or early spring. Pretty straight forward. For the most part, this does a good job weeding out the less judicious and less thoughtful candidates. More important, if one feels strongly, he or she can oppose the slate and run independently.
  • Term limits – Since there is no electioneering, the need for “constant candidacy” gives way to actual productivity and decision making. Our term limits ensure a constant turnover and fresh faces on boards. The Caucus turns over by 50 percent each year. Schools, parks and library boards have four year terms with a max of two terms. Oddly, the most complex board responsibility, Village Trustee, is a two year term and a two term max. Seems a bit tight, and this year’s Caucus is seeking resident commentary to perhaps change this.
  • Electoral College and Electioneering – After all these years, the Electoral College is still a mystery to me; you certainly do not need a high ACT to be “admitted!” I know its very existence shapes election strategy. This year, it essentially renders all but five states as an afterthought at the Federal level. With the Caucus you have no such inequity or lack of direct vote. Each of 16 precincts is represented by four council members (additionally there are four at large members). These populate the committees that correspond to our boards. Their own erudition, informed by the survey “vocabulary,” guides platform development and candidate selection.

So, if Tip O’Neil was right and “all politics is local,” then the big question is how do we get our local politics to work at a county, state and Federal level? This is a real grass roots opportunity.  And perhaps we should keep in mind Lincoln’s 1858 Springfield (our very own) admonition “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”