Tag Archives: Democracy

Community–Lost And Found

A friend recently shared a Substack newsletter with me (requires subscription but no $$), knowing that the topic–the nature of community formation– was one that concerned me.

He and I have discussed a contention that I have also shared on this blog–my belief that the evisceration of local news, especially the demise of widely-read local newspapers, has diminished what the shared article labeled “horizontal communities.” In other words, the communities that previously formed among residents of the same neighborhood, city or town.

The author didn’t see this as a problem.

 In fact, I think the kind of communities we inhabit has simply changed. In the past, our communities were primarily horizontal — they were simply the people we lived close to on the surface of the Earth. Increasingly, though, new technology has enabled us to construct communities that I’ve decided to call vertical — groups of people united by identities, interests, and values rather than by physical proximity.

Had I been “physically close” to the guy who wrote this, I might have “physically” harmed him.

The bulk of the essay was a love-letter to the Internet, which has allowed billions of people to form communities that ignore geography in exchange for similar “identities, interests and values.” In other words, our ability, thanks to technology, to find people with whom we agree.

Can you spell “polarization”?

The great virtue of those disdained “geographical” communities was precisely the requirement that we find common ground with people unlike ourselves–and that we share an awareness of the multiple ways in which we differed and/or agreed and the various ways in which the local physical and political environments affected us all.

As I used to tell my students, “back in the day” when most residents of our city accessed news provided by the daily newspapers (yes, that’s plural–Indianapolis once had three), those residents inhabited a common information environment. Even if they only picked up a newspaper in order to get the sports news, or listened to a radio or television news personality who relied heavily on what reporters for the local papers had written, they saw the same headlines or heard the same “breaking news” and basically occupied a similar reality.

That common reality empowered local democracy.

Was there a report that city police had engaged in unwarranted brutality? That too many  of the local thoroughfares were filled with potholes? That a member of the local City Council was opposing funding for the library? That crime rates were increasing? (Add your own examples.) Such reports require local political changes–changes that require collaboration among members of those local “horizontal” communities.

If citizen A is determined to elect someone who will fix the streets, s/he needs to work together with citizen B, with whom s/he doesn’t necessarily share other goals or values. That collaboration has a number of beneficial consequences, among them the creation of what sociologists call “bridging social capital.”

“Bonding” social capital is defined as the strong relationships that develop between people of similar background and interests–your family and friends and those Internet acquaintances with whom you share an important identity. “Bridging” social capital describes the connections that link people across the cleavages that typically divide societies (think race,  class, or religion). It builds ‘bridges’ between diverse people.

Without bridging social capital, diverse societies disintegrate.

I do not mean to diminish the value of many of the “vertical” communities enabled by the Internet. Those connections can and do widen our horizons. But we cannot ignore the substantial, troubling ways in which those vertical communities polarize  and divide Americans. And we absolutely cannot and must not abandon our focus on the “horizontal” environments within which we live and work.

The mere fact that we live adjacent to one another doesn’t create a horizontal community. In order for residents of city A or town B to constitute a genuine community, those residents need to occupy a common reality–they need to agree that those holes in the roadway are potholes that need to be filled. Then they need the ability to bridge their other differences in order to work together to repair and/or improve their shared environment.

When citizens lose access to common credible, adequate local information,  they lose an  essential element of the bridging social capital that is the foundation of democratic self-governance.

They’re Inextricably Connected…

Back in August, I came across a poignant, first-person essay in CounterPunch, a site I rarely access. (A reader may have sent it to me.) The essay was from a longtime journalist and professor of journalism at Indiana University, Bloomington who was mourning the demise of Bloomington’s long-time newspaper.

The author, Steven Higgs, wrote that the fall of the Herald-Times newspaper after  61 years had been 30-plus years in the making.

It’s a local story that mirrors the decline of daily newspapers nationwide and, along with it, American democracy. As I’ve long lectured to journalism students and anyone who would listen, it’s no coincidence that our democracy and journalism paralleled each other’s descent into the void, into these desperate times.

You simply can’t have the former without the latter.


When he began his career, his “beat” was county government. That included coverage of meeting of the County Commissioners, County Council, Plan Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals. He writes that he attended “every meeting from gavel to gavel and writing comprehensive meeting covers on each,” and that the newspaper had reporters who did the same for city government, schools and the state legislature.

Citizens of Bloomington and the surrounding areas were fully informed about what their government entities were proposing and doing. As a result, among other things, aroused citizens

* Killed outright a preposterous, experimental PCB incinerator that was supported by Westinghouse Electric Corp., our Mayor and City Council, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and U.S. EPA;

* Transformed a Hoosier National Forest Land Management Plan that would have clearcut 81% of the forest and constructed 100 miles of ORV trails into the most ecologically sensitive forest plan in the nation; and

* Scuttled a plan by greedy local doctors to turn our hospital for profit.

In other words, the paper had been fulfilling the mission of journalism–giving citizens actionable information about their communities, information that allowed them to participate in democratic decision-making.

Then, as he recounts, the mission changed. Journalism was reconceived as purely a consumer product. He quoted the publisher of the Orange County Register saying “the paper no longer called its audience readers. They referred to them as customers.”

Then, of course, came the Internet.  And Craig’s List, the site that decimated the classified ad business nationwide.

It’s not that their concerns weren’t legitimate. But their initial responses were galling. For example, the H-T hired a consultant from the University of Missouri to deprogram the newsroom through a program called New Directions for News.

First, she sat a room full of professional journalists cross-legged on the floor, gave us pads and markers, and told us, “Forget everything you know about journalism.” Then she had us write down answers to questions like: “Ten things teenage girls would like to see on the front page of the newspaper.” “Ten things senior citizens would like to see on the front page.” Ad infinitum.

The decline was inevitable:

At its peak, the H-T had 38 newsroom full-time equivalents (FTEs). In 2019, when the paper sold to GateHouse Media, that number had dropped to 29.

In less than a year, GateHouse merged with Gannett. Three years later, FTEs dropped to about a third of its peak – to about a dozen.

Gatehouse and Gannett were–and are–what I would call “scavengers.” They have stripped newsrooms of knowledgable journalists, sold off real estate and other assets, and displayed zero interest in informing the sort of public debate that nourishes democratic governance. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at the Gannett-owned Indianapolis Star, which–absent some scandal or announcement– no longer covers local government, opting instead to focus on sports and entertainment.)

At the once-excellent Herald-Times, the story was the same.

On Aug. 12, three weeks after putting the building up for sale, Gannett laid off two more H-T reporters – one of my best and favorite former students among them – as part of the corporation’s latest cutbacksnationwide.

The Monday before the layoffs, Gannett CEO Michael Reed purchased $1.22 million of company stock for himself, according to an Aug. 13 article in the New Jersey Globe.

In today’s America, it is still possible to get national news, and from a wide variety of perspectives. But in community after community, local newspapers have either shut down entirely (over 2000 of them in the past several years) or become “ghost” papers like the Indianapolis Star- –papers with newsroom staffing so dramatically pared back that the remaining journalists cannot adequately cover their communities.

As a result, local residents no longer share a common understanding of what is happening in their communities, and no longer have the kind of verified, in-depth information that makes democratic decision-making possible.

Unfortunately, as Higgs said, you can’t have democracy without real journalism.


Can We Talk?

A reader of this blog recently shared a column from the Washington Post.   It warned that the most significant threats to democracy come from the internal inconsistencies of democratic ideology.

At least, I think that is a fair summary of the argument/analysis being put forward.

America’s democratic structure is indeed shuddering — but it is shuddering under its own weight. The threat to democracy isn’t (for now) a usurper system, but democratic ideology itself. At least that’s one way to read a significant new study on democratic attitudes published in the American Political Science Review by Danish academic Suthan Krishnarajan.

Talk of the “defense of democracy” in the United States evokes a conveniently sharp division between citizens who favor democracy and those who don’t. Krishnarajan takes a more subtle approach. He shows that citizens who self-consciously support democracy can simultaneously support undemocratic actions on a large scale when it suits their political interests — and not recognize the contradiction.

The author was disturbed to discover that foolish consistency isn’t the hobgoblin of American minds….

Partisanship, unsurprisingly, tended to distort respondents’ views of what is and isn’t “democratic.”

Democracy, of course, is a process defined by elements such as fair elections and free speech. Liberal or conservative outcomes — more or less immigration, or more or less social spending — can both emerge from the democratic process. In 2020 and 2021, Krishnarajan used a carefully constructed survey with “vignettes” designed to tease out how Americans’ views on democracy interacted with their partisanship. The result: Most people conflate the democratic process with their favored political outcomes.

Respondents “tend to delegitimize opposing views by perceiving them as undemocratic — even when they are not,” Krishnarajan found. “When confronted with a perfectly regular left-wing behavior” — such as implementing Obamacare — “48% of the right-wing citizens consider it to make the country ‘much less democratic,’ ” the paper says. “Conversely, when confronted with regular right-wing behavior” — such as repealing Obamacare — “46% of the left-wing citizens consider it to make the country ‘much less democratic.’ ”

There is considerably more, and if you find this “analysis” (note quotation marks) illuminating, click through and read the entire essay.  My own opinion is that it belongs with the very large pile of irrelevancies regularly produced by what Molly Ivins called the “chattering classes”–and that pile contains an embarrassing number of supposedly scholarly publications. 

Here’s my (admittedly crabby) complaint.
 We Americans misuse and abuse terminology in ways that make it difficult to talk to each other. (There’s a great Facebook meme to the effect that “most people wouldn’t recognize socialism if it deposited a monthly Social Security check in their bank accounts.”) The imprecision of language–both “liberal” and “conservative” mean very different things to those employing the labels–makes “studies” of the sort reported in this column considerably less than useful.

What the respondents to the survey meant by “democracy” undoubtedly varied widely, but most of them probably use the term to mean the structure of America’s governance—including constitutional principles and democratic norms. Technically, of course, democracy simply means majority rule, although in the US, democratic processes are restrained /limited by the anti-majoritarian Bill of Rights.

It’s pretty clear from the examples in the column that the survey respondents didn’t limit their understanding of the term to its dictionary meaning.

The following paragraph is an example:

 Norm-breaking behavior, in other words, gets justified within a democratic frame, not outside it. That finding is consistent with how U.S. politics is practiced today: To take one example, presidents of both parties tend to claim the mantle of popular authorization when they sideline Congress and expand executive power.

Is the expanded use of executive power “anti-democratic”? Yes, when it falls outside longstanding constitutional constraints imposed by separation of powers, no when it doesn’t. Yes, when executive power is used to impose a rule with which a majority of Americans disagree; no when it is employed to further the clearly expressed preferences of that majority. 

 Americans are fighting over competing visions of democratic governance. It’s an epiphany!

So the fight in America right now isn’t between democracy and non-democracy, but between two opposing visions of popular sovereignty. The concept of democracy, broadly agreed upon but fiercely contested in its particulars, never came with fixed guardrails. And the higher the perceived stakes rise, the more tempting the invitation to destroy political norms — and to rationalize their destruction as necessary for democracy.

In other words, it depends–and it’s both simpler and far more complicated than the author of the essay (and presumably, of the study he references) wants to acknowledge. Does the  realization that Americans have different ideas about what democracy looks like really merit an anguished disquisition in the Washington Post?

But then, I told you I was crabby…..



America’s Trolley Problem

There’s a famous “what if?” used in classes teaching ethics: it’s called the Trolley Problem, and it poses a terrible dilemma. A trolley is bearing down on a group of five people, who are (unaccountably) unaware of its path. You are standing near a switch that can divert it–but if you do, it will kill a single person who would then be in its path.

What do you do? Do you resist taking an action that would make you, in effect, the person who murders that single unfortunate (and presumably innocent) bystander? Or do you shrug and let the trolley kill the five (presumably equally innocent) original targets, excusing your non-interference with the fact that your actions were not responsible for their demise? (Accidents happen…)

There’s no comforting solution to that dilemma, just as there is no “perfect” answer to most of the questions we wrestle with almost daily on this site and elsewhere.

I am one of the many former Republicans who is horrified by what that party has become, and I have been adamant about the importance of voting Blue in November. That advice has been criticized–on this site and elsewhere–by those who find both parties unworthy of their support. Democrats are far from perfect, they point out, so–as  advocates of moral purity–they refuse to draw any distinction between a fascist cult and an admittedly flawed political party.

Talk about making the perfect the enemy of the good!

May I suggest that the Jews living in Nazi Germany would have been grateful for a corrupt or inept or otherwise “imperfect” alternative to Hitler? (I don’t think that example is as far-fetched as it would have been in times past.)

We American voters are standing at that switch. We are watching the trolley come down the track.

Not unlike certain commenters to this blog, some number of progressive American voters entertain a firm belief in their own superior moral purity. Those voters exhibit disdain for the very idea of casting a vote in support of a political party that doesn’t meet their rigid and impossibly high ethical standards. They harp on the multiple failings of the political party that is–at this moment in history–the clearly preferable alternative.

That posture is particularly appealing to  American voters who are White, male and middle-class, and thus unlikely to be an early target of the Christian Nationalist cult that has taken over the once-respectable GOP.

The rest of us–women, people of color, non-Christians, immigrants, and others who don’t meet the Christian Nationalist definition of “real American”–are more likely to agree with President Biden about what is at stake this November.

Americans unwilling to make the perfect the enemy of the good will go to the polls and vote Blue No Matter Who because we care about reproductive choice, about protecting every citizen’s right to vote, about public education, about the economic well-being of working class Americans, about sensible gun laws, about genuine religious liberty (as opposed to the privileging of Christian religious doctrine), and about limiting the authority of government over our most intimate decisions.

Those of us who understand the choice before us aren’t blind– we understand that we won’t all agree about the policies that will be necessary or desirable to achieve our goals, or even, in some cases, the goals themselves. We are perfectly well aware that the Democratic Party includes plenty of lawmakers with whom we disagree, and some number whose behaviors are suspect and/or whose motives are impure.

It doesn’t matter.We can address those deficiencies once we save America’s admittedly imperfect democracy. Because–hysterical and overblown as it sounds–that actually is what is at stake. Moral purity from either the Right or Left is a pose and a fiction. Making the perfect (however one defines it) the enemy of the good is a cop-out–a defense for doing nothing.

November is America’s Trolley Problem.

No one wants to throw the switch that kills the single human on the alternate track, but refusing to do so will doom five equally innocent beings. The people refusing  to throw the ballot-box switch may not have been responsible for the trolley’s original path, but that fact doesn’t excuse their “pox on both your houses” refusal to distinguish between levels of harm.

Or perhaps, like the “Good Germans, they simply refuse to see the trolley…





Changing Indiana

Yesterday’s post was more of a lament than a post, but just because this state has a long history of being “behind the curve”–okay, behind pretty much any curve–doesn’t mean we should shrug and ignore opportunities to effect positive change.

Women4Change Indiana is one of several organizations trying to bring our state into the 21st (okay, maybe only the 20th) century. Members have lobbied against gerrymandering, for women’s rights, and for changes to make voting easier and increase turnout. You can read more about the organization on its website.

I’ve been working with Women4Change on programming for an upcoming conference, and I’m ceding the remainder of today’s blog space to the organization’s initial announcement of that conference. If you can attend, great; in any event, please share it. Widely.


Women4Change Indiana is delighted to send you an invitation to our inaugural Civic Education Conference on October 6, 2022, in the Clowes Auditorium of the Indianapolis Public Library, 40 East St. Clair Street, Indianapolis, Indiana. The title is “Civic Education: The DNA of Democracy.” Registration for this conference is not yet open to the public, but we wanted to give you the opportunity to put this date on your calendar. Your understanding of the importance of civic education and its impact on our state and nation will enrich this conversation and inspire more action to contribute to civil conversations and a healthy democracy.

The 2021 Indiana Civic Health Index found that Indiana ranked among the 10 lowest states in voter turnout. Between 2012 and 2020, the State dropped eight spots.

Efforts to improve civic education in the state will also include increased awareness, education, and participation among adults. For instance, in the 2016 presidential election, Indiana ranked 40th in registration and 41st in turnout. Only 65% of registered voters in Indiana voted in the 2020 Presidential election. The Indiana Civic Education Task Force, chaired by Lt. Governor Susan Crouch, researched and supported successful legislation that, beginning in 2023, will require middle school students to take one semester of civics.

The conference will bring together prominent policymakers and stakeholders to examine the critical role of civic education in fostering civic learning and engagement in Indiana. Two framing questions attendees will be invited to ask themselves are: “What difference can civic education make?” and “What difference will I make?” There is more work to be done, and your participation will help us continue to improve the state of civic education in Indiana.

The conference features three major presentations interspersed with additional topic-specific workshops. The first keynote will be delivered by Dr. Cynthia Cherrey, President and CEO of The International Leadership Association, an organization of 3,000 scholars, researchers, and practitioners from over 30 countries. She will provide an international perspective on the place of civic education and its relationship to democracy globally. The second keynote will be from Dr. Rajiv Vinnakota, President of The Institute for Citizens and Scholars at Princeton University. He is an expert on civic education’s significance nationally, particularly for young people. The final plenary session will be focused on the state of Indiana’s civic education and how we can strengthen it.

For more information, please contact Haley Bougher, Vice President of W4CI, haley@women4changeindiana.org.

You can register for the conference using the QR code below or the Coming Up section of the Women4Change website. Please ensure that you register by September 30th for discounted pricing. We look forward to hosting you at our Civic Education Conference, as your participation is what makes this program impactful.


Elcira Villarreal, Women4Change Indiana Board Chair Martha Lamkin, Women4Change Action Fund Board

Katherine Tyler Scott, Chair, W4CI Civic Education Conference Co-Chair Ava Taylor, Conference Co-Chair

1100 W 42nd St. | Suite 228 Indianapolis, IN 46208