Defending Democracy in Northfield

schattschneider.jpgBack in my undergraduate days, I was a political science major. Although at my school, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, the course of study was called “government”.

One of the legendary faculty members at Wesleyan (perhaps second only to John Cage) was E. E. Schattschneider. Included on the reading list for the “Government 101” class was Schattschneider’s The “Semisovereign People”. It is a book that has continued to affect my thinking throughout my life.

A key idea that Schattschneider discusses in the book is “scope”. He suggests that in a democracy, when one side of a discussion, disagreement or conflict believes that involving more participants, perspectives or viewpoints will strengthen their position, they will work to expand the scope.

He illustrates the conflict with the example of a small town in New Hampshire, the mythical community of Southmount. The town is contemplating the building of a new fire and safety center, moving the vehicles out of what is essentially an old stable. One of the sites under consideration is owned by the family of the Chair of the Board of Selectmen.

The town spends a good year and a half discussing the potential sites and the Selectmen vote on two occasions to move the focus of the site investigation toward the property owned by the family of the Chair. Then suddenly the process unravels. The Town Administrator accuses the Chair of attempting to exert improper influence on the process, several of the other Selectmen seem to vaguely support the accusation, and the local newspaper runs a huge front page story about the topic, allegedly based on documents provided by one of the Selectmen.

The Chair of the Selectmen responds that he has done nothing wrong, has checked his actions with both his private attorney and the town’s attorney, and calls for an independent investigation by the State Auditor. The Selectmen agree to pursue the investigation and solicit additional issues for investigation.

The resulting list is longer than anticipated and includes suggestions of significant improprieties, even illegalities, committed by the other Selectmen and/or the Town Administrator, some of which relate to the site selection process for the fire and safety center. It’s a longer story than you can imagine (well…maybe not) but to summarize, the Selectmen vote three times against including the Chair’s issues in the independent investigation. After the third vote, the Chair sues some of the Selectmen and the Town Administrator.

Schattschneider uses the tale to explore the concept of expanding the scope, suggesting that “the privatization of a conflict is of interest for the more powerful combatant, while the socialization tends to be the strategy of the weaker party. Privatization allows for the powerful group to attain control of the conflict whereas the introduction of more interest groups many not only cause the controlling power to lose said control and the nature of the conflict to change but can perhaps even give rise to different conflicts with goals more adverse to the group in power than the original conflict.”

It’s been thirty years since I read the book. Now that I think about, Schattschneider may have used two sailors fighting in a bar to illustrate the concept but I think it lacks the depth and color of my example.

It is Schattschneider’s belief that this expansion of the scope of conflict helps to protect and enhance democracy in America. By expanding the scope of conflict, and bringing in more participants, perspectives and viewpoints, there is greater democracy in the decision-making process.

We have an opportunity to participate in the expanded scope of the discussion of the decision-making process and balance of power in our community tonight, 7 pm, in Council Chambers at City Hall. There is much more riding on this event than the brawl between two sailors in a bar. I urge you to attend.

One thought on “Defending Democracy in Northfield”

  1. This was a beautiful piece, both in substance and writing.
    I found it too much to comment on, in the light of both immediate local, larger national, and encompassing global issues.
    These are times when Shakespearian quotes keep coming to mind … “the world is out of joint” …
    Democracy is threatened on every level; it seems we should be able to ensure it in our small community, but it’s hard …it’s hard.

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