Citizen participation required to fill potholes along the rocky road of politics
There are very few issues of national prominence on which a large majority of our citizens can agree, but one notable exception is the almost unanimous disdain and distrust with which the people now view the players and the parties in today's world of politics.
Conflict between opposing political partisans has been an integral part of the system from the very first days of our founding, but the antagonism that defines the current competitive scene has become so personal and abusive that the process has lost its value as a form of mediation and compromise and is now the accepted site for battle.
Nevertheless, despite the antagonism it generates and its very limited contribution to orderly and effective rules of governance, its role in our system and even its warped performance is generally beneficial and irreplaceable. For example:
For many American cities, the residential community bordering its downtown was the town's first section to be settled and now, as the city's oldest neighborhood, is often its most damaged and depressed. In the early 1950s, one of the big political issues in a great many cities was urban renewal, a plan whereby those downtown slum areas would be redeveloped and made more habitable. Implementation would be a partnership between the federal government for its financing and the local leadership for its execution. I remember it being a very hot topic in New Jersey when I moved from there to Ann Arbor in 1954 — and it was an even more contentious issue here with numerous public hearings and intense political debates.
While this was going on, I met with the mayor of Ypsilanti, Rod Hutchinson, who favored the proposal, as did I. At the time, Ypsilanti enjoyed a non-partisan system of government, a fact that the mayor proudly threw up to me as evidence of the deep sense of community in Ypsilanti and the counter-effectiveness of Ann Arbor’s partisan political process. “See. With both your parties yelling and screaming and getting nowhere, we, with our common concern for the community, are going to pass the urban renewal bill that you—with all your bellicose partisanship—can’t even get it off the ground.”
The battle continued for a very long period — vitriolic, often irrational and joined by just about every civic and social organization in town. Ann Arbor did finally get it off the ground and passed a seriously watered down version of what had originally been proposed, while Ypsilanti, with its generally uncontested acceptance of the wisdom of the proposal, got nowhere. Mayor Hutchinson and I were both surprised by the bill’s defeat in Ypsilanti, finally concluding that, although they had no organized opposition, neither did they have any effective organized support so it simply died from disinterest.
The message that we both took away from this was that political partisanship can be ugly and is often irrational and destructive, but with it we have passion and the likelihood of some level of performance, while without it we too often have a vacuum of disinterest and inaction.
It is probably true that in an ideal world, good solutions to complex problems — even while dividing proponents with opposing views — are in the compromises reached between their honest representatives. But the world of politics seems to follow a different path. The mechanics of the democratic system of government may well be outside our preferred style of operation, but if that’s the only game in town we have no choice but to make it work.
And that requires an active and continuing citizen participation in community affairs. ` We cannot assign responsibilities to others, then simply walk away. The nation is ours, the local community is ours — the decisions must be ours. We must remain involved, a particularly beneficial alternative for too frequently bored and inactive seniors.
Robert Faber has been a resident of Ann Arbor since 1954. He previously owned a fabric store and later a travel agency. He served a couple of terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. His wife of more than 60 years, Eunice, died March 20. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.