A hatred of “Big Government” is the rallying cry used by a host of candidates as their “Big Reason” for you to vote for them. Forget what “Big Government” actually means, just hate it. It’s bad. You’re over it. Move on and vote for me.
Small government is where it’s at. All the cool kids are doing it.
I absolutely agree with the small government part, but I attach caveats.
Small groups can succumb to groupthink and make horrible decisions, just as their larger counterparts have. I think that voters tend to get lost in the custom-tailored small versus big metaphors about government that are so annoyingly pervasive in today’s campaign advertisements. The line of argument between which government type is better, big or small, tends to break down due to lack of definition – especially when candidates who want you to blindly say “I’m with you!” couch the terms in ambiguity. Smartness versus stupidity is generally the less talked about, but more useful, metric.
Given that, I’ll happily affirm my conviction that small and smart is the best approach. And I live right smack in the middle of a rich tradition of the best of those components: Anchorage Community Councils.
If that’s a new term for you, you’re not alone. Let’s add some context.
Article 8 of the Anchorage Municipal Charter established our federation of community councils “to afford citizens an opportunity for maximum community involvement and self-determination. The ordinance shall include procedures for negotiation between the local government and each community council with respect to the duties and responsibilities of the community council.”
When we speak of “local government,” this is the ground level. Nearly forty councils – a fair chunk are unfortunately inactive – make up small, neighborhood representative bodies that serve an advisory role to the assembly members, the mayor, and the state legislature. They conduct similar business as their counterparts in the chambers of the Loussac and in the State Capitol Building in Juneau. Any given meeting will include informal hearings with developers and engineers who oversee a multitude of neighborhood projects that affect their immediate community; votes on resolutions supporting or opposing those projects; entertaining reports from elected officials and being afforded the opportunity to ask questions; have their ideas, concerns, and views heard.
The concept isn’t new. It’s as American as apple pie and disdain for the Yankees.
One of Thomas Jefferson’s most adamant beliefs took up the subject. When we inject Jefferson into 21st century political conversations, the translation is often butchered. But this finding still rings resiliently true today: his belief in government conducted at the ward level.
The reputation of republics during the period surrounding the revolution was not great. History and perception held that the bigger the republic, the bigger its proclivity to fail miserably and violently. Concerned with the size of Virginia’s population (just under 900,000 at the time – over a third slaves) Jefferson suggested that Virginians: “Divide the counties into wards of such size as that every citizen can attend… [and] Ascribe to them the government of their wards in all things relating to themselves exclusively.”
He felt that this would result in “making every citizen an acting member of the government, and in the offices nearest and most interesting to him, will attach him by his strongest feelings to the independence of his country, and its republican constitution.”
In other words, he promoted a drive towards personal responsibility, institutionalized in a way that made the most sense economically. This is the driving force behind why the neighborhoods of Anchorage have the persevering independent personalities that they do today – personalities staggeringly more distinctive and less homogenized than the bulk of lower 48 suburbs or city blocs, devoid of communal identity. And while Jefferson placed much more power and authority with those localized bodies, the case remains that his “ward republic” concept is encapsulated in our community councils. They serve as a crown jewel of what small – and smart – government looks like.
This might be news to Anand Dubey.
Dubey, the Republican candidate for House District 19, has made one thing undeniably clear: He does not care for “Big Government.”
In a candidate debate at the University of Alaska Anchorage he unblinkingly described the relationship between the federal government and Alaska as akin to “master and slave.”
On Twitter and Facebook this week, he blasted his Democratic opponent: “Representative Lindsey Holmes is for big government!” and offered a crass political cartoon featuring a fatigued reindeer – identified as “citizen” – towing an overfed polar bear with a fish in its mouth. The bear, of course, is wearing a t-shirt sporting the logo: “Big Government.”
His website, radio commercial, and campaign literature universally tout his belief that Alaska needs to change course, away from “Big Government,” towards “smaller, smarter government.”
So, we arrive at a point of agreement.
Last week, at a West Anchorage candidate forum, the candidate backed himself into a very weird corner, when the moderator asked: “Did you regularly attend your community council meetings before you were a candidate?”
“No I have not attended before, after, or since,” he said sharply.
He’s not into that sort of thing.
Believing “Big Government” is the problem is a relatively defensible position – though, as stated above, the intelligence of governing bodies might be a better metric than size. But the more localized you have representative bodies, centralized you have the power, and closer to the issues they are concerned with, the smarter they tend to be. And, maybe even more important in today’s politics, more inclined to tuck the red and blue jerseys away and get along.
By saying, essentially, that “Big Government” is bad and “Small Government” isn’t something worth wasting his time on, Dubey begs the question of which government porridge is just right?
A good, strict discipline of republican governance starts at the citizen and rises up – hopefully resulting in just and balanced policy. This is small, smart government. A bad, disheveled mess occurs when everything is done at the top with little communication, coordination, and, especially, consent of the governed. This describes big and stupid government.
By ruling out any value in either flavor of government, big or small, Dubey is leaving himself out on a limb without access to other branches. Defiant towards those above him; refusing to acknowledge those underneath. This seems like irredeemably dumb government.
Our Community Councils are the last bastion of legitimately recognized refuge where concerned minorities – or even majorities within a particular neighborhood – can raise voice and lend local knowledge to specific issues; make sure that the message is heard, loud and clear, by the broader public of Anchorage, and also the people who represent them, decide what projects go into the budget, and which are left on the cutting room floor.
If our assembly persons, state representatives, and state senators are doing their jobs, you and I can show up and communicate with them directly (try doing that in California). It’s part of their job, and part of how we hold them accountable. It’s where you and I become the engine that drives the message up. Hiring someone who proactively announces he hasn’t been on the job and has no plans of showing up to work doesn’t seem to make much sense.