Anthony Flint’s article in The Atlantic Cities, which compares Jane Jacobs’ protesting to current Tea Party protests against urban planning, inadvertently unmasks a serious issue in any consensus society. In drawing parallels between the near-riots of the 1960s and those of today, he invites us to look at what giving communities more power has wrought. Although his description of the Tea Party is clearly unsympathetic, he leaves two issues incompletely treated – grassroots activism versus astroturf, and starting versus shutting down discussions – and this gives a feeling of a meander, or at worst a late defense of top-down planning with no civic engagement.
Part of the issue of the attitude toward public debate has already been covered elsewhere. Emily Washington does a good job at demolishing the pretense that the Tea Party is consistently against government intervention, in favor of a view that it supports intervention as long as it’s in favor of what its members consider their kind of people. And far from trying to explain to people why its preference for intervention is better, as Jacobs did in The Death and Life, it prefers to yell: see, for example, how it acts in the East Bay.
But the issue of fake grassroots campaigns is as important. Although liberals should be wary of carelessly dismissing the Tea Party as merely a brand for the Koch brothers’ lobbying, it is a general fact that people who perceive themselves as the normals tend to think they speak for everyone when they do not. The Lower Manhattan Expressway really was unpopular in most of the West Village. How could it be otherwise in a neighborhood where a large majority of households did not even own cars? Jacobs, in other words, really was speaking for the community. The same is not true of people who think themselves the silent majority; going back to the East Bay example, after the local Tea Party leader had her tantrum, people informally voted on their priorities in urban planning, and urban priorities like controlling pollution came out on top whereas big houses with big yards came out at the bottom.
Fortunately, formal democratic governance can also reduce the influence of a pernicious majority. For example, the referendum process could be made binding, and more long-term. It’s unthinkable that a governor elected by a bare majority of voters can unilaterally cancel a long-term infrastructure investment without a referendum. In Germany, when the Stuttgart21 disaster led to a state government led by the anti-Stuttgart21 Greens, the new coalition did not act as Rick Scott did. Not only was the Greens’ approach more responsible – they put forth a counter-plan and hired Swiss railroad experts to help – but also they put the cancellation to a referendum, and when the cancellation lost, they accepted the result. And in Switzerland, the referendum process tends to lead to continuity of policy, rather than to the situation in the US, in which the referendum process means that groups will put their preferred policy on the ballot every two years until it passes, and then lock it in so that it cannot be repealed. Although in principle the California governance system looks like direct democracy, in practice it has as much to do with it as Putin’s managed democracy has to do with actual democracy. But insofar as consensus democracy was attempted in the East Bay, the Tea Party disruptors lost.
Of course, merely dismissing the Tea Party as a noisy minority is not enough. The importance of this episode is that consensus governance is vulnerable to this kind of astroturf, or even an independent community of true believers who think they represent many more people than they actually do. On issues that have a clear expert consensus, you won’t find many defenders of consensus governance. Voting on science education means that some school boards will support creationism (not for consensus reasons, but for religious ones). There is an entire movement dedicated to restoring top-down social control, whose leaders come from a background in science popularization that really does boil down to transmitting the experts’ conclusions to the masses.
And yet, urban planning is not evolutionary biology. The need for consensus comes from the fact that planners have a history of getting things wrong in a disastrous fashion, and often of being upended by laypeople like Jacobs. Authoritarian planning will treat entire classes of people as problems to be solved, and house them in a series of projects modeled after the modern prison system: project towers, group homes, low-rise projects, supervised releases to suburbia. Giving people this power over others and hoping that the people in power will be wise is wishful thinking; one might as well support absolute monarchy.
Thus, there is no way to both have a good governance mechanism and prevent people from staging revolts for wrong reasons. A democracy will sometimes vote the wrong people into power; democratic urban planning will let itself be disrupted by a group of organized radicals. In both cases, the change in power should not spell the end of democracy; the ousted side routinely regroups and wins later in national bipartisan politics, and regularly has some input about government in national multiparty politics. Maybe all cities need is to treat their planning process with the same respect that countries treat their legislative process.