When trying to understand what drives democratic erosion, complacency by politicians at the grassroots is often ignored; a worrisome omission, to say the least. Here, we turn our attention to the particular case of municipal-level government, in New Haven, CT, as illustrated by a recent visit to an aldermanic meeting. When one imagines municipal-level meetings, one might think of a slow, laboured process as elected officials grind and question their way through decisions. Or, one might imagine a heated debate as local officials wrestle with the pressing questions of the day. In retrospect, either of these two imagined spectacles would have been better alternatives to what I witnessed at New Haven’s aldermanic meeting on February 20th, 2018.
The meeting, which was open to the public, lasted little more than twenty minutes and featured absolutely no debate, disagreement or contestation of any kind. Rather, the members of the public that had gathered were subjected to a performance of democracy, instead of its practice. By that, I mean simply that the alders read out prepared statements and voted (by a vocal, “I”) on an array of issues ranging from the mundane to the quite serious. For instance, all alders unanimously agreed to reelect “Salvatore DeCola to the Water Pollution Control Authority as the Board of Aldres representative,” (who had been appointed by the mayor) in a matter of seconds. Though I had no particular reason to question whether Mr DeCola should be re-elected nor knew who he was, the absence of any discussion was disconcerting. Furthermore, it was not clear whether the public was given an opportunity to ask, question or otherwise contest the decision at any point. Though the president of the board (who was presiding over the meeting) paused briefly after each vote to seek out any dissenting voices, there appeared to be little expectation that anyone would reasonably dissent at all.
Similarly, when another alder later raised the Connecticut state legislature’s recent decision to “significantly raise” bus and train fares, while also cutting bus routes through New Haven, there was neither a further discussion, nor a question raised. This was especially surprising given the New Haven population’s considerable reliance on public transport. A few minutes later, the meeting turned to “points of personal privilege,” which mostly involved alders announcing various barbecues, community events and sporting events. In brief, the aldermanic meeting was a far cry from my idealised image of democracy at work. Yet, given my lack of familiarity with American grassroots politics, it was not immediately clear why (beyond the dissonance of the experience to an idealised image) the meeting was quite so unsettling. However, as the remainder of this post will outline, the aldermanic meeting offers insight into what might constitute democratic erosion at the local level.
Firstly, it’s important to understand that New Haven’s politics are dominated by the Democratic party- unsurprising given the predominance of communities of colour and the Yale campus in the mostly urban area. Indeed, some 38 000 of New Haven’s registered 55 500 voters are registered Democrats, while a mere 2 300 are Republican, with the remainder unaffiliated. The dominance of the Democratic machine has been a fact of New Haven politics since at least the early 1980s, with the party’s members making up an outright majority at every level of local government since. As such, there’s little incentive for alders to engage in public debate given that they likely agree on key policy issues. Moreover, by operating strategically and working together, alders can avoid public disagreements which could jeopardize the party’s dominance. Yet, it is the very fact of long-standing democratic dominance that has enabled such staged aldermanic meetings to take place.
Specifically, the meeting was held merely to make decisions that had been made in a preceding meeting of the Democratic caucus a matter of public record. As a result, any debate that might happen is held behind closed doors, explaining the speed with which the performance occurred. As Democratic caucus meetings are closed to the public, there’s simply no way to gauge how much debate or contestation there is among the alders without deeper investigation. However, the fact of decision-making behind closed doors is indicative of a possible source of democratic erosion. At the very best, decisions made without consulting the public are the result of officials having already gained the consent of the voting public, but could be undemocratic at worst. The strength of the Democratic party machine has likely limited belief that participation by voters is of any value, given the abysmal voter turnout for 2017’s mayoral elections– approximately 20%. Where New Haven’s Aldermanic board sits in between those two extremes is unclear, however; the more undemocratic it is perceived to be, the more likely it is to be a sign of democratic erosion. That is to say, if the voting public perceives its local government to be undemocratic, the resulting loss of legitimacy could mark the beginning of democratic erosion. However, without further evidence, such a claim would be difficult to justify.
On the other hand, it is difficult not to assume that such limited debate among local officials affects the Democratic party itself; causing it to ignore changes in views, concerns etc. raised by its base as complacency within its membership grows. Such situations are could breed a party mechanism fundamentally out of touch with its apparent base, possibly contributing to shock results such as those seen in the 2016 election. However, that is a debate that lies beyond the confines of this particular discussion. Altogether, New Haven’s experience with single party dominance suggests that political scientists should concern themselves more often with the consequences of political stagnation at the local level. Rather than concerns about mutual tolerance and forbearance, democratic erosion at the local level can be driven by a much more benign, but no less damaging complacency.
Photo, “NHV Education Committee,” Creative Commons Zero License