Attending the Rockdale County School Board meeting, one may not see this event as an embodiment of democracy. However, this gathering of people giving their opinions on what should happen in the school system is a great example of democracy at work. When civil society is active, then democracy is strengthened. People outside of the government being active in even local politics, like a school board meeting, shows that the people in that community care about how business is conducted where they live and want to be a part of the decision making processes that affect themselves and those around them. The presence of people at the board meeting shows that there are people who care about decisions made in their community, even the seemingly small ones like how a school district conducts their business. It is when meetings like this cease to exist that people should begin to worry. Even though these meetings may seem unimportant to many people, for students, parents, and those curious to what the school board chooses to spend the county’s money on, these meetings are a forum to express any support or discontent they may have toward their decisions.
According to Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz in Why Democracies Fail, people who are uncertain about change will look to those who want to keep that change at bay. This can be leaders, or in this case, other people attending the school board meeting. This closing in on differing opinions from peers is what may cause others to choose not to share their own opinion in fear that they may also be shot down by the crowd. If actions like this were to persist, people would soon be conditioned not to share an opinion that may differ from school board members or other people attending these meetings.
There are both similar and differing opinions, but just like everywhere else in the world, when there is uncertainty among a group of people, they tend to close in and attack what they may not know much about. This idea is also shown in the board meeting by those who may have differing opinions on decisions. The differing opinions on decisions that people are passionate about causes hostility and shooting down other’s opinions. This causes those who may differ with the majority opinion to feel as if they may not be welcome in these open forums and choose to no longer attend the meetings all together. As Sheri Berman stated in “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic,” “a civil society in decline is said to threaten democracy,” so the breaking down of civil engagement in these board meetings are an example of the breaking down of democracy in one aspect of local life.
It occurred to me that while people were giving their opinions and shooting down others that they did not realize how this could affect the way people interact with each other in the community. This board meeting, for example, the more people feel that they are silenced, the less they feel they are welcomed at the meetings and stop showing up altogether. This would cause the rooms of these board meetings to have an echo chamber effect and only feel welcoming to those who share the opinions of the board members and the parents who support the decisions they make. This destroys the democratic systems put in place in these meetings that ultimately affects the students of the Rockdale County School System without anyone speaking on their behalf. Dissent in normal in any situation where opinions are allowed to be stated freely, but when the “free” aspect is taken away, democracy comes into question and the negatively affects the people, citizens or students, subjected to the power of the ones in charge. In democracy, the power comes from the people, regardless of their views.
I also realized that although the people who attended this meeting were exercising their right to participate in the government, democracy and democratic institutions are not something that many of us think about in this country. Because many of Americans grew up in an environment where democracy has always existed, the idea of being worried that you’ll be jailed or punished by the government for going against a majority opinion at a board meeting does not exist. As Americans, we do not second guess whether we can attend events like board meetings and political rallies, because in our lifetime we have always had the chance to make those decisions. We think of the country we live in and do not actively worry about the future of democracy, because of this, democratic erosion is not even a possibility in our minds. Democracy is so deeply embedded in our culture and everyday lives that the idea that it can be chipped away is almost unthinkable.
This is a really interesting idea. I am particularly interested in the analogy you draw between participation in school board meetings and participation in democracy. I am wondering if, particularly in the United States, your theory of discouragement leading to no participation holds up in a democratic situation. I think there is something to be said for the public nature of school board democracy and the more private nature of American democracy. Specifically, school board meetings are more similar to town hall meetings and I agree that a heightened interest in local government is a good sign for democracy as a whole. However, in a school board meeting there is more of an incentive to fall in line with those around you. The vocal members are likely to hold some kind of social capital and the fear of being ostracized is enough to draw the opposition into the fold. In a democratic system votes are more public and it goes against the norm to directly ask someone who they voted for. While the latter point seems to be changing with this past election, it is easier to lie to avoid being ostracized. The smaller community of the school board leads to less anonymity which could lead to more unanimous voting. I think the factor of community size should be looked at more in this analysis. But it is a really good argument and very good to think about.