I was surprised to see Jim Leonard’s screed in the Enterprise referencing the Vanguard’s article from prior to the election. In it, he says that a friend had a discussion with a long-time staffer at City Hall, complaining about a guest piece written by a number of local politicians.
Mr. Leonard’s friend was upset that the guest commentary “ignored air quality in the argument for the project” and became shocked when the staffer apparently dismissed the complaint by arguing, “Democracy is adversarial.”
At this point Mr. Leonard proclaims that this is “why democracy does not work in Davis.” And he proceeds to divide democracy into “communicative democracy and adversarial democracy.”
“Communicative democracy encourages all opponents to share whatever truth they have with everyone. When it is determined who has won, everybody celebrates and learning continues. Nobody is bitter. Everybody is energized by the process. And, if a collective mistake was made, the mistake can be easily undone,” he writes.
On the other hand, “Adversarial democracy is all about who gets power and resources. Lying, distorting the truth, withholding information and undermining reputations are acceptable. There are winners and losers. There is no situation within which everyone wins.”
He argues, “Power is the object of this kind of democracy.”
Needless to say, I have a lot of problems with this whole construct. I believe that democracy is at its core the marketplace of ideas. Under this construct, the truth emerges from a competition of ideas in a free and transparent manner of public discourse.
In fact that is the raison d’être of the Vanguard. The idea is that we push ideas out there to the public, competing ideas at times, and the public discusses and debates them.
In my view, the Nishi election, regardless of your preferred outcome, worked reasonably well. The developer put down the proposal. The opposition attacked key vulnerable points of that proposal. The developer attempted to mitigate some of their weaknesses during the course of the campaign. The opposition was able to criticize those fixes and push forward their own narrative.
The one shortcoming in the process is that it would have been better if this sort of give and take, proposal and counterproposal would have allowed for being able to offer the public different iterations of the project – each of which improved upon each other. But the structure of an election does not permit that kind of give and take.
Mr. Leonard argues that lying and distorting the truth are acceptable, but, in my view, lies and distortions get exposed and debunked through this deliberative process.
That is certainly what happened here. The issue of air quality certainly got a lot of play during the election. In fact, the Vanguard published at least two pieces before the matter was even put on the ballot, highlighting the concerns about air quality as expressed by Thomas Cahill.
During the election, we had a piece that laid out Dr. Cahill’s concerns and the responses from the city and the EIR consultant to his concerns. Dr. Cahill expressed to me that he felt that the current standards are inadequate, that he would prefer to err on the side of caution, i.e. no housing until we were assured that there were not harmful health effects.
While I respect that position and where Dr. Cahill was coming from, it was not one I shared.
There were also legitimate concerns about traffic on Richards Boulevard that the developer and city council attempted to mitigate and that the opposition believed was inadequate.
Finally, I think the opposition had legitimate concerns about the affordable housing exemption – I did not agree it was illegal, but the optics of it were horrendous and definitely harmed the project at the ballot box.
What I don’t understand is the notion of “why permit adversarial democracy?” In the case of Nishi, there were two opposing viewpoints on what the future of Davis looked like. We had a defined process in a defined period of time. Each side made their case.
I do not see how what Mr. Leonard seems to advocate is possible. He notes, “Communicative democracy encourages all opponents to share whatever truth they have with everyone.” That certainly occurred in this process. The Vanguard, through a system of article submissions and moderated comments, attempts to do exactly that.
Mr. Leonard then offers, “When it is determined who has won, everybody celebrates and learning continues. Nobody is bitter.” How do you operationalize that? A local governance system comes closer to avoiding the struggles of power politics than state or national systems with political parties as power brokers, but even at the local level – there are strongly held views and competing visions.
Mr. Leonard argues that this is the “true democracy.” I think a more realistic goal is more a hybrid between Mr. Leonard’s two models. That is our goal at the Vanguard: present different views of preferred policy goals, push for transparency in government, call out public officials when they lack transparency, obfuscate or attempt to game the system, and allow the marketplace of ideas to come out through discourse.
Will there be some winners and some losers in this process? That is unavoidable.
Mr. Leonard closes by arguing, “I believe communicative democracy is true democracy. In contrast, adversarial democracy is a raid on democracy by anti-democratic forces, democracy with a false face, and undermines true democracy. I think the staffer revealed how undemocratic our city’s politics are and how hostile the city is to the community it supposedly serves. This situation needs to be remedied, badly. The only cure is direct democracy and more honest and open communication among the citizens.”
I am not going to argue that there aren’t problems with the current system. The Vanguard was founded ten years ago this month to increase transparency and accountability for local elected officials.
But I don’t agree that the system is broken or even hostile to the community – I simply believe that there are competing views about the best way forward for the community. And to that, I think we need some sort of facilitated visioning process to see if there is a common path forward.
—David M. Greenwald reporting