Many of us these days are deeply worried about the tone and content of contemporary public debate and discussion about key issues which affect us in common. Somehow, the gulf which has long appeared between elites, experts, academics and everyone else has widened out dramatically. We seem to lead separate lives, imbibing separate ideas and creating separate crude stereotypes about others with whom we share our environments and our political institutions.
A century ago, from the struggles between labour and capital and between tradition and modernity, and the fight for the political rights of workers and women, some sense of a shared political community was forged. Today, while we pass our fellow citizens by on the bus, in the playground, at the supermarket or the doctor’s, or meet in a care home, how much do we understand of our various ways of life, struggles and challenges? Political institutions without some sense of what citizens of that community share in common is far from any conception of democracy. They become easy prey to the megaphones of contemporary populism, as we in the Western world are re-discovering.
So how can we once again learn the practices of democratic political community, which accepts difference but builds recognition of some kind of shared commons worth caring about, the kind of recognition that challenges excessive inequality and injustice among us? In this essay, I suggest that a focus on smallscale collective initiatives which aim to improve place qualities could be a productive arena for refreshing and re-learning the tolerance and understanding needed to sustain a democratic way of political life. Not the only one, but one worth cultivating. For it is in our daily life in places that we co-exist with neighbours who are often strangers to us. Perhaps in these difficult times, we can learn again how to combine expertise and experiential knowledge, and to struggle for better ways of ‘flourishing together’ rather than walling ourselves into all kinds of protected enclaves. Maybe those with more could learn that living in a highly unequal society is filled with not just deep injustice but all kinds of political dangers. Maybe we could also learn that experts and expert knowledge can often be quite useful, so long as they treat the rest of us with understanding and respect. And even elite leaders have their uses, so long as we continually challenge them to deserve our trust and respect, and we citizens in turn understand that their job, done well, is very hard work.
For the future unfolds in unexpected ways, the result of all kinds of struggles, pressures, victories and failures, both small and large. Yet, with a little effort, imagination and tolerance, it is possible for people collectively to create public value, and make a difference to the qualities of ‘their’ place, and in this way help to shape the future in more hopeful ways than might otherwise occur.
Patsy Healey, Creating public value through caring for place, Policy & Politics (2017). doi: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557316X14817306640776
If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also like to read Community resilience and crisis management: policy lessons from the ground by Nicole George and Alastair Stark.