Is Democracy Holding Us Back?

On Monday, the Cambridge, MA City Council adopted a policy order recognizing that a climate emergency exists and directing the City Manager to “direct the appropriate city departments to increase the City’s responses to a scale proportionate to the emergency and consistent with the city’s own Climate Protection goals for 2010 and beyond.”  (The full text of the measure is available here.)  Yesterday, I participated in a planning meeting to help chart a course for what kinds of immediate attention and action should be considered.  A long list of possible actions was developed — everything from hiring more staff to establishing a special department to lead an emergency climate response effort to orchestrating a large-scale public education and engagement effort were discussed.  While the discussion was interesting, I left the meeting thinking (knowing?) that very little progress would actually be made.

Cambridge is one of the first cities in Massachusetts, and the nation, to take up the climate change issue as an “emergency declaration” requiring immediate attention and action.  And yet, for all its research, commitment, and chest thumping on the issue, the prospects of a major response being organized and pursued are slim.

What is keeping us from solving the climate crisis?  We are.

The challenge is this: Mounting a significant – in this case city-wide – response to the climate crisis would require a sizable effort.  Time is running short.  There is still plenty of debate about what the appropriate response should be.  And any kind of sizable effort would need to be funded in a major way to have any kind of measurable impact.  The reality is this: There is no room for additional spending in the current budget and neither the City Council nor the Mayor are permitted to authorize new funds on their own.  Placing limits on building construction or restricting where/when residents can drive or park could have a measurable impact on emissions output, but those policy decisions require weeks of hearings and deliberation before they can be considered (and there is no certainty that the best policies will emerge from that process).  Even the idea of posing a question directly to voters asking for authorization to direct the government to act (and providing funds to support such an effort), in the form of a ballot initiative, would require substantial effort and money just to begin.

Our democratic system, for all its benefits, is standing in the way of real progress in the face of an emergency.

Cambridge is not the first community to find itself hamstrung by our democratic process.  Just this morning, The New York Times featured an article about California’s budget crisis and the setback voters dealt the Governor and other legislators this week when they voted down a budget compromise (which called for some deep cuts and tough choices) in a special election.  The result, as the article begins, is that “Direct democracy has once again upended California — enough so that the state may finally consider another way by overhauling its Constitution for the first time in 130 years.”  That’s right, left without any other options, lawmakers may try to change the state’s constitution to allow for immediate action, bypassing the direct participation of the voters.

So here is my question: Does our democratic system(s), which is designed to ensure discussion, moderation in our thinking, and to help keep the government from acting independently – without the best interests of the public in mind – have limits?  When the need arises, should we permit our elected officials to bypass some of the steps that keep real progress from happening in a short amount of time?  If we do, how can we ensure that the power won’t be abused (what defines an emergency, really)?  Given our technology-enabled, highly informed, and uber-connected society, are there other ways that we can mobilize to address these emergency situations, without running afoul of our founding principles?  In short, is it reasonable in an emergency situation for us to do whatever it takes so that the problem can actually be addressed — and what does “whatever it takes’ really mean?

You may also like