Last week, I spent some time with Don Monroe, one of Toledo's wise old heads and an icon in East Toledo. Mr. Monroe said many interesting things. But maybe the most interesting was this: “People need to vote, damn it. They have a duty. I am so sick of people talking about their rights. I'm tired of rights talk. We need to talk about duties. And voting is the first duty all of us have. People died for this.”
Agreed. And I'll go one more. The 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt said the voting booth is too small a space for democracy.
Ms. Arendt, who taught at the University of Chicago but often wrote for a general audience, believed voting is the least we owe the republic. For true democracy, people need to be engaged in freedom of association, the right to petition the government, and public discourse in what she called “public spaces.”
This year, Toledo has seen a huge number of forums sponsored by neighborhood associations — more than anyone can recall. Most of the gatherings featured cookies and donuts; coffee, tea, and pop. The best included the candidates for City Council and the Toledo school board, as well as the candidates for mayor, and the audience got to have at them all.
This was grassroots politics. People took hold of the campaign and shaped it in the public spaces these forums created.
And democracy isn’t limited to school halls. At the Ottawa Tavern, a young, raucous crowd grilled the candidates. Democracy is not tame.
I think Toledo's public gardens are a “public space.” People come together to work side by side as neighbors. Teaching young people sustainability; bringing good food to poor folks; using urban space wisely, and for beauty — all this connects people. That's democracy.
Years ago, the late Sen. Eugene McCarthy told Bill Moyers that, ideally, the federal government would be libertarian and local government would have the most power and essentially be socialist.
What did he mean?
First, that the greatest power should be vested at a level accessible to all the people. Second, that the government closest to the people accepts an imperative to take care of its neighbors. Maybe the federal government doesn't, and can't, understand the homeless population of Toledo. But Toledo city government darn well should. Maybe the feds can't do much to make Toledo schools better, but the people of Toledo can empower the school system to be better, and demand that the promise is kept.
Care for your community. Take care of your city.
At the University of Pittsburgh, I studied with a great man named Richard Cottam. He used to say that people in the least civilized nations invest most in the nation, whereas in the most civilized nations, people feel most deeply about what the 19th century Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton called their “little platoons.”
“All politics is local,” it is said. The more local, the more free.
Don't neglect to vote today. But remember, it's just the beginning of democracy.
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