To some people, maybe even a lot of people right now, the idea of “taking back our government” really resonates. But take it back from what? From whom? From where?
Generally “taking back our government” denotes wresting it— the government — from vague powers out there somewhere that have somehow absconded with what is rightfully ours. But to Debbie Cook, current board president of the Post Carbon Institute, and the former mayor of Huntington Beach, California, “taking back our government” is a phrase fraught with misunderstanding and loaded with misdirected criticism.
“We are the government,” says Cook, noting the long history in the US of democratic representation from the local level on up. Cook argues that particularly in our own neighborhoods and small cities citizens can make a difference, but only if they get involved. And if they complain and still don’t get involved? She has little tolerance for that.
“I find it kind of frightening this trend toward criticizing the government and blaming someone else when we’re the problem. Government is good at technical problems, fixing roads and dams, but government can’t fix human behavior,” she says. “Folks aren’t willing to get involved, and they need to.”
Cook argues that the more citizens get involved with local government the more they will see that most localities face tough problems without easy solutions. The answers that do come, she says, are often complex compromises that naturally require negotiations between various factions and interests. This may seem obvious to those with experience in electoral politics, but to the average citizen, government still seems to be an issue that leaves them feeling frustrated, helpless, and alienated.
To overcome that sense of the unknown, Cook’s advice is the same, get involved. She says that individuals, “need to recognize that they are the government” and have a rightful place in it. That doesn’t mean there will be instant results and immediate accountability. Instead Cook likens local government to organic farming, explaining that you have to put in the time, nutrients, management, and care to get good results, which may take time to yield a good harvest. But you can’t begin without first turning the soil and planting some seeds.
Most of all, she sees the need for a cultural shift. So many people take the view that because they want what they want, and it makes perfect sense to them, the rest of the world should be ready to bend and comply after you bang your hand on the podium at a city council meeting. Cook says it takes time to grasp how things work in the slow moving world of governance, and time to introduce yourself to the current players. The culture of instant gratification and the machinations of government are anathema.
“Seek first to understand, and then to be understood,” advises Cook. And she says, look into the many different ways to influence local action and policy.
Though once a mayor, now Cook finds satisfaction as an activist pushing on the levers of local government from a different angle. She also serves on an energy committee of a task force for city government looking at planning and issues in transportation. She explains that individuals can bring forth ideas and issues in energy and take it to a city council in the hopes to sway policymakers on the issues you’re passionate about. That includes pushing for pocket parks, community gardening, bike paths, green roofs, and other low-energy or carbon offset plans that resonate with you, fit into your time, and showcase your abilities.All the better, if you’re building community will by lobbying your idea around, or perhaps getting up a petition or making a presentation to local groups or the council.
But the one thing you shouldn’t do? Don’t just gripe or throw your hands up in despair if you’re not willing to put in the elbow grease and face time that could help generate a different outcome or raise new ideas. And gird against disappointment by thinking realistically while also imagining creatively, particularly during a climate of increasing budget cuts.
Cook says to think about what’s doable, and build on gains. “A solution is not a solution if it is not affordable.”