Imagine a congressional district as a community. It has about 700,000 people, including a fair number of infants, and a few folks who’ve lived for more than a century.
It has quite a few people of exceptional intelligence, and a few whose mental abilities don’t allow them to even care for themselves. Some of its citizens have specialized job skills, and some are good at simply doing the next job that needs to be done.
Some are struggling to find meaningful work. Nearly every imaginable occupation is represented. Most of its residents are honest, and make genuine contributions to the community—a few steal from their neighbors. Some are actually locked up because of wrongs or errors they’ve committed.
Among the 700,000 there is a tremendous amount of energy and ability, more than equal to the challenges a community might encounter. A community this size is large and diverse enough to be powerful and effective.
Perhaps few people—and fewer congressional representatives—have ever thought of their congressional district (CD) in these terms. This article is a challenge for all to entertain some new ideas.
What is a congressional district? For the moment, let’s skip the high-school-civics definitions, and think in creative terms. If we could build the notion of a congressional district and representation from scratch — what would we invent? Might it be more than a unit of political representation? Might it be a community?
The 700,000 people in a CD are already members of several communities: cities, counties, churches, businesses, etc. What might transform them into a congressional district community?
That answer has to do with specific interests or goals. For instance, when they’re concerned about the school board, they’re citizens of the county; when they’re concerned about U.S. education policy, they’re members of the congressional district.
The people of this CD community are a resource. Their experience, energy and intelligence are power-filled. It’s exciting to think what those 700,000 might do.
They’re already doing phenomenal things, of course: raising and educating children, running businesses, carving sculptures, making music, going to school, writing books and on, and on. They’re busy! But, they’re not too busy to volunteer in churches, AA meetings or community organizations where they serve their neighbors.
They’re not too busy to be citizens. They may only think of themselves as citizens at election time, but what if they were asked for more? Suppose they were asked to spend time talking and working with their neighbors to solve problems—the really big problems—like the deficit, unemployment, immigration, energy, etc.
Well, they’d probably come up with a lot of silly, impractical ideas—the kinds of things they already invent in neighborhood taverns, over back-yard fences, and on Twitter. These are just ordinary people, after all.
But wait. Remember that there are 700,000 of them! Some have specialized knowledge, and half have above average intelligence! When they come up with silly ideas, they’ll be smart enough to dismiss those, and keep talking until they get the kernels of some really good notions—then to flesh out and develop those inspirations.
These folks are also a diverse lot—with differing beliefs and attitudes. They’ll challenge and test each other’s thoughts. When they settle on a notion, that idea will already be vetted and refined.
When they disagree, though, will they just call each other names and abandon their cooperation? Perhaps not—not when they begin to understand how good they are together. They’re neighbors, after all. They live and work together all the time. They already have disputes, but almost always work them out and they’ll quickly see how vitally important this work is. That’ll keep them focused on solutions.
OK, there’s some good energy among the 700,000, but how can it be organized and focused? Will they hold a massive convention once a year and talk each other into oblivion? Well, no—they can do better than that.
In fact, the wisdom and energy of the 700,000 can solve that organizational problem first. They’ll find ways to work in small groups, then compare and combine their ideas and solutions. They’ll divide the work, and set up timetables—just like they already do in their jobs, churches and civic organizations.
Howard University law professor Harold McDougall has written a series of Huffington Post Blog articles promoting the Swedish idea of study circles—small groups meeting regularly to reach consensus on problems and solutions. He reports that the group Everyday-Democracy.org is helping people build such study circles in the U.S.
In order to maintain inclusiveness and diversity, to share information and power, and to promote dialogue connected to change, McDougall recommends structuring these circles on the “Assembly” model, once proposed by Thomas Jefferson to bring Congress members closer to their constituents.
This would involve several tiers of organization within a congressional district. Representatives from small study circles would meet in larger groups, then larger, ultimately taking their work to the level of the CD and the congressperson.
Other models are possible. Instead of a permanent, hierarchical structure, circles might be topically organized, and formed and disbanded as needed—utilizing the community’s artists, accountants or scientists wherever their contributions are valuable.
The circles might be tiered differently for different purposes—for example, taking advantage of small groups where easy communication is essential—or large groups where diversity of thought is more important. The congressperson, or congressional staff might or might not be involved at various tier levels.
Not everyone will work at this. Most of the 700,000 will do nothing. Won’t the people who are doing it all resent those who don’t—and the other way around?
Yeah. All of that will happen; These folks are all human. But, a few will accomplish a lot. It’ll be like Wikipedia, where a small percentage of the people do most of the work.
Yet, a small percentage of 700,000 will be a lot of smart, talented, involved people—their work can produce great gains. We’ll be utilizing talent we’ve let lay fallow, and the word “representation” could take on new meaning.
How will this new kind of community and representation happen? As Margaret Mead may have said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
A few people in a community, committed to taking ownership of their congressional representation can find and elect a political independent who will serve the community, rather than a party. In each CD, it may begin over a backyard fence, or on Facebook or Twitter. Those few people, and the leader they elect will inspire those among the 700,000 who will work for change.
It’ll be different from what we usually observe today, where part-time citizens elect someone who perhaps thinks more or less as they do, then sit back and wait for that Representative to work on their behalf.
A congressional community will have full-time citizens—not people who work eight hours a day on community business—but people who are citizens every day of their lives, not just for brief stints every other November. They will insist on participating in their own governance and creatively shaping their own destinies.
They’ll require that their congressional representatives collect not just votes and campaign contributions, but the citizens’ ideas, philosophies and beliefs, and take all of that into the House of Representatives.
The very idea of representation can be expanded and revolutionized. Our idea of democratic citizenship can be broadened and deepened. When this new brand of community is demonstrated in a few congressional districts, it can happen in others.
In her blog, Writing in the Corner, Ann Porter counsels, “Don’t wait for the ‘right person’ to come along and do the work. The right person is the one willing to do it. If you’re willing, that’s you.”