A Fundamental Puzzle of Civic Engagement RI Needs to Solve

Perhaps the single most-challenging dynamic of Rhode Island politics is one particular strategy of people who support the status quo, whether out of self-interest of a lack of imagination.  Residents of good intent give up their time and energy (and money) to try to improve the way their communities run, and when the reformers take office, step 1 of the forces of the status quo is to muddy the waters.

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That means a core group of politically active individuals begins a campaign of disruption and chaos to make it seem as if the reformers are doing intolerable, unprecedented things.  For good measure, they add in accusations of selfishness and possibly even corrupt connections to vague outside forces that somehow profit from lower taxes and a lighter governmental touch in some distant small town.

If they manage to create an air of scandal (a project with which the local media will typically lend a hand), they’ll attract well-meaning, passionate people who err in their judgment of who is to blame.  They become like antibodies attacking a helpful organism in the body.

As the false narrative gains hold, every action of the reformers is made to seem a negative, no matter how implausible it might be.  If they attempt to help a local charity advertise for an event despite a likely unconstitutional sign ordinance, they are attempting to subvert the law.  If they appoint one person with a different perspective to a seven-person volunteer board, they’re consolidating power.  If they stop conducting so much business behind closed doors and dramatically open up the ability of residents to make comments during meetings, they’re being secretive and silencing the people.

The contradictions almost help the cause of the attackers, because they leave the public only two options.  Either the reformers are doing corrupt and selfish things for their own personal gain under cover of a clever charade of openness, or those who oppose them are raving lunatics with no moral compass.  Without knowing much about the players, people will find the first option easier to believe, and we lead busy lives that don’t allow much room for investigation.

The process proceeds, and the margin expands for increasingly reasonable people to speak out against what they believe to be a real threat.  That includes fictional declarations about the supposed “agenda” of the reformers, such as the one to which I responded this week on Tiverton Fact Check.

Finally, residents who might otherwise consider running for office conclude that it isn’t worth the trouble, and the community enters another period of political stasis until something happens that causes another crisis.  Perhaps a new batch of reformers comes forward, and the process repeats.  Some Rhode Island communities seem not even to be able to muster this level of correction; all the reformers have been kneaded out of the dough of the status quo.

Unfortunately, economic indicators, breakdowns in government services, and looming fiscal clouds, such as pensions, prove that this cycle is not sustainable.  From one front or another, something will come that will demand reform, and it isn’t clear that the Ocean State can produce the people who will bring it.

Rhode Islanders have to solve this puzzle.

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