Reminiscencing about my first government course as a sophomore year at Oberlin College, I dipped into political theory and ran into a summary of a 1989 book by Robert Dahl.
I read it during my course in American Government, given by Professor Aaron Wildavsky. (What a privilege it was to have him. He, some of you may remember, wrote, “The Politics of the Budgetary Process,” an easy introduction to budgeting, which uses lots of sports analogies like “end run.”)
There was a summary of Dahl’s 1989 book that I thought some might find of interest:
In another landmark book, Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Dahl makes his view about democracy clear. No modern country meets the ideal of democracy, which is a theoretical utopia. To reach the ideal requires meeting 5 criteria:
1. Effective Participation
2. Voting Equality at the Decisive Stage
3. Enlightened Understanding
4. Control of the Agenda
Instead, he calls politically advanced countries “polyarchies.” Polyarchies have
- elected officials,
- free and fair elections,
- inclusive suffrage,
- rights to run for office,
- freedom of expression,
- alternative information and
- associational autonomy.
Those institutions are a major advance in that they create multiple centers of political power.
Apply that to McHenry County and see how we stack up.
Most, although by no means all, think we have free and fair elections. We have suffrage for those who are citizens. (I was recently sent this HBO dvd entitled, “HACKING DEMOCRACY,” which he believes has more than a little relevance to McHenry County. He has charged me to “Pass it on,” so if anyone would like to view it, let me know.)
Petition requirements are not too onerous to prohibit anyone who seriously wants to run for office from doing so.
There is freedom of expression at most public meetings, although the Prairie Grove Grade School district did succeed in chilling the hallway outside of its secret meeting the one day I attended.
The decision by the Northwest Herald to inform residents of news or withhold it has diminished democracy in McHenry County in the past.
The Chicago Tribune established a Crystal Lake office in the late 1980’s that changed things for the better. Until the internet started cutting in on the Tribune’s advertising, it provided what Dahl calls “alternative information.” That was healthy for the body politic. Steve Stanek’s coverage of the county board was excellent for the Tribune.
The Daily Herald’s entry along the south and east edges of McHenry County starting in the early 1990’s also helped coverage, especially of county and courthouse affairs.
And I would like to suggest that even McHenry County Blog and other internet sources of local news and opinion have the potential of making county politics more democratic.
Now, when the Northwest Herald thinks something is not worth the time of day, information can reach the light of a computer screen.
I assume Dahl means that people can get together in interest groups by his final criteron: “associational autonomy.” We certainly can do that without fear.
So, I would say the future for democracy is good in McHenry County.
McHenry County College certainly flunked the “inclusiveness” ideal, though in its consideration of the baseball stadium. Crystal Lake, on the other hand, did a splendid job on inclusiveness.