Taking public meetings online was supposed to broaden civic engagement, but little has changed: The same vocal residents, interest groups and activists still dominate them. We need to find better ways.
Maybe you’ve seen yard signs or mailers inviting you to a “neighborhood meeting” or a “hearing for changing CS and CL to SP zoning” or some other hyperlocal matter. But if we’re honest, the typical American rarely shows up at these community gatherings; they’re usually hard to attend, understand or even care about, and new evidence suggests that taking them online has done little to fix this. That’s a problem if we care about community voices being heard.
Civic engagement is seen as critical to local democracy. Ideally, neighbors inform elected officials and appointed leaders on decisions that affect the community. Local hearings and neighborhood meetings are one highly visible form of civic input; untold thousands of such gatherings occur across America every week. Town meetings are the primary school of liberty, at least according to Alexis de Tocqueville.
But today, civic engagement is broken. Local institutions designed to increase democratic responsiveness continue to empower a narrow slice of the community that is on average older, whiter and wealthier. Too often, they enable regulatory capture by similarly unrepresentative activists and interest groups. The upshot is less local representation and, more specifically, opposition to growth that leads to ever-higher housing prices.
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