Community Is Important. But “The Community” Is an Illusion.

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It’s getting to be local election campaign season here in Sarasota, Florida, again, and as always, I find myself deeply distrustful when the candidates start talking about how they’re going to listen to the community and stand up for the community.

This kind of language is omnipresent in local politics. Where I am, one candidate wants “to restore … decision-making for all residents and businesses, not just the special few.” Another says, “It is essential that the citizens and that the neighborhood leaders have … a meaningful voice at the table.” A third wants to “help you preserve your neighborhood’s character.” One candidate’s campaign website forcefully rails against “behind-the-scenes special interests” opposed to the interests of “citizens.”

This talk is omnipresent because it’s politically effective messaging. You, the noble and authentic community, are in a pitched battle with (often unspecified) outsiders, who are not of the community. This establishes an in-group and an out-group and, in doing so, plays on some pretty basic moral instincts toward loyalty and reciprocity. It also feels consistent with the basic logic of democracy: that the people ought to be in control of the government. It’s hard to argue with the sentiments in the previous paragraph at face value.

The problem is when those sentiments are not really meant at face value, but as an implicit signal that the speaker favors the policy preferences of a specific subset of residents. Here where I live, for example, this kind of “restore power to the community” or “help our neighborhoods” talk is almost always a shibboleth for a specific change-averse politics, ranging from skeptical to outright hostile toward development, embraced by most of the city’s influential neighborhood associations. Essentially, this is the “homevoter” bloc famously described by economist William Fischel: politically active, relatively well-to-do homeowners whose chief interest in local government is the preservation of their property values and existing neighborhood character.

In my experience, homevoters everywhere are quite forthright about defining themselves as “the community” and conflating their interests with the general interest. As far as my home of Sarasota is concerned, if you’re in the sizable minority of residents here who rent their homes, in a county that experienced a staggering 47% rent growth from February 2021 to February 2022, there is at least one way in which your interests might diverge substantially from that group of voters.

Describing yourself as an advocate for “the community,” “the neighborhood,” or “the residents” is a way of leaving a lot unspoken about exactly whom and what you support. I don’t think all politicians who talk this way are being disingenuous, and I don’t think it necessarily means their policy proposals are bad. But there’s something fundamentally untrue about the rhetoric.

Community is important. But “the community” as a singular entity does not exist. I briefly discussed this notion in a previous piece about the faulty promise of “local control” over development. I want to elaborate here on what I mean.

The Myth of Community Consensus

You should be wary of anyone who claims to speak for “the community” or “the public,” especially when it’s in lieu of more directly telling you who will benefit from the actions they support.

This starts with, but goes beyond, the simple observation that the vocal subset of citizens who attend public hearings, submit public comments, vote and run for local office are almost always unrepresentative of a community’s diversity. That’s a huge problem in itself, and it’s exacerbated by political processes that are—often deliberately—inaccessible to many citizens. (Think public hearings on important local issues held at 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. Or opinion surveys full of technical and legalistic jargon.)

But the problem goes deeper than that. Let’s say that you do come up with a group of participants in a local political process that is proportionally representative on a number of axes—gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, income, education, homeowner versus renter, etc. And let’s say that group arrives at a decision. Is that decision “the voice of the community” or will it still create winners and losers within the community? Obviously the latter.

So many of our planning processes are designed to pursue an elusive, ultimately false notion of consensus—to identify the will of the community. But as the work of sociologist Jeremy Levine and others points out, there is no such thing as community consensus. Remarkable heterogeneity of opinions and interests exists within geographic communities, notwithstanding the presence of loud advocates and constituencies.

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