By Asha Rangappa
Coming on the heels of Steve Bannon’s refusal to appear in front of the January 6 Committee’s subpoena to testify, Attorney General Merrick Garland’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last Thursday predictably included questions about whether the Justice Department would enforce a criminal referral for contempt of Congress. But Republicans grilled Garland on another issue as well: The Justice Department’s recent memo directing the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s offices across the country to coordinate with their law enforcement partners at all levels to address the rise in threats against school administrators, teachers, and board members. Although what’s happening with local school officials might, at first glance, seem unrelated to the events of January 6, they are part and parcel of the same effort to dismantle our democracy. In fact, the ongoing erosion of democracy at the local level may be even more dangerous in the long run than the tragic spectacle we witnessed on January 6.
In his book Democracy in America, the 19th century French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at what made America unique. One of these features were local “townships,” the governance of which weren’t by carefully curated politicians like the “great political assemblies” at the national level. Rather, local townships, Tocqueville observed, had to be governed by the ordinary citizens who lived there, giving them all both a stake and a role in the management of their day-to-day affairs. As such, Tocqueville believed that local townships were important schools for democracy by allowing citizens to “practice the art of government within the small sphere within their reach.” Town meetings, for example, taught people how to practice the habits of democracy and in doing so, gave each citizen a sense of connectedness not only to his local neighbors, but also his fellow citizens generally. In Tocqueville’s words, each citizen’s “co-operation in [the town’s] affairs ensures his attachment to its interest; the well-being it affords him secures his affection; and its welfare is the aim of his ambition and of his future exertions.”