How do you campaign against democracy?


Here’s a bumper sticker for ya: democracy is not always the answer.

That’s the case that those in favor of major land use reform are going to have to make to Austin voters this fall.

Of course, those aren’t the words they’re going to use. They’ll probably say something along the lines of, “The same small clique of wealthy folks who used to run Austin are trying to gum up our attempts to build a more equitable and sustainable city. Vote NO on the proposition so that we can move forward in addressing Austin’s challenges.”

Either way, it’s a tough sell. Every voter implicitly understands that there is a certain amount of decision-making that should be left to elected officials and/or bureaucrats, but when you’re asked whether or not you should have a say in something, well, it’s hard to say no.

I’m pretty certain that most Austin voters don’t have strong feelings about CodeNEXT, let a lone a referendum setting up a process for how the city should deal with CodeNEXT. But there are two small groups of people who do. And right now one of those groups has a much simpler message to convey to the masses: vote for democracy and accountability.

To make the somewhat convoluted opposing argument is going to take a major PR effort. Ideally it would have the face of grassroots progressive/housing/environmental activists backed by some serious money. Those groups don’t have a lot of money, which is where the real estate industry might come in.

But it’s not clear that there is enough enthusiasm/attention span among activists to prioritize this campaign, especially amidst an election year when many of those people will have other things on their mind, like regaining control of Congress or getting a $250 million housing bond approved.

Similarly, groups might be inclined refrain from spending money if they think there’s a good chance that the initiative will be struck down even if it is approved, and I think there’s a distinct possibility that that’s exactly what will happen.

One thought on “How do you campaign against democracy?

  1. “Here’s a bumper sticker for ya: democracy is not always the answer. That’s the case that those in favor of major land use reform are going to have to make to Austin voters this fall.”

    Well … yes and no. The issue is more of a question of what *type* of democracy we should employ. Preservationists are arguing in favor of direct democracy, or allowing the people to decide issues on their own. Urbanists will need to make the case for representative democracy, which is … well, honestly, it’s the bedrock principle of American democracy on whole. Since it isn’t even remotely practical for “the people” to vote on most matters directly, that’s the whole point we elect representatives (at all levels) who share our broader worldviews.

    One of the conceits of the anti-CodeNEXT campaign, particularly on CNC’s part, is that our elected leaders somehow can’t be “trusted” to do the right thing. I don’t think I can overstate the extent to which CNC is playing with fire by pushing out propaganda of this nature. In effect they’re promoting a conspiracy theory, namely that “developers” have “infiltrated” the highest ranks of City Hall — up to and including the mayor and a majority of the city council — in order to shove CodeNEXT down Austin’s collective throat, thus resulting in the Destruction of Austin As We Know It … solely for the purpose of lining their own pockets.

    Back in the reality-based world, this is a) asinine and b) eerily similar to the whole “deep state” malarkey being pushed by the far-right, albeit amped down quite a few notches. The problem with this type of agitprop, however, is that it effectively undermines the concept of representative government at its most fundamental level. Who *can* we trust, if we can’t trust our elected leaders?

    The conceit, of course, is that we *can* trust them — well, at least on the local level… — and the mayor and a majority of the Council see CNC’s gambit for what it is: an attempt to ignore the basic reality that Austin is growing to a borderline-uncontrollable extent, and densification is likely our only hope to avoid becoming the next Houston or Dallas, with sprawl 50 miles out in every direction. It’s also presumably stating the obvious that this “concern” over urban growth is to some extent rooted in xenophobia, racism and classism — which is not to say that *everyone* affiliated with CNC is a bigoted snob, but the undertones of all three are nonetheless clearly present.

    Anyway, I agree that it’ll all be a tough sell on urbanists’ parts, though primarily because there’s a fair degree of ignorance regarding the differences between direct and representative democracy — not to mention the reality that government would basically grind to a halt if all matters of import had to be decided by “the people” instead of their elected leaders. I also share your skepticism that CodeNEXT is an issue of particular concern outside of Central Austin, hence my terribly worded suggestion on Facebook recently that a campaign focused against “Central Austin liberals” could be a means of convincing voters outside of Austin’s core to vote against the ballot referendum. You were of course correct that nothing of this nature is feasible in a city so overwhelmingly liberal on whole — not to mention that the *real* problem is that the “Central Austin liberals” I was ostensibly describing are, in reality, the opposite (former liberals now firmly ensconced inside “the establishment,” even if they don’t yet realize the extent to which they’re championing an unambiguously conservative cause).

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