My first thought was an overwhelming one of “where do we even start this?”
Now it’s time to begin to address this question.
To do so, I first want to direct you to two of the many works published over the last decade, which have had a profound effect on my thinking about this issue: Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000); and his follow-up work, Better Together: Restoring the American Community (2003) (which obviously influenced the name we gave our concept).
I direct you to these books because, to begin to answer the question about where we start to restore a sense of Neighborhood, I want to start with a story about Tupelo, Mississippi, which Putnam has highlighted in both of these books. I believe this story provides a sort of blueprint for how to regain a sense of Neighborhood through political and private action.
During the depths of the Great Depression, Tupelo was a town that was on its knees. By the mid-1930’s, cotton production in the area was starting a downward trend from which it has never recovered. In 1936, the town almost was wiped-off the map by a horrendous tornado that killed over 200 of its citizens. The following year, 1937, saw a devastating strike at the local manufacturing plant that nearly destroyed the remaining economic base of the community. The only bright spot was the local success of the county’s local dairy farms; and that success gave one man an idea.
The editor of the local newspaper personally met with the leading businessmen along Main Street and convinced them to jointly invest in a stud bull to be used to expand the dairy business. For an initial private investment of $50,000 the county got its bull, and a 60-year period of unprecedented economic growth started. By agreement of the town’s business and political leaders, the initial returns from the expanded dairy business were reinvested into the dairy business, into other business ventures, and into the community. Eventually, all of the investors made a profit, but the town got much more.
By the 1990s, Tupelo and its county formed one of the largest dairy producing centers and furniture producing centers in the country, and it had become one of the largest banking centers in the Mid-South region. It became home to offices of over 50 Fortune 500 businesses. Its per capita income and standard of living grew to be among the highest in the region, and its schools performed in the highest percentages in the country.
And it all started with one man with an idea for his community—no federal government safety net was sought or needed (even as the country was still gripped by the Great Depression).
Now there will be someone who will read this post to this point and say—“Ed, that’s irrelevant to today, because we aren’t going to fix what is wrong with this country by encouraging every town and neighborhood to buy a stud bull.”—and that person would be right. But that’s not the purpose behind re-telling this story. Instead, I want to focus on the type of steps taken by the civic leaders in Tupelo to address the needs of the community, which are relevant to the Neighborhood model I am advocating. Let’s break them down:
· The community faced a problem that appeared intractable, and that had been confounded by multiple events—not unlike the confounding factors of under-education, under-employment, chronic crime and poverty, and the impulse to be “left alone”, which exist in many of our neighborhoods today;
· One person, followed by a group of civic leaders, saw a strength within the community that created an opportunity that could be exploited to help the community address its problem;
· These citizens had the courage to take a risk with their own resources to take advantage of the opportunity and to share the gain with the community;
· These citizens involved businesses, private organizations, and local government in both the planning and the implementation of their plan; and
· The gains to the community were both short-term, and long-term, and were broadly shared—e.g., businesses were created and expanded, employment grew, per capita income grew, and schools improved.
These steps provide a formula—let’s call it the “Tupelo Formula”—that is similar to the formula for civic action that de Tocqueville found in America during his travels—using a sense of Neighborhood to help neighbors and to preserve liberty from an all-powerful government or self-anointed class of elites.
This formula for governance and civic action also is consistent with the “first principles” our Founders promoted. Take a look at these excerpts from the last two paragraphs of the Virginia Declaration of Rights of June, 1776, in which George Mason and James Madison wrote the following:
…no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles…..the duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence;…and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.
The Tupelo Formula also is consistent with the idea of Federalism embodied in our Constitution, which was designed to preserve and promote our unique system of local governance from a too-powerful central government, and it is consistent with the organizational model that has grown from the current Tea Party movement. It supports a model as applicable to the neighborhoods of the City of Austin as it is to countryside of Austin County. Unfortunately, it also is a formula for governance and action that we have lost over the last two generations.
Literally hundreds of volumes have been written over the last 40 years about how and why we’ve tried to abandon the social and political formula that de Tocqueville found so exceptional, and that is embodied in the story about Tupelo. Very simply, in order to correct grievous, historic wrongs, we tried to destroy the model, rather than open it up to all. We must stop this destruction. We must re-invigorate the model, and open it to all.
I consider myself to be both an economic and a social conservative, who wants the GOP to promote an effective plan for governance and action using the principles championed by both camps. I believe that the Tupelo Formula provides a blueprint for a new commitment to engage our neighbors, local businesses, and local governments to effectively solve our problems based on our economic, societal and cultural principles.
In my next post, I will try to address some ways we can apply the Tupelo Formula to problems facing our local governments and school boards.