An Analysis of the Different Candidates for the Ideal Public Space
In Chapter 3 of his book City of Rhetoric, David Fleming discusses in detail the drawbacks and benefits of the potential places where according to his standards, “proper” civic discourse can take place. The ideal space according to him is a place where a typical person has the opportunity to directly participate in a government that can moderate and appreciates a multitude of diverse opinions. He analyzes the nation-state, the neighborhood, the city, the metropolis, and the urban district with their drawbacks and benefits and how they compare with what the ideal place would be. He examines how each space is effective in bringing out actual civic activity, but at the same time outputting diversities in race, economic class, and political leanings.
National pride and allegiance to a particular country bring out the renascent passions and loyalties that people have. Because an overwhelming amount of people, especially in the United States see their overarching identity in their nationality, the nation-state is the most relevant and followed when it comes to civic education and political participation. Although the nation state is the main source when it comes to civic education and is host to so many issues and diversities of opinion, there is little direct participation and only the representatives of the people can exercise true public freedom. Politics even in the decentralized public school system in the U.S is visually taught on a national scope with more emphasis on presidential elections and large protest movements. The single most fundamental flaw when it comes to the nation state as a civic space is as Fleming asserts, “The role of the individual in such politics is almost entirely therefore spectatorial (41).” Rather than direct engagement in politics and issues, civic engagement in the nation-state is the act of picking elected official’s whom the people watch trying to solve the problems. Therefore, there is no real engagement in decision making and the local problems that affect a certain community doesn’t draw much attention from the politicians who represent them on the national stage.
The antithesis to the nation state, the neighborhood, offers what the nation-state cannot offer: direct participation by ordinary people on the issues that affect them more at home. Ordinary citizens can engage in more of a face to face politics by not only knocking on doors for a candidate running for office, but as Fleming states “where politics can be the everyday literal enactment of every citizen’s freedom and equality (43).” At the neighborhood level parents can be involved in their children’s school by being active in the PTA or by participating in town hall discussions by addressing the issues that are more present in their specific community. Although there is active engagement from the citizenry at the neighborhood level, there are fewer differences because neighborhoods tend to be more homogeneous. People in general tend to live with those who have nearly the same financial clout, who look like them, and have similar political inclinations but the lack of differences according to Fleming “inhibits meaningful public argument by making sure there is very little to argue about (48).” Therefore, the lack of heterogeneity decreases diversity and conflict which generates more civic engagement and debate which are needed to solve the most significant problems affecting a society.
Although, the nation-state and the neighborhood are polar opposites in almost every measure, the city, metropolis, and urban district offer a mixture of some of the more favorable and inadequate qualities of the nation-state and the neighborhood as spaces. Unlike the nation-state which is very large in size and diversity and unlike the neighborhood which lacks diversity and size, the city is a “a relatively large, dense, and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals,” as sociologist Louis Wirth from the University of Chicago defines it. The city is a space inhabited by people that have stark differences in income and background but at the same time as Fleming asserts, “are cognizant of sharing space, of living together, of having concrete relations with one another, being always, potentially, in one another’s way and yet also intricately interdependent (53).” Although the city at first glance seems like the ideal space, the city is far too large in population for the personal involvement in politics he advocates for. After discussing the city, he talks about the subset of the city, the metropolis. Although a metropolis constitutes a large geographic area, the people living in one are united by,“climate, vegetation, topography, and waterways; they are connected by high-density economic processes and movements, including labor and consumer markets” as political theorist Iris Marion Young interprets. People living in a metropolitan area go through so many parts of it in their normal lives
and don’t even think about it. Although most people’s lives are constituted in so many different parts of a metropolis, it is seen as a single place. The drawback with the metropolis as with the city is that they are too centralized and too large for broad and deep political participation. To get the right balance of diversity and civic participation, Fleming argues that the ideal space would have to have between 50,000 to 10,000 inhabitants. He states that this sweet spot can be found in a not so known and relevant space called the urban district. The urban district, a subdivision of a metropolis would be in his view, “small enough to facilitate civic participation but large enough for political discourse (56).” Although this could garner enough diversity and potential for civic engagement to be the ideal space, it does not have prominence in American society, politics, or design.
The best space as Aristotle implied is characterized “by neither pure identity nor pure difference.” In the section titled dilemma in chapter 3, Fleming talks of the predicament that has faced the U.S and will continue to face it for many years: how to output real civic participation with a community of heterogeneous makeup. A space, which he describes, “a setting which is true to human diversity but still allows for commonality and solidarity (52).” Although no space can exhibit perfectly the ideal society he envisions: the nation-state, the neighborhood, the metropolis, and the urban district all have qualities that would be essential in that ideal space and are worth analyzing.
Fleming, David. City of Rhetoric: Revitalizing the Public Sphere in Metropolitan America. Albany: SUNY, 2008. Print.
- Fragmented U.S Electoral Map
- Busy City Street