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20.3.04

Trust And Communicative Action (An AAG Post)

I'll hopefully be doing a few posts in the coming days about thoughts I had while attending various presentations at the AAG meeting. One of the more interesting talks I saw was by Peter Walker, discussing research he'd done with Patrick Hurley on environmental politics in Nevada County, California. His talk was in a session on social capital, but he said he hadn't thought in terms of social capital while originally doing the fieldwork. So it was somewhat appropriate that, while he didn't mention Habermas or frame his analysis in a Habermasian way, my thoughts went in that direction. The Nevada County case seemed like a nice example of a failed transition to a rationalized lifeworld.

In a nutshell, what happened was that the voters of Nevada County elected, without quite realizing what they were doing, the first anti-development board of supervisors in county history. The board came out with an environmental management plan called NH2020 that would restrict the building of new stuff. Anti-NH2020 partisans sabotaged the planning effort and swept the board out of office in the next election.

At the start of the case, there was the assumption of a shared lifeworld -- Walker said that voters assumed that the board shared their values when they elected them. But through what sounds like practically a coincidence, power wound up in the hands of a group that differed from the assumed consensus on this issue. The board wanted to push its anti-development agenda. But they knew that administrative power alone isn't enough -- their plan would need the legitimacy that comes from a shared lifeworld. Since they couldn't base their plans in the no-longer-shared pro-development lifeworld, they would have to build a new consensus through communicative action. Thus, they launched a public involvement process that would allow the community to come together and build a management plan that everyone could agree was legitimate (even if they were unwilling to agree that its content was right).

However, the process was not designed to be fully communicative. The board and its supporters feared that pro-development people would be unwilling to cooperate in communicative action and would instead act strategically, doing whatever it takes to get their way. Engaging in communicative action requires a degree of trust because you're taking a risk that you may be talked into changing your mind. So the board stacked the deck, for example by not allowing pro-development interests to participate fully. They hoped to work strategically to get the outcome they wanted, while being parasitic on the legitimacy that accrues to a process percieved to be communicative.

The board was unsuccessful in its attempt to have its cake and eat it too. The pro-development interests saw the strategic element of the board's plan and brought it to the forefront of public opinion. They organized on the basis of the pro-development lifeworld that they still shared among themselves, and took strategic action to stop NH2020. The degree of strategic action they took -- such as disruptive behavior at meetings and infammatory rhetoric about "enviro Leninists" -- was probably worse than that which, as per the board's fears, they would have taken in the context of an attempt by the board at a truly communicative planning process. The end result seems to be a situation in which the county has a rift and neither side trusts the other's willingness to talk constructively. Each uses its own distrust to justify acting in a way that deserves the other side's distrust.

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