political reform on a base of civic renewal

I have not seen any news reports yet, but today the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the Communications Workers of America, and the NAACP had planned to announce a common agenda on democratic reform.

This is a welcome development, because they contribute grassroots constituencies, but they are likely to focus exclusively on formal political reforms, such as the filibuster, campaign finance, and the voting process. I could not agree more that these reforms are needed–I began my career working full-time for Common Cause and have written a whole book about campaign reform and related measures. But I think civic renewal is essential to political reform, and the two must be pursued together. That is true because …

  1. A broad base of active citizens is no longer available to demand beneficial political reform. When John Gardner announced Common Cause in 1970, 100,000 people immediately joined and began funding the new organization. They had habits of reading newspapers, joining and leading associations, and trusting the government enough to try to reform it. That base is now much smaller and more fragmented.
  2. Many of the proposed reforms would require active, skillful, committed, and organized citizens. For instance, disclosing campaign finance data will do no good unless independent citizens are ready to use it for constructive purposes.
  3. Even reformed governments cannot solve our most serious problems alone. Solutions require active and organized citizens. For example, in his magisterial new book, Robert Sampson finds that neighborhoods with more civic engagement have dramatically better educational outcomes, even though they are part of the same school system. Sampson, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012)
  4. As James Madison argued, the people are capable of selecting representatives who will deliberate about the common good—but only if the people themselves have some experience deliberating and governing. Otherwise, they will not know what good government looks like. Madison cited “good roads, domestic commerce, a free press, and particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people” as means of enlightening the public. To those means, we should explicitly add experiences in governing voluntary associations and local communities.

The traditional structure of American civil society has eroded badly, as marked by serious declines in the proportion of people who attend meetings, work with neighbors on common problems, belong to voluntary associations, participate in the governance of religious congregations, follow the news, trust other people, and trust institutions.

But a new civil society is being invented. It is composed of groups that organize local deliberations; community development corporations and land trusts that govern public assets; broad-based community organizing groups; the national and community service programs (insofar as they allow their volunteers to influence their agendas); innovative civic education programs, from kindergarten through graduate school; universities that serve as community anchors; citizen-generated news sources; municipal governments that employ collaborative governance or participatory budgeting; watershed councils, restorative justice, and many other streams of civic practice.

This work needs to be in closer dialogue with advocacy for political reform. That is a goal of the Campaign for Stronger Democracy, a particularly important node in the overall network for democratic reform. The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, CWA, and NAACP are bolstering one wing of the reform movement. It is important, however, to retain the overall balance.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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