Review of We Are the Ones

(Urbana/Champaign, IL) I am here to talk to a public audience about the arguments of We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America. Meanwhile, I’d recommend Michael McQuarrie’s new review of my book (along with Ben Barber’s If Mayors Ran the World). It’s a good, thoughtful article. I appreciate his summary of my book and his partially critical response.

In the final chapter, I say that a movement for civic renewal should expect and welcome vibrant debate, and three likely topics of debate will be: whether economic reforms must precede political empowerment; the role of anger and conflict versus civility and consensus; and the ideological placement of the civic renewal movement (on the left, at the center, aiming for neutrality, or very broad). McQuarrie meets my hopes by staking out strong positions on exactly those issues.

He also reads me as taking the opposite position from him on some of these questions, when I was trying to be more neutral–considering both the pros and the cons and letting readers end where they like. Thus I would like to respond to certain portions of his review, not because they’re necessarily unfair, but as an opportunity to clarify my own views and engage the debate. For example:

The title of Levine’s book—We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For—is an inspiring call to action, and in this sense, at least, is similar to Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals (1946). However, rather than arguing for the possibilities of popular power, Levine is more interested in establishing the potential of citizen engagement for policy. Much of the book seems oriented around questions like “What are the measurable effects of community engagement on school effectiveness?” Levine’s form betrays a shift within the civic renewal movement, as it gains a foothold in foundations, academia, and even the White House. In the process it is becoming more communitarian in its celebration of the values and morality of citizens, while de-emphasizing popular authority and political sense. In terms of practice, contemporary advocates of the civic renewal movement emphasize correct deliberative communication among citizens as a solvent for all manner of political differences. In contrast, many in this tradition from Tocqueville on argued that civic virtue could only thrive in settings of relative socioeconomic equality. Challenging elites with popular power and cries that they are economic parasites, once central to populist activism and discourse, have been trimmed away in Levine’s account to make room for the idea that inequality can be overcome through a more virtuous and deliberative politics.

I do collect evidence that civic engagement boosts social outcomes. That’s because I don’t believe that many citizens, let alone powerful institutional actors, are ready to support active citizenship unless they believe it pays off in terms of better schools, safer streets, or a healthier environment.

I am a hard-headed researcher, so I will only claim that civic engagement has such benefits if it really does. In fact, instrumental arguments will carry us only so far. Civic engagement may not always improve communities. It may generate desirable outcomes, but less cheaply and reliably than other strategies would. It may boost outcomes (like “school effectiveness”) that we trivialize when we try to quantify them, thereby erasing deeply contested value questions. And it may degenerate into mere social hygiene if it is viewed as a tool for social improvement rather than a right of democratic citizens and an aspect of the good life.

On the other hand, arguing for civic engagement as a right will not obtain funding, education, media coverage, or legal authorization for civic engagement. Instrumental arguments, if handled right, can be helpful. They are ammunition for a peaceful army of engaged citizens.

I would like to think that I am not a communitarian (celebrating “the values and morality of citizens, while de-emphasizing popular authority and political sense”) or merely a deliberative democrat (viewing “correct deliberative communication among citizens as a solvent for all manner of political differences”). I am certainly not a technocrat, and I offer a pretty sharp critique of expertise in chapter 4. With McQuarrie, I believe in power and conflict. Activist social movements must hold governments accountable. They will be–and should be–angry at the powers that be and at their fellow citizens who stand in their way. The strategies I recommend at the end of the book are aimed at bolstering their efforts. I do not for a moment count on policymakers to open doors willingly.

I do, however, reject the argument that “civic virtue [can] only thrive in settings of relative socioeconomic equality.” Effective activism is more common in Tanzania and India than in the US. It has often arisen from the poorest strata of American society, starting with slaves in the antebellum era.

The problem with putting economic equality first and expecting civic renewal to follow is that someone must then pursue economic equality without a popular following. Who will that be, why will the succeed, and why should we trust them if they do? Saul Alinsky was a great theorist, but his popular movements ended in disaster. I denounce the political influence of economic elites, because that is a valid critique and because political reform is required for civic empowerment. I would not personally denounce economic elites as economic parasites because I am not sure that is true, and I know it will divide a potentially broader coalition.

I wrote a book in the late 1990s about the Progressive Era (and actually discarded some detailed historical research I had done for reasons of length and coherence). Reflecting on that history, I would now say that some Progressive Era reforms were elitist and downright damaging. Others were populist and “civic,” in my terms (deliberative, collaborative, and relational). Robert M. La Follette, Jane Addams, and John Dewey were their paragons.

To the extent that these valuable reforms flourished, it was partly because economic radicals (Socialists and agrarian populists) challenged the government and capital. That made elites amenable to sharing some power. But the actual reforms enacted from 1900-1914 did not challenge economic inequality. Progressive reforms were indeed about reducing the political influence of money and increasing deliberative popular influence over government. Typically, the inventors and proponents of these civic reforms were not Socialists or populists. They had broader and more centrist coalitions, including many people who would have bristled at a depiction of the wealthy as parasites. The left movements may have won space for civic reforms, but the civic reforms had different origins and motivations.

Coming back to our present day: I would welcome more effective left-populist grassroots mobilizing on economic issues. I think it would change the balance of power in ways that would help civic reformers. But I think we also need a civic blueprint: a vision of how our democracy should look if we had the power to demand it. That’s what I hope to offer in We Are the Ones–along with strategies for civic reform and topics for the movement to debate. McQuarrie has joined the debate in a most welcome way.

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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.