the year the people took back politics: a vision for 2016

Below are my keynote remarks yesterday at …

Breaking Through: Increasing Civic Engagement, Before, During and After Elections

The video is here:


I departed from the prepared text a fair amount in order to address the audience of civic innovators who had gathered in Austin. By the time I spoke, I knew more about their projects. These are the prepared remarks:

A presidential election cycle is a great civic ritual. Even though only about 60% of adults vote—when we’re lucky—a national campaign still touches most Americans in one way or another. It challenges us to consider fundamental issues. And it connects us to our political heritage, for many of the greatest moments in our political history have been presidential elections.

As the 2016 cycle heats up, what should we expect from this great national civic experience? What do we have a right to expect from the election?

I would say …

The campaign must engage all Americans, without respect to wealth, social status, age, race, gender, disability, and political and religious opinions.

It must give all Americans equal weight and importance, honoring the fundamental principle of one person/one vote. It must make our leaders accountable to the people as equals.

The campaign must provoke a serious conversation about the most fundamental issues facing us as a country.

It must enlist our higher instincts. It is absolutely fine for citizens to retain their diverse political ideologies and their various and conflicting interests. But we must all be reminded of the more generous and idealistic aspects of our own views and interests—or what Lincoln called, after the fateful campaign of 1860, “the better angels of our nature.”

During a national political campaign, Americans must have respectful interactions with fellow citizens who hold different views from their own. The goal is not consensus but mutual understanding and an awareness that we are all legitimate participants in one great political debate.

Some of our interactions must be personal, in the sense that we get to know one another and can actually reply to each others’ ideas—whether online or face-to-face. In other words, it’s not enough to relate to politicians and other celebrities by following what they say. We must also relate to one another.

Citizens must see ways of acting on their political values that go beyond casting a ballot in November, important as that is. If, for instance, you are moved by the problem of climate change or concerned about moral decline, the campaign should inspire you to reduce carbon or to restore traditional values by working with neighbors and peers. The act of voting should be just one of the political efforts that you undertake as a result of the election.

Finally, a diverse set of new actors must see openings to enter political life, whether as campaign volunteers and staffers, independent activists, or reporters, artists, and bloggers. Presidential elections are entry points for new generations of activists and leaders.

I have described a national election in rather glowing terms, but we all know that the reality falls far short.

In fact, many of my friends and colleagues who do civic work at the local level and in nonprofit settings don’t want to have anything to do with national elections. An esteemed colleague who works mostly with adolescents in an urban context recently remarked, “I have never seen anything big that’s good.” I suspect that the programs she admires are ones where human beings voluntarily relate to each other as individuals. They know the other participants’ names and interests. They can act and see the consequences of their actions. The problems that arise in these settings are problems of relationships—individuals being selfish or prejudiced or antagonistic. And so the solutions involve improving the relationships by talking and listening.

In contrast, a national election is impersonal and detached. It’s about millions of people. It’s about casting a secret ballot for a person you will never meet. The consequences of your individual vote are tiny. And the election is not really voluntary because it will yield a new president and a new Congress who will govern us—whether we like it or not.

If you see politics as impersonal—as a matter of mass voting by secret ballot—then I would recommend that you pay some attention to the settings where fellow citizens do come together to talk and work voluntarily. That is the relational bedrock of American democracy, and it is in weak shape. We need more of it. You should help support dialogues and deliberations, community organizing efforts, civic education in schools, community service programs, civic journalism, and new media. The movement to expand these programs is what I call “civic renewal.” It is important.

But if all you do is to create opportunities for voluntary interactions among people who know each other personally (or who can get to know each other), then I would press you to think also about the mass scale. It is not enough for us to build online communities and face-to-face discussions or service opportunities for a small proportion of the population. Decisions of enormous importance are being made every day by national governments and massive corporations. Even if you are not interested in them, they are interested in you. We must work at that level too. Otherwise, our efforts are just cute and nice; they are not real politics.

At the mass scale, politics is no longer relational. It’s not about getting to know people personally and influencing their ideas and values. It’s about leverage—causing other people to act from afar. A vote, for instance, is a small act of leverage. So is a strike or lawsuit.

Some people are busy at the grassroots level engaging with their fellow citizens, discussing issues, developing relationships, and working on important issues and problems. They are quietly rebuilding our civil society. The question is: Where can those good citizens obtain large-scale leverage in a nation of 300 million that has very rigid institutions? One possible answer is: during a national presidential campaign.

In fact, when the 2008 presidential election was first heating up, many of my colleagues saw openings to bring civic renewal into national politics.

First of all, both parties had competitive primary elections that year, so lots of the presidential campaigns were startups. They were eager to incorporate newcomers as volunteers or even as paid staffers and eager to experiment with new tools and methods. There were openings for newcomers to enter politics through the campaigns. Many of today’s younger civic activists cut their teeth working for a 2008 presidential candidate.

Second, because most of the campaigns were long shots to begin with, they were willing to try risky strategies that empowered their grassroots volunteers. They allowed robust discussions on their websites and let their volunteers develop strategies and methods that would work in their own communities.

Third, several of the campaigns offered genuine ideas about civic renewal. John McCain advocated a dramatic expansion of civilian national service, joining Senator Obama in New York on the auspicious and politically precious day of September 11 to call for tripling the size of AmeriCorps. That was a policy to enhance civic participation in America, and it was part of a larger message that also connected to Senator McCain’s service in uniform.

It is widely forgotten now, but John Edwards was committed to a national citizens’ deliberation on important policy ideas that would generate official federal legislation. That was a different kind of policy proposal—and also quite promising.

Finally, Barack Obama spoke about the citizen’s role in politics with more depth and commitment than any presidential candidate since Bobby Kennedy in 1968. That is my judgment, anyway, and I have written about it in some detail. Senator Obama made civic renewal a signature campaign theme. He developed various appropriate policy proposals, from transparency in government to expanded national service.

But perhaps more impressively, his campaign embodied his message of civic engagement in the way it organized itself. Grassroots volunteers were no longer asked to reach certain numbers of voters with scripted messages. Instead, they were trained to form relationships with people in their communities and to develop their fellow citizens’ leadership skills. They were given the power to create their own messages and were held accountable for the number of true relationships they built. This was a great example of a mix of relational politics and mass politics, and it carried Obama all the way to the White House.

Is the 2016 election another source of leverage, another opening for improving American democracy?

On the day after the election, November 9, 2016, some people will be happy. A candidate whom they admire will be the incoming president of the United States. I understand and appreciate their enthusiasm and do not want to rain on their parade. They will have worked for a cause and won it, fair and square.

Still, I think most of us will reflect back on the 2016 election and say: “That was a … [let me think of a word I can use at a polite forum at UT Austin] … that was a …. disaster!” Measured by all of the criteria that I mentioned when I began this talk, the campaign will look like an almost absurd failure, a travesty.

Will all Americans be engaged and will they count equally? Absolutely not, in an election cycle expected to cost $5 billion. A few individuals will personally contribute amounts in the hundreds of millions, and they will certainly count for more than you and me. Candidates are openly boasting of their success in lining up big donors right now, during what is openly called the “money primary.”

Also, the campaign battleground will be small, limited to swing voters in swing states and the very few competitive congressional districts. In vast states like Texas, voters will not be seen to matter much at all.

Will new people bring new ideas and energies into politics? Not, I fear, through the presidential campaigns, because the leading candidates on both sides are the opposite of startups. They are extremely experienced professional operations with little room for newcomers.

And while the innovations of the 2008 campaign involved empowering volunteers to develop their own messages and strategies, the main innovations since then have involved the use of Big Data to hone and test messages sent from campaign HQ to citizens. The whole point of these methods is to affect individuals in reliable and predictable ways—not to hear their views or empower them to act. The value of algorithms and data is rising; the role of volunteers is increasingly trivial.

Will we see a great conversation about the fundamental issues facing the country? I am sorry to say that also seems highly unlikely. In every modern campaign, so many factors direct the conversation into trivialities and distractions, not to mention fear-mongering and outright lies.

And this year, there is an additional reason to be skeptical about the national conversation. Realistically, a Democratic president will not be able to accomplish a domestic policy agenda in her or his first term, because Congress is almost certain to be controlled by Republicans. The most she or he can actually accomplish is to veto Republican legislation and negotiate the annual budget to the status quo. That means that the Democratic candidates must talk about what they would do if elected knowing that they actually cannot do very much at all. All the rhetoric from one side of the campaign will be basically false, which is not good for the discussion.

Republicans can be more genuinely ambitious but it remains to be seen whether any of them will put forward a serious platform.

Incidentally, the same situation applied in the 2012 election, which struck me as one of the least edifying dialogues in modern times. The televised debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney were dominated by each man’s saying: “You propose X,” and his opponent saying, “No I don’t.” They never got to argue about what they did support. The whole conversation was incredibly confusing and misleading.

Will the 2016 campaign touch the better angels of our nature and call us to work together on important problems in our own communities? I hope so, but again I am not terribly optimistic. Much of the $5 billion that will be spent in this cycle will be used to frighten and distract, not to inspire and empower.

Politicians always over-promise what they can deliver and try to persuade us that they will solve our problems for us. That is always a disempowering message. It will be worse than usual this time because few Americans really believe that national leaders can achieve anything significant, given the frozen political situation in DC. So the candidates will relentlessly exaggerate their own potential and thereby minimize the role of ordinary citizens.

I was asked to inspire you; that was my explicit charge for today. So far, I am doing a miserable job. I am painting a very depressing picture of the months ahead.

But I actually do intend an inspirational message. Imagine that it is November 9, 2016, the day after the national election. The official campaign, as waged by professional politicians and covered by the mass media, is just as I have predicted: a civic nightmare. But imagine that Americans do not wake up on the day after the vote and remark, “What a disaster!” Instead, imagine that they say, “This is the year that we the people reclaimed our political system. Yes, the candidates ran multi-billion-dollar campaigns using scripted, misleading messages to influence a few swing voters and demobilize their opponents through fear. But that is not the main story of the 2016 election. Despite the behavior of the candidates and their enablers among the donor class and the mass media, this election actually was a great discussion of fundamental issues. It actually did reach most Americans and it did inspire us not only to vote but to act in other ways to improve the world. We learned about each other and gained a measure of respect for our fellow citizens who disagree. We saw at least the dim outlines of true solutions emerge. We saw a role for ourselves in achieving those solutions. We still expect relatively little from Congress in the next months, but we expect a great deal from ourselves as a people. We are ready to step up to our responsibilities as a great self-governing nation.”

Why would that happen? In all seriousness, it would happen because of your work. It would happen because you have labored and innovated and collaborated. You have built apps and websites where citizens can genuinely discuss important issues with people who disagree. You have covered news in ways that bring out the real issues and engages diverse voices. You have empowered even the most disempowered Americans with tools and ideas and skills that reconnect them to politics and civic life.

None of you can accomplish that alone. The budget of each organization represented in this room is a tiny fraction of the weekly spending of one of the presidential campaigns that will be flooding the airwaves with fear and misinformation. But we can accomplish a great deal together and with the many willing allies who are not here with us today.

We need to find new ways to set common goals and collaborate effectively in our communities, holding ourselves accountable for common outcomes.

In Bolivia this month, Pope Francis reflected on the global impasse among political elites that is putting not just the US but the whole earth in danger. He said, “People and their movements are called to cry out, to mobilize and to demand – peacefully, but firmly – that appropriate and urgently-needed measures be taken.” He concluded his Bolivia speech by saying, “the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.”

These are great and timely words. We are unlikely to hear them from our most powerful politicians, but we can make them the inspiration for our own efforts. This is the year that we can take back American politics. It is up to us.

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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