the path not taken (so far): civic engagement for reform

Yesterday, the Huffington Post published a short piece of mine about the Obama Administration’s failure–so far–to engage the public in our great national challenges. A more complete version of the same argument follows.

As a candidate, Barack Obama made the strongest case since Bobby Kennedy in 1968 that we need to engage Americans in changing America. His biography and writing suggested that he knew what that would mean–concretely and practically. His civic engagement theme was popular with voters (although largely unreported by the press), and I believe it helped him win the primaries.

However, my own experience on two Obama campaign policy committees and my observations since then suggest that no one who has any influence in the party or the administration–other than possibly the president and the first lady–really understands the power of civic engagement. All the diagnoses of what’s going wrong focus on top-down strategy: the Democrats are too arrogant or too cautious, they took too long or tried to rush too fast, they focused on health care when they should have attended to unemployment, they catered too much to Congress or they didn’t give Congress enough leeway. Now the advice from all quarters is to change legislative objectives and to craft a new “message.” This whole discourse ignores what could be the unique advantage of having a community organizer in the White House.

The “Active Citizenship” Theme in the Campaign

Announcing his presidential candidacy in Springfield, IL on February 10, 2007, Senator Barack Obama said, “This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change. (Cheers.) … That is our purpose here today. That is why I’m in this race, not just to hold an office but to gather with you to transform a nation. (Cheers.) …”

Ten months later, as he campaigned to win the Iowa Caucuses, Senator Obama described his work as a community organizer: “In church basements and around kitchen tables, block by block, we brought the community together, registered new voters, fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with some measure of dignity. … I have no doubt that in the face of impossible odds people who love their country can change it. But I hold no illusions that one man or woman can do this alone. … That’s why I’m reaching out to Democrats, and also to Independents and Republicans. And that is why I won’t just ask for your vote as a candidate; I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency.

What Did Obama Mean by “Active Citizenship?”

Based on Obama’s writing and experience, I would interpret his general statements about “active citizenship” as follows. He believes that positive change comes from organized social movements, not from the government alone. (Michelle Obama hammered on this theme when she spoke last summer in San Francisco.) Social movements should be broad-based, not narrow groups of people who all agree with one another. They should promote discussion and collaboration across lines of difference–including ideological difference. Hence the need to build bridges to Republican citizens.

What critics of ACORN-style “community organizing” don’t understand is that Obama’s specific brand of faith-based organizing in Chicago was intentionally broad-based–not narrowly ideological, and certainly not partisan. As he said in May 2007, “politics” usually means shouting matches on TV. But “when politics gets local, when the person talking to you is your neighbor standing on your front porch, things change.” In that speech, he called for dialogues in every community on Iraq, health care, and climate change.

Further, Obama believes that social change requires work by many people. We must tap their skills, energies, networks, and local knowledge. Government programs cannot substitute for public work; nor can rights or entitlements. The “work” theme has been strong and consistent in his speeches. For example, on the 100th day of his presidency, in Arnold, Missouri, he said, “We’re living through extraordinary times. We didn’t ask for all the challenges that we face, but we’re determined to answer the call to meet them. That’s the spirit I see everywhere I go. That’s the spirit we need to sustain, because the answer to our problems will ultimately be found in the character of the American people. We need soldiers and diplomats, scientists, teachers, workers, entrepreneurs. We need your service. We need your active citizenship.”

At the root of many of our problems, Obama argues, are fractured relationships–among Americans and between Americans and major institutions. Bad policies are not the ultimate cause of our problems, and solutions require repairing relationships–something that only people (not institutions) can accomplish. Finally, there is a strong moral dimension to this work. Personal moral choices are responsible for our national successes and failures; and social movements can change those choices. In New Hampshire in 2006, Obama said: “We are going to re-engage in our democracy in a way that we haven’t done for some time … We are going to take hold of our collective lives together and reassert our values and our ideals on our politics. And that doesn’t depend on one person. That doesn’t depend on me or the Governor or a congressman or a speaker. It depends on you.”

Before the campaign, Barack Obama had been a broad-based community organizer, provoking moral discussions with diverse neighbors for social change. Because of his deep interest in the theoretical issues connected to that work, he was one of just two elected officials who joined Robert Putnam’s Saguaro Seminar, a leading project on civil society. Michelle, meanwhile, ran an AmeriCorps program (Public Allies in Chicago) that emphasizes civic skills, and then she took the job of building better relationships between the University of Chicago and its surrounding communities. I had the privilege of meeting her in October 2006 at a Campus Compact conference. The themes that I have quoted so far ran deep in the lives of this couple.

Did the Civic Engagement Theme Help Obama Win?

The press, including liberal columnists and bloggers, paid virtually no attention to the civic engagement theme in the campaign. I transcribed several of the quotes given above from YouTube videos because I could not find them in any print coverage of the campaign. Reporters regard a statement about “active citizenship” much like a comment about how wonderful it feels to visit New Hampshire in January. It’s just throat-clearing that precedes the attack or proposal of the day. Yet the videos clearly show rising applause at the civic moments in these speeches.

Within the campaign, policy advisers didn’t pay much more attention to the civic themes than the press did. The campaign did endorse expanding AmeriCorps, as did John McCain. But the Democrats’ proposals on matters like education and the environment included no concrete ideas for civic empowerment. A substantial proportion of Obama’s advisers were liberal technocrats who believe that society is divided into distinct interest groups. Progressive change comes from mobilizing the weaker interest groups to vote and then promoting their interests. Legislation is complex and fast-moving, and only insiders and the heads of interest groups can really understand it. Good government means informing, motivating, and negotiating with political leaders. All of these premises are at odds with the candidate’s own speeches, but I think that the “active citizenship” theme slipped past Democratic Party elites just as it escaped the notice of the press.

If the media didn’t report on active citizenship, and the candidate’s policy positions didn’t reflect it, how could it help him to win? One reason is that voters now get direct, unmediated access to the candidate’s speeches and his books. They could hear his civic rhetoric. I know, as an empirical fact, that they clapped and cheered at it.

More importantly, the campaign was structured in ways that reflected Obama’s civic philosophy. Volunteers were encouraged and taught to share their stories, to discuss social problems, to listen as well as mobilize, and to develop their own plans. There was a rich discussion online as well as face-to-face. This deliberative style was particularly attractive to young, college-educated volunteers, who felt deeply empowered and who played a significant role in the election’s outcomes, especially in Iowa. (And without Iowa, Barack Obama would not be president.)

The civic theme was consistent with Barack and Michelle Obamas’ personal stories and so helped to create a coherent narrative. I don’t believe that “narratives” determine general election outcomes (which can be predicted precisely based on macroeconomic indicators), but I do think that Obama told a better story than Clinton in the Democratic primary–and that mattered.

The idea of civic empowerment may not have generated major policy proposals, but it did play an important role in campaign debates. For example, Clinton and Obama argued over the meaning of the Civil Rights Movement, with Obama crediting the grassroots and Clinton praising Lyndon Johnson and other national leaders. That was a legitimate disagreement, but Obama’s position was consistent with his whole campaign. A related argument arose between Obama and Paul Krugman of the New York Times, with Krugman saying that America’s problem was the Republicans, and Obama replying (although not directly to Krugman) that the problem was our civic fabric.

What Happened After the Inauguration?

Once elected, President Obama signed the Kennedy Serve America Act, which triples the size of AmeriCorps. That means that about 250,000 Americans–mostly young–will perform civilian service for a year or so. On his first day of office, the president issued a strong executive order on Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration, and he renamed the White House Office of Public Liaison the Office of Public Engagement. The Administration took steps to release public information online so that citizens could use it, and the White House held online dialogues about how to implement the executive order.

The agenda so far has been strong on service and transparency, but almost entirely missing participation or collaboration–equal pillars in the original executive order. Service does not necessarily build civic skills or address fundamental problems; besides, even an expanded AmeriCorps offers no role to most people. “Transparency” means feeding information to organized interest groups, reporters, and a few independent citizens who have deep interests and skills in particular areas.

These forms of civic engagement are not nearly “edgy” enough; there is no fight in them. People are angry, in America–from the Tea Partiers to MoveOn. When citizens try to solve serious social problems, they identify enemies. They do not just hold hands and serve together; they strike back at those whom they perceive as threats. If “active citizenship” reduces to non-controversial “service,” it will completely lose touch with the legitimate anger of the American people.

The White House chose to make health care their major focus and included no aspects of civic engagement in the deliberations about the bill, in their advocacy for the legislation, or in the design of the statute. There could have been real public discussions, instead of sham “Town Meetings” that were really speeches by politicians with time for Q&A. Progressive volunteers could have been encouraged to conduct face-to-face dialogues in their communities and to form relationships with one another (instead of merely finding themselves on the receiving end of an email list). The legislation could have included health co-ops as an experiment in engaging citizens in policy.

In other words, a range of civic engagement strategies was available to the administration, including a deliberative approach (bringing liberals and conservatives together at the grassroots level to develop policy options), a more partisan and ideological strategy (empowering progressive citizen-activists to build relationships and persuade neighbors), and/or incorporating community panels or local insurance co-ops into the bill itself. The White House chose none of these strategies but opted instead for an inside game, trying to negotiate their way to a bill.

A health care bill may still pass, and it would probably be on its way to the White House already if it were not for a weak Democratic senatorial campaign in Massachusetts. On the other hand, the emerging bill was strikingly fragile because no passionate, organized, credible group of citizens supported it. It had the endorsement of some smart, independent policy experts but no enthusiastic popular backing. Nobody “owned” it. Lincoln was right: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.”

The President’s rhetoric has been subtly shifting from civic empowerment to a focus on his own personal leadership–from “we” to “I.” Seeking the nomination in Iowa, Barack Obama said, “I hold no illusions that one man or woman can do this alone.” More than two years later, responding to the Massachusetts Senate election, he said:

    So long as I have some breath in me, so long as I have the privilege of serving as your President, I will not stop fighting for you. I will take my lumps, but I won’t stop fighting to bring back jobs here. (Applause.) I won’t stop fighting for an economy where hard work is rewarded. I won’t stop fighting to make sure there’s accountability in our financial system. (Applause.) I’m not going to stop fighting until we have jobs for everybody.

Before the Democrats turned to health care in 2009, they passed a stimulus package that could have been described–justly–as “public work.” Thanks to the stimulus, some Americans are building roads, bridges, and schools. Some are monitoring federal spending on websites. Some are advocating for priorities. Some are volunteering time in the same schools and hospitals where the federal funds go. Some could also deliberate about where the money should be spent at the local level. All this should be called “active citizenship” and described as a common project. Instead, it turned into a service of the federal government to us–inadequate for the task.

I recognize the challenges. Empowering grassroots volunteers to advocate for health care might have yielded a peaceful army in favor of “single payer,” which would then die in Congress. Public discussions of health care, even if moderated and appropriately structured, could be ruined by deliberate and angry opponents. No one knows for sure how to involve citizens in the administration of health plans over time. Yet the lack of innovation and experimentation in these areas is striking after the impressive record of the campaign. It is hard to identify anyone who even wants to try a civic strategy.

If “active citizenship” seems abstract and utopian, consider Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE), a program within the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). CARE makes grants to communities that have formed local partnerships to address environmental issues and determined their local needs. CARE also provides training and technical assistance and puts an interdisciplinary EPA team in partnership with each community. According to Carmen Sirianni, CARE has built a culture of collaboration and has obtained very energetic and enthusiastic support from EPA staff. However, as I understand it, CARE’s funding has been cut by the Obama Administration. Major national environmental organizations have little enthusiasm for its style of policy; they want top-down directives.

On health care, it is probably too late to try a civic approach. Climate change is so obviously stuck in the United States Senate that it is the issue I would use. The inside game can’t work. The bully pulpit is inadequate: after thousands of speeches by respected leaders and celebrities, there is still not enough political will for major reform of energy policy. Since negotiation cannot yield an acceptable bill, the administration should try a grassroots strategy that includes a genuine element of open discussion, not just “messaging.” And the legislation should include strong support for citizens’ work (not just volunteer service) to reduce our carbon emissions.

Six months ago, I was more persuaded by the risks of employing civic engagement to address a high-profile, deeply contentious issue like health care. I then saw the argument for ramming it through Congress. With that strategy in tatters, the case for active citizenship is stronger than ever.

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