Monthly Archives: July 2005

the civic renewal movement and partisanship

In three fairly recent posts, I described a “strong, coherent, interconnected movement for civic renewal” that exists in America despite our sense that official politics is harsh, coarse, and unproductive. (See the first, second, and third posts.) Today my theme is the relationship between this movement and the two main political parties.

I believe that the civic renewal movement should retain a non-partisan core, because one of its main virtues is its open-endness, its neutrality between liberal and conservative ideas, which allows productive deliberation. Nevertheless, I doubt that any political movement can make much progress unless at least one party gets behind it. Partisan support for civic renewal will be inconsistent and strategic, to be sure, but it is crucial.

There is a precedent for that kind of partnership. In the Progressive Era (and at later times, when people pushed for clean, transparent, professional government), independent reformers made important alliances with parties. Sometimes the basis of this alliance was very short-term and tactical: for example, a party might attack “graft” because it was out of power. But there were also deep ideological affinities in both parties. Democrats typically wanted clean government for reasons of equity and efficiency. They assumed that privileged people were most likely to benefit from corruption. When public money was stolen or wasted, needy people would suffer. Republicans typically had moral objections to waste and fraud. Even if most politicians in both parties turned a blind eye to corruption, reforms came periodically from both right and left.

The civic renewal movement is not an attack on corruption, nor a call for professionalism in government. (In fact, “professionalism”–as generally understood–can be part of the problem, if it means that narrowly trained experts displace ordinary citizens.) Nevertheless, the civic renewal movement is like a “good-government” crusade in its relationship to partisan politics. It can serve the narrow, tactical interests of parties, especially when they are out of power; and it can tap deep principles in each party. Yet it is fundamentally different from a partisan movement.

For Democrats, our argument should be that existing state-based programs for helping the poor and disadvantaged do not work terribly well, nor do they have deep popular support. This is because: (a) citizens aren’t given important roles to play in these programs–public schools are an excellent example; (b) many of the ideas and models used in the public sector are out-dated; and (c) citizens have so little contact with those unlike themselves that they lack mutual empathy or understanding. Thus we need more public deliberation and more opportunities to work together on concrete public problems. There is a good chance that the result will be more net spending on social programs over the long term, although that remains to be seen.

A Democratic supporter of civic renewal should be especially enthusiastic about:

  • public support for community development corporations, land trusts, and other wealth-generating companies that are accountable to local citizens; see for examples.
  • service-learning, service programs such as YouthBuild and Americorps, and other initiatives that are likely to enhance the civic capacity and empathy of youth.
  • charter schools (and perhaps analogous programs in health and welfare), which give citizens the opportunity to be creative within the public sector.
  • easier certification of unions, because unions build civic skills and social capital.
  • media reform to make space for more voices, including low-powered radio stations and various non-commercial alternatives.
  • For Republicans, the argument should be that technocratic elites have amassed too much power in the state sector; and the market is amoral. If the American people deliberate and work together to solve common problems, they will safeguard traditional values better than either bureaucrats or corporations. A Republican supporter of civic renewal should be especially enthusiastic about:

  • public support for community development corporations, including those based in churches and religious movements.
  • charter schools (for the same reasons mentioned above–plus a belief that competition will help education).
  • service programs (not so much to promote equality of political voice and empathy as to enhance patriotism)
  • reform of the broadcast spectrum to allow more voices onto the airwaves (thus undermining Hollywood)
  • Neither party can be counted on to promote redistricting reform or a better campaign-finance system, although these are essential to enhancing democracy and improving public debates.

    I have argued that John McCain is likely to pick up the mantle of civic renewal if he runs in 2008. We’ll see if anyone on the left develops a progressive alternative, because then we would have an extremely productive election.

    the Patriot Act and electronic grassroots lobbying

    This week I received two emailed requests to blog on particular topics. First, Jed Miller from the ACLU asked people to blog about reforming the Patriot Act. He and the ACLU have provided “tools for bloggers,” including a “news feed” for the latest relevant information, a set of background facts (from the ACLU’s perspective, of course), a blog, and a means of contacting your local ACLU affiliate. I’m happy to link to this material.

    Then Nick Beaudrot sent me a PDF of a recent report entitled, “Communicating with Congress: How Capitol Hill is Coping with the Surge in Citizen Advocacy.” According to the report, the total volume of messages received by Congress has quadrupled since 1995. Email and other electronic communications are responsible for the entire increase. Members of Congress and their staff say that they like the new avenues of communication and believe that relationships with constituents have improved as a result. However, most of the people who email Congress are heavily involved in other ways, so it’s unlikely that total levels of political participation have increased much because of the Internet. Also, Members of Congress are very concerned about the difference between authentic expressions of individual citizens’ opinion, on one hand, and various covert mass campaigns, on the other. (For example, groups broadcast emails that citizens are supposed to forward to the Hill without necessarily caring much or understanding the content.)

    As the volume of messages to Congress increases, beyond a certain point we would expect the value or impact of each message to decline. Congress can only make a finite number of decisions. If 5 million people try to influence it from different directions, they must each have less impact than if only 500 people weighed in.

    The two items in this post are connected, of course. The ACLU is trying to generate pressure on Congress through electronic means. I linked to their site without having a deep knowledge of the Patriot Act, and without having explored alternative positions in any detail. Nevertheless, I like the ACLU’s approach, because: 1) it supports civic creativity by providing tools for bloggers, who can do what they want with the ACLU’s materials; 2) it’s fully transparent; and 3) it potentially links people to the ACLU’s system of local chapters, where they can get an authentic participatory experience.


    I was talking to my doctor today (I’m fine, thank you–a routine visit), and he happened to ask whether I had ever fainted. I told him that I had–twice, as a matter of fact, at about age 9 and age 12. The first time, the teacher was explaining about an addict’s heroin-withdrawal symptoms. The second time, a different teacher was telling us about the torture of a political prisoner. In both cases, crash!–I fell off my chair unconscious.

    My doctor said, “I guess you’re not the kind of guy they use to apply pressure down in Guantanamo.” I replied, “I don’t think there’s any connection between my kind of empathy and real morality. But you’re probably right; I’m not suited for Gitmo.”

    (It seems to me, by the way, that morality takes guts, judgment, and principle as well as softness of heart.)

    civic skills, workplace skills

    Through most of the twentieth century, it seemed that democratic skills conflicted with workplace skills, just as the organizational structures of democracy were inefficient for producing consumer goods. Engineers divided factory production into the smallest possible units; workers were trained in specialized tasks and given little discretion. They weren’t supposed to address problems or set an agenda for their organizations. Meanwhile, white-collar professionals were also expected to specialize. They had no normative insight–no claim to know what should be done–but only a grasp of the most efficient means to a given end. Their amoral knowledge conferred power. In contrast, democracy was supposed to be egalitarian and concerned with normative questions about a society’s goals and ends. Democratic citizens were supposed to be critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and moral agents.

    Unfortunately, training for the workforce would tend to undermine civic skills, and vice-versa. A highly critical, independent-minded, generally educated citizen would simply be miserable in a factory. To make matters worse, scientific rationality and specialization were seen as synonymous with efficiency. Therefore, if a democratic government wanted to be an efficient check or counterweight in the marketplace, then it needed to become like a big firm, rationalized, hierarchical, and specialized–in a word, bureaucratic. But then there would be less work for citizens to do in the public sector (for which they would nevertheless have to pay taxes). The result was a deep dilemma for democracy, and especially for those who hoped that public action might reduce human misery.

    According to a fascinating article by Dorf and Sabel, “A Constitution of Democratic Experimentalism” (click for the huge .doc file), the tension between civic skills and organizations and the norms of the factory lessened when Japanese manufacturers revolutionized industrial production by replacing assembly lines with teams of generalists. Instead of giving each worker a set of unchanging tasks, the Japanese car companies established benchmarks for production and challenged work teams to beat them. Even after these techniques began to spread to the US (and especially to white-collar work), there remained a tension between the workplace and democracy. But today the contrast in values and skills is less stark than it used to be.

    That trend is evident in certain current efforts at educational reform. The National Governors’ Association uses Achieve, a nonprofit, to conduct surveys and other studies to determine empirically what skills workers need for today’s jobs and higher education. Achieve publishes lists of such skills. To a striking degree, what workers need are also what citizens need: abilities to work together in groups to define and address problems. See “below the fold” for a list of Achieve skills that strike me as highly civic.

    (NB: Before we get carried away with enthusiasm for the new workplace and its civic character, it’s worth noting that Achieve correlates skills to particular job titles. Even according to their analysis, machine operators and wafer fabrication and manufacturing technicians–two of the 10 jobs provided for illustrative purposes–need none of the advanced civic skills.)

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    moral standing

    Like many news stories, this one began when an influential local figure made remarks that were seen as offensive. Willie F. Wilson, former mayoral candidate and current pastor of a Southeast Washington Baptist church, said in a taped sermon that “lesbianism is about to take over our community. … Sisters making more money than brothers and it’s creating problems in families … that’s one of the reasons many of our women are becoming lesbians. … I ain’t homophobic because everybody here got something wrong with him. But –” and he proceeded to make disparaging remarks about gay sex which I’d rather not paste on this PG-rated website.

    By the following Sunday, according to the Washington Post, “TV trucks were in front of the church and reporters were in the pews,” waiting for Rev. Wilson’s apology. But he said, “I ain’t got nothing to say to you. You don’t know us. You don’t care about us. Get off this phone. Don’t call me no more.”

    Let me stipulate: a) I don’t condone the Reverend’s comments, and b) reporters and other people have a legal right to ask questions about what he said and to request an apology–the First Amendment covers their speech and allows them to stand outside the church. But these are my questions: Is the content of a sermon anyone else’s business? Is it appropriate for those TV trucks to park outside the church, demanding a public response? When does speech become “public” in the sense that the speaker owes an apology if what he says is wrong or offensive?

    On the one hand … There is a lot of violence and discrimination against gays. While Rev. Wilson’s sermon did not explicitly incite mistreatment of lesbians, the minister used his religious authority to denigrate gays, which surely increases their vulnerability. Since the clergy have a First Amendment right to say bad things about gays, the only possible response is for gay people–and their straight supporters–to intervene rhetorically. Thus it’s appropriate to quote Rev. Wilson’s speech, to criticize it, to ask him to apologize, and to stick TV microphones in his face.

    On the other hand … I am moved by Rev. Wilson’s statement about the media: “You don’t know us. You don’t care about us.” Even if what he said was completely wrong (factually and morally), that doesn’t mean that reporters have standing to make an issue out of it. It’s not as if the daily work of the Union Temple Baptist Church gets much coverage in the Washington Post. (There have been 443 mentions of the church since 1987, but most appear to be very incidental.) The whole neighborhood tends not to be covered unless murders occur there. The Post has no ongoing relationships with the congregation.

    When reporters decide to quote a statement, and then call other people who may be offended to get their responses, they are making a choice. They are claiming an oversight or “watchdog” role with respect to the person who spoke. If they heard a teenager making an anti-gay slur while walking down the street, they would not write an article about it. They surely should tell us if an elected official utters a slur, even in private. Their decision to quote the Rev. Wilson’s sermon shows that they believe that what goes on inside his church is public business. But on other occasions, they don’t treat his congregration as if it had public importance.

    I confess that I am protective of Union Temple Baptist Church and its privacy because I generally feel that the press is unfair and unhelpful to poor, African American urban communities. They only show up at the embarrassing moments. However, what Rev. Wilson said–“You don’t know us. You don’t care about us”–could also be said by a white fundamentalist preacher in the suburbs.