Monthly Archives: November 2007

interacting with “the media”

(We’re heading west for Thanksgiving, and this will be my last post until Monday.)

I have minuscule impact on the news media, but I do have interesting experiences with journalists.

For example, yesterday at 7 am, I walked the halls of XM Radio in Northeast Washington, DC. XM Radio produces 170 separate channels of audio programming, mostly for specialized audiences. I was on my way to be interviewed for “POTUS ’08,” a channel that talks about nothing but the presidential campaign, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I should note that the questions turned out to be very good; they went far beyond the usual horse-race analysis. But what struck me were all the studios for the other radio channels, visible through glass windows along the groovy curving halls as I walked to my interview. Baseball jerseys and bats covered the walls of one studio, where three guys were talking into mikes. Another studio looked like a business suite with leather furniture and copies of the Wall Street Journal. It all seemed like a Monte Python skit. I expected to see the “Yo-Yo Channel” around the next corner, with people in beanies keeping their Imperials in motion, 24/7.

Later in the same day, a crew came to interview me for a documentary about the future of democracy (not about my book of that name; about the actual future of our actual democracy). The crew is also filming the interview process to create a video blog about making the documentary. That explained why there were two cameras, one filming the other one. Again, I should note that the interview questions were very thoughtful.

Finally, not long ago, a foreign TV crew came to interview me about KidsVoting USA. This is a fine program that involves discussing a campaign in school and then conducting a mock election. A rigorous study has found that participants’ parents actually vote at higher rates, because the program stimulates discussion of politics around the dinner table. The TV crew had gone to Duluth, Minnesota (i.e., the heartland) to film a KidsVoting class and some dinner-table conversations. After the interview, the reporter told me privately that she was so moved by what she saw in Duluth that she was thinking of quitting her job to start KidsVoting in her home country. She wanted my advice about fundraising.

civic leadership

I’d like to reply to two thoughtful recent comments. First, Harry Boyte responds to yesterday’s post and helps to develop the connection between hyper-partisanship and divisive politics, on one hand, and technocracy or arrogant expertise, on the other. These two problems are not linked in most of the public discussion–on the contrary, technocrats are seen as apolitical, and populists are depicted as divisive. Harry has been arguing that technocracy and divisiveness are actually part of the same problem.

This, by the way, is a response to Sean Wilentz’ argument that Senator Clinton is the best prepared candidate because she understands and relishes “politics.” Harry would say (I think) that Clinton practices politics in a specific way that is both partisan and technocratic (and therefore not at all like the politics of the New Deal, which Wilentz admires).

Second, Scott Dinsmore (who has a good blog) asks, “What are the pros and cons of populist campaigns and movements carrying the civic renewal banner?”

These are some of the “cons,” in my opinion. There’s a risk that any specific strategies or policies for civic renewal will become identified with a particular candidate, who will inevitably have idiosyncratic interests, values, followers, and frailties. Other candidates may shy away from civic themes, thinking that a competitor has already staked that ground. The version of civic participation that one candidate offers may be thin, limited, or even fake. And then that politician can lose, creating the impression that civic renewal is a loser of a platform.

Now here’s the “pro” side of the argument: There is more than one flavor of civic renewal, so it would be possible for many candidates to stake out civic ground and compete over who is most likely to empower and respect citizens. There can be a “service” version, emphasizing the national and community service programs in and out of schools; a decentralization version, favoring charter schools and local autonomy; a patriotic version, stressing knowledge of the constitution and military service; and a deliberative version, which puts process first. I’d love to see a healthy competition among these “flavors.”

Compared to past decades, we have a richer set of civic experiences and practices at the local level; Bridgeport is just one example. National leaders who understood grassroots civic renewal could bring it to public attention and create supportive national policies.

John Edwards proposed some good ideas for civic participation and explicitly cited the November Fifth Coalition, even though it is a fledgling organization with no money (yet). This was exciting but also risky for us and our friends and allies. We don’t want to depend on any one politician to carry our water, but we must welcome their attention.

the case for Nehamiah

Here’s a stark contrast:

1. Paul Krugman, “Played for a Sucker,” New York Times, Nov. 16: “On Social Security, as on many other issues, what Washington means by bipartisanship is mainly that everyone should come together to give conservatives what they want. We all wish that American politics weren’t so bitter and partisan. But if you try to find common ground where none exists–which is the case for many issues today–you end up being played for a fool. And that’s what has just happened to Mr. Obama.”

2. Harry C. Boyte: “Our Passive Society Needs Some New Nehemiahs,” Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune, Nov. 16: “In today’s America, as we have come to look to others — experts, great leaders, celebrities — to save us from our problems, we have similarly become afflicted by civic illness. Our bitter divisions along lines of partisanship, income, race, religion and geography are fed by devaluation of the talents and intelligence of people without credentials, degrees and celebrity status. Our citizenship declines while we are entertained as spectators, pacified as clients and pandered to as customers.

“We need new Nehemiahs who call forth America’s democratic genius of a self-reliant, productive, future-oriented citizenry, leaders who tackle tough issues in a collaborative way and reject the rescuer role. Such leaders would tap the talents of citizens to address public problems on which government is necessary but not sufficient, from climate change to school reform. They would challenge us to create healthy communities, not simply provide access to health care. They would recall that democracy is a way of life, not simply a trip to the ballot box.

“The great leaders in our history — from Abraham Lincoln to Jane Addams, Franklin Roosevelt to Martin Luther King Jr. — have always called upon citizens to address common challenges, and in the process helped the nation remember its democratic soul.”

I’m with my friend Harry, and here are four reasons. First, Krugman treats the Republican Party and conservatism as monolithic, imagining that every member of those large conglomerations plays from the same disreputable script. (Cf. all these comments on Think Progress.) In fact, Republicans and conservatives are quite diverse, and some are very discontented with Karl Rove’s style of politics.

Second, Krugman’s argument is ad hominem. Instead of saying, “Senator Obama, you are wrong about Social Security; it’s not really in crisis,” Krugman says, “Senator Obama, you are a sucker for trying to meet conservatives half way.” Maybe compromise isn’t even Obama’s intent. He may actually believe that Social Security is in crisis. (Many people do.) When we stop giving arguments and reasons and start calling people “suckers,” it’s very hard to move forward.

Third, it’s going to be impossible to solve any of our real problems unless someone builds a broad constituency. The ruling coalition must be wide enough to embrace some conservatives and some Republicans. Fifty-one percent is enough to knock things down (if you are ruthless), but it is not enough to build things up.

Finally, Krugman’s political strategy presumes that liberal leaders can win elections and then implement smart policies that will make the country better. I think this is a long-term strategic error. No policies can solve problems without public support and public participation. In order for liberalism to fly, Americans are going to have to feel genuine connections to public institutions. They will not feel truly connected to government until (a) it seems to reflect some consensus and some civility and (b) it addresses their cultural discontents, which are deep and valid. The majority of Americans have genuine worries about a coarse culture, and unless liberal leaders can address their concerns in an inclusive, bridge-building way, liberalism is doomed.

putting real citizenship back into the immigration debate

Immigration is evidently a huge issue, and one of the few that may play to the advantage of conservatives in 2008. Here’s a response that’s available to Democrats and Republicans who don’t want to shut the doors and deport people:

“We’re talking about ‘citizenship’ as if it’s just a matter of who can get a driver’s license or tuition benefits. We’re acting as if you’re a ‘citizen’ if you don’t have to worry about the INS.

“Throughout our history, we have always understood citizenship in a much deeper and more demanding way than that. It means the obligation and the power to work together to make America a better place than when we found it. It means voting and volunteering, discussing issues, supporting organizations, defining and solving community problems, creating public art and culture, serving in uniform, raising the next generation, and preserving the environment.

“Some of the people who have come to this country illegally are fully involved in those ways. Many legal immigrants are very active citizens. But a whole bunch of people who were born in the United States–and whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were born here–are not very involved. They are not truly acting as citizens, even though they have a birthright to a US passport.

“Some may just be couch potatoes, but some feel forced out of citizenship. They believe they cannot make a significant difference in education, the environment, or crime because the big bureaucratic structures that we have created don’t welcome their participation. As we debate citizenship for immigrants, let’s reform our institutions and strengthen our communities so that all Americans can once again be fully active and responsible citizens.”

civic renewal in Bridgeport

The folks at Public Agenda–specifically, Will Friedman, Alison Kadlec, and Lara Birnbeck–have published a very important study of Bridgeport, CT. I remember Bridgeport as something of a basket case in the 1980s: the city was literally bankrupt, the leadership had a reputation for corruption, and the population was very hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Bridgeport is now doing much better, to the point (for instance) that its school system was one of five finalists for the Broad Prize in both 2006 and 2007. The Public Agenda team makes a strong case that the reason for Bridgeport’s renaissance is civic participation.

They start the story with the Connecticut Community Conversations Project, a series of public discussions of the type that John Gastil and I cataloged in The Deliberative Democracy Handbook. According to Public Agenda, the discussions of school reform led to many other such projects; deliberation is now a habit in Bridgeport. Citizens have shown that they are capable of making tough choices: for instance, shifting limited resources from teen after-school programs to programs for younger kids. There is much more collaboration today among businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. The Public Agenda report quotes several business leaders who describe themselves as converts to public engagement, whose willingness to invest in the city has risen as they have gained trust in their fellow citizens. There is also a high rate of direct participation–for instance, mentoring.

Everyone feels that they share responsibility; problems are not left to officials. The School Superintendent says, “I’ve never seen anything like this. The community stakeholders at the table were adamant about this. They said, ‘We’re up front with you. The school district can’t do it by itself. We own it too.'”

Now, if we could only inject such examples into the national political debate.