Monthly Archives: December 2009

an organizing strategy for civic renewal

There is no lobby for the kind of civic reform we need today, which would address both the formal processes of government (things like campaign finance and congressional procedures) and the capacities and organization of citizens. The earlier generation of civic organizations–like my first employer, Common Cause–still try to reform government, but they can no longer count on citizens to support their advocacy or to make use of the reforms they advocate. For example, disclosing federal data will do no good if citizens can’t use these data to hold officials accountable. The information will simply be exploited by sensation-seeking reporters, professional lobbyists, and strong partisans.

But there is good news. Hundreds of thousands of Americans–maybe a couple of million–have done work that I consider part of the solution to our problems as a democracy. They have participated in local, deliberative discussions organized by the National Issues Forums, Everyday Democracy, AmericaSpeaks, or homegrown alternatives; or they have led kids in interactive civic courses or programs that combine research, discussion, and service; or they have volunteered through strong AmeriCorps programs; or they have created and managed online spaces for sharing news and information; or they have sustained important local civic institutions like libraries and meeting spaces; or they have collaborated with government agencies to restore watersheds; or they have organized neighborhoods, using techniques that include a lot of listening and open discussion.

Nobody has organized these people, asking them to meet one another, share ideas, collaborate, discuss a national agenda (including policy reforms), or contribute money to the common cause. Most of the organizations that support this kind of work can’t afford to do grassroots canvassing or fundraising, nor do they advocate for reforms. Almost all of the money that supports these national organizations comes from a few foundations, plus some specialized endowments.

I wonder if one national organization with credibility and capacity–or else a small coalition of such organizations–could do the organizing footwork. The other groups would share their lists on the condition that they took a large share of any funds raised. The extra money could be used to support the civic lobbying function that is otherwise missing.

different voices

On the Microdemocracy Blog from The Right Question Project, you can read comments by Dominique, a young woman in Philadelphia who is working on her GED and becoming involved in politics and community organizing.

Meanwhile, Brett Campo is a member of the Mississippi Superintendent’s Youth Advisory Committee and a successful college freshman. He had dropped out of high school, but he now travels the state urging his peers to stay in school. He also has a blog.

I appreciate this combination of getting on a strong academic track through civic engagement and describing your work online.

what hard looks like

Remember on Inauguration Day, when fans of Barack Obama felt admiration for the new president as a person–mixed with a foreboding sense that things would soon become difficult for him? That’s the sense I felt on the National Mall last January. But what did people imagine that “difficult” would look like? Did they think that poor Barack would have to stay up late every night working on legislation? Or that he would consistently propose policies that we support and be criticized by people we abhor?

If those were our thoughts, we were naive about politics and American society. Governing under difficult conditions means exactly the kind of compromise and negotiation that we see today–that’s what “hard” means. I’ve been critical of the administration, and I will gradually raise my bar of expectations over the coming years. Criticism is appropriate–helpful, even. But if anything disappoints me, it is not the choices of the administration. It is the sense that we were entitled to be handed “change” by the new president after we had finished our job by electing him last November. He always said quite the opposite–that the burden was going to fall on us.

I keep hearing friends and colleagues shake their heads in disappointment that the president has let us down. I want to shake them and shout, “What have you done lately?” I’m sorry, but I missed the millions of liberals marching though Washington to demand a single-payer health system. I noticed the tea party protesters, the insurance lobbyists, and Fox News. I watched public support for health care reform fall to the low thirties in recent surveys. I have not seen much counter-pressure. True, Organizing for America has been weak so far–but since when did liberals count on an incumbent president to organize a grassroots advocacy effort to put pressure on himself from the left? That’s our job.

These are the specific policies that most seem to disappoint the left:

  • The health reform bill, which Howard Dean and others are saying should be scuttled. It’s a compromise, and the process of legislative negotiation is ugly to watch. Joe Lieberman should be ashamed of himself, and the filibuster should be overturned. But this bill will be the most ambitious piece of progressive legislation since the 1960s, representing $900 billion in subsidies for lower-income people, paid by upper-income people, along with significant regulatory reforms. To pass this through a fractious body of 535 members while under unrelenting corporate pressure, during a recession, after the public has been asked to bail out banks and car companies, is an almost unbelievable achievement. The public option was, in my view, always an ideological proxy issue and not an important reform for disadvantaged Americans.
  • The stimulus, which Paul Krugman and others argue should have been much bigger. An economist will also tell you–if you’re stranded on a desert island with canned goods–to assume that you have a can-opener. In the real world, the government has only actually spent 30% of the appropriated stimulus funds so far. The feds don’t have a magical ability to push money out the door. I am not convinced that faster stimulus spending would have been possible.
  • Afghanistan, which many people are analogizing to Vietnam. The first point to note is that the president campaigned with a consistent commitment to “winning” in Afghanistan–so he has hardly betrayed his voters. The second point is that the available choices are all unpalatable. If we retain the current level of troops, we and the Afghans will just bleed slowly. If we withdraw, there will be a nightmare, in humanitarian as well as security terms. I am pessimistic about the surge, but I acknowledge that it creates the chance for some kind of multilateral deal before we leave.
  • Wall Street reform, which strikes liberals as thoroughly inadequate. Maybe so, but Congress now seems poised to pass comprehensive financial reform legislation. That’s not easy to accomplish given the “privileged position of business,” especially in a weak economy.
  • Human rights and civil liberties, on which the administration’s policies seem too close to its predecessor’s. There is definitely ground for criticism here. But Guantanamo is emerging as a symbol of failure, and that reinforces my view that Obama’s leftist critics are naive. What are we supposed to do–open the doors of Guantanamo and let the prisoners go wherever they want? Said Ali al-Shihri was released and is now leading Al Qaeda’s deadly efforts in Yemen. We cannot try people in criminal court if they are basically prisoners of war. And we can’t repatriate them if their home countries are likely to torture and execute them. Of course, Guantanamo must be closed, but it is better to do this carefully and right than quickly.

Again, my point is not that the administration is amazingly admirable or that Barack Obama should be our personal hero. My point is that nobody can accomplish “change” for us. There are plenty of ways to engage, and if you don’t use at least one of them, you have no business complaining.

the Census to measure civic engagement

The United States Census is about to begin measuring civic health in its annual Current Population Supplement. Census had already measured voting and volunteering; the additional measures will be added because of a provision in the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009 that requires a partnership between Census, the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, and the National Conference on Citizenship to assess the nation’s civic health. Because of the huge size of the Census surveys, we will be able to see levels of civic participation by state, by large city, and by demographic group, and investigate the relationships between things like education, health, and military service and civic participation.

This effort has been a goal of mine for more than a decade. In the late nineties, when I was Deputy Director of the National Commission on Civic Renewal, my job was to develop the Index of National Civic Health (INCH), which was comprised of about 40 indicators drawn from various public surveys. (It showed deep decline since the 1970s). In the current decade, the National Conference on Citizenship developed a similar index and began fielding an annual survey to collect the data. CIRCLE and I were deeply involved in their survey design and analysis. Various people involved in that effort were then able to get the index written into federal law and selected questions included on the annual Census surveys.

For now (according to federal websites), the items will be:

  • vote in last election
  • register to vote
  • volunteer
  • discuss politics with family or friends
  • read newspaper in print or online
  • read news magazines
  • get news from TV or TV news websites
  • listen to the news on the radio or radio websites
  • obtain news from other web sources
  • attend a meeting where political issues are discussed
  • buy or boycott a certain product or service because of the social or political values of the company that provides it
  • march, rally, protest, or demonstration
  • support a candidate by distributing materials, fundraising, donating, or other ways
  • belong to a school or neighborhood association such as PTA, or neighborhood watch
  • belong to a service or civic organization
  • belong to a sports or recreation organization
  • belong to a religious institution or organization
  • belong to any other organization
  • serve as an officer or committee member
  • attend group or organization meeting
  • eat dinner with other members of your household
  • do favors such as watching each other’s children, helping with shopping, house sitting
  • how many close friends do you have?
  • factual knowledge: who decides if a law is constitutional?
  • factual knowledge: overriding a veto

(These are not the actual questions, which are longer and more explanatory. These are just my headlines for the questions.)