Monthly Archives: February 2012

the DC One City Summit

As a former long-time resident of Washington, DC and a current member of the AmericaSPEAKS board, I’m pleased to read that 1,700 DC citizens recently spent seven hours in the Convention Center, deliberating about big strategic questions facing the city.

Using the AmericaSPEAKS model, they deliberated at small tables that were networked together by means of computers and then voted–their votes and key quotes displayed on big screens as simultaneous feedback.

Participants were a demographically diverse group (e.g., 44% African American and 19% Latino), and they held diverse views even after talking. For instance, gentrification was the top concern even though only 17% chose it. A different 15% chose “corruption and perceived corruption.”

The Washington Post chooses to lead its article by noting that the event has been “praised for engaging the public but criticized for its $600,000 price tag and seeming bureaucracy.” In this short piece, they also make sure to inform us that Mayor Anthony “Williams wore a plaid shirt and khakis, an everyman outfit” to a similar event in 1999, whereas Mayor Vincent “Gray appeared Saturday in a sports jacket and tieless.” By way of an explanation of the whole Summit, we read that “The Gray administration acknowledged the summit was a throwback to the administration of former Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a two-term mayor who often had to fight the perception that he was aloof.”

I was hoping the Post might actually report what all those citizens thought and said about the city. But I guess that’s not news; only the electoral motivations of professional politicians count as newsworthy.

the Age of Innocence and the age of reform

The Age of Innocence seems to be a love triangle, a romance between a married man and someone not his wife, much like The Scarlet Letter, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Lady Chaterley’s Lover. We are used to fictions in which the suspense and tension arise from such illicit romances. The late Tony Tanner once wrote that it is “the unstable triangularity of adultery, rather than the static symmetry of marriage, that is the generative form of Western literature as we know it.” Decades earlier, Denis de Rougement had written even more forcefully, “To judge by literature, adultery would seem to be more of the most remarkable of occupations in both Europe and America. Few are the novels that fail to allude to it. … Without adultery, what would happen to imaginative writing?”

But if The Age of Innocence is like those other great novels about doomed, adulterous love, then why does the Countess Olenska’s passion for Newland Archer seem so remote? Where is the sex? And how come everything works out reasonably well for all three characters–without homicides, suicides, elopements, trials, or even any grand gestures and statements?

I would propose that The Age of Innocence is not a love triangle or a romantic tragedy. It is rather a study of one young man whose basic problem is neither romantic nor erotic but basically political.

Archer sees the glamorous Countess Olenska as an escape from his foreordained life, a life devoted to maintaining his own social milieu and class. Because the countess has broken Society’s rules and is on the verge of banishment, running away with her would foreclose the role that is expected of Archer and would open vague alternative possibilities for him.

Decades later, Teddy Roosevelt makes a surprising appearance:

… the Governor of New York, coming down from Albany one evening to dine and spend the night, had turned to his host [Archer], and said, banging his clenched fist on the table and gnashing his eye-glasses: “Hang the professional politician! You’re the kind of man the country wants, Archer. If the stable’s ever to be cleaned out, men like you have got to lend a hand in the cleaning.”

“Men like you–” how Archer had glowed at the phrase! How eagerly he had risen up at the call! It was an echo of Ned Winsett’s old appeal to roll his sleeves up and get down into the muck; but spoken by a man who set the example of the gesture, and whose summons to follow him was irresistible.

Archer, as he looked back, was not sure that men like himself WERE what his country needed, at least in the active service to which Theodore Roosevelt had pointed; in fact, there was reason to think it did not, for after a year in the State Assembly he had not been re-elected, and had dropped back thankfully into obscure if useful municipal work, and from that again to the writing of occasional articles in one of the reforming weeklies that were trying to shake the country out of its apathy. It was little enough to look back on; but when he remembered to what the young men of his generation and his set had looked forward–the narrow groove of money-making, sport and society to which their vision had been limited–even his small contribution to the new state of things seemed to count, as each brick counts in a well-built wall. He had done little in public life; he would always be by nature a contemplative and a dilettante; but he had had high things to contemplate, great things to delight in; and one great man’s friendship to be his strength and pride.

He had been, in short, what people were beginning to call “a good citizen.” …

TR substitutes for Ellen Olenska. Since Archer is a heterosexual young man of romantic inclinations, it may seem amusing that the old Rough Rider could replace this young lady whose beauty is frequently emphasized. But Archer is already married to a lovely young wife. He doesn’t need a fallen countess for a romantic partner. What he sees in Ellen Olenska is someone who has important things on her mind, someone to talk to. It is to his credit that he respects her mind. Yet all she could give him would be “conversation,” her own and that of her Continental artist friends. What Roosevelt offers is something for Archer to do.

Until he enters public life, Archer is basically limited to the domestic sphere. He is a lawyer with a Harvard degree, but his legal job is undemanding and uninspiring, just a respectable sinecure. Insofar as his assigned social role is domestic, he is much like Dorothea Brooke (or Jane Addams before she founded Hull-House), women denied the possibility of greatness. It turns out later that Archer doesn’t have Rooseveltian greatness in him, but he deserves and obtains the right to try.

There are times when it seems impossible for respectable and honorable people to enter and improve public life. The United States in the 1870s was one such time; our own period is coming perilously close. Innocence requires retreat into family or “money-making, sport and society.” The age of progressive reform that began in the 1890s not only strengthened democracy; it also gave good people the chance to add their bricks to a worthwhile wall. Courageous reformers like TR and Jane Addams opened the way for ordinary Americans like Newland Archer to achieve some measure of public happiness. And that, I think, is the basic plot of The Age of Innocence.

new book on the way

Today I signed a contract with Oxford University Press for a new book, tentatively entitled We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting for: The Philosophy and Practice of Civic Renewal.* The manuscript still needs some revision but should, I think, reach the bookstores in 2012.

The overall argument is that citizens must combine direct work with talking and listening if we are to address our most serious public problems. Better government will not suffice. Through civic engagement (collaboration plus deliberation), we can address even our worst crises. But civic engagement is blocked or frustrated by the policies, priorities, and structures of large-scale institutions. To expand its scope and power will require changes in institutions, in the way we organize ourselves in civil society, and even in how we define and think about politics. Fortunately, those changes are within reach if individuals and small groups of citizens direct their political activism in the right ways. I try to draw a line from what you and I can do as individuals all the way through to how society can solve major problems.

Chapter 1: Overview: The Public and Our Problems

I argue that problems like the incarceration epidemic and our inability to adjust to fundamental economic change cannot be solved by policy reforms, even though existing policies are damaging. I use examples to show that these crises can be addressed by civic engagement, properly understood.

Chapter 2: How to Think About Politics: Values, Facts, and Strategies

This relatively short chapter is really a justification of the book’s method and a call for people to think differently about politics. I claim that mainstream academic thought divides facts from values, and both facts and values from strategies, in ways that block the solutions of serious problems. Scholarship also deprecates deliberate human action and agency. The rest of the book is supposed to illustrate an alternative, which my colleagues and I have called “civic studies.”

Chapter 3: Values: What Makes a Good Democracy

This is the philosophical chapter. It is an argument for collaboration and deliberation. In part, the argument is epistemological (although I never use that word, because I aim for a non-technical style throughout). I claim, in other words, that we can only know what to do if we combine working with talking and listening in a particular, open-ended way. This position contrasts with various forms of elitism, technocratic and scientific approaches to politics, and ideology. Thus much of the chapter consists of an argument against these alternatives. (It is too long and I am looking for ways of compressing it.)

Chapter 4: Facts: The State of American Democracy

This chapter (which all peer reviewers have considered the strongest part of the book) has two parts. The first is an argument that our politics and civil society have been profoundly corrupted, not only by money–although I gave money sustained attention–but also by the demise of institutions committed to engaging citizens and deliberating the common good. The second part summarizes the development of new and highly promising alternatives, almost all of which remain fairly small. A coda considers the 2008 Obama Campaign as a case study of our current situation. Both Obamas were deeply schooled in exactly the alternative civic culture that I praise. But once they obtained national power, they could not implement what they had learned at the community level, precisely because of the deep corruption of our public institutions.

Chapter 5: Strategies: How to Accomplish Civic Renewal

This is the chapter in which I try to draw a line all the way from the intentional work of small groups (like you and me) to the solution of large-scale public problems. One key step is to argue that a nascent community of at least one million Americans are already experienced in, and committed to, the combination of deliberation and collaboration that we need. We must turn that significant minority into an organized political force that expands the role of civic engagement.

*I am ambivalent about my tentative title. It seems descriptive of the content of the book. The phrase, which I find moving, does not belong to Barack Obama but can be traced back to the Civil Rights Era (as he fully acknowledges). I am not endorsing but respectfully criticizing the president’s approach to civic renewal. After a few years, I doubt that “We are the ones …” will evoke the 2008 Obama Campaign as narrowly as it does now. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to use the phrase if it suggests that the book is about Obama or simply endorses him. I am open to suggestions …

Arne Duncan’s nine commitments on civic education

Here are the nine steps that the US Department of Education recently pledged to take to advance civic education in America. Each of these is spelled out in somewhat more detail in this PDF.

1. “Convene and catalyze schools and postsecondary institutions to increase and enhance high-quality civic learning and engagement.”

2. “Identify additional civic indicators.” [For example, the Department commits to put some civic measures on national longitudinal youth surveys and make the data available.]

3. “Identify promising practices in civic learning and democratic engagement—and encourage further research to learn what works.” [This is a pledge that will mean real money, because civic outcomes will be treated as priorities in the Department’s regular research funding competitions, for the first time in my memory.]

4. “Leverage federal investments and public-private partnerships.” [This basically means allowing federal grantees in the education field to promote civic engagement as a fundable objective–which, like #3, could in principle provide substantial funding to the field.]

5. “Encourage community-based work-study placements.” [This means encouraging colleges to use some of the Federal Work Study money for jobs in community organizations, which would be good civic education for the student workers. I have been advocating that for years.]

6. “Encourage public service careers among college students and graduates.” [This basically means advertising the availability of the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which is underutilized.]

7. “Support civic learning for a well-rounded K–12 curriculum.” [The Administration proposes a bucket of funds for disciplines left out of No Child Left Behind, including civics as well as arts, foreign languages, physical education, etc.  But they need Congressional authorization for that.]

8. “Engage Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other Minority-Serving Institutions … and Tribal Colleges and Universities—in a national dialogue to identify best practices.” [I am not sure what this means concretely for those institutions, but it is true that they are historic leaders and have much to contribute to the whole field.]

9. “Highlight and promote student and family participation in education programs and policies at the federal and local levels.” [This is the Department’s pledge to involve citizens in education policy, pursuant to the President’s very first Executive Order, which was about transparency, participation, and collaboration. It could be the biggest step of all, but everything depends on whether it is truly a priority.]

I think these are good and important ideas. We should help them turn out well, and we should hold the Department accountable for them.

public work in Massachusetts (and the nation)

Our colleagues at Harvard’s Institute of Politics and the National Conference on Citizenship recently released a report on the civic health of Massachusetts. My organization, CIRCLE, did much of the underlying statistical analysis, although the Harvard team of students deserve full credit for the report and its argument.

One aspect we contributed was the suggestion that “public work” could be measured by identifying individuals who say they both attend public meetings and “work with neighbors to fix or improve something.” Our idea is that people should talk and listen with peers and act, letting their conversations guide their actions and their practical experience inform their discussions. Deliberation without work is empty, but work without deliberation is blind.

Using our definition, the report finds that 5.7% of Massachusetts residents do public work. Our measure is obviously imperfect. Leaving aside the usual problems of biased survey responses, this is an imperfect measure because you could attend meetings that had nothing to do with your working with neighbors. Or you could do real public work outside your neighborhood.

Nevertheless, I believe it’s a useful proxy measure for comparison purposes. The rate in Massachusetts is a full percentage point greater than the national rate (4.7%). Particular groups are more or less involved. For example, Native Americans are nationally the most likely group to meet the definition, perhaps because of traditions of collaborate governance. Public work (as we define it) correlates with education, so that 10% of Massachusetts college graduates participate, but no one in the Massachusetts sample who had less than a high school diploma met the definition.