Yesterday, I listed some major fields of practice that I consider important to the overall movement for civic renewal in America. Today (while I attend a day-long meeting on service-learning), I will summarize some of the common themes that define all those fields.
1. Civic renewal work is open-ended: Instead of defining problems and solutions in advance, many leaders of the networks that I described yesterday prefer to create open forums in which diverse groups of citizens can set their own course. I realize that perfect neutrality is impossible. (Even in a deliberative exercise, someone must issue an invitation that will somehow shape the conversation that ensues.) Besides, being “open” to diverse views is not always wise; it’s fine to commit oneself to fighting poverty or AIDS, or even defeating a particular political party. But the civic renewal movement is defined by a commitment to helping citizens make their own decisions. I find this commitment appealing for several reasons: it reflects the best spirit of liberal education, it builds citizens’ capacities for self-government, and it creates the hope that we may together develop alternative policy options and ideologies, for none of the existing ones seem impressive.
2. Civic renewal work combines deliberation with action: Many of the projects I described yesterday involve careful, reflective conversations among diverse people. They also involve political work–not only voting or otherwise influencing the state, but also managing common resources and building local institutions. Deliberation without work is empty, but work without deliberation is blind.
3. Civic renewal work treats the political culture as an important variable: There are ideologies according to which the “root causes” of poverty, crime, racial exclusion, and even environmental degradation are all economic. If that were true, it would be superficial to work on public deliberation or civic education; we should first make society more equal and fair. Under conditions of injustice, public discussions would simply reflect (and perhaps even legitimize) the inequality of knowledge, status, power, and other resources. However, participants in the civic-renewal movement reject this argument, seeing it as a recipe for hopelessness–and a way to avoid actual public deliberations). Instead, they place their bets on enhancing people’s political opportunities, even while economic conditions are unfair.
4. Civic renewal work builds sustained civic capacity: Although each project is devoted to a specific task, the leaders of these projects are always thinking about other matters as well–especially, how to involve more people in politics, strengthen the social ties that individuals can use to solve common problems, enhance institutions, and make better information available.
5. Civic renewal work is non-partisan: There is nothing wrong with affiliating with a party or holding ideological views (I do). However, open-ended work is, by definition, distinct from partisan work. At a time of intense partisan polarization, it’s important that some people, some of the time, are concerned about the overall political system and culture in which our two major parties compete.
6. Civic renewal work is concerned with the human scale: Politics certainly takes place at a macro level–in national elections, the mass media, and struggles among nations. The macro level is important, but so is the micro, because it is only in groupings of modest, tangible size that people can develop the skills, attitudes, and networks that allow them to participate effectively in national affairs. (See “two levels of politics” for more on this.)