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:
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:
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.