the civic renewal movement and partisanship

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:

  • public support for community development corporations, land trusts, and other wealth-generating companies that are accountable to local citizens; see for examples.
  • service-learning, service programs such as YouthBuild and Americorps, and other initiatives that are likely to enhance the civic capacity and empathy of youth.
  • charter schools (and perhaps analogous programs in health and welfare), which give citizens the opportunity to be creative within the public sector.
  • easier certification of unions, because unions build civic skills and social capital.
  • media reform to make space for more voices, including low-powered radio stations and various non-commercial alternatives.
  • 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:

  • public support for community development corporations, including those based in churches and religious movements.
  • charter schools (for the same reasons mentioned above–plus a belief that competition will help education).
  • service programs (not so much to promote equality of political voice and empathy as to enhance patriotism)
  • reform of the broadcast spectrum to allow more voices onto the airwaves (thus undermining Hollywood)
  • 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.

    3 thoughts on “the civic renewal movement and partisanship

    1. Anonymous

      Peter, I think your series on the “civic renewal movement” is full of insights, and agree with your point that it certainly crosses (and needs to cross) party lines. Let me argue several other questions:

      * The movement is better called a “movement for a democratic society” than a movement for civic renewal — I think the deeper, larger goal and the richer heritage is the democratic one.

      * There is a clear and vivid irony, however: very few groups or individuals in this “movement” (however designated) see themselves in this way, as part of a movement that has prospects of impacting the larger direction of national or world events — indeed, like most Americans perhaps — when they imagine the world, I expect they feel alarm. The question of how local or sectoral work can be connected, imaginatively and practically, to a larger sense of democratic (civic) movement that can reverse the vast and dangerous trends in the world. These include global warming, the rise of violence, increasing poverty and inequality, and what I think even deeper, interrelated dynamics at work, such as “neo-liberalism” and the enclosure of the commons, the rise of fundamentalist modes of thought — religious, marketplace, ideoogical — and the availability of new technologies to spread them, and the technocratic patterns that displace human agency and erode democratic power.

      * Thus, in addressing the challenge of creating a more self-conscious “movement,” I think we need bridging concepts as well as forums and communications media. What you describe, in its various strands (and a number of others, as well — the movement for public spaces, for instance, or civic agriculture, or the burgeoning community arts movement, to mention several — are elements in what might be conceived as an alliance for democratic society, crossing boundaries.

      There are perhaps useful traditions and ideas to draw upon here, also recognizes distinctions and differences. Thus, for instance, the concept of “historic bloc,” or “popular [sometimes cultural] front” during the New Deal merits debate and discussion — I’m eager to hear more thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of these concepts and traditions.

      The concept of bloc or popular front is drawn from left theory — Antonio Gramsci in Italy, or the concept of cultural “front” developed by American cultural radicals like Kenneth Burke and others in the 1930s. The parallels I see involve the sense of broad, self-conscious alliances, commonly perceived threat(s), and the vital importance of combining struggle against dominant (or for Gramsci, “hegemonic”) ideas and cultural practices, with concrete, local and sectoral organizing projects and activities, of both short term and long nature As this cultural politics played out, it also involved a good deal of structural analysis of “cultural workers” and communications and knowledge technologies as important strategic sites — C. Wright Mills 1959 essay “The Cultural Apparatus,” flagging an unfinished longer project — was the culmination of decades of thought and debate about this, intimating the ferment of the 1960s (informing his famous “To the New Left” essay). The popular front movement also had rich, vital local roots in public and civic instituitons and the public life of places.

      The difference — and it is a very large difference — is that the popular front (while it was full of variations and differences, contesting key terms like “people” and ethnicity and race and meanings of “American” and many others in ways that still need contesting) was highly ideological. Its basic goal was socialism or social democracy — democracy was simply a subtheme, and its richer meanings rarely discussed except by a few, like John Dewey — and because of its state bias it largely slighted technocratic trends implicated in state expansion. Technocracy has also been a very important force in eroding the local public cultures that gave the movement vitality and strength.

      Yet reading about the movement — Michael Denning’s book, The Cultural Front — is a very rich account — one can see many questions of continuing relevance to debate an dconsider, such as the changing landscape of class, the centrality of racial and gender relations, the growing importance of cultural activity as a site of political work, importance of building vital local cultural roots of a broader movement, bringing together of people with different backgrounds, and the need for many media and networks through which people can exchange ideas, experiences, draw lessons, and develop confidence.

      thanks, Peter, for stimulating such topics.

      Harry Boyte

    2. Peter Levine

      Thanks, PW. You’ve linked to a nice short piece on community ownership by David Sirota.

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