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.

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