ideology: pros and cons | Main | deliberation and the scope of the public sphere

June 09, 2003

building a constituency for the Commons

The American Library Association's commons-blog has a nice mention of The Prince George's Information Commons.

I see our local work on this experimental "information commons" as an effort to fill an important gap. The national public interest groups that work on media issues use a model pioneered around 1970 by Ralph Nader and John Gardner (founders of Public Citizen and Common Cause). Today, these groups perform extremely important functions in tracking complex federal policies and lobbying and litigating on behalf of values that would otherwise be unrepresented in Washington. However (with the exception of the ALA and a few other groups), they lack a grassroots base. In part, this is because their issues are so complex that most people cannot, and will not, keep up. In part, it is because the original Nader/Gardner model depended on a large population of active citizens who were prone to join groups, to follow and discuss issues, and to make contributions. Public Citizen and Common Cause were born at the demographic peak of what Robert Putnam calls "the long civic generation." Now that people are generally less likely to follow the news and to join groups, the "public-interest community" in Washington lacks a base. So our strategy is to start building independent (that is, non-partisan, non-profit, and non-governmental) groups at the community level—as places where people can develop social ties and learn to use the complex new media for public purposes. I believe that we should never try to push these groups to take any particular political positions. Even after people start using the Internet for public purposes, they may still not be upset (as I am) about corporate monopolies or a lack of diversity in the mass media. They may have other concerns. But they will be active, participatory, experienced, experimental, and independent; and so they will provide the missing voice.

Posted by peterlevine at June 9, 2003 03:26 PM


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