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September 06, 2004

on Minnesota Public Radio

I was a guest this morning on a Minnesota Public radio call-in show, Midmorning with Kerri Miller. The topic was civic education and the civic and political behavior of young people. The other guests were Harry Boyte from "the U" (that's the University of Minnesota), who has been a huge influence on me for more than ten years, and Michael Kuhne from Minneapolis Community and Technical College, whom I had the pleasure to meet this spring in the Twin Cities. Since Michael and I are Boyte fans, we didn't disagree about anything.

The call-in questions were good and various. There was one surprising theme: three callers argued that American politics has been so corrupted by special-interest cash that no one should participate. I don't think that that's a very widespread view, but it's held by some Minnesota public radio listeners, who are ready to cite examples and statistics at the drop of a hat. I once wrote a book largely arguing for campaign-finance reform, so I believe in it. However, I don't think it's the full story--for two reasons. First, despite some corruption in American politics, ordinary citizens are doing very positive and significant political work all across the country. So we don't need to tell students that they have been rendered powerless by big money. Second, even if we could clean up the formal political system, Americans wouldn't automatically begin to participate. Many of us need better skills, knowledge, and attitudes before we can influence government or address social problems. So campaign finance reform is a good idea, but it's no panacea.

Posted by peterlevine at September 6, 2004 01:48 PM


Thanks for your generous comment, Peter. I have great appreciation for your work and insights, and think your strategic placement with NACE and CIRCLE is one of the civic highlights of our time.

On campaign finance, I would add another reason why it's not sufficient to Peter's two: America has largely lost the nonpartisan civic roots of formal politics, and this deep malady has to be addressed.

Parties once "bled" over into a variety of other civic and public activities, some venal, some of larger benefit, from community projects to patronage. Stories of old party "machines" are full of this flavor. I once interviewed an older generation of political leaders in Minnesota, and found they had many stories of the days when they would sometimes work with Democrats in local projects, and when they interacted with people in many everyday contexts. THis still happens at local and state levels, and in ways with politicians nationally but the interactions are more highly scripted and "professionalized," in a narrow expert, service delivery vein.

Jane Addams foresaw the threatening disappearance in her wonderful essay "On Political Reform," from 1902, in which she argued that the corrupt Chicago alterman, for all his venality, was more democratic -- because he participated in the full civic life of the community -- than the political reformers and experts who stood outside the life of the community and tried to fix and purify politics.

The loss is part of the larger process of technicization of mediating institutions, I believe -- religious congregations and unions and schools and many other settings have come to be dominated by a narrow technocratic culture of service delivery, which leaves people feeling powerless (and stips professionals of authority and power -- one expression is the loss of people's sense of part ownership in public institutions of all kinds). The patter has disastrous effects in formal politics , especially at the national level, because political leaders, for all their skills and generally good intensions (I think most are highly professional, and most also are worried about the state of the democracy), have little gut level sense of civic life or ordinary people -- they live in a professional culture, and they imagine themselves as outsiders (seeing people often with huge condescension) who try to manipulate through themes from focus groups, ads, etc. The result is that politics "sounds" thin, epiphenomenal, manipulative, and often condescending -- because it is!

The occasional exception, by history, personality, or circumstance -- a Clinton or an Obama -- make the contrast especially vivid.

This is on the Democratic side. Many Republicans have the advantage of a base in a pietistic and conservative Christian context, which for all its parochialisms is a living popular environment much larger and more rooted than liberal professional culture.

How to re-grow the civic roots of formal politics is one crucial challenge I'm convinced.

By the way, my first "blog" posting ever.

Harry Boyte

Posted by: Harry Boyte at September 7, 2004 08:54 AM

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