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June 06, 2005

a new era for public-interest advocacy?

I'm on my way home from Georgia, but still thinking about the conference of young media activists that I attended recently. For me, one of the most hopeful signs was their rejection of the "public-interest" model that first developed around 1970.

Thirty-five years ago, Ralph Nader, John Gardner, and their contemporaries founded a set of well-known organizations (led by Public Citizen and Common Cause) that later spawned second and third generations of similar groups. The innovations of that era also profoundly influenced established groups like the League of Women Voters and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. All these organizations cultivated the same constituency: liberal, largely White, highly educated, predominantly mainline Protestant and Jewish, and born on average around 1940.

The new "public-interest" groups introduced--and have continued to utilize--a set of political technologies: for example, computerized mailing lists that can be used to "alert" people at the grassroots and raise money for lobbyists inside the Beltway. The new groups also developed a common set of funding sources: namely, a total of maybe one million citizens who are willing and able to pay membership dues, plus grantmakers at a finite number of big foundations--many of whom came originally from the Nader-style activist groups.

These groups have developed a similar rhetorical style, which tends to depict "American citizens" as victims of wealthy corporate interests. "American citizens" are understood as a single population with a "common cause," whose interests equal the "public interest." Finally, these groups have overlapping goals. They seek stronger and more independent expert regulatory agencies at all levels of government; more judicial oversight of the executive branch; more political power for women and minorities; more legal protection for civic liberties; and more spending on social programs.

All of this, I believe, is now in shambles. The "public-interest" constituency is getting old and is not being replaced. The few interested foundations cannot provide sufficient money, yet they exercise too much leverage on the movement because there are not enough alternative sources of funding. The technologies of mobilization don't work in today's noisy environment, when everyone else is also "alerting" reporters and trying to make citizens mad. Besides, mobilizing people doesn't sustain their interest or tap their knowledge and talent. Both the Beltway lobbyists and the people who pay their salaries are overwhelmingly White and middle class. That is not only unfair; it's also politically damaging for a liberal movement.

Finally, and most profoundly, the goals of the public-interest movement no longer make sense--and even the participants no longer really believe in them. Regulatory agencies always get captured by special interests. In any case, expert regulation is too centralized and "top-down." Judicial oversight is not a reliable tool for liberals if many judges use "original intent" or cost-benefit analysis to interpret the Constitution. Even if judges are liberal, the judiciary will simply become a target for populist anger unless liberal ideas have a broader constituency. Increased social spending won't help if institutions, such as urban school systems and police departments, are profoundly flawed internally. And even when liberal elected leaders have power and are able to distribute goods, rights, and services, the results are not always so great.

For example, during the conference, we watched a sample documentary movie made by a citizens' group and presented by Scribe.We viewed the video as an example of citizens' media, but the substance of the film was interesting, too. According to the documentary, the city of Philadelphia has been seizing private homes in established, working-class neighborhoods so that those areas can be redeveloped according to the city plan, without consulting property-owners or communities. The video reflected just one perspective, and I'm sure the case is more complicated. Perhaps the city plan is wise; or perhaps it is a bad plan, but the city government is being manipulated by powerful corporate developers. It is also possible, however, that a Democratic administration that happens to be led by an African American insurgent mayor is using governmental power to trample individual property rights. That is hardly a paradigm case for the left. Friedrich Hayek sounds like a more relevant analyst than Karl Marx.

All this means that we need to new ways to address social injustice without necessarily relying on an activist state. And today's young lefties, with their fluent use of new technologies, their hunt for independent funding sources, their deep embrace of diversity, and their enthusiasm for "free culture," may be just the people to develop the new strategies we need.

Posted by peterlevine at June 6, 2005 07:53 AM

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