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June 27, 2005

the civic renewal movement (3)

In two recent posts, I began to describe the current movement for civic renewal. First, I listed some key elements of the movement; then I identified some common themes. In this last of the three posts, my topic is "the strength and growth of the movement."

I am convinced that the civic renewal movement now forms a reasonably tight and robust network. My basis for that claim is the set of social ties that I observe as part of my official work, which involves numerous meetings and conferences in many parts of the United States (probably more than 75 per year). I am constantly struck by the appearance of the same people, or of people who know others in the broader network.

This is a mere impression. It could be tested with rigorous network analysis, which I believe would be quite useful. In brief, researchers would begin with several key organizations (such as the ones listed above) and ask decision-makers what other groups they collaborate with. Researchers would then move to those groups and ask, in turn, about their collaborations. Software can automatically generate network maps based on such data. I would hypothesize that a network map of civic renewal would show many links binding the whole field.

Lacking the resources actually to conduct such a study, I have used a very imperfect substitute. Instead of asking people to list their partners, I have examined electronic links among organizations’ websites. Those links that are captured by the Google search engine can be depicted as a diagram. (Very regular readers may remember me doing something like this once before.) The image below shows major web links from three nodes--the National Allicance for Civic Education, the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, and the Pew Partnership for Civic Change--and from groups to which they link. I chose these three nodes as starting points because of my (highly subjective) sense that they represent important consolidations of practice since the 1990s. In particular, civic education and deliberation were fractious fields that began relatively late to form bridging networks—and then only as a result of rather careful and deliberate diplomacy.

Points on the graph represent organizational websites. Lines represent links among sites, as detected by an automated (and imperfect) Google search. I have written out the names of some of the points for illustrative purposes. The phrases in red are my generalizations about types of organization that cluster together.

Overall, the diagram shows a robust network: one can move by multiple paths from each sector of civic renewal to the others. I am certain that a more detailed process would reveal additional links. For example, I know that people in the civic technology sector (bottom left) work with people in service-learning (top left), even though the diagram shows no direct links.

It is important to note that the civic renewal movement may be robust and coherent, but it is insufficiently diverse. Most of the organizations listed above are predominantly, sometimes exclusively, white. Minorities are best represented in the work that involves community economic development; they are not well represented in civic education or in much of the deliberation field.

My second claim involves growth. I believe that the civic renewal movement is stronger, larger, and more influential than it was 10 or 20 years ago. This is a difficult claim to substantiate. When we work in social movements, we tend to make two historical assertions without hard evidence. To motivate ourselves and to win allies, we tend to assert that our problem is getting worse, and that a movement has recently formed to counteract it. Given the “churning” that is endemic to American civil society, it is not obvious that the country’s civic condition really has declined or that a civic renewal movement has recently developed. Maybe every generation could make the same claims.

However, some aspects of civic life certainly have declined, and some new strategies and organizations certainly have formed to renew civil society. When the National Commission on Civic Renewal created an Index of National Civic Health (INCH) in 1999 (comprising 22 variables), we generated the trend line shown below.

I believe that the steep decline of INCH between 1984 and 1991—reflected in almost all of its 22 component variables—created genuine alarm and caused people to focus on civic renewal by the mid-1990s. For various reasons, including the work of these people, the situation had begun to improve by 2000. This is not to say that INCH includes all relevant variables or that there is consensus in favor of the proposition that “civic health” had declined. But there was pretty widespread agreement, rooted in people’s daily experience, that we had a problem. (Unfortunately, I don’t have comparable data for after 2000, so I can’t continue the trend line after Sept. 11 and the first Bush Administration.)

If I were to tell story of the current civic renewal movement in America, it would incorporate the following developments and episodes:

  • The aftermath of the Great Society. During President Johnson’s War on Poverty, the Federal Government paid the salaries of thousands of people who worked at the grassroots level, organizing communities and running programs. The Great Society included elements of bureacuracy and centralization, but it also required the “Maximum Feasible Participation” of citizens. As a result, there was a lot of civic experimentation. Some people who were heavily involved in those experiments later switched over to electoral politics. Some burned out or lost the opportunity to serve when their budgets were cut. But a considerable number continued to experiment and learn, often moving from federal programs to nonprofits. When they lost their government grants, they developed local financial sources. When they got tired of fighting city hall, they developed collaborative relationships with local governments. This human trajectory is a major theme in Sirianni and Friedland's Civic Innovation in America. It means that there's a generational aspect to the Civic Renewal movement. The movement partly reflects the maturation of the Baby Boom and the arrival of younger people whom the Boomers mentored.

  • The defeat of the Soviet Union at the hands of civil society. Well before 1989, most leftists in the West had become thoroughly disenchanted with the Leninist regimes of the Warsaw Pact. Nevertheless, the fall of the Soviet Union and the triumph of Havel, Walesa, Gopnik, Sakharov, and the other dissidents was an important moment for the Western left. It clearly displayed the moral superiority of civic work over Marxist state-centered politics. And it revealed that civic culture was an important historical force, not merely a phenomenon of the underlying economic system. Because dissidents built healthy civic spaces in Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, those countries could overthrow communism and build democracy. In countries that lacked a strong civic culture, the same overthrow led to civil war.

  • The crisis in development: As authors like James C. Scott and Michael Edwards have argued, economic development is usually disastrous when it relies on social engineering and top-down mandates. Even when governments are reasonably well-meaning, as in Tanzania or India, state efforts to promote growth and equity usually backfire. Again, what seems to matter most are democratic institutions and political culture. As Edwards argues, "It's the polity, stupid." Edwards had a stint at the World Bank at a time when many of the lending institutions were beginning to recognize the importance of civil society.

  • The "Bowling Alone" thesis. More interesting, perhaps, than Robert Putnam's argument and data was the enormous impact of his short article in the Journal of Democracy. As Bill Galston wrote, “Seldom has a thesis moved so quickly from scholarly obscurity to conventional wisdom. By January 1996 the Washington Post was featuring a six-part series of front-page articles on the decline of trust, and Beltway pundits had learned the vocabulary of social capital.” The National Commission on Civic Renewal was a direct result of Putnam's article, as were many other projects and initiatives.
  • Posted by peterlevine at June 27, 2005 01:30 PM


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