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May 08, 2006

"Civic Populism," an essay by guest blogger Harry Boyte

Harry C. Boyte is a senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship. Harry started his career working for Martin Luther King, Jr., as a field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His many excellent books include Building America: The Democratic Promise of Public Work and CommonWealth: A Return to Citizen Politics.

Harry recently suggested that I write on this blog about populism. I said that I don't have the historical background to do it right, but I invited him to contribute something in his own voice. He has generously provided the following essay:

Civic Populism, by Harry C. Boyte

In common parlance "populism" means a folksy style or, negatively, demagogic leaders who profess to champion victimized people as cover for trouble-making. "Populism" or "populist" is thus the epithet used to criticize a group of Latin American leaders. Juan Forero reported in the New York Times (April 20, 2006) on "populist movements ... promising to redistribute wealth [that] threaten to create a political free-for-all that could weaken already unstable countries." Jorge Castañeda followed with an op ed ("Good Neighbor Policy," NYT, May 4, 2006), arguing that immigration reform is needed in order to halt "the wave of populism that has swept Latin American cities."

Peter Levine, who invited me to reflect on populism in this civic space, has termed the rhetorical championing of innocent people against nefarious elites, "sentimental populism" (August 23, 2004). Yet in civic terms populism can be understood as something different, the heritage of democratic politics in the United States that is an alternative to liberalism and conservatism, with new currency today.

Populism took explicit shape in the movement of black and white farmers and their blue collar and professional allies in the 1880s and 1890s, culminating in the short-lived "People's Party." In broader terms it is a tradition in which civic agency and civic life built through cooperative work formed an alternative both to the paternalistic state and the untamed market. As the historian Eric Foner has argued, "Precapitalist culture ... was the incubator of resistance to capitalist development in the United States. The world of the artisan and small farmer persisted ... into the twentieth century and powerfully influenced American radical movements. ... These movements inherited an older republican tradition hostile to large accumulations of property, but viewing small property as the foundation of economic and civic autonomy." Foner proposed that in the U.S. it was "not the absence of non-liberal ideas but the persistence of a radical vision resting on small property [that] inhibited the rise of socialist ideologies."

The emphasis on civic agency took new forms in the 20th century in an identifiable strand of democratic thought and action, what can be called civic populism or citizen-centered politics. This combines democratic respect and democratic power with democratic development--the idea that "the people shall govern" as they prepare themselves to govern. Civic populism has surfaced in broad movements such as early 20th century progressivism, New Deal reforms in the 1930s and 1940s, and the civil rights movement. Civic populism includes figures as diverse as Jane Addams, Liberty Hyde Bailey, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Saul Alinsky, Ella Baker, the Rev. Martin Luther King, and Linda Chavez-Thompson in our time. It also runs as important threads in the policy ideas and civic philosophies of political leaders such as the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey and the late Republican governor [of Minnesota] Elmer Andersen.

Civic populism once had wide foundations in what can be called mediating institutions connecting the civic life of communities to the larger public world. These included locally rooted political parties, religious congregations, businesses, unions, neighborhood schools, settlement houses, sometimes colleges and universities. Unions, for instance, were often deeply tied to communities. The black Minnesota union leader and civic populist Nellie Stone Johnson recalled that into the 1950s unions had store front offices, where people would socialize, discuss issues, and undertake community projects. Mediating institutions also included locally rooted public agencies, from local governments to cooperative extension and soil conversation districts.

These were places where people acted on concrete interests and received tangible benefits, while also learning public skills and habits of dealing with others who were different--negotiation, problem-solving, the messy improvisations of everyday politics. They also experienced the equal respect, freedom, and generative power that comes from common labours freely undertaken. Nick Bromell has described what emerges from such experiences as "the understanding that human equality is rooted in the activities of human beings, not in abstract rules that treat humans as mere blanks. Democracy [in these terms] doesn’t just allow us to govern ourselves; it produces selves that find the labor of self-government worth the effort…because those selves are worthy of respect."

Civic populism integrates particular interests into a larger vision of the commonwealth or common good, a theme recently advocated for the Democrats by Michael Tomasky in "Party in Search of a Notion" (The American Prospect, April 18, 2006). But civic populism is more than a notion to win elections. It is a tradition stirring to new life in a fledgling movement for civic renewal, often brilliantly chronicled on this blog. Its deepest impulse is to transform the "Me First Culture" into a "We Culture."

Civic populism addresses the dysfunctions of a Me First Culture because it challenges the technocratic politics--domination by detached experts--that generates such a culture. Technocracy, spreading through society like a silent disease, presents itself as an objective set of truths, practices, and procedures. But it turns people into abstract categories. It decontextualizes problems from civic life. It privatizes the world and creates a pervasive sense of scarcity. It profoundly erodes a culture of equal respect.

Civic populism counters the impersonal, hierarchical patterns of technocracy while transforming the Me First Culture of isolation, fear, consumerism and scarcity that is technocracy's degraded progeny. Civic populism retrieves citizen politics as the way we negotiate the plural, relational, narrative qualities of the human condition in order to solve problems and live together without violence. It revitalizes civic cultures of mediating institutions that have narrowed in recent decades to providing services to needy clients and consumers. It generates a spirit of abundance by tapping the enormous civic energies and talents now stifled by technocracy. Finally, civic populism cultivates civic habits and outlook among professionals and amateurs alike--an understanding of ourselves as citizens working alongside our fellow citizens, neither above nor below.

I believe that civic populism can be enriched, deepened, and translated into public debate by integrating themes of citizenship, community, and public life through the idea of a politics that aims at the strengthening of civic life. Civic life is a concept with broad resonance and appeal to many different groups. It suggests the context for cooperative labors, and the sense of public abundance that public work generates. Government in these terms is best conceived not as "the solution" or "the problem" but rather as the resource of the people in addressing our common problems and creating democracy.

Politicians can play important roles in articulating civic populism, but the concept of the impact of public policies on civic life needs to come from many directions. Moreover, the concept of civic impact of policies--what practices and policies contribute to civic life and generate cultures of civic abundance, and what erode civic life--can be applied not only to assessment of government, but also to many other institutions.

To renew democracy as a way of life will mean integrating civic populist examples into a broad challenge to a scarcity based technocratic politics. It will entail an alternative politics based on abundance. And it will mean remembering the heart of the populist faith, that democracy is embodied not mainly in structures or institutions, but in the wisdom, confidence, skills and habits of the citizenry.

Posted by peterlevine at May 8, 2006 07:23 AM


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