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March 16, 2004

what does it mean to be "civic"?

I spend most of my time in and around groups and institutions that have explicitly “civic” goals: CIRCLE, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the National Commission for Civic Renewal, the Kettering Foundation, and the National Alliance for Civic Education—to name just five. Civic rhetoric seems to be spreading and deepening. But what does it mean to be “civic” today?

Good citizens care about issues and debates—often passionately. They want to save unborn children or to defend women’s reproductive freedom, to rescue the environment or to promote growth, to achieve world peace or to punish America’s enemies. These are matters of life and death, so naturally we want our positions to win, and we are entitled to fight for public support.

But a civic attitude begins when we notice that a great democracy is always engaged in such debates. It matters not only which side wins each round, but also what happens to the nation’s public life over the long term. Are most people inclined to participate in discussions and decisions (at least within their neighborhoods and schools), or are many citizens completely alienated or excluded? Do young people grow up with the necessary skills and knowledge to allow them to participate, if they so choose?

Do we seriously consider a broad range of positions? Do good arguments and reasons count, or has politics become just a clash of money and power? Can we achieve progress on the goals that we happen to share, or have our disagreements become so sharp and personal that we cannot ever cooperate?

Being civic means asking these questions. It is compatible with fighting hard for a position—even a radical one—but it requires avoiding collateral damage to the civic infrastructure. It asks us to worry about long-term civic health, not just immediate tactical victory. And it obliges us to care about our public institutions, not just particular policies.

More specifically, being civic means keeping the following principles in mind:

1. We should choose styles of engagement that expand participation. Politics, political debate, and social action have become considerably less popular over time. According to National Election Study data, Americans are about half as likely as they were 30 years ago to talk about public affairs, to follow serious news, and to attend local meetings. One reason, I am convinced, is that politics is optional. Most other voluntary activities (shopping, dining out, tourism) promise polite and harmonious interactions. But all forms of “politics”—from neighborhood meetings to televised debates—tend to be uncomfortable, so many people avoid them.

Politics cannot be consistently civil: sometimes it is necessary to challenge the powerful and generate anger. Since politics is our main way of addressing deep disagreements in a diverse society, it will not always be a friendly business. And even if we would like most people at a neighborhood meeting to be polite to one another, everyone (even the local lunatic) has a right to participate. So civility is not a realistic standard. Nevertheless, if we are concerned about our long-term civic health, then we should strive to make politics as amicable and welcoming as possible. Often, harsh rhetoric wins points in the short term but also drives people out of public life altogether—a good example of collateral damage.

2. Arguments should be about ideas, not about people.
A great way to win a political debate is to show that one’s opponent is hypocritical or selfish. But some people hold wise and generous positions for selfish reasons (to get reelected, for example), while others have altruistic motives for espousing foolish ideas. Thus making personal accusations very rarely advances public understanding. Maybe every Democratic incumbent wants to seize more of your income to spend it on programs that will help him stay in office, and maybe every Republican just wants to cut taxes for his wealthy friends. Nevertheless, some federal programs and some tax cuts are good policy. It is a logical mistake (the ad hominem fallacy) to oppose an idea just because the person who espouses it happens to be flawed.

Besides, it is always possible to charge an opponent with bad motives, yet we can never tell if the accusation is true. We cannot even be sure how pure our own motives are, so how can we possibly know why George W. Bush favors a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage or what John Kerry hopes will happen in Iraq? We can, however, decide whether the amendment is good and what we should do in Iraq.

Everyone can learn to assess the merits of a policy, but only insiders really know the characters of powerful politicians. So a political process that revolves around motives and personalities gives tremendous authority to anonymous officials and the famous reporters who know them, to kiss-and-tell autobiographers, black-sheep relatives, and former White House conseglieri. Because personalized politics makes a few well-placed insiders into the only experts, it is profoundly elitist.

Personal attacks are effective, so they encourage politicians and parties to try to bring down their enemies, rather than win a mandate for their ideas. Neither liberalism nor conservatism has recently developed a popular governing vision, and one reason is that partisans have found it too easy to knock each other’s knights off their white horses. Think of Jim Wright, Newt Gingrich, Robert Bork, and many other political ghosts (living and dead) who can testify to the power of the personal attack.

As charges and counter-charges accumulate, politics begins to look generally unseemly, even though politicians are probably not as unprincipled as their opponents imply. Under such circumstances, many people tune the whole business out. Meanwhile, personal attacks keep good people from taking leadership roles out of fear that someone will charge them—falsely, but irrefutably—with hypocrisy or selfishness.

3. We should see politics as creative, not just a zero-sum game: People across the political spectrum demand that certain groups give up something of value. They argue that the rich should be taxed more heavily to pay for education for the poor, or that welfare recipients should be denied their checks, or that incumbent politicians should be kicked out of office.

Probably at least some of these arguments are valid. But whatever you think about these proposals, they are not all there is to politics. Governments, parties, and local civic organizations don’t just move existing goods, rights, jobs, and powers from some interests to others; they also make new goods. Think what happens when we start a neighborhood watch, teach a community to eat healthy foods, generate trust or mutual understanding through sustained dialogue, or reinvent a government agency to make it work better.

It might seem that making new goods is a workable strategy only for the rich and powerful; the poor need help at someone else’s expense. But when poor people simply demand subsidies or rights, they almost never get what they want. It is only when they are able to build institutions of their own that they acquire enough power to win at zero-sum politics. The African-American church is perhaps the best example.

Sometimes, zero-sum messages are a good way to mobilize citizens by making them angry and giving them a political outlet. Generating anger can get citizens to the polls or persuade them to open their wallets for a cause. But such mobilization is almost always followed by defeat, discouragement, and burnout. Activists who stay involved for the long haul are the ones who have learned how to collaborate—even with some of their supposed enemies—to create new durable institutions. As Lewis A. Friedland and Carmen Sirianni show in their book Civic Innovation in America, lifelong activists do not assume that they can only make progress by defeating someone. They take pride in the institutions and programs that they have built together.

5. Truth-telling is a civic obligation, even when it’s a tactical nuisance. [This section needs some fleshing-out with examples, but the point is clear enough.]

6. We should avoid rampant partisanship. The word “civic” sounds almost synonymous with “non-partisan.” In classic civic republican thought, from Aristotle to Rousseau, parties were always seen as evidence of faction and strife, their appearance proof that civic virtue had waned. To be a good citizen was to serve the nation and to apply honest principles. Service to a party required disloyalty to the broader community; and arguments among parties indicated that at least one side was not being honest and principled.

It is clear today that parties and partisan competition are valuable. We citizens lack the time, information, and inclination to form opinions about the proposals and personal merits of every candidate on the ballot. Party endorsements tell us that candidates are at least minimally qualified and that they belong to one of the major political ideologies of the day, from which we can choose. If anything, it helps if the major parties differ rather starkly in their ideologies, so that we can choose clearly.

Moreover, we need institutions that have long-term, national horizons, that do no simply try to win the next election at any cost to their reputations, but that build over time. Parties fit the bill, better at least than candidates and political consultants. And we need parties to compete avidly for power, because competition keeps the powerful honest.

Notwithstanding these arguments for parties, civic-minded citizens think that Washington is too partisan. And they have a point. The problem is not that there are stark differences in philosophy or a fierce competition over how to govern the country; if anything, the debate may be too blurred. The problem is rather that parties and interest groups fight over matters that are not connected to their philosophies or their visions for the future.

In Federalist 60, James Madison criticized Pensylvania's “Council of Censors” (which had met in 1783 and 1784) as overly partisan. He wrote: “Throughout the continuance of the council, it was split into two fixed and violent parties. … In all questions, however unimportant in themselves, or unconnected with each other, the same names stand invariably contrasted on their opposite columns. Every unbiased observer may infer ... that, unfortunately, passion, not reason, must have presided over their decisions. When men exercise their reason coolly and freely on a variety of distinct questions, they inevitably fall into different opinions on some of them. When they are governed by a common passion, their opinions, if they are so to be called, will be the same.”

Madison's description would apply not only to Washington, DC in 2004, but also to the "blogosphere." Many prominent blogs are designed to score points, day in and day out, against an opposing party or ideology.

These are five rules to guide the behavior of individual citizens. But it is equally important to think about the structures and institutions within which individuals act. I have said, for example, that we should pay attention to reasons and arguments, and not speculate about the hidden (probably selfish) motives of our leaders. But this is an unreasonable demand if politicians raise money from the very interests that they regulate. Rather than ask citizens to believe that money has no influence, we need to clean up the system.

There are many other ways in which flawed institutions can make a civic approach naïve. For example, to have a reasonable chance of winning, today’s campaigns must target the most likely voters, and not waste their resources on young people and other unlikely participants. As a result, no one makes an effort to mobilize great masses of citizens. A system that revolved around parties might do a better job.

Similarly, many nonprofit groups now raise their funds through bulk-mail appeals that seem to work best if they deliver an inflammatory message to a friendly mailing list. Civil society would be more inclusive and less polarized if nonprofit groups were built the old-fashioned way, as coalitions of local chapters. Changes in the tax structure could encourage nonprofits to reorganize themselves this way.

A civic spirit thus pushes us to think about changes in procedures and institutions. (That is why organizations with “civic” in their name tend to be concerned about process, not about particular policies.) Unfortunately, as soon as we start debating reform proposals, reasonable people disagree—partly because of differences in their underlying political ideologies. For instance, conservatives sincerely oppose campaign-finance reform that requires new federal regulations, just as liberals sincerely welcome legal limits.

We need to debate the merits of reforms, without bogging down in partisan strife. One final rule should help:

6. Institutions should be designed to work well for the ages, not to get the results we want tomorrow. We might suspect that calls for reform are always just indirect ways for partisans to advance their everyday interests. Some liberals, for instance, call for campaign-finance reform because they predict that making politicians less beholden to corporate donors will result in liberal legislation. Meanwhile, some conservatives advocate term-limits and federalism because they believe that incumbent federal politicians usually drift to the left once they become caught in Washington’s “iron triangle” of career politicians, lobbyists, and regulators.

In practice, however, it is very difficult to predict the impact of political reform. Republicans suspected that the system of full public financing for presidential campaigns that was enacted after Nixon fell would benefit Democrats, yet Ronald Reagan prospered under it.

Then, in the early 1990’s, liberals and Democrats championed easier voter registration laws, in the name of inclusion and democracy. They also thought that the new registrants would be poor and would vote for them. Participation did rise, but at least half the new voters turned out to be Republicans.

The Law of Unintended Consequences applies, and it is good news. It means that we cannot safely manipulate the political system to get the results we want—so we might as well consider any proposed change on its merits.

The founders of our Republic often guessed wrong about the future. Their wisdom was not foresight. Rather, they were wise enough to know that they could not predict the future, so they had to create institutions that would work well under a variety of unpredictable circumstances. If we follow their example, we can debate how to reform our political institutions to encourage and reward civic behavior.

Posted by peterlevine at 1:41 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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