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September 6, 2006

beyond warm and fuzzy

Toward the end of Diminished Democracy, Theda Skocpol lists some recommendations that emerged from the National Commission on Civic Renewal (of which I was deputy director) and Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone. She mentions proposals for strengthening human interactions at the local level and enhancing civic education. Skocpol writes:

Such prescriptions evoke warm and fuzzy feelings in all of us caught in increasingly frenzied worlds of demanding work and hard-pressed family life. But as strategies for the revitalization of U.S. democracy, recommendations so preoccupied with local social life--remedies that ignore issues of economic inequality, power disparity, and political demobilization--are simply not plausible. ...

Improving local communities, and social life more generally, will not create sufficient democratic leverage to tackle problems that can only be addressed with concerted national commitment.

The state of Maine, for example, is a wonderfully civic place, scoring near the top of Putnam's cross-state index of social capital. No surprise, for Maine has strong civic traditions, a progressive Clean Elections Law, and relatively high voting rates. The state boasts remarkably neighborly towns; active nonprofits and citizens' groups; elected officials readily available for personal contact; public radio and television stations plus the Bangor Daily News practicing civic journalism at its best; and native wealthy citizens (above all novelist Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha) who give generously and wisely to community undertakings everywhere in Maine. But Mainers still need to be part of a broader national community and democratic politics with real clout. Over the decade of the 1990s, four-fifths of Maine families have experienced a steady deterioration in real incomes. What is more, the erosion of health insurance marches forward inexorably as more and more Maine businesses and middle-class as well as poor people suffer from the rate-setting practices of nationally powerful insurance companies. Despite local civic vitality, in other words, many Maine communities and people have been badly hurt by the erosion of active democratic government in the United States.

I fully agree with all of this. I also share Skocpol's view that civil society ought to be political as well as social, and national as well as local. In other words, voluntary groups should have national agendas as well as social and service functions.

Still, the importance of a strong civic culture is not negated by the trends Skocpol mentions: declining real income and access to health care. It's true that a government could (and, in my opinion, should) cover everyone's health insurance and raise real family incomes through changes in tax rates. However, those redistributive policies will not address many of the problems that are uppermost on people's minds in Maine and elsewhere--such as how to make public schools work for all kids, or how to cut the crime rate, or how to generate satisfying and secure jobs. Government has a crucial role in addressing those problems, but it will almost inevitably act through independent grantees or local public institutions such as neighborhood schools. Much depends on how well those institutions perform, which--in turn--depends on how well they tap the passion, energy, and experience of local citizens.

Moreover, we have to ask why people don't demand policies like universal health care. Such proposals are reasonably popular in surveys but do not motivate mass political action. I think there are two main reasons. First, as Skocpol has argued, people lack the civic infrastructure through which to influence the government. They need associations with national influence but also local roots so that they have ways of entering civil society and developing political skills and identities. Second, people are suspicious of big institutions such as schools and health systems. To some extent, that is the result of anti-government propaganda. But to some extent it is because big institutions are unresponsive and rather ineffective. Thus it seems to me necessary first to build participatory, responsive, local public institutions--such as those in Maine--and then to ask people to vote for redistribution.

September 6, 2006 10:21 AM | category: populism | Comments


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