« putting real citizenship back into the immigration debate | Main | civic leadership »

November 19, 2007

the case for Nehamiah

Here's a stark contrast:

1. Paul Krugman, "Played for a Sucker," New York Times, Nov. 16: "On Social Security, as on many other issues, what Washington means by bipartisanship is mainly that everyone should come together to give conservatives what they want. We all wish that American politics weren’t so bitter and partisan. But if you try to find common ground where none exists--which is the case for many issues today--you end up being played for a fool. And that’s what has just happened to Mr. Obama."

2. Harry C. Boyte: "Our Passive Society Needs Some New Nehemiahs," Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune, Nov. 16: "In today's America, as we have come to look to others -- experts, great leaders, celebrities -- to save us from our problems, we have similarly become afflicted by civic illness. Our bitter divisions along lines of partisanship, income, race, religion and geography are fed by devaluation of the talents and intelligence of people without credentials, degrees and celebrity status. Our citizenship declines while we are entertained as spectators, pacified as clients and pandered to as customers.

"We need new Nehemiahs who call forth America's democratic genius of a self-reliant, productive, future-oriented citizenry, leaders who tackle tough issues in a collaborative way and reject the rescuer role. Such leaders would tap the talents of citizens to address public problems on which government is necessary but not sufficient, from climate change to school reform. They would challenge us to create healthy communities, not simply provide access to health care. They would recall that democracy is a way of life, not simply a trip to the ballot box.

"The great leaders in our history -- from Abraham Lincoln to Jane Addams, Franklin Roosevelt to Martin Luther King Jr. -- have always called upon citizens to address common challenges, and in the process helped the nation remember its democratic soul."

I'm with my friend Harry, and here are four reasons. First, Krugman treats the Republican Party and conservatism as monolithic, imagining that every member of those large conglomerations plays from the same disreputable script. (Cf. all these comments on Think Progress.) In fact, Republicans and conservatives are quite diverse, and some are very discontented with Karl Rove's style of politics.

Second, Krugman's argument is ad hominem. Instead of saying, "Senator Obama, you are wrong about Social Security; it's not really in crisis," Krugman says, "Senator Obama, you are a sucker for trying to meet conservatives half way." Maybe compromise isn't even Obama's intent. He may actually believe that Social Security is in crisis. (Many people do.) When we stop giving arguments and reasons and start calling people "suckers," it's very hard to move forward.

Third, it's going to be impossible to solve any of our real problems unless someone builds a broad constituency. The ruling coalition must be wide enough to embrace some conservatives and some Republicans. Fifty-one percent is enough to knock things down (if you are ruthless), but it is not enough to build things up.

Finally, Krugman's political strategy presumes that liberal leaders can win elections and then implement smart policies that will make the country better. I think this is a long-term strategic error. No policies can solve problems without public support and public participation. In order for liberalism to fly, Americans are going to have to feel genuine connections to public institutions. They will not feel truly connected to government until (a) it seems to reflect some consensus and some civility and (b) it addresses their cultural discontents, which are deep and valid. The majority of Americans have genuine worries about a coarse culture, and unless liberal leaders can address their concerns in an inclusive, bridge-building way, liberalism is doomed.

November 19, 2007 7:28 AM | category: Barack Obama , populism | Comments


From Harry Boyte via email:

I am, naturally, delighted by and appreciative of your blog entry yesterday, especially its sharp, clear statement about why a "civic" – as contrasted with a narrowly partisan – approach to this crucial election is needed. But I want to take a different approach to argument four, your case to liberals or progressives about the importance of culture and its discontents.

The challenge is more subtle and challenging than progressives' needing to be aware that most people's cultural discontents have merits and public institutions need participatory strategies to take these into account. The largest problem is that crucial contemporary foundations of liberal politics – higher education, the liberal professions, journalism – are in important ways themselves sources of civic dysfunctions that have eroded the civic muscle of our society. Well instentioned progressive institutions themselves, ironically, contribute to widening inequalities and, most broadly, to the erosion of civic agency, our collective capacities to act with effectiveness and power on common challenges, across differences. They have done so often with the best of intentions – to "help the poor," "champion the oppressed," "serve the needy." Good intentions hide technocracy, the pattern of power that puts decontextualized experts who see themselves outside a common civic life at the center of decision making about problems and in charge of public and civic institutions of all kinds. The result is that mediating institutions which once connected people's everyday lives to the larger public world – local government agencies, congregations, unions, locally rooted businesses, schools, settlements and a host of others- have been stripped of civic dimensions and turned into service delivery operations to customers and clients. As a consequence, most of the fledgling civic movement addresses symptoms of a deeper civic erosion. Thus, for instance, deliberative processes can be understood as attempts by decision makers to compensate for the erosion of civic meeting grounds in the life of communities which once created multiple connections and public spaces. While we need political leaders who take a "Nehemiah" civic stance of calling for collective action on common problems, rejecting the Moses approach to leadership, for the long term we also need strategies to address the upriver sources of civic dysfunction and decline. This involves long term strategies for renewing citizen professionalism, the civic identities and practices of professionals who come to see their careers unfolding in living communities over time, with respect for the talents and intelligences of their fellow "nonexpert" citizens. It also will require new strategies for developing the civic-life building possibilities of professional-formation centers. For instance, the regional university system, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which has an explicit commitment to becoming "stewards of place," strikes me as having particular promise as wellsprings of the civic life locales and regions.

November 20, 2007 9:00 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

Interesting timing on these Nov 20 posts--Harry Boyte. I just logged onto my PC to check the news from my State Legislative district, where tonight we had a community meeting about a Registered Sex Offender moving into the neighborhood. Instead of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I clicked my bookmarked Peter Levine site. So here I am, reading about Harry Boyte at Midnight on Nov 20 from Milwaukee WI. I still call him professor harry...I studied at the Humphrey institute from 1996 to 1998 and now represent part of my birthplace in the Wisconsin Legislature. Tonight we had a meeting because a registered sex offender chose to move in and based on State Law we are not able to "regulate" his residence or mobility. Naturally, people especially families with kids are concerned, angry and want a "response" from government. Clearly, there should be legislation I can propose as a State lawmaker... that not only erases the problem today...it holds for future cases of adults who violate and hurt kids. While legislative proposals can help, tonight we tried as part of my game plan, to focus on what we can do as citizens to protect our community and not either become victims or resign ourselves that government can simply "FIX" this 'crap'. My district is ethnic, working class, and skews older. I live next to a Park built during the WPA. My main high school same. Other infrastructure is result of WPA/CCC and other New Deal inspired public services. Tonight We likely had as many WWII widows as Vietnam and Iraq veterans in the audience. Tonight we had experts who really struggled between "technocrat" explanations of the mundane, buzzkill 'rights' of a registered sex offender vs. the public servant trying to provide civic tools to promote individual safety and strong community. With no prodding from this alum of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, the staff of Wisconsin Dept of Corrections tilted heavily toward being gym coaches for "civic muscle" -- providing facts on the law, facts on people who commit sexual violence, and pushing for making "more public" the names and faces of these truly sicko criminals. Its interesting, that the whole nature of sex offenders involves a certain "privacy"...what we did tonight is to say collectively our "public power" trumps the plans of someone who hurts kids. Not just "we're mad and ain't gonna take it"...but we are angry and we have the power to make changes: changes to how we look at our neighborhood, at the law, at the Internet/media, and of course changes to formal, public affairs: law, policy, service delivery, etc. This, to me, is the intersection of old school Civics, postWWII Communitarianism, and the 21st Century Commonwealth Politics ...best captured by expanding civic muscle and restraining a natural human tendency toward consumerism, entertainment, and fighting off the inevitable...when one's life ends on this Earth. Now...its getting late and I know this is not as sexy as can hillary kick obama's ass while john edwards holds one of them down, ...so I will not have time to ramble on about the irony of Harry's first paragraph about the erosion of civic muscle under dysfunctional liberal professions like higher education....and his last paragraph promising us all that civic life and regionalism will breathe new life via the University and higher education? I dunno, Ask Obama or Ophrah...oh yeah, Levine you missed the point entirely on Krugman's piece: put simply, obama dipped his toes in the water of private pirates, and Edwards camp is smart as hell to remind us all how both tragic and dangerous that is ...to the post New Deal coalition of progressives who built and sustain Social Security.

November 21, 2007 1:41 AM | Comments (2) | posted by rep zep

Site Meter