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August 28, 2008

two sides of civic renewal

My first job was at Common Cause, one of the main lobbies that seeks to improve formal American politics by reforming the way campaigns are financed, voters are registered, electoral districts are drawn, and regulations are approved. Even then, I was also interested in the citizen side of politics--how people organize themselves, deliberate, learn from one another, give time and money, and obtain power. I've always wanted those two topics to be more tightly connected in theory and especially in practice. In fact, that was the theme of my 1999 book The New Progressive Era. Government reform can stimulate or enable public engagement, but the nature of the engagement will differ depending on the reform. Therefore, it's crucial to consider what kind of democracy you want. Is your goal equality of power? Involving as many people as possible in creative public work? Mixing people with different opinions and backgrounds? Improving knowledge and understanding? Each goal requires somewhat different reforms. In turn, how citizens organize themselves will determine which reforms pass Congress and will also affect how people use any new rights and opportunities.

In late July, a mix of political reformers and organizers of citizen activities met in Washington. I had to miss the meeting because we were in Europe, but Demos, a reform group, has now posted notes online (PDF). The group converged on ideas drawn from the political reform world (such as "public financing of state and federal elections") plus proposals from the world of public deliberation (e.g., "a Public Participation Act that eliminates obstacles preventing Federal agencies from using higher quality public participation practices"). The lead idea is a new "White House Office of Participation" to bring it all together.

August 28, 2008 9:38 AM | category: none


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