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August 4, 2009

interacting with the administration

(Washington, DC): I'm at Strengthening Our Nation's Democracy II, a conference organized by Demos and by two organizations on whose boards I serve, AmericaSpeaks and Everyday Democracy. About 100 proponents of democratic reform have convened to develop a common agenda. One goal is to interact with the White House, which has sent four high-level officials to speak and some others to participate in discussions. Their remarks are "off the record," to permit candor. For that reason, and also because of the complexity and richness of the conversation, I will not attempt to summarize the way they think about civic renewal and democracy.

But I am struck by a problem. Some members of the administration, not including the president, are probably committed to "interest-group liberalism." They think their job is to pass fair, just, and helpful legislation. They see a public divided into organized interest groups, whose leaders represent their rank-and-file. Unfortunately, interest groups' power is unequal: the US Chamber of Commerce has much more power than the National Coalition for the Homeless. So a major task of a progressive administration is to inform, listen to, and mobilize organizations that represent the disadvantaged. Meanwhile, legislation is very complicated, elaborate, and fast-moving. Most Americans cannot possibly follow all the details, so the White House has both the need and the ethical responsibility to discuss pertinent aspects of each proposal with interest groups that especially care.

Most of participants at this conference, on the other hand, reject interest-group politics. The political reform groups (League of Women Voters, OpentheGovernment.org, etc.) have a progressive model, in which the "common good" means abstract and general rules that apply to all. The proponents of deliberation and dialog want open-minded and diverse citizens to discuss issues, learn from one another, and break out of interest-group categories. The popular education and civic education people want to go straight to the grassroots and empower people, without organized and professionalized intermediaries.

I suspect that when White House staffers look down from the podium at our group, they feel reinforced in some of their interest-group liberal assumptions. They see a predominantly white, upper-middle-class, professional audience with a significant sprinkling of professors and Beltway experts. They do not see representatives of the public interest, but rather a particular special interest--the "good government" lobby.

This is partly unfair, because the streams of political reform that are represented in the room have deep resonance for disadvantaged American communities and often emerged in the Civil Rights Movement or community organizing. But the impression is real and is substantially our fault. When we pull together leaders for high-level meetings, we somehow end up with a bunch of Ivy League professors and Washington lawyers.

August 4, 2009 8:25 AM | category: none


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