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March 2, 2010

dispatches from the civic front

Detroit's population is about half what it was in 1950, the exodus compelled by a permanent closing of factories. Its official unemployment rate is currently 14%, highest of any large city. Its high school dropout rate is 75%. Michigan incarcerates five times as many people as it did in 1973 and spends 20% of its state’s general fund revenue on prisons.

But Detroit Declaration seizes the highest ground: "Cities are the greatest expression of civilization. Great cities are filled with people who exercise their talent and creativity as the catalytic risk-takers, doers, and leaders who forge the dynamic marketplace of ideas that grow places into prosperity. We are the people who believe in cities and pledge to align our energies for the benefit of Michigan’s largest and most storied city, Detroit." The declaration proceeds to list 12 principles that are general and abstract, yet carefully constructed to acknowledge Detroit's assets and uniqueness as well as the need to move forward. According to USA Today, 20,000 people have visited the website and 8,000 people have become "friends" of the Declaration's Facebook page.

Providence, RI is a handsome and sophisticated city, but it has experienced deep corruption; its unemployment rate is the highest in New England; and its local news media--badly hit by budget cuts--can no longer create a common space for discussion and debate or hold politicians accountable.

Enter the UNCaucus, a group of Providence residents who aim to "hire" the next mayor by creating a new unofficial job description, stimulating debate and discussion, covering the candidates, and promoting civic engagement. Like the Detroit Declaration, UNCaucus makes heavy use of Facebook.

The Tea Party consists of fellow citizens whose participation is welcome. I reject treating them as dupes of shadowy corporate lobbies or as racists. (Since racism is intermingled with ideology and economics in the United States, no movement is simply innocent--but I would need a lot more evidence before I would uniquely indict the Tea Partiers on that score.) All that said, their brand of politics seems the opposite of what we need. They interpret standard economic policies--like a stimulus during a recession--as signs of immanent tyranny, thus turning our mainstream debate into a struggle for our national survival. That creates a very difficult environment for governance and problem-solving--even if one happens to favor a smaller role for government.

The Coffee Party responds in just the right way, it seems to me. Their manifesto starts: "The Coffee Party Movement gives voice to Americans who want to see cooperation in government. We recognize that the federal government is not the enemy of the people, but the expression of our collective will, and that we must participate in the democratic process in order to address the challenges that we face as Americans. As voters and grassroots volunteers, we will support leaders who work toward positive solutions, and hold accountable those who obstruct them."

According to Katie Zernike in today's Times, the "organizers said they would invite Tea Party members to join their Coffee counterparts in discussions. 'We need to roll up our sleeves, put our heads together and work it out,' [a leader said]. 'That's, to me, an American way of doing this.'" Thanks to Facebook, the Coffee Party is now 40,000 strong and growing fast.

March 2, 2010 8:25 AM | category: none



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