January 3, 2011

an overlooked win for civic renewal: federally qualified health centers

My chief complaint about the health care reform of 2010 was its apparent failure to include active citizens as designers of the bill (the public could have been asked to deliberate about health reform, as Senators Wyden and Hatch proposed), or as proponents of the bill (the administration could have unleashed a grassroots movement to demand passage), or as active participants in administering health care (the bill could have empowered health insurance co-ops).

Yet the bill actually contains many excellent provisions that have received little attention. One reform is a major increase in the authorized funding level for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FGHC). The extra money should raise the number of such centers to 15,000. An FQHC is a local provider, serving a needy community, that gets favorable Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates, access to the National Health Service Corps, and other federal supports. It must be a nonprofit organization or a public entity, and it must have a board of which more than half are current clients of the center who demographically represent the population that the center serves.

Overall, the trend in public administration has been toward centralization and expertise. Based on data collected by Elinor Ostrom, I estimate that the proportion of Americans who serve on any public board has declined by three quarters since the mid-20th century, due to consolidation of public authorities and the replacement of elected offices with professional positions. This means that we have lost powerful educative experiences for our citizens. At the same time, our public institutions have grown remote and distrusted, and we have missed the energies and ideas of people not deemed to be "experts."

Controlling health care costs is a classic "wicked problem," involving complex, interconnected systems, rapid and unpredictable change, valid but conflicting values and interests, and misaligned motives. In general, wicked problems are best addressed by decentralizing control and empowering mixed groups of people, including those most affected by the problem. The administration's support for Federally Qualified Health Centers promotes this populist approach and deserves recognition.

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December 9, 2010

Matt Leighninger on a vital moment

You should read Matt Leighninger's paper for the Bertelsmann Foundation, "Vitalizing Democracy Through Public Participation: A Vital Moment" (pdf). Here are some quotes to give a flavor, but the whole argument is important:

But ...

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November 10, 2010

Wilentz v. Ganz on the Obama social movement

During the 2008 presidential primary campaign, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz was a strong backer of Hillary Clinton and critic of Barack Obama. He launched many debating points. For example, the Obama Campaign allegedly showed "indifference--and at times, even pride" about the fact that white working class voters were opposing Obama in the primary. Wilentz predicted "a Democratic disaster among working-class white voters in November should Obama be the nominee." Obama was supposedly the anti-political candidate, the heir of goo-goo reformers like Adlai Stevenson and Jimmy Carter, whereas Hilary Clinton, like Franklin Roosevelt, relished partisan combat and understood how to pass legislation. When she insisted on the importance of elected national leaders in the civil rights struggle, she was correct about history, and her critics were just playing the race card by claiming that the movement had achieved its victories at the grassroots.

And now Wilentz gets his chance to say, "I told you so." His recent New Republic piece is headlined, "Live By the Movement, Die By the Movement: Obama’s doomed theory of politics." "Clearly," he writes, "the hopes and dreams that propelled Obama to the White House are in disarray. The social movement politics that some of his most fervent followers ascribed to him--the idea of electing a 'post-partisan' president as the leader not of a nation or even of a political party but of a personalized social movement--has failed." Wilentz names Marshall Ganz as the source of this failed idea.

Of course, Ganz' diagnosis is the precise opposite. A moral social movement, rooted in Democratic Party cadres and angry about conservative abuses, swept Obama into office over the technocratic Hillary Clinton and the fake populists McCain and Palin. But after Inauguration Day, Obama "chose to demobilize the movement that elected him president. By shifting focus from a public ready to drive change--as in 'yes we can'--he shifted the focus to himself and attempted to negotiate change from the inside, as in 'yes I can.'" In other words, there was no progressive social movement when it really counted, and that is why the president couldn't make more headway on policy. President Obama actually governed the way Wilentz had hoped President Hillary Clinton would govern.

Wilentz writes:

But this theory was only one theme during the campaign, and a deeply submerged theme in the administration so far. Much more prominent is the idea that Wilentz seems to endorse: Democratic presidents solve our problems by negotiating and implementing smart policies. As I observed months ago, the President's rhetoric has been subtly shifting from civic empowerment to a focus on his own personal leadership--from "we" to "I." Seeking the nomination in Iowa, Barack Obama said, "I hold no illusions that one man or woman can do this alone." More than two years later, responding to the Massachusetts Senate election, he said:

Whether change comes from the grassroots up or from national leaders down is a worthy topic of debate. How the president should govern is certainly a worthy and difficult topic. But it's important to get clear on the factual basis of the debate. First, the "post-partisan" and "anti-political" themes, if they were present at all in the campaign, have nothing to do with the embrace of a social movement and bottom-up change. The social movement that elected Barack Obama was partisan, political, and ideological. Second, the campaign and the administration never embraced Marshall Ganz' strategies, except at the margins. Thus the Obama Administration's first two years are no test of Ganz' theory, which remains basically untried.

(I've never read Sean Wilentz' historical writings and would surely learn from them. But I've been watching his public interventions for a long time and marking them as an example of a certain kind of elitist liberalism that contributes, in my view, to the weakness of the left. During the impeachment hearings of Bill Clinton, he lectured House Republicans, predicting that "history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness." I was certainly against the impeachment, but I don't think that professional historical expertise was particularly relevant to the decision, nor that Professor Wilentz could see into the future. To me his testimony rang of Ivy League disdain, an effort to make a particular moral worldview look like the only intelligent position. Ganz is certainly a moralist as well, but he respects and engages with the core moral commitments of other Americans.)

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March 8, 2010

Obama, race, and democracy

I spent Friday and Saturday at an excellent conference on "Barack Obama and American Democracy." It was organized by Tufts historian Peniel Joseph and drew a diverse group of scholars and students, predominantly experts on African American history, politics, and culture. The discussion was rich and complex: this Twitter feed offers a feel for it.

The question for the final panel was simply: What does Barack Obama mean for American democracy? I said it was too early to tell, but I would break the assessment into three parts.

1. Obama as policymaker will strengthen democracy if he makes government work better and more equitably. Compared to some of the other speakers who explicitly addressed his policymaking, I was more supportive. I think passing a health bill like the one now before Congress would be quite a remarkable achievement, relative to my expectations about what is possible.

2. Obama as political reformer would help fix some of the grievous structural and procedural problems with our democracy, such as campaign finance abuses and the indefensible misuse of the filibuster. Such issues did not figure much in the 2008 campaign, presumably because they were not popular causes then. Thus Obama has no mandate for procedural reforms. Besides, the executive branch has relatively little leverage over these matters (as compared to its leverage in appropriations and foreign policy). Yet demand for deep procedural reform could build in response to the deepening crisis of our institutions, in which case the Obama years may be an era of reform, even if that doesn't originate in the White House.

3. "Democracy" also means the whole repertoire of civic and political acts undertaken by citizens. In many Americans' minds, that repertoire has shrunk to occasional voting and noncontroversial service, and wealthier Americans dominate even those acts. Barack Obama understands the full range of civic action better than any occupant of the Oval Office: he has a record of practicing, teaching, and studying robust and innovative forms of citizenship. His campaign was notable for its creativity in promoting active citizenship. His administration so far has not advanced that cause, but it will be difficult to do so from the White House and I am happy to give the Obama team some time to find its way.

Finally, strengthening democracy means tackling the specific crises facing the African American community. After this weekend's conference, I am more sensitive to the dilemmas of Black politics under the administration of the First Black President. African Americans in general are extremely supportive of Barack Obama and want to minimize criticism of him. That means that many are leery of directly advocating issues that disproportionately affect African Americans, lest they put the president in the position of having to pick between Black opinion and White opinion. Yet all other constituencies and interest groups feel free to make explicit demands.

Take health reform, for example. The best estimate (albeit with various caveats) finds that a lack of insurance causes 45,000 deaths in the United States each year. Twenty-five percent of adult African Americans lack health insurance, as compared to 15% of whites (source). Thus, in a sense, health reform is an "African American issue." A moderately disproportionate share of the lives saved will be Black people's lives.

On the other hand, if any individual or group seriously assessed the highest priorities for African Americans, I don't think health insurance reform would make the top three. Sentencing reform, educational equity, and youth unemployment would top my list. But all of these issues are more divisive and more difficult for a Democratic president to address than health care is. If the president were White, African Americans and others concerned with Black issues would be pressing for reforms on those fronts. With Barack Obama in the White House, the pressure is muted, and that's a problem.

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January 27, 2010

the path not taken (so far): civic engagement for reform

Yesterday, the Huffington Post published a short piece of mine about the Obama Administration's failure--so far--to engage the public in our great national challenges. A more complete version of the same argument follows.

As a candidate, Barack Obama made the strongest case since Bobby Kennedy in 1968 that we need to engage Americans in changing America. His biography and writing suggested that he knew what that would mean--concretely and practically. His civic engagement theme was popular with voters (although largely unreported by the press), and I believe it helped him win the primaries.

However, my own experience on two Obama campaign policy committees and my observations since then suggest that no one who has any influence in the party or the administration--other than possibly the president and the first lady--really understands the power of civic engagement. All the diagnoses of what's going wrong focus on top-down strategy: the Democrats are too arrogant or too cautious, they took too long or tried to rush too fast, they focused on health care when they should have attended to unemployment, they catered too much to Congress or they didn't give Congress enough leeway. Now the advice from all quarters is to change legislative objectives and to craft a new "message." This whole discourse ignores what could be the unique advantage of having a community organizer in the White House.

The "Active Citizenship" Theme in the Campaign

Announcing his presidential candidacy in Springfield, IL on February 10, 2007, Senator Barack Obama said, "This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change. (Cheers.) ... That is our purpose here today. That is why I'm in this race, not just to hold an office but to gather with you to transform a nation. (Cheers.) ..."

Ten months later, as he campaigned to win the Iowa Caucuses, Senator Obama described his work as a community organizer: "In church basements and around kitchen tables, block by block, we brought the community together, registered new voters, fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with some measure of dignity. ... I have no doubt that in the face of impossible odds people who love their country can change it. But I hold no illusions that one man or woman can do this alone. ... That's why I'm reaching out to Democrats, and also to Independents and Republicans. And that is why I won't just ask for your vote as a candidate; I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency."

What Did Obama Mean by "Active Citizenship?"

Based on Obama's writing and experience, I would interpret his general statements about "active citizenship" as follows. He believes that positive change comes from organized social movements, not from the government alone. (Michelle Obama hammered on this theme when she spoke last summer in San Francisco.) Social movements should be broad-based, not narrow groups of people who all agree with one another. They should promote discussion and collaboration across lines of difference--including ideological difference. Hence the need to build bridges to Republican citizens.

What critics of ACORN-style "community organizing" don't understand is that Obama's specific brand of faith-based organizing in Chicago was intentionally broad-based--not narrowly ideological, and certainly not partisan. As he said in May 2007, "politics" usually means shouting matches on TV. But "when politics gets local, when the person talking to you is your neighbor standing on your front porch, things change." In that speech, he called for dialogues in every community on Iraq, health care, and climate change.

Further, Obama believes that social change requires work by many people. We must tap their skills, energies, networks, and local knowledge. Government programs cannot substitute for public work; nor can rights or entitlements. The "work" theme has been strong and consistent in his speeches. For example, on the 100th day of his presidency, in Arnold, Missouri, he said, "We're living through extraordinary times. We didn't ask for all the challenges that we face, but we're determined to answer the call to meet them. That's the spirit I see everywhere I go. That's the spirit we need to sustain, because the answer to our problems will ultimately be found in the character of the American people. We need soldiers and diplomats, scientists, teachers, workers, entrepreneurs. We need your service. We need your active citizenship."

At the root of many of our problems, Obama argues, are fractured relationships--among Americans and between Americans and major institutions. Bad policies are not the ultimate cause of our problems, and solutions require repairing relationships--something that only people (not institutions) can accomplish. Finally, there is a strong moral dimension to this work. Personal moral choices are responsible for our national successes and failures; and social movements can change those choices. In New Hampshire in 2006, Obama said: "We are going to re-engage in our democracy in a way that we haven't done for some time ... We are going to take hold of our collective lives together and reassert our values and our ideals on our politics. And that doesn't depend on one person. That doesn't depend on me or the Governor or a congressman or a speaker. It depends on you."

Before the campaign, Barack Obama had been a broad-based community organizer, provoking moral discussions with diverse neighbors for social change. Because of his deep interest in the theoretical issues connected to that work, he was one of just two elected officials who joined Robert Putnam's Saguaro Seminar, a leading project on civil society. Michelle, meanwhile, ran an AmeriCorps program (Public Allies in Chicago) that emphasizes civic skills, and then she took the job of building better relationships between the University of Chicago and its surrounding communities. I had the privilege of meeting her in October 2006 at a Campus Compact conference. The themes that I have quoted so far ran deep in the lives of this couple.

Did the Civic Engagement Theme Help Obama Win?

The press, including liberal columnists and bloggers, paid virtually no attention to the civic engagement theme in the campaign. I transcribed several of the quotes given above from YouTube videos because I could not find them in any print coverage of the campaign. Reporters regard a statement about "active citizenship" much like a comment about how wonderful it feels to visit New Hampshire in January. It's just throat-clearing that precedes the attack or proposal of the day. Yet the videos clearly show rising applause at the civic moments in these speeches.

Within the campaign, policy advisers didn't pay much more attention to the civic themes than the press did. The campaign did endorse expanding AmeriCorps, as did John McCain. But the Democrats' proposals on matters like education and the environment included no concrete ideas for civic empowerment. A substantial proportion of Obama's advisers were liberal technocrats who believe that society is divided into distinct interest groups. Progressive change comes from mobilizing the weaker interest groups to vote and then promoting their interests. Legislation is complex and fast-moving, and only insiders and the heads of interest groups can really understand it. Good government means informing, motivating, and negotiating with political leaders. All of these premises are at odds with the candidate's own speeches, but I think that the "active citizenship" theme slipped past Democratic Party elites just as it escaped the notice of the press.

If the media didn't report on active citizenship, and the candidate's policy positions didn't reflect it, how could it help him to win? One reason is that voters now get direct, unmediated access to the candidate's speeches and his books. They could hear his civic rhetoric. I know, as an empirical fact, that they clapped and cheered at it.

More importantly, the campaign was structured in ways that reflected Obama's civic philosophy. Volunteers were encouraged and taught to share their stories, to discuss social problems, to listen as well as mobilize, and to develop their own plans. There was a rich discussion online as well as face-to-face. This deliberative style was particularly attractive to young, college-educated volunteers, who felt deeply empowered and who played a significant role in the election's outcomes, especially in Iowa. (And without Iowa, Barack Obama would not be president.)

The civic theme was consistent with Barack and Michelle Obamas' personal stories and so helped to create a coherent narrative. I don't believe that "narratives" determine general election outcomes (which can be predicted precisely based on macroeconomic indicators), but I do think that Obama told a better story than Clinton in the Democratic primary--and that mattered.

The idea of civic empowerment may not have generated major policy proposals, but it did play an important role in campaign debates. For example, Clinton and Obama argued over the meaning of the Civil Rights Movement, with Obama crediting the grassroots and Clinton praising Lyndon Johnson and other national leaders. That was a legitimate disagreement, but Obama's position was consistent with his whole campaign. A related argument arose between Obama and Paul Krugman of the New York Times, with Krugman saying that America's problem was the Republicans, and Obama replying (although not directly to Krugman) that the problem was our civic fabric.

What Happened After the Inauguration?

Once elected, President Obama signed the Kennedy Serve America Act, which triples the size of AmeriCorps. That means that about 250,000 Americans--mostly young--will perform civilian service for a year or so. On his first day of office, the president issued a strong executive order on Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration, and he renamed the White House Office of Public Liaison the Office of Public Engagement. The Administration took steps to release public information online so that citizens could use it, and the White House held online dialogues about how to implement the executive order.

The agenda so far has been strong on service and transparency, but almost entirely missing participation or collaboration--equal pillars in the original executive order. Service does not necessarily build civic skills or address fundamental problems; besides, even an expanded AmeriCorps offers no role to most people. "Transparency" means feeding information to organized interest groups, reporters, and a few independent citizens who have deep interests and skills in particular areas.

These forms of civic engagement are not nearly "edgy" enough; there is no fight in them. People are angry, in America--from the Tea Partiers to MoveOn. When citizens try to solve serious social problems, they identify enemies. They do not just hold hands and serve together; they strike back at those whom they perceive as threats. If "active citizenship" reduces to non-controversial "service," it will completely lose touch with the legitimate anger of the American people.

The White House chose to make health care their major focus and included no aspects of civic engagement in the deliberations about the bill, in their advocacy for the legislation, or in the design of the statute. There could have been real public discussions, instead of sham "Town Meetings" that were really speeches by politicians with time for Q&A. Progressive volunteers could have been encouraged to conduct face-to-face dialogues in their communities and to form relationships with one another (instead of merely finding themselves on the receiving end of an email list). The legislation could have included health co-ops as an experiment in engaging citizens in policy.

In other words, a range of civic engagement strategies was available to the administration, including a deliberative approach (bringing liberals and conservatives together at the grassroots level to develop policy options), a more partisan and ideological strategy (empowering progressive citizen-activists to build relationships and persuade neighbors), and/or incorporating community panels or local insurance co-ops into the bill itself. The White House chose none of these strategies but opted instead for an inside game, trying to negotiate their way to a bill.

A health care bill may still pass, and it would probably be on its way to the White House already if it were not for a weak Democratic senatorial campaign in Massachusetts. On the other hand, the emerging bill was strikingly fragile because no passionate, organized, credible group of citizens supported it. It had the endorsement of some smart, independent policy experts but no enthusiastic popular backing. Nobody "owned" it. Lincoln was right: "Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed."

The President's rhetoric has been subtly shifting from civic empowerment to a focus on his own personal leadership--from "we" to "I." Seeking the nomination in Iowa, Barack Obama said, "I hold no illusions that one man or woman can do this alone." More than two years later, responding to the Massachusetts Senate election, he said:

Before the Democrats turned to health care in 2009, they passed a stimulus package that could have been described--justly--as "public work." Thanks to the stimulus, some Americans are building roads, bridges, and schools. Some are monitoring federal spending on websites. Some are advocating for priorities. Some are volunteering time in the same schools and hospitals where the federal funds go. Some could also deliberate about where the money should be spent at the local level. All this should be called "active citizenship" and described as a common project. Instead, it turned into a service of the federal government to us--inadequate for the task.

I recognize the challenges. Empowering grassroots volunteers to advocate for health care might have yielded a peaceful army in favor of "single payer," which would then die in Congress. Public discussions of health care, even if moderated and appropriately structured, could be ruined by deliberate and angry opponents. No one knows for sure how to involve citizens in the administration of health plans over time. Yet the lack of innovation and experimentation in these areas is striking after the impressive record of the campaign. It is hard to identify anyone who even wants to try a civic strategy.

If "active citizenship" seems abstract and utopian, consider Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE), a program within the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). CARE makes grants to communities that have formed local partnerships to address environmental issues and determined their local needs. CARE also provides training and technical assistance and puts an interdisciplinary EPA team in partnership with each community. According to Carmen Sirianni, CARE has built a culture of collaboration and has obtained very energetic and enthusiastic support from EPA staff. However, as I understand it, CARE's funding has been cut by the Obama Administration. Major national environmental organizations have little enthusiasm for its style of policy; they want top-down directives.

On health care, it is probably too late to try a civic approach. Climate change is so obviously stuck in the United States Senate that it is the issue I would use. The inside game can't work. The bully pulpit is inadequate: after thousands of speeches by respected leaders and celebrities, there is still not enough political will for major reform of energy policy. Since negotiation cannot yield an acceptable bill, the administration should try a grassroots strategy that includes a genuine element of open discussion, not just "messaging." And the legislation should include strong support for citizens' work (not just volunteer service) to reduce our carbon emissions.

Six months ago, I was more persuaded by the risks of employing civic engagement to address a high-profile, deeply contentious issue like health care. I then saw the argument for ramming it through Congress. With that strategy in tatters, the case for active citizenship is stronger than ever.

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November 17, 2009

tensions over technocracy

Ina very valuable piece for National Affairs, William Schambra argues that Barack Obama is the epitome of a policy-oriented progressive; in fact, he is the first "genuine, life-long true believer" in that philosophy ever to occupy the Oval Office. The Progressive "policy approach" presumes that social science can tell us how to fix social problems. Problems are interconnected, hence they require comprehensive reforms rather than programs in separate silos. Standing in the way of the appropriate reforms are local prejudices and interests and "politics"--meaning horse-trading among popular leaders with interests and biases. The perfect manifestation of the Progressive policy approach is the appointment of a policy "czar," an expert, to resolve a broad and interconnected problem. The opposite is a compromise among ill-tutored Congressmen, or a loud objection from some morally outraged cultural group.

Schambra writes:

I endorse much of Schambra's critique of policy-oriented Progressivism. He believes it is an unrealistic doctrine and also undesirable because the clash of interests that it tries to replace with "science" actually reflects cultural vitality. This seems right to me:

I agree with that but am not sure that I share Schambra's reading of Barack Obama. Based on the president's writing and speaking, I think Obama understands the intractability and merit of moral commitments and disagreements. He sees personal behavior and community norms as essential components of social issues--and is often criticized from the left for that. He takes an "asset-based" approach to communities and is an excellent listener. His move away from discrete programs can be seen as arrogant (that's Schambra's view), but it can also be interpreted as a critique of the technocratic idea that problems can be disaggregated; Obama's is a more "holistic" approach. The modesty of the health care reform bill (for it is very modest) speaks to a recognition that you have to mend the ship of state while at sea. An arrogant--or more confident--Progressive would favor single-payer.

Finally, Obama has been criticized by the left for allowing Congress to horse-trade on essential issues like the stimulus package and health care, rather than presenting a detailed proposal from the administration. In that sense, it seems to me Obama has broken with technocratic Progressivism rather than epitomize it.

But in the end, I think the struggle over how to apply science to policy--and how to deal with moral resistance and disagreement--runs through the Democratic Party, the Obama Administration, and the president himself. Schambra has nicely identified one side of that argument, even as he underestimates the importance of the other side.

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September 22, 2009

how Obama is post-partisan

This is exactly the point I tried to make in a lengthy blog post some time ago:

If Barack Obama is "post-partisan," it's not because his positions are middle-of-the-road or ideologically indistinct, nor because he is prone to compromise. It's because he doesn't want to use policy debates as proxies for a grand ideological struggle between statist liberalism and libertarian conservatism.

Paul Krugman recently wrote that Mr. Obama "needs to get over" his "visceral reluctance to engage in anything that resembles populist rhetoric." Obama is often populist, but not in Krugman's sense, which means strong support for government regulation. I don't think Obama's reluctance to go down that path is "visceral" at all (unlike Krugman's yearning for the old time liberal religion). On the contrary, Obama knows that (a) most Americans are not very ideological, and (b) among Americans with ideological motivations, conservatives outnumber liberals. In the latest Gallup survey, "57% of Americans say the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to businesses and individuals," and 38% think it should do more. Twenty-four percent would like to see more regulation of business and industry; 45% think there is too much already. Public opinion has moved sharply against regulation in the last year.

I think it's foolish to try to turn this tide with presidential rhetoric or with policy devices like the public health insurance option, which is supposed to demonstrate the advantages of government management. Americans' skepticism of government is built into our political DNA. Skepticism has risen with decades of poor performance by parts of the government; and the recent bailouts increased it further. We already have plenty of examples of good government programs, including Medicare and Social Security, that should suffice to demonstrate the advantages of federal leadership.

If a president avoids ideological proxy battles and tries to expand health coverage by using the most convenient and efficient tools possible, he can have most Americans behind him. If one of those tools really is a public health insurance option, I'm for it. But I think Obama knows much better than Krugman how to play the politics of this.

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September 17, 2009

C-SPAN broadcasts our panel on the Obama Civic Agenda

Our Institute of Civic Studies last summer ended with a very spirited public debate about the Obama Administration's Civic Agenda. Our "text" was candidate Barack Obama's promise: "I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a central cause of my presidency." The questions we addressed included: What did Barack Obama mean? What should he have meant? What has the Administration done so far on this issue? What should it do? And what should we do? The speakers were:

C-SPAN (a US cable channel) recorded the event and aired it this morning. The full video and some transcribed text is here. (Unfortunately, C-SPAN's video is not embeddable on my blog.) We hope to create a short, edited version of this program, which is more than two hours long.

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August 3, 2009

the view from South Africa

(Washington, DC) Xolela Mangu, a distinguished South African social scientist and columnist, joined our conference last week on the Obama civic agenda. In his national column, he reflects on "service" (with its hints of moral obligation, on one side, and dependency on the other) versus civic empowerment:

Interestingly, the masthead editorial in the same edition of the same newspaper (The Weekender) echoes the same themes. Commenting on recent grassroots protests in South Africa, The Weekender says:

"Community service" is not the same thing as "service delivery." The former usually involves amateurs who are unpaid or given small stipends; the latter, agencies and professionals. Yet it is no coincidence that the two phrases share a word. Their shared problem is a conception of people as needy clients, not as active agents. In both the United States and South Africa, now that left-of-center governments hold power, there is a quiet struggle underway between "service" and civic agency.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Barack Obama , democratic reform overseas

June 1, 2009

Obama's campaign commitments to active citizenship

(Deerlodge National Forest, Montana) In his presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama made remarkable commitments to active citizenship, civic renewal, and civic education. Here is a compendium of his statements that we can use to inspire ourselves--and to hold the president accountable for his promises. The source of these quotations is the remarkable Project Vote Smart database, which includes transcripts of thousands of candidates' speeches and releases.

02/10/2007 Springfield, Illinois, Remarks by Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) Announcing his Candidacy for President of the United States:

3/19/2007 CNN, Larry King Live, answering a question about Michelle Obama:

12/05/2007, Mt. Vernon, IA "Obama Issues Call to Serve, Vows to Make National Service Important Cause of His Presidency"

06/30/2008, Independence, MO, Remarks of Senator Barack Obama:

09/12/2008 New York, NY:

04/29/2009 Town Hall Meeting, Arnold, MO:

01/21/2009 Remarks by the President in Welcoming Senior Staff and Cabinet Secretaries to the White House:

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May 14, 2009

White House Office of Public Engagement

Since 1974, the White House has had an Office of Public Liaison. On May 11, it was renamed the Office of Public Engagement. The President said, "This office will seek to engage as many Americans as possible in the difficult work of changing this country, through meetings and conversations with groups and individuals held in Washington and across the country.” The front page of the website quotes the president: "Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know."

This is an exciting development. All my work is premised on the belief that open-ended public discussions yield valuable and morally legitimate results that cannot be predicted in advance. I also believe that our most serious challenges require public work and that we are burdened by poor relationships between citizens and government and among citizens. So it will be very valuable to have diverse, constructive, open-ended conversations that involve the American people and the executive branch.

We know today how to organize such discussions. Practical tools and insights come from groups like AmericaSpeaks, the Kettering Foundation, Public Agenda, and Everyday Democracy; from the more flexible and pragmatic community organizing groups; from local governments that have engaged their own citizens effectively; from certain successful projects in federal agencies like EPA; from other countries, like Brazil and Uganda; and from the Obama Campaign's online tools.

So I salute this development. I do, however, see two risk that we outside the Administration should monitor and help with. First, there is the risk that an office named with the phrase "public engagement" could actually turn into a PR and persuasion office of the administration. That would be a blow, because it would cheapen an important concept. The Administration has a right to sell its proposals; but that is not "engagement."

Second, I fear a tendency to reduce "engagement" to two-way communication. The President talked about "the difficult work of changing this country." But the next sentence in the OPE press release glossed his comment thus:

I am skeptical that people (including me) are motivated to discuss issues--or are adequately informed about issues--if their only opportunity is to "offer stories" and "share views." We also need concrete opportunities to work on projects. Work is motivating and educating. Today, it may involve typing or talking rather than digging or cleaning, but it needs to feel like a direct contribution. That is why I would tie the public engagement function of the White House to the tangible work that Americans are doing with stimulus funds.

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May 4, 2009

we're the ones we've been waiting for

Harry Boyte wrote an op-ed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on Sunday entitled "The work before us is our work, not just his." Boyte begins:

The Administration needs our help making a rhetorical shift back toward "we," and matching that rhetoric with real programs and policies that will allow Americans to play more active and constructive roles. The Kennedy Serve America Act is a step in the right direction--although high-quality implementation will be a challenge. But much more ambitious initiatives are necessary, and they need to go beyond "service."

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April 22, 2009

AmeriCorps triples

Yesterday, the President signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act at a ceremony in a Washington, DC charter school that has reclaimed a violence-ridden block. The Act will triple the size of AmeriCorps (if Congress appropriates adequate funds) and will direct the corps members to work on major national challenges: the high school dropout rate, energy conservation, and health disparities. Today's coverage of the bill and the signing ceremony--predictably--concentrates on the personal interactions among Obama, the eponymous Senator Kennedy, and President Clinton, who planted a tree as part of the day's events. There's also some coverage of Michelle Obama's background as an AmeriCorps grantee, which is appropriate. I would have liked (but didn't expect) a little more discussion of what "service" is, how it is changing, and what it can accomplish or not accomplish.

Note that the president naturally shifts from talking about direct service to themes of justice, organizing, and social change. In the campaign, he used the phrase "service and active citizenship"; and yesterday he said:

"Service" sometimes means serving soup to homeless people or cleaning up a stream--valuable but limited activities. The president talks instead about working with diverse people to address really serious, core problems, such as urban poverty--and to build institutions, such as the SEED charter school. The Act favors such activities, but the AmeriCorps programs will have to change to encourage real public work, planning, learning, and deliberation. The default will be lots of new miscellaneous and temporary positions that provide direct human services. I don't think anyone inside the modern "service" movement would be satisfied with the default, but we will have to work to avoid it.

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March 17, 2009

presidents who do too much

A major question in the blogosphere right now is whether the Obama Administration is trying to move on too many fronts at once. For instance, Bill Galston's New Republic piece entitled "Barack's Too-Long Wish List" was discussed all over the place and may have even prompted a presidential reply. Obama said, "When we issued the budget, ... they said, 'Boy, these Obama people, they’re really ambitious. They’re taking on health care. They’re taking on energy. They’re taking on education. Don’t they know that there’s this bank crisis right now? We’ve got to do one thing at a time.'" The President then argued for addressing education, energy, and health care along with the financial crisis.

There haven't been all that many new presidents in American history, so it's hard to know empirically how they should act in their first six months. Our only evidence is a small set of case studies. Galston mentions Jimmy Carter, who "sent a flood of proposals down Pennsylvania Avenue, so many that Congress soon bogged down in near-gridlock. By the end of his first year, American[s] were beginning to wonder whether Carter could get things done and--worse--whether he was up to the job."

Franklin Roosevelt is famous for his ambitious agenda, but Galston notes that: (a) things were dramatically worse in 1933 than today, and (b) FDR actually focused first on the economic emergency and then used his early successes to build momentum for other reforms.

I don't know how many initiatives is too many, but I'd observe that the number of different topics that an administration addresses (call that n) is only one variable that may affect its success. It's hard to tell whether Carter failed because his n was too high--or whether FDR has his face on the dime because he got n just right. I can think of other explanations for both outcomes.

Specifically, the Zeitgeist was against poor old Jimmy Carter, as we can tell now that the Owl of Minerva has taken flight. Most of the industrialized countries moved substantially right after 1970. Liberals had already enacted the popular parts of the welfare state. They had consolidated prosperity for a majority of their populations, who were decreasingly generous toward the remaining poor. Keynsian policy couldn't seem to handle stagflation. Liberal coalitions had shattered on the shoals of controversial social issues. Conservatives offered law-and-order and lower taxes, and that was a winning package. The only reason Carter was elected was that Richard Nixon had administered a deadly wound to his own party that took eight years to heal. It was hardly time for an ambitious liberal agenda.

This analysis doesn't mean that Obama is wise to send a bunch of new proposals down Pennsylvania Avenue. It only shows that there isn't a very clear historical analogy, and the president has to blaze his own trail. The important questions are: How interconnected are the various topics he's addressing? How strong and well conceived is each set of proposals? How urgent is each topic? And how much can Congress handle? (But that last issue is only one among many.)

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February 24, 2009

the politics of negative capability

Zadie Smith's article "Speaking in Tongues" (The New York Review, Feb 26) combines several of the fixations of this blog--literature as an alternative to moral philosophy, deliberation, Shakespeare, and Barack Obama--and makes me think that my own most fundamental and pervasive commitment is "negative capability." That is Keat's phrase, quoted thus by Zadie Smith:

Other critics have noted Shakespeare's remarkable ability not to speak on his own behalf, from his own perspective, or in support of his own positions. Coleridge called this skill "myriad-mindedness," and Matthew Arnold said that Shakespeare was "free from our questions." Hazlitt said that the "striking peculiarity of [Shakespeare’s] mind was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds--so that it contained a universe of feeling within itself, and had no one peculiar bias, or exclusive excellence more than another. He was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men." Keats aspired to have the same "poetical Character" as Shakespeare. Borrowing closely from Hazlitt, Keats said that his own type of poetic imagination "has no self--it is every thing and nothing--It has no character. … It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er, delights the camelion poet.” When we read philosophical prose, we encounter explicit opinions that reflect the author’s thinking. But, said Keats, although "it is a wretched thing to express … it is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature [i.e., my identity]."

In Shakespeare's case, it helps, of course, that he left no recorded statements about anything other than his own business arrangements: no letters like Keats' beautiful ones, no Nobel Prize speech to explain his views, no interviews with Charlie Rose. All we have is his representation of the speech of thousands of other people.

Stephen Greenblatt, in a book that Smith quotes, attributes Shakespeare's negative capability to his childhood during the wrenching English Reformation. Under Queen Mary, you could be burned for Protestantism. Under her sister Queen Elizabeth, you could have your viscera cut out and burned before your living eyes for Catholicism. It is likely that Shakespeare's father was both: he helped whitewash Catholic frescoes and yet kept Catholic texts hidden in his attic. This could have been simple subterfuge, but it's equally likely that he was torn and unsure. His "identical nature" was mixed. Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare learned to avoid taking any positions himself and instead created fictional worlds full of Iagos and Imogens and Falstaffs and Prince Harrys.

What does this have to do with Barack Obama? As far as I know, he is the first American president who can write convincing dialog (in Dreams from My Father). He understands and expresses other perspectives as well as his own. And he has wrestled all his life with a mixed identity.

Smith is a very acute reader of Obama:

The challenge for Obama is that he doesn't write fiction (although Smith remarks that he "displays an enviable facility for dialogue"), but instead holds political office. Generally, we want our politicians to say exactly what they think. To write lines for someone else to say, with which you do not agree, is an important example of "irony." We tend not to like ironic leaders. Socrates' "famous irony" was held against him at his trial. Achilles exclaims, "I hate like the gates of hell the man who says one thing with his tongue and another in his heart." That is a good description of any novelist--and also of Odysseus, Achilles' wily opposite, who dons costumes and feigns love. Generally, people with the personality of Odysseus, when they run for office, at least pretend to resemble the straightforward Achilles.

But what if you are not too sure that you are right (to paraphrase Learned Hand's definition of a liberal)? What if you see things from several perspectives, and--more importantly--love the fact that these many perspectives exist and interact? What if your fundamental cause is not the attainment of any single outcome but the vibrant juxtaposition of many voices, voices that also sound in your own mind?

In that case, you can be a citizen or a political leader whose fundamental commitments include freedom of expression, diversity, and dialogue or deliberation. Of course, these commitments won't tell you what to do about failing banks or Afghanistan. Negative capability isn't sufficient for politics. (Even Shakespeare must have made decisions and expressed strong personal opinions when he successfully managed his theatrical company). But in our time, when the major ideologies are hollow, problems are complex, cultural conflict is omnipresent and dangerous, and relationships have fractured, a strong dose of non-cynical irony is just what we need.

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February 11, 2009

Krugman v Obama

I think Paul Krugman's critiques of Barack Obama (starting early in the primary season and continuing today) represent one of the most interesting debates in American politics. Here's a simplified version:

Now Krugman says that the stimulus plan is too small, and the cuts engineered by "centrist" Senators have made it worse. "But how did this happen? I blame President Obama’s belief that he can transcend the partisan divide--a belief that warped his economic strategy."

The stakes are as high as can be, and if Krugman is correct, Obama's whole "theory of change" is badly flawed.

We don't really know how big a stimulus is big enough, but when a Nobel prize-winner says that $800 billion is too small, who am I to argue? What I would question is Krugman's political explanation for how that number arose. Obama annoyed Krugman by meeting with Republicans and conservatives, acting respectfully toward them, and appearing to welcome negotiation. I think that behavior was completely unrelated to the outcome of the bargaining in Congress. The Administration could have proposed a $1.2 trillion stimulus, followed by much respectful listening and negotiation. The result would have been a $1 trillion package--more acceptable to Krugman the economist (but perhaps just as annoying to Krugman the political strategist). Instead, the Administration started lower and ended at around $800 billion. I doubt very much that they chose their original number because they thought it would encourage dialog and civility. Economic and administrative considerations must have determined that initial number. Perhaps it was too low, but that had nothing to do with Obama's style of interaction after he put a bid on the table.

As I've written several times before, it is not just the editorial board of the Washington Post that likes bipartisanship. The public likes it, and that shows in Obama's stratospheric popularity right now. People think that he's trying to deliberate. Once he tries to talk, he's free to criticize the opposition. That's not merely a clever strategy,; it's also good manners.

Obviously, being popular is not an end in itself. But the public will oppose government spending unless they respect the people in charge of the government; and comity is the path to respectability.

Here's what I'm left unsure of. Presuming that $800 billion is too little money, which of the following is true?

I obviously hope that #2 is correct, but #1 could be better economics.

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January 23, 2009

the executive order on transparency, participation, and collaboration

President Obama signed this order on his first full day in office. It looks promising. I am particularly pleased that the Administration sees transparency, participation, and collaboration as related. There is a broad and strong movement for transparency, which I support. Many good-government and civil-liberties groups understand the importance of freedom of information, and there is even an important Act by that name. But knowledge (by itself) is not power. Power, or the capacity to act, requires relationships, motivations, opportunities, training, and models--not just facts. The executive order suggests that the Obama Administration understands this:

My prediction is that transparency will improve in the Obama Administration--certainly above the poor baseline set over the last eight years. I am sure there will be at least some experiments with participation and collaboration. The question is whether these habits will become pervasive. The executive order is a great start, but implementation will be hard.

This, by the way, is an opening for all of us in the civic engagement field: "Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public input on how we can increase and improve opportunities for public participation in Government."

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January 22, 2009

people power (notes from the Inauguration)

Monday morning: the Delta shuttle to DC is disappointing. It's only two-thirds full, and some of the passengers (to judge from their cell-phone conversations) are not going to the Inauguration.

I meet the rest of my family at National Airport, coming in from Atlanta. Their flight is more like what I'd been hoping for. I watch the passengers disembark; they are predominantly older African Americans, dressed up, and beaming. The Metro is also a scene of jubilation. I figure I have spent close to 7,000 hours on the Metro so far in my life. I have often seen it as crowded as this, but I have never seen it so jammed with rookies. No one knows where we are or what to do next. But the atmosphere is supportive, friendly, and patient.

There are almost two million extra people in town, yet right away we see Imani from my daughter's former 3rd-grade class, and her Mom. This sets a pattern: during the rest of our visit, we meet about a dozen old friends and neighbors in the midst of the vast crowds.

Monday afternoon: At our neighborhood's CVS drugstore, the manager is out in front of the cash registers, organizing customers into lines, offering to assist each one, and generally acting like a gracious host. He is an African American man of about 65. Of course, I don't know his biography, but he reminds me of many lifelong DC residents I have met. I sense that this is his city, that this day is of enormous importance to him, and that he wants every last visitor to feel welcome. The City of Northern Hospitality and Southern Efficiency is turning into its very opposite.

Across the street from the house where we are staying, a small clutch of protesters holds signs identifying Barack Obama with the Beast of the Apocalypse. I consider reminding them to be nonviolent, and wish they were elsewhere.

At a party for one of the Campaign's policy committees, the actor Forest Whittaker speaks, followed by the man nominated to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan. Donovan says that he was initially humbled and even overwhelmed by his appointment, but then he started to get a flood of emails offering help and helpful advice. He decided that he couldn't do the job, but we could. This is very much in the spirit of the day.

Tuesday morning: Our hosts are European journalists, and one of them feels he must reach his assigned seat on the Mall to cover the Inauguration properly. My family and I are supposed to be in the Rayburn House Office Building for a party at 9 am. But the television is full of stories about amazing crowds, closed roads, and packed Metro stations. So we strategize about how to get downtown. Our host heads off by bike. We hitch a car ride to Dupont Circle and then walk--joining rivulets, then streams, and finally a mighty estuary of human beings on the Mall.

We find a place to sit inside the World War II Memorial, far from the Inauguration but within clear sight of two Jumbotrons. The Memorial (built in the 1990s) is unfortunately reminiscent of fascist architecture. Fascists, of course, could fill vast monumental spaces with their followers. A massive assembly of human bodies is politics at its most elemental. Our power today is great--we could storm into the Capitol if we chose to. Such power is neutral; we could assemble either for good or ill. It strikes me very forcefully that these people have assembled for good. They are inclusive, peaceful, hopeful, respectful, and serious. When the very distant master of ceremonies asks the official guests to "take their seats," we all sit down on the ground--which is great because the kids can see the Jumbotrons. The whole group rises and sits several times in unison.

It is a civil crowd. According to press reports, some people on the Mall chant when they see Bush: "Na Na Hey Hey … Goodbye." The people around me (to judge by their buttons and hats) are fervent Obama supporters. But they applaud George W. Bush politely when the new President thanks him for his service. There is no sign of dissent when Rick Warren gives his invocation. I should emphasize that I am all for protest and conflict. But it is impressive to see a powerful, victorious, mass movement that is modest, disciplined, and self-limiting. We hear later that the police make no arrests whatsoever during the Inauguration, and a friend of a friend who works for DC Homicide says that it is a remarkably crime-free 24 hours, despite the extra two million people and all the alcohol they are consuming.

On the way out, the millions file through streets of empty office buildings, watched by emergency and police officials. It is eerily reminiscent of 9/11, when I was in the same city. But this time we are passing through the streets voluntarily, in peace. Obama spoke the literal and plain truth, on behalf of all Americans, when he said, "for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

All the academic literature says--with ample justification and evidence--that levels of civic participation are low, that voluntary collective action is only possible in small groups, that politics has little salience. Yet one in every 150 Americans is using his or her body for a peaceful political act. They have come from every part of the country to do so, some on chartered buses, with no place to stay or to eat. They have brought their babies and their grandparents with them. And they are filled with love for one another.

We find warmth and food in a crowded restaurant. My phone has been out of service for a few hours because of the enormous demand. An email shows up--it's a very positive peer review of a book manuscript of mine that's under review. If a pollster asked me, "Are you better or worse off since the Obama Administration began?" I would have to say, "Much better off."

Tuesday Evening: We first visit an unofficial ball in the Cosmos Club on Massachusetts Avenue. Many of the guests attended Harvard Law School with Obama and volunteered heavily for him this last year. It is a mature crowd, and not too giddy, but the atmosphere is quietly jubilant. We also have tickets to the official Youth Ball, despite not being at all youthful any more. We join an enormous line of real youth in fancy clothes. The night is cold. The line moves along for an hour or so and then stalls, for us, right about where John Hinkley fired his shot. We are still standing there when the presidential motorcade arrives and the new First Couple slips into the building. We give up 15 minutes later and go back to the Cosmos Club for some reviving champagne. The youth who were turned away from the Hilton are a little grouchier than anyone we've seen so far--they paid $75 each, came from across the country, and were oh-so-close to Kanye West, Barack Obama, and a few thousand of their own delirious peers. But considering their disappointment, they are a remarkably resilient group. A few text messages, and they are off to the next thing.

As for us, we're in bed by 12:30 and ready to answer emails the next morning. What did the man say? "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

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January 20, 2009

on the Inauguration of Barack Obama

We are in Washington, DC, for the Inauguration--attending some parties and trying to catch a glimpse of the actual event. This blog is carefully nonpartisan, because I believe there is an important nonpartisan agenda for civic renewal, which is the goal of my work and my writing. I think I was reasonably fair and even-handed here during the campaign. I tried to analyze the Clinton/Obama debate in a neutral way and I wrote very positively about John McCain. I have derived ideas and principles from modern conservatism.

But I was also a passionate supporter of Barack Obama, starting in 2004. I was honored to serve on his campaign's Education Policy Committee and Urban & Metropolitan Policy Committee for many months. I have high hopes for his presidency.

I am excited that he is African American--and his race is inseparable from other aspects of his persona--but that is definitely not why I voted for him. I am pleased that he was the youth candidate, winning an unprecedented 66% of the under-30 vote. I study and promote youth voting; but his popularity among Millennials was not why I voted for him. He is a wonderful speaker, and his words enrich our public life and even our language at the beginning of the 21st century. But that is not why I voted for him.

I voted for him because he comes straight out of the movement for what he calls "active citizenship," and he is going to try to bring that movement back into national politics. His background includes community organizing in Chicago (the birthplace of community organizing), seminars on civil society with Robert Putnam, and civic education as a law professor. He has judged youth media contests and organized service events. His wife has worked for an AmeriCorps program and organized community partnerships for a major university. These are basic ingredients of the movement that I think represents the best of America today. (You can follow recent news from such programs here.)

For those of us in that movement (and it is open to all), our job must now shift. We must be custodians of the ideas that inspired Obama. He will need to compromise and deal with other issues and problems, and he will probably lose perspective. We need to keep thinking and talking clear-sightedly about active citizenship. If leadership is deciding which pressure to cave to, we can help by applying some pressure from the civic side. As the new President said all along, this election is not about him; it's about us. I like the idea of a "citizens' oath of office." Nothing would conclude the remarkable Obama Campaign better than a mutual pledge to take our own, independent, public role seriously for the next four years.

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on the Inauguration of Barack Obama

We are in Washington, DC, for the Inauguration--attending some parties and trying to catch a glimpse of the actual event. This blog is carefully nonpartisan, because I believe there is an important nonpartisan agenda for civic renewal, which is the goal of my work and my writing. I think I was reasonably fair and even-handed here during the campaign. I tried to analyze the Clinton/Obama debate in a neutral way and I wrote very positively about John McCain. I have derived ideas and principles from modern conservatism.

But I was also a passionate supporter of Barack Obama, starting in 2004. I was honored to serve on his campaign's Education Policy Committee and Urban & Metropolitan Policy Committee for many months. I have high hopes for his presidency.

I am excited that he is African American--and his race is inseparable from other aspects of his persona--but that is definitely not why I voted for him. I am pleased that he was the youth candidate, winning an unprecedented 66% of the under-30 vote. I study and promote youth voting; but his popularity among Millennials was not why I voted for him. He is a wonderful speaker, and his words enrich our public life and even our language at the beginning of the 21st century. But that is not why I voted for him.

I voted for him because he comes straight out of the movement for what he calls "active citizenship," and he is going to try to bring that movement back into national politics. His background includes community organizing in Chicago (the birthplace of community organizing), seminars on civil society with Robert Putnam, and civic education as a law professor. He has judged youth media contests and organized service events. His wife has worked for an AmeriCorps program and organized community partnerships for a major university. These are basic ingredients of the movement that I think represents the best of America today. (You can follow recent news from such programs here.)

For those of us in that movement (and it is open to all), our job must now shift. We must be custodians of the ideas that inspired Obama. He will need to compromise and deal with other issues and problems, and he will probably lose perspective. We need to keep thinking and talking clear-sightedly about active citizenship. If leadership is deciding which pressure to cave to, we can help by applying some pressure from the civic side. As the new President said all along, this election is not about him; it's about us. I like the idea of a "citizens' oath of office." Nothing would conclude the remarkable Obama Campaign better than a mutual pledge to take our own, independent, public role seriously for the next four years.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Barack Obama , Barack Obama

January 3, 2009

partisanship and civic renewal

In The American Prospect, Henry Farrell argues that partisan activity is helping to restore "civic engagement"--voting, discussing, and grassroots activism. This is ironic, in his view, since Barack Obama emerged out of a nonpartisan movement for civic renewal and presented himself as somewhat post-partisan on the campaign trail. In the 1990s, Obama had joined Robert Putnam's Saguaro Seminar, one of the important gatherings of intellectuals who tended to view citizenship in deliberative or communitarian terms and who decried hyper-partisanship. According to Farrell, "when Barack Obama speaks about how citizens can transcend their political divisions to participate in projects of common purpose, he is drawing on the arguments and ideas from these intellectual debates of a decade ago." Yet Obama won by tapping the energy of a highly partisan grassroots movement that may now challenge his administration from the left. "Scholars have misunderstood the basis of civil society," Farrell claims. They have hoped for civility, deliberation, and solidarity when competition and debate are more to the point.

I personally believe strongly in the value of political parties, which have the motives and resources to draw people into politics. Parties also provide opportunities for activism and leadership and offer choices to voters on Election Day. As I told the Christian Science Monitor in 2006, "Polarization tends to be a mobilizing factor in getting out the vote." At CIRCLE, we helped to organize randomized experiments of voter outreach with the goal that the parties would learn new techniques and compete more effectively for our target population (youth). I believe we and our colleagues had some influence on the parties and thereby helped boost turnout. We also funded a study that found that parties were under-investing in their young members. Again, our goal was to persuade them to become more effective.

Thus I wouldn't say that Farrell reaches the wrong conclusions, but he does stereotype other scholars of citizenship. He writes, "None of the civic-decline academics, whether they focused on voter participation, social capital, or the quality of deliberation, saw much use for political parties or partisanship." In fact, parties and competition got a lot of positive play within what Farrell calls the "academic movement to reverse civic decline." His list of academics is selective, and some of the ones he mentions are favorable to parties. For instance, Theda Skocpol has written voluminously on parties; she advocates reforms to make them more participatory and competitive. Perhaps, as Farrell says, Robert Putnam "underplayed" the role of parties by depicting them "as merely one form of civic participation among many"--but Putman took a communitarian line that many of his colleagues criticized. For instance, what about Bill Galston, who is not only a political scientist who favors reforms to enhance party competition, but also an active strategist for the Democratic Party? Or what about Barack Obama, who has moved strategically from nonpartisan community organizing to elected office?

Jane Mansbridge was a participant in the discussions that Farrell briefly recounts (including a well-known meeting with President Clinton); and she is perhaps the most famous critic of a narrow definition of "politics" as party competition. Her great early book is entitled Beyond Adversary Democracy. Yet a quick online search of her work yields characteristic passages like this one (pdf):

Compared to Mansbridge, political scientists like Steven Rosenstone and John Mark Hansen, Diana Mutz, Dan Shea, Nina Eliasoph, Marshall Ganz, and Sidney Verba and colleagues are far more favorable to parties and sharp ideological debate. A particularly clear example is Nancy Rosenblum, who was a scholarly adviser to the National Commission on Civic Renewal, a ubiquitous participant in related discussions in the 1990s, and author of a book called On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship.

My own ideal is a variegated political ecosystem that provides opportunities for ideological and partisan competition as well as neutral fora for open-ended discussions and traditions of collaborating across party lines. These varieties of politics check and balance one another. They also provide individuals with choices--which is important because different circumstances and temperaments require different styles of participation.

I think Farrell might share this goal. He writes: "Political conflict between parties with clearly diverging political platforms has its own pathologies, just as does the bipartisan-consensus politics it is replacing." This seems like a balanced view, much in keeping with the mainstream discussion of civic engagement. I only object to his effort to portray his own position as original and iconoclastic, when it is actually quite standard.

An emerging view seems to be that Barack Obama uses post-partisan rhetoric, either naively or vacuously, but his actual effectiveness is as a mobilizer of Democrats for liberal causes. In my interpretation, Obama has a richer and more comprehensive idea of "politics" than we have seen for a long time, from either left or right. His ability to see the value of parties and trans-partisan networks was one reason his campaign was so successful. It was also characteristic of the academic discussion that was one of his many influences.

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December 30, 2008

Rick Warren at the Inauguration

I thought Frank Rich's response to the Rick Warren controversy was very strange. In the New York Times, Rich wrote that asking Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration "was a conscious--and glib--decision by Obama to spend political capital. It was made with the certitude that a leader with a mandate can do no wrong." It was, Rich said, rather like George W. Bush's high-handed dismissal of moderate and liberal voters at the outset of his administration. And "we all know how that turned out."

I would have thought exactly the opposite. Obama seeks to obtain political capital by inviting a conservative evangelical to speak at his inaugural, thus reassuring Americans who think that the President Elect is a Muslim, or else secular and hyper-liberal. He might also hope to peel some conservative voters away from the Republican coalition. Far from arrogant or spendthrift, this was a rather calculated, cautious, and defensive political move. The people it might offend (i.e., supporters of gay rights) are outnumbered by the people it might attract; and more to the point, the former have nowhere else to go, whereas the latter are potential swing voters. If I were criticizing Obama, I would assail him for unprincipled caution rather than arrogance.

My actual views are more ambivalent. I do understand that it's hurtful to give a ceremonial role at a public event to a person who is not only against gay marriage, but who compares legalizing it to legalizing incest. I suppose a rough equivalent would be an anti-Semitic speaker--but gays are far more victimized by discrimination and violence than Jews are in modern America. So that's a big argument against inviting Rick Warren.

On the other hand:

1. The political advantages are considerable, since evangelicals really could splinter, and liberals could pick up their votes. The Bible is not for tax cuts; the Bible is for stewardship, education, and the poor.
2. Warren used words about gay marriage that are indefensible (and that he apparently regrets), but his actual position cannot be considered beyond the pale. Most Americans share that position. Warren also shares with most Americans the opinion that religious scriptures are authoritative. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are pretty strongly against gay marriage. I could make a theological argument in favor of gay marriage, basing my position on a certain reading of the whole biblical canon. That reading would be tendentious, although sincere. I think Rick Warren, an evangelical pastor, is entitled to his more traditional and more straightforward reading of a text that he is entitled to use as his guide.
3. This invitation has hurt people, and I am sorry about that. It has also opened some healthy conversations, such as the one between Rick Warren and Melissa Etheridge. Bishop Gene Robinson and others have noted that an invocation is not a dialog or a deliberation. Robinson said, "I'm all for Rick Warren being at the table, ... but we're talking about putting someone up front and center at what will be the most-watched inauguration in history, and asking his blessing on the nation. And the God that he’s praying to is not the God that I know." I would respond that Warren shouldn't be excluded for praying to the wrong God (if that even makes sense); and that asking him to speak was an indirect way of bringing him to the table on this issue.

There are several kinds of politics at work here. Gays are rightly trying to develop a public identity and asking for it to be favorably received. From the perspective of that "politics of identity and recognition," Warren's invitation is harmful. Meanwhile, Obama is trying to develop and expand social programs. For that "politics of distribution," the Warren invitation is smart. And various people are discussing a controversial issue: gay marriage. The Warren invitation is a spur to that "politics of deliberation." Much depends on which we think is most important. It's not surprising that Frank Rich would opt for the first choice, since he is an almost perfect representative of liberal identity politics. What I do find surprising is his failure even to notice the other kinds of politics in this case.

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November 23, 2008

work, not service

Candidate Barack Obama, July 2:

President Elect Barack Obama, Nov. 22:

These two statements seemed to be about different topics. The first was an argument for increasing the number of federally-funded civilian "service" slots to as many as 250,000; the second announced a plan to create or save 2.5 million full-time jobs, mostly in the private sector. The first makes us think of unpaid volunteering or short-term, low-paid positions in nonprofits and government agencies. The second conjures images of permanent, salaried employees in labs or on corporate assembly lines. "Service" is about personal values: patriotism, civic virtue, caring, or helping--a "thousand points of light." Job programs are about macroeconomic growth and take-home pay for hard-working Americans.

I think the two ideas should be combined, and "work," not "service," should be the hallmark of "active citizenship" in the Obama Administration. I have never been very enthusiastic about service on its own. It is marginal--a lower priority than one's job or family, something to do after work, on special occasions, or during adolescence or retirement. People involved in service tend to be congratulated and thanked regardless of their impact, whereas workers are expected to get the job done. Service makes the recipients look weak and needy, whereas work is an exchange for mutual benefit.

Service programs, such as Americorps, can certainly be great for the volunteers and the community. But that is because they provide work, albeit with a strong and commendable element of civic education for the workers. Meanwhile, a full-time, paid job in the private sector can also be "active citizenship," if we allow, support, and encourage the employees to work on public problems (such as modernizing schools or building wind farms).

As I wrote here recently, the Obama Administration can restore a New Deal version of liberalism whose central task is to put people to work for the public good. Private sector jobs are part of that, especially if federal subsidies, incentives, or mandates steer these jobs toward public purposes. Public sector careers at every level, military service, and civilian service programs such as Americorps are also important. So is an educational system that prepares people for public work. Students will need a strong dose of civic education so that they can discuss and define the public problems that they choose to address as workers. It is not enough to prepare them for an increasingly competitive job market; they also need to shape that market for public purposes.

I would admire this form of liberalism at any time, because of its ethical conception of the citizen as an active, creative agent. But today seems an especially appropriate moment to bring back the New Deal conception. We need jobs programs for standard economic reasons; and our newly elected president has pledged to make "active citizenship ... a central cause."

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November 6, 2008

the core principle of a presidential administration

(On the USAir Shuttle to DC) I think the most important question about presidential candidates is not what kind of people they seem to be or what they promise to do if elected, but rather how they view the relationship between individuals and the government. Their characters are hard to assess from afar and will change in office; their policy proposals will also shift. But poor presidents always have vague, incoherent, or downright bad ideas about how citizens and the government should relate. Great presidents are elected with compelling new visions of this relationship, and they make those visions real.

Ronald Reagan's core idea was that the valuable aspects of life were private and voluntary. The most salient fact about the government was that it compelled people to pay for it. So compulsion was at the heart of the relationship. Soldiers and police officers had moral standing because they put their lives at risk to protect the American private sphere. Their use of force and tax money was therefore legitimate. Otherwise, "government is not the solution to our problem[s]; government is the problem."

Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush on the platform that government should help people who were suffering economically. So helping was central to the relationship. As Clinton said in his 1992 acceptance speech, "We have got to ... give our people the kind of government they deserve, a government that works for them. A President, a president, ought to be a powerful force for progress." Government could best help if it were efficiently and skillfully managed. Clinton was a generally successful manager and employed a lot of smart people to help Americans lead safer and more prosperous private lives. He also created new ways for citizens to engage--through AmeriCorps--but the work volunteers were called to do was almost always "service" in the sense of helping the unfortunate.

For Jimmy Carter, in the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam, the salient aspect of the relationship between citizens and the government was trust. Trust had been violated; Carter promised to restore it by acting honorably in the White House. "I will never lie to you" was his signature campaign line.

For FDR, I think an essential aspect of the relationship was work. People were literally without work in 1932, and FDR offered to hire many of them. From the WPA and CCC to the US Military in World War II, the New Deal was government-as-employer. Even those Americans who were never paid by the government (the vast majority, of course) were supposed to work on public problems. That was the New Deal ideal.

Barack Obama launched his campaign by addressing citizens' relationship with government and he never stopped talking about it. It even came up in his 30-minute TV ad. I thought this theme was under-reported, even though it is always the most important question about a presidential candidate, and Obama has a distinctive view.

Obama's core idea is that citizens are at the center of politics. Not private individuals, not the government, not politicians, but people working together in public, on public matters. Campaigning in New Hampshire in 2006, he said, "There's a wonderful saying by Justice Louis Brandeis once, that the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen. ... All of us have a stake in this government, all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate."

Obama broke away from the helping model that still guided Hilary Clinton and from the privatism that was the main theme of modern conservatism. On the campaign trail, he modeled his new conception in two important ways--by making his campaign maximally participatory (pushing power out to the network) and by lowering the partisan temperature a notch. He is a Democrat and he was willing to debate and compete with Republicans. But he never seemed to relish this difference. The reason is that citizens are both liberal and conservative, and they need to work together to solve any serious problems. Competition is appropriate in a campaign, but campaigning is a role for politicians, and they are not the heart of politics.

There is a good fit between Obama's vision and the New Deal, insofar as Roosevelt supported "public work" (in my friend Harry Boyte's phrase). That is why national and community service programs may play a role in today's financial crisis like the CCC and WPA in the early thirties. Obama talks more about listening and collaborating than Roosevelt did; FDR was a happy warrior on the campaign trail. But the country is different now. The Internet is the guiding metaphor instead of the factory floor. It will be fascinating to see what citizen-centered politics and public work mean in the Internet age.

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October 29, 2008

a new progressive era?

A reporter asked me yesterday whether a hypothetical Obama victory might mark the beginning of a "new progressive era" (which happens to be the title of my 2000 book). It occurs to me that, yes, we might see a new progressive era, as long as we understand that phrase in a certain way.

In my view, the original Progressive Era was not defined by one agenda or set of policies, such as the launch of new federal regulatory agencies. It was defined by some very vigorous debates among people who called themselves progressives but had quite different orientations. They all agreed about some problems, such as the human suffering and environmental degradation that accompanied industrialization. But they disagreed profoundly about such essential matters as the role of expertise versus citizen participation; the conflict between centralized and local power; the value of cultural pluralism as opposed to some kind of unified natural culture; the organization and methods of the press; and the proper role of "special interests" (including unions, parties, and ethic associations) versus nonpartisan "public interest" associations such as the League of Women Voters. People who called themselves "progressives" could actually take diametrically opposite positions on these issues.

So a New Progressive Era would mean a reopening of such debates among people who were generally dissatisfied with the performance of the market but who disagreed about other important matters. Like their Progressive forebears, they would have to invent or develop new institutions and modes of social organization appropriate to a new economy. In general, these new institutions should be flatter and more open than the bureaucracies of the mid-20th century.

It's my sense--perhaps it's only my hope--that Barack Obama would stand on the side of his Midwestern Progressive forebears, people like Jane Addams and Robert LaFollette, as opposed to the technocrats of the Progressive Era (most of whom happened to be Easterners). One could trace a lineage from Addams to Obama, two organizers of Chicago neighborhoods, although obviously Obama has had many other influences.

I thought that the central questions of the Progressive Era figured in the primary campaign between Obama and Clinton. Obama took the populist side when he expressed skepticism about a national health system and when he argued that it was the grassroots Civil Rights Movement that had achieved voting rights in the 1960s, from the bottom up. Clinton, in contrast, had tried to create a complex, expert-driven, national health-care system in the 1990s. She dropped that goal only for pragmatic reasons. In debating the Civil Rights Era with Obama, she argued that professional politicians had played an essential role. Neither position is obviously wrong; but I found the difference interesting.

In the 1912 presidential campaign, the progressives were Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Robert M. LaFollette. All three went on the record decrying centralization, arrogant professionalism, bureaucracy, and the loss of neigbourly community. But Wilson's administration (1913-1921) permanently increased the power of experts and bureaucrats in Washington. LaFollette criticized this trend from the Senate, but he had lost the presidential campaign, and his own home state of Wisconsin drifted in a technocratic direction while he worked in Washington. We never had the opportunity to see what a Midwestern populist pluralist would do if he actually won the White House.

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September 19, 2008

time to get an economic message

My mentor and former boss Bill Galston has a sharply worded message for Barack Obama: "You are in danger of squandering an election most of us thought was unlosable. The reason is simple: on the electorate’s most important concern – the economy -- you have no clear message, and John McCain has filled the void with his own." Bill adds that Obama needs a tight diagnosis of the current fiasco plus a "focused, parsimonious list of remedies."

I think voters have plenty of reasons to oppose the Republican ticket in 2008. Therefore, it doesn't matter much whether Americans know about McCain's changes of position or Palin's tanning bed (or McCain's lobbyist advisers and Palin's ethics investigation). Nor will the election be affected much by my favorite issues--service, civic engagement, and political reform. It all boils down to what people think Obama would do about the economy.

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March 14, 2008

two traditions of organizing in the '08 elections

As Harry Boyte argues on the generally lively and interesting By the People blog, Senators Clinton and Obama embody rival traditions that derive from the Chicago community organizer Saul Alinksy. Clinton wrote her undergraduate thesis on Alinksy, and Obama cut his teeth working for a Chicago organization in Alinsky's orbit, the Gamaliel Foundation. That is a remarkable point of connection between the two leading Democratic candidates.

But Alinksy's legacy is profoundly contested. One stream, which Harry labels "mobilization," developed techniques to derive money, votes, and protesters from poor and middle class communities for the purpose of reform legislation. The mobilizers' techniques included tools such as door-to-door canvassing and mass mailings, and a rhetorical style that emphasized victimization and outrage.

The other stream, which Harry calls "organizing," developed equally refined and sophisticated methods for helping people to talk together and form their own opinions and agendas. The organizers' techniques included (for example) one-on-one interviews, house parties, and meetings that shifted from one venue to another through the community. The rhetorical style emphasized assets, power and dignity, and unity.

Clinton and many of her supporters at the grassroots and netroots have been deeply shaped by mobilization. (I know and recognize this culture from working in "public interest" groups in Washington on issues like campaign finance and media reform.) Obama has equally been shaped by organizing.

Harry argues that Obama has not figured out--because no one has--how to translate the organizing approach to the huge scale and compressed timetable of national politics. Nor has he developed a strategy for overcoming profound cultural barriers:

Obama has not addressed the tension between the implications of civic agency and the immensity of the changes that would be needed for agency to become a widespread experience for most citizens. In recent decades customer service has become the dominant motif in government and elections alike: people are far more prone to ask “What can I get?” than “How can I help solve public problems?” Feelings of powerlessness are widespread after decades in which civic institutions like unions, political parties, congregations and schools have been increasingly shaped by experts who provide services to needy clients and demanding customers.

If I were Obama, I would probably try to win Pennsylvania--although I am not certain he needs to win there to take the nomination--by acting like a mobilizer. I would say: "Senator Clinton and I have similar goals for health care reform, but her approach will be defeated by powerful special interests, just as it was in 1993. Our campaign has enlisted millions of active supporters at the grassroots level. We will ask them to go door-to-door in their diverse communities, speaking language appropriate to where they live, making the case to their neighbors and friends for health care reform. They will inoculate us against the inevitable Harry and Louise ads of the 2009."

This is a mobilizing approach, because it doesn't take the time to develop long-term relationships, open a broad discussion of means and ends, or develop skills and agency. But it's hard to see how you can use organizing rather than mobilizing if you're running for president or facing your first Hundred Days in the White House. If I were Obama, I'd settle for mobilizing right now, but retain an ethical vision of organizing to use in other ways at other times.

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March 6, 2008

what the campaign is about

I have my own preference in the Democratic primary, which is probably clear enough to regular readers. But this is a non-partisan, politically nonaligned blog that's a vehicle for my work for various independent, nonprofit, civic organizations. In that spirit, here's what I think the current Democratic primary debate is about.

It can't be about "change" versus "experience" (vacuous categories drawn from exit polls), nor about nominating the first woman versus the first person of color. Those choices are beneath our dignity as a people. And the campaign cannot be about policy differences, because any differences between the position papers of Clinton and Obama are so subtle as to be completely lost in the legislative process. So I think the campaign is, or ought to be, a choice between two views of America and our future.

One view says that what's wrong with America is the Bush Administration and its allies among Republicans and conservative groups. They really messed up the country through some unprecedented combination of malice and incompetence. To solve that problem, they need to be defeated, and it has to be clear that the voters have rejected them. (That way, they won't just bounce back for another round). The ideal Democratic candidate is someone who represents a restoration of the situation before 2000, and none better than the wife of the last Democratic president. Further, Senator Clinton is thought to be especially tough and skillful in the face of the politics of personal destruction, which (according to this viewpoint) is the specialty of today's Republicans.

This view is reinforced by: examples of Republican malfeasance, polls showing George Bush's unpopularity, and evidence of Senator Clinton's tactical/managerial skills. This view is undermined by: examples of social problems and bad government under Democrats, surveys showing a public desire for reconciliation, and doubts about Senator Clinton's public appeal or political skills.

The alternate view says that what's wrong with America started well before 2000 and implicates the whole class of political leaders, Democrats and Republicans (although not necessarily to the same degree). This whole class has lost the confidence and support of Americans because of unproductive conflict in Washington and because leaders haven't called on--or even permitted--Americans to participate in solving our problems. The best president to bring about reconciliation would be a newcomer to the national scene, someone with experience in the nonprofit world, a progressive with the ability to understand and respect conservative views and a message of empowerment. Senator Obama fits the bill.

This second view is reinforced by: new voters entering politics to support Obama, the resonance of his message, and evidence that we could address important social problems through popular participation and broad, cross-partisan dialog. This view is undermined by: doubts that Senator Obama's appeal is broad, evidence of unbridgeable gaps within the public, or arguments that Obama is only popular because of his personal charisma, which may prove evanescent.

That's my best effort at a reasonably neutral summary. It seems an appropriate choice to put before the public. We should reason together and decide.

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February 12, 2008

Obama and the civic populist tradition

Harry Boyte recently had an epiphany looking at the map of where Senator Obama has won primaries or caucuses. Many Obama states--a band from Illinois across to Washington--have strong traditions of civic populism dating back to 1890-1939. Others were crucibles of the Civil Rights Movement in 1945-1970--a band from South Carolina to Louisiana. These were distinct movements but they had more connections than is often recognized. My favorite example is the way that Miles Horton went to Chicago to learn from Jane Addams before he started the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, the center that helped train Rosa Parks, among many others. Nick Longo recovers this story in his book Why Community Matters.

Harry's analysis is as persuasive as explanations based on demographics or primaries versus caucuses. His epiphany is relevant to the outcome of the current election. In states where there is a civic populist tradition, people hear Obama's rhetoric in a particular way (like a "deep note vibrating in a base drum," Harry writes). Obama says, "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to make change in Washington…I’m asking you to believe in yours." People in states like Minnesota and Mississippi understand that it's possible to unleash public energies to address serious public problems. So they presume that Obama is talking about public participation after the election--participation in our schools, parks, and neighborhoods.

In other places, however, Democratic voters do not have this frame of reference. When they hear, "We are the ones we've been waiting for" (a powerful echo of the Civil Rights Movement), they think that they are merely being asked to vote for Obama or to volunteer and give money to his campaign. In their minds, the campaign is the opportunity to participate--and they are not sure they want to join up. The aesthetic of hip-hop artists and starlets singing along to Obama speeches may not appeal to them. Some may share Joe Klein's reaction (from TIME Magazine):

the campaign is entirely about Obama and his ability to inspire. Rather than focusing on any specific issue or cause--other than an amorphous desire for change--the message is becoming dangerously self-referential. The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is.

I don't actually think that this is fair, but the perception inevitably arises when people don't have experience with civic engagement. The smart strategy for the Obama campaign is to explain how President Obama will unleash the power of the American people after the election--how he will encourage Americans to cross differences and contribute their energies and talents to address social problems. That's a concrete goal and it requires concrete policies and examples.

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February 4, 2008

Obama and race

Shortly before the Iowa caucuses, a senior political scientist said to me: "When you met me, you first saw a Black man. What do you see when you see Obama?" This colleague was trying to understand how my white-person's race-meter was responding to the Illinois Senator.

I believe that all Americans respond reflexively to the race of the people they encounter. And I believe that mostly negative stereotypes are triggered when we see someone as African American. The strength of these stereotypes varies, as does our ability to override them; but they almost always lurk beneath (even when the beholder is Black).

Thus we can presume that Senator Obama triggers racist stereotypes. But things are a little more complicated. First of all, I don't think that it's only the color of skin that moves Americans' inner race-meters. We also respond to signifiers of culture and class, such as accent. That's no less bad than responding to color, but it is a fact about the way we think. While Black Americans speak in every imaginable way, African American culture is marked by a set of accents that have a family resemblance to each other. Most African American accents are rooted in the American South. Senator Obama does not have such an accent, so he is less likely to trigger racist stereotypes.

Further, all kinds of subtle signs mark the Senator as upper-middle-class. Although African Americans belong to all social classes, stereotypes associate Blacks with the working class. Senator Obama thus evades some of the standard triggers of racial identity.

Finally, we don't meet the Senator the way I met my political science colleague: face-to-face and with a handshake. We meet the Senator on TV. It's a mediated relationship, the kind we also have with Oprah, Will Smith, Colin Powell, and many other African Americans. I don't know the relevant psychological literature, but I suspect that mediation reduces the impact of stereotypes that are deeply connected to motives like fear.

So what will it mean if Senator Obama wins the Democratic primary and the general election?

Not that everyone is willing to vote for a Black man, because most people won't vote at all, and many will vote for other candidates (reasonably enough, given their views on a range of issues). Adam Nossiter found plenty of examples of white voters for whom "mention of Mr. Obama merely provoked discomfort." Even if he wins the election, most people may fall into that category.

Not that we have achieved racial justice, because race will still be a major determinant of the quality of schools, public safety, health care, and employment opportunities that one receives. And ...

Not that the Obama voters have left racism behind, because they might not vote for a Black candidate who has a stereotypically Black accent or a working-class culture.

But it may mean that a governing coalition of Americans have shed racism sufficiently that they can overcome their reflex negative responses to dark skin--and that would be something.

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January 15, 2008

the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

I have some reflections on the recent spat between Senators Clinton and Obama, but first, here is the actual "text" of their dispute as accurately as I can capture it.

At the Democratic Debate in New Hampshire, Senator Clinton said: "So, you know, I think it is clear that what we need is somebody who can deliver change. And we don't need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered. The best way to know what change I will produce is to look at the changes that I've already made."

Back on the trail, Senator Obama said, "For many months I've been teased, almost derided, for talking about hope ... We saw it in the debate last night. One of my opponents said, 'We can't just offer the American people false hopes of what we can get done.' False hopes!" Later, in Labanon, NH, he amplified his position: "Dr. King standing on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial, looking out over that magnificent crowd, the Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument: 'Sorry, guys. False hope. The dream will die. It can't be done.' "

Then, on Fox News, Major Garrett asked Senator Clinton if she would respond to Senator Obama, and she said, 'I would, and I would point to the fact that that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality. The power of that dream became real in people's lives because we had a president who said, 'We are going to do it,' and actually got it accomplished."

During and after this exchange, the candidates, their surrogates, and pundits have said many things that do not deserve to be taken seriously or at face value. But I thought the comments themselves raised valid and relevant issues about how major social change is accomplished.

For the sake of simplicity, we might say that there were three great reasons for the civil rights reforms of the 1960s: (1) The charismatic leadership of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues and rivals; (2) the skillful political maneuvering of politicians like Lyndon Johnson; and (3) the great popular movement that arose from grassroots voluntary institutions, especially Black churches.

If we interpret Senator Clinton charitably, I think she was saying that Democrats are at risk of voting for charisma (Senator Obama) without realizing that you also need the skills, tactics, and experience of professionals like Lyndon Johnson--and by analogy, herself. Other critics of Senator Obama also believe that what he basically offers is charisma. For instance, Paul Krugman has recently written, "The Democrats in general make far more sense [about Chinese trade policy]. But among at least some of Barack Obama's supporters there seems to be a belief that if their candidate is elected, the world's problems will melt away in the face of his multicultural charisma." I thought that Krugman created a straw man; but it's true that charisma is inadequate and voters should pause before voting for the candidate who happens to be the best speaker.

Clearly, the third ingredient of the civil rights movement--neither political tactics nor charismatic leadership, but grassroots organizing--was crucial to its success. Senator Obama might have emphasized that point in his response to Senator Clinton (instead of attacking her for besmirching the sainted memory of Dr. King). In fact, at his next opportunity to speak after Senator Clinton talked about "false hopes" in the debate, Senator Obama said, "And just to wrap up, part of the change that's desperately needed is to enlist the American people in the process of self-government." He could have amplified that point over the succeeding days and noted that Lyndon Johnson couldn't have done a thing without active pressure from citizens. He could have used language like Rich Harwood's: "No candidate, no matter how gifted or skilled, can through their campaign offer redemption to a nation on its stained history. Surely, the candidate can help lead and give voice to such a process, but the great work of coming together will ultimately only occur through the efforts of people in their communities, and only over time."

Alas, we do not have large, highly active, interlinked progressive organizations that are rooted in the working class, as we did from 1930s through the 1960s. A pessimist might say: Therefore, the best we can get is whatever skilled political tacticians can win by playing the Washington game effectively. The question is who's the most skillful tactician in the race? (I'm not actually sure of the answer, because none of the three leading Democrats has a legislative record even close to LBJ's.)

An optimist would say: There are pieces of a civic infrastructure in America, and innovative ways for citizens to engage. The right kind of national leader can strengthen that infrastructure by encouraging active citizenship rhetorically and by implementing policies that get ordinary people more involved. The first step is to change the debate we have seen over the last few days. It should not be about who supports civil rights policies, nor about who respects Martin Luther King. It should be about how to achieve positive social change.

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December 31, 2007

the Obama "theory of change"

Mark Schmitt’s essay on Senator Obama has been very widely cited (and should be applied to politicians other than Obama himself). Schmitt argues that, as president, Obama might win legislative victories by treating conservatism as a legitimate philosophy and presuming that his opponents honor the same basic values that he does--e.g., health care for all. This assumption would put Republicans in a difficult position if the evidence favored progressive proposals. Obama’s conciliatory and deliberative style might win over a few Republican senators, Schmitt says, and that is essential if Democrats want to pass legislation.

I actually thought these points were obvious all along, but I’m grateful to Schmitt for using his authority to spell them out for progressive readers. The opposite of Schmitt’s position is being argued by "Kos" in Newsweek and by Paul Krugman in the New York Times. They recommend blaming anti-government conservatism for our major problems, tying all Republican candidates to that ideology, and trying to create a large pro-government majority. Their best argument is that conservative ideas are now fairly unpopular, according to surveys. However, they overlook the following points:

First, Americans do not think ideologically. For instance, few Americans have been interested in the ideological differences between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, even though the two men were diametrical opposites. Often, less than half of respondents to the National Election Studies are willing or able to place the Republicans to the right of the Democrats on an ideological spectrum. In discussions of local issues, according to Nina Eliasoph's research, Americans avoid ideological interpretations. And our own focus groups of college students found deep resistance to all ideologies. Therefore, it would be very hard to blame recent failures on conservatism, rather than George W. Bush personally.

Second, adopting a civil and deliberative style is a good strategy for winning elections. Liberal bloggers have been arguing that only elites, especially The Washington Post editorial board and David Broder, admire bipartisanship and civility, whereas ordinary Americans don’t care about it. These bloggers have been hanging around with angry Democrats and have not been talking to average Americans or reading the scholarly literature on political opinion. Americans are hostile to partisanship and ideological disagreement--excessively hostile, in my opinion. Their aversion to sharp disagreement hampers our politics, in some respects. But they really don't like ideological conflict.

Third, even if Americans are saying that they support somewhat more active government, there is a deep vein of public suspicion about Washington and the federal government. That suspicion is fed by the idea that Washington elites are angry, divided, uncivil, and prone to exaggerate their differences for tactical advantage. Why should you entrust thousands of your dollars to Washington to cover your health insurance if the people who run the place seem to be constantly squabbling, and each half of Congress says that the other half is wicked and foolish? Progressive policy requires public trust in government, and we won't have trust in government until leaders adopt a civil and dignified tone.

Fourth, I do not accept the diagnosis that all our major problems arise from anti-government conservatism. Kos, for example, blames the Katrina disaster on FEMA director Mike Brown, and explains Bush's choice of Brown as a symptom of the administration's "government-busting ideology." There is some truth to this, but I think the Katrina tragedy exemplifies other truths as well. The Army Corps of Engineers did damage over many decades, not because of anti-government ideology but because of managerial and technical arrogance (and old-fashioned earmarking and logrolling)--which are the dark side of the New Deal. Meanwhile, local public institutions, such as the New Orleans schools, were in calamitous condition, partly because of low budgets but partly because of extremely poor management. Yet the leaders of New Orleans were Democrats. If not all our problems are due to "government-busting ideology," then it will be hard to convince people that they are.

Fifth, a close look at the Republican Party reveals a loose coalition, not a tightly organized national machine. It's easier than Kos thinks to pick up Republican votes, and harder than he thinks to tie the whole party to a single ex-president. The best way to make Republicans feel solidarity is to try to lump them together as enemies of decent government.

I pass over a sixth reason--our ethical obligation to presume that our fellow citizens have decent motives until shown otherwise--for fear that that will make me look naive.

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December 5, 2007

Obama's service plan

As I write, Barack Obama is at Cornell College in Iowa unveiling his national service plan, along with Senator Harris Wofford. The text of the plan is here (pdf) and here's the speech. It's ambitious in that it envisions dramatically expanding the number of slots in federal programs such as the Peace Corps; creating new corps especially devoted to various important public issues (such as clean energy and health); changing financial incentives so that colleges and universities will fund more student service; integrating service better into k-12 education; and funding "social entrepreneurship" in the nonprofit sector. It is a $3.5 billion/year plan, which is a serious investment.

I think national service programs represent an important aspect of civic renewal. They create opportunities for people to work on public problems without having to enter bureaucracies or obtain credentials--that's how I'd define "social entrepreneurship." They express respect for ordinary Americans' potential to contribute. (For instance, Obama would enlist Americans who speak foreign languages to go overseas and represent us.) And good service programs provide an education in citizenship for participants of all ages.

I do not believe, however, that national and community service exhaust our options for civic renewal. Other major goals include: promoting effective public deliberation about policy, reforming the political system to make it more responsive and deliberative, and revising substantive policies in areas like health and education so that they encourage public participation. Senator Edwards has advanced important ideas regarding public deliberation and political reform. The November Fifth Coalition is showing what it would mean to reform substantive policies. There is still room, clearly, for Senator Obama and other candidates to propose more ideas to renew democratic participation.

I'll be interested in the degree to which the press reports the new Obama service agenda. Most of the coverage of Edwards' "democracy agenda" was generated by colleagues and associates of mine who deliberately wrote supportive op-ed pieces (collected here). Their message was: Edwards has good ideas, but there is plenty of room for other candidates to stake out civic ground. I'd say that remains the case even after today's excellent speech by Senator Obama.

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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.

permanent link | comments (2) | category: Barack Obama , populism

May 28, 2007

the Democratic primary

State primaries are the only contests that really count for selecting a presidential nominee. The national population never weighs in, which notoriously means that people count for a lot more in New Hampshire than in, say, Maryland. Nevertheless, the candidates are surely interested in their standing among all Americans who register with their party. That's partly because their level of national support will influence state primary voters. And it's partly because the primary calendar is so compressed and unpredictable this year that it's risky to rely on particular states.

Here, then, is a graph showing support for Senators Clinton, Obama, and Edwards among likely Democratic voters nationwide. (Source for the data.)

The three leading candidates have gained since January, at the expense of "don't know/undecided." Senator Clinton quickly rose to the mid-30-percent range and has then had very stable support. Support for Senators Edwards and Obama has been more volatile and has sometimes traded-off. For example, during the third week of March, Obama gained at Edwards' expense, but then that trend reversed. It's as if 35% of the Democratic electorate has settled on Senator Clinton, and the rest prefers an alternative--but hasn't decided who that should be.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Barack Obama

May 17, 2007

campaigns that stir up civic participation

I don't believe that voting makes sense on its own. If all you do is vote, it takes too much effort to become adequately informed, and the payoff is too small. Very few elections are actually decided by a single vote. However, if you work on public problems in other ways, it makes sense to vote as an additional form of influence. Besides, if you're heavily involved in civic work with other people, they may give you information about the election, which then comes virtually free. And you can persuade them to vote, which multiplies your impact.

The level of local civic engagement is demonstrably much lower than it was even 25 years ago, and that makes it harder to recruit voters. As a response, campaigns could actually organize local civic work as a way of developing supporters. I've looked at the websites of all the major presidential candidates, D's and R's. Most provide ways to "volunteer," but that usually means helping the campaign to mobilize voters. Two campaigns claim a much more ambitious strategy: organizing local discussions and work on issues. We don't yet know the "return-on-investment" in terms of votes for their candidates, nor can we estimate how much positive civic impact these efforts will have. But I think the attempts should be celebrated, and therefore I quote their websites (at the risk of appearing partial to the candidates, which I'm not):

Barack Obama:

For too many people, politics is a bad word. It's not surprising since for many people "politics" means talking heads screaming at each other on TV, or special interests stacking the deck in Washington.

We have an opportunity to change that. When politics gets local, when the person talking is your neighbor standing on your front porch, things change.

On June 9th, hundreds of thousands of people will have that experience as we take our campaign to the streets in all 50 states for a nationwide neighborhood walk.

We're calling it Walk for Change, and its success depends on you. ... If you agree to organize a walk, we'll mail you the materials you need to start a conversation with your neighbors about being part of this movement for change. But it can only happen if you're willing to take the leap and put together a June 9th Walk for Change event where you live.

It's not common these days to reach out to a neighbor.

We're more likely to nod quickly and smile when unloading the groceries or walking the dog than we are to stop and talk about the things that shape our common destiny.

But the great issues of our day shouldn't just be topics to fill time between commercials on cable news. These challenges -- ending the war in Iraq, solving the health care crisis, tackling climate change -- affect each one of us personally.

And the solutions to each one will require personal investment from all of us.

That's why it's so important to create this dialogue in your community -- to have a serious conversation about what matters most to your neighbors, and to share with them why this movement for change is personal for you.

John Edwards:
John Edwards One Corps' mission is about more than online organizing. We believe that effective advocacy and implementation of change happens when the online world and the offline world work together. John Edwards One Corps offers the components and tools to make this possible.

John Edwards One Corps is the official local action arm of the campaign. Thousands of members in chapters covering all 50 states work to help get John Edwards elected president by organizing and attending local events to raise awareness about Senator Edwards and his message and reach out to voters in key areas.

But John Edwards One Corps members aren't waiting until the election to help build the one America we all believe in - we also engage in local service projects and issue advocacy to start transforming America today.

Together, through these and other actions, we can and will make a difference in this country from the ground up.

Together -- as One Corps -- we will create the one America we all believe in.

permanent link | comments (1) | category: Barack Obama

February 25, 2007

the Clinton/Obama spat

(A belated comment. ...) I don't think last week's exchange of accusations was particularly significant; by itself, it won't affect either campaign. But it did reveal weaknesses that both candidates should address.

For Senator Clinton (whom I refuse to call "Hillary"), it should be a reminder that three of her strengths have concomitant disadvantages. She represents an administration that looks pretty good in retrospect. She has been popular in Hollywood. And she has lots of powerful and wealthy supporters. However, she needs a forward-looking vision, some distance from Hollywood, and a way of mollifying voters who dislike money in politics. Last week, she seemed to be angry because a movie mogul who used to give her lots of money had criticized the Clinton Administration. That was dangerous territory for her.

For Senator Obama, the spat underlined the importance of going far beyond "civility." When the Senator calls for a new type of politics, the press hears a promise to be more polite to other politicians. That is a promise that Obama will not be able to keep in the heat of a competitive national campaign. Thus he will inevitably be branded as a hypocrite. Besides, although civility may have some value, it is far from adequate. We won't see civic renewal in America just because our candidates reduce their mean-spirited personal attacks.

A sympathetic reading of Obama's speeches and writings suggests that he wants to change the role of American citizens in politics (not just the behavior of candidates on the campaign trail). He wants to unleash Americans to develop their own responses to fundamental problems. The press ignores those parts of his speeches because they assume that he is just spouting democratic bromides--it's all throat-clearing. All they hear is a promise to be more polite to his rival candidates. In order to show that he is serious about civic renewal, Obama is going to have to be concrete about it. That means making arguments for national service, broader economic roles for municipalities, land-trusts, net-neutrality, civic education, public participation in the response to Katrina and future disasters, and possibly charter schools.

permanent link | comments (1) | category: Barack Obama

February 7, 2007

three forms of populism in the 2008 campaign

It appears that the next presidential campaign will offer several strong but contrasting flavors of populism:

Sam Brownback asserts that Americans' traditional, popular, moral values are threatened by the "violence, obscenity, and indecency in today’s media," by "activist judges," by "foreign suppliers" of oil, and by the federal government. I happen to disagree with almost all his positions, but the Senator does share the majority's view of several issues, such as prayer in schools.

John Edwards makes the case that we all belong to one economic community, one commonwealth, and inherit our national prosperity not because of what we do as individuals but because of others' sacrifices, past and present. "We are only strong because our people work hard." "We are made strong by our longshoremen and autoworkers, our computer programmers and janitors, and disrespect to any of them is disrespect to the values that allowed for America's greatness in the first place." Since we belong to one commonwealth, gross disparities in opportunities are unfair.

I used to believe that this position--while morally valid--was a political dead end. Although we had left many Americans in poverty, more than half of all voters were affluent enough that they didn't need government except for purposes that are always well funded, such as roads and suburban schools. "Redistribution" meant "welfare," and the welfare system that had developed since the 1930s was justifiably unpopular. Finally, Americans' were strongly committed to markets and mistrustful of governments.

But several factors make Edwards' version of populism more promising today. Federal welfare has been deeply cut; the remaining safety-net programs serve large majorities of Americans. The issue has shifted from income inequalities (which Americans tend to tolerate) to huge inequalities in risk. Most people must finance their own retirements while some get huge golden parachutes, exemplifying a new kind of unfairness. Meanwhile, the latest generation of super-rich people has behaved very badly: Paris Hilton is a potent symbol. Not least, John Edwards is a skillful persuader, a litigator who knows how to read a jury and marshal effective evidence and arguments.

Barack Obama so far represents a different strain of populism. He says that we American citizens should play a central role in defining and solving our common problems. We are in a "serious mood, we're in a sober mood," and we are ready to work together. "We are going to re-engage in our democracy in a way that we haven't done for some time, .... we are going to take hold of our collective lives together and reassert our values and our ideals on our politics. ... All of us have a stake in this government, all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate."

For Senator Brownback, the way to assert our values is to pass laws that he favors and that have majority support. For John Edwards, "the great moral imperatives of our time" are to fight poverty and get out of Iraq. For Senator Obama, asserting our values means deliberating together as a diverse population and developing ideas that may be new and unexpected.

In philosopher's terms, this is civic republicanism, and it's truly different from mainstream recent liberal politics. To make it work, Obama will have to overcome two challenges. First, he will have to develop an answer for grassroots Democratic activists who are furious at Republicans and consider the Bush administration to be our nation's central problem. Obama believes that both parties are responsible for marginalizing citizens, and what we need are broader public coalitions. The Senator will have to find a way to talk to Democratic primary voters who are not in the mood right now for non-partisanship and cooperation. Second, Obama will have to find a way to respect the voice of American citizens while also saying something concrete about issues such as health care and taxes. He needs to respect the public's voice but also perform the main duty of a candidate, which is to put ideas on the table.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Barack Obama , populism

December 14, 2006

why Obama has lit a fire

There is a remarkable gap between Senator Obama's actual speech in New Hampshire last weekend (click for video) and the endless coverage and commentary that I have read about it. Reporters and bloggers uniformly take the line that Obama presented himself as someone "new"--as a "change"--and New Hampshire Democratic voters liked him for that reason. Supposedly, they saw him as "new" because of his recent arrival in Washington, his relatively young age, his career in grassroots organizing, and even his race and immigrant background, which make him different from all the other contenders--and worlds apart from the incumbent president.

Novelty would be a superficial reason to "swoon" for Obama; that feeling would soon wear off. But reporters really didn't pay attention to his speech, which is why they don't grasp the source of his popularity.

Now, listen, I have to confess that there has been a little bit of fuss about me lately. And I have been a little suspicious of it, because I actually come from a background of community organizing and grassroots organizing and mobilization and empowerment, and so--a lot of reporters of late have been asking me, 'Well, why are you coming to New Hampshire? What does this mean? You've got big crowds. Does this definitely mean you're jumping in? And this and that and the other.'

What I told them during a press event earlier here today, and what I want to say to you--Obviously it's flattering to get so much attention, although I must say it's baffling, particularly to my wife. I actually think that the reason I'm getting so much attention right now has less to do with me and more to do with you. I think to some degree I've become a shorthand or a symbol or a stand-in, for now, of a spirit that the last election in New Hampshire represented. And it's a spirit that says we are looking for something new. [applause] ...

It's a spirit that says we are going to re-engage in our democracy in a way that we haven't done for some time, that we are going to take hold of our collective lives together and reassert our values and our ideals on our politics. And that doesn't depend on one person. That doesn't depend on me or the Governor or a congressman or a speaker. It depends on you.

There's a wonderful saying by Justice Louis Brandeis once, that the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen. And that, I think, more than anything is what the election here in New Hampshire represented on Nov. 7. And that is the tradition of New Hampshire, not just in presidential primaries but each and every day: the idea that all of us have a stake in this government, all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate, and as a consequence of everybody ... doing just that, we had an outstanding election here in New Hampshire. So I'm here to get some tips from you. [Applause] I'm here to soak up some of that energy. [Growing applause.] I'm here to bask in the glow of the great work that you have done. And I want you guys to remember that. You're the story, not me. Now that's hard to understand, because that's not the politics we have seen just lately.

The Senator then talks about his work trying to "rebuild and renew America"--especially low-income America--through grassroots organizing. He connects his own work to American history, which he sees as a series of popular uprisings led by "pastors, organizers, agitators, and troublemakers" who have had the audacity to hope.

In each and every juncture of our history, there has someone who has been willing to say that we can do better. ... We can create a country where everybody's got a shot, where every child can dream. ... And I think what's been happening over these last several months is people have realized that that kind of spirit has been lost over the last decade. [Applause.] It's not that ordinary people have forgotten how to dream big dreams; they just think that their leadership has forgotten. [Applause] ... And so what happened in this election, not just here in New Hampshire but all across the country, is that voters decided to start paying attention. They looked up and they said, 'We're in a serious mood, we're in a sober mood, and we want to know, how can we rekindle that spirit?'

Pundits have ignored everything in the speech after "we are looking for something new." (You literally can't find the rest of the speech with a Google search.) Reporters assume that Obama's words about citizenship were just throat-clearing, or crowd-pleasing rhetoric, or false modesty. Thus they can't grasp why people love him.

The public is hungry for more opportunities to participate in solving our grievous problems. It is not only the depth of our challenges that upsets us, but also the sense that we have been shut out of civic life and cannot be part of the solution. A candidate who can genuinely empower citizens will ignite powerful enthusiasm--not among all Americans, but among the politically active who dominate primary elections.

Obama has most of the ingredients he needs to run a persuasive "empowerment" campaign--much more so than Al Gore, John Kerry, or Hillary Clinton. As a community organizer, he has the right resume. (His "home town" of Chicago has been the epicenter of grassroots civic work since the time of Jane Addams.) He speaks eloquently and insightfully about civic participation. What he will need is a list of serious policy proposals for civic renewal. By connecting his rhetoric of empowerment to concrete reforms, he may be able to persuade reporters and other elites to take that rhetoric seriously. They will realize that he really means what he says. And then the fire that he has kindled may begin to burn.

... and that's my obligation, to make sure that I'm willing to partner with the American people on the common-sense, pragamatic, not ideological agenda that they're hungry for to meet the challenges that we face [Applause.]

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Barack Obama , populism

October 2, 2006

purple nation

We're just back from a high school reunion in Macon, Georgia. Bush took 58% of Georgia's vote in 2004, and 96% of the "white conservative protestant" vote in the state. At the reunion, nobody talked about politics, but religion was freely discussed, and it was clear that most participants were conservative and protestant (and white). We live in DC, where only 2% of exit poll respondents described themselves as "white conservative protestants" in 2004, and Bush took just 9% of the vote.

This seems a good time to mention "A House Divided: The Psychology of Red and Blue America," a recent article by D. Conor Seyle and Matthew L. Newman in The American Psychologist. The authors criticize the omnipresent map of red states and blue states. They contend that this map is not merely a flawed device for representing our situation; it also affects us in troubling ways.

The map is a misleading representation because it organizes America along one dimension and divides all the states into just two categories. In reality, there are differences among Democrats and among Republicans, and there are big regional variations within states. Sometimes, the line between red and blue seems clearly inappropriate. For example, Pennsylvania and Ohio are pretty similar politically; but on the map, Ohio is as red as Utah, and Pennsylvania is as blue as Vermont.

This misrepresentation may have negative effects:

1. It can make the political minority in a state feel marginal and demoralized, although sometimes they have great political potential. (For example, Kerry took Bibb county, where Macon is located.)

2. It can prompt the two groups to move to their extremes, following a well-known pattern in social pyschology.

3. It can instill a sense that we are fundamentally divided into two identity groups, whose members not only vote differently, but also worship differently, eat different food, and hope for different futures for their children. To a large extent, that's false.

It's worth contrasting the red-versus-blue scheme with old-fashioned party labels. The "Democratic" label is a cue to think about electoral politics; and electoral politics is about disagreement and competition. To call yourself a "Democrat" may prompt positive feelings among fellow Democrats and negative ones among Republicans--which is fine. Even people who vote differently can get along well when they're not talking about politics.

In contrast, "red" and "blue" appear to be "unique and overlapping" categories (as Seyle and Newman write). They indicate a person's culinary taste, regional accent, denomination, race, preferred means of transportation, favorite news source, and practically everything else about him. If we think in such categories, it's hard to cooperate even when we happen to agree.

Senator Obama was right:

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an 'awesome God' in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

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June 13, 2005

on spending for schools and the idea of "root causes"

I mentioned last week that Rethinking Schools is a fine publication. The current issue on small schools is full of information and insights. For example, Wayne Au makes the point that small institutions are at a disadvantage under No Child Left Behind, because they have so few students that they will see big random swings in their annual test scores--and failure to improve their mean scores every year leads to sanctions. In general, the magazine is useful as a distillation of progressive thinking about education. I endorse most of its content, but I want to register some dissents, because I think the way forward for the left is to criticize our traditional ideas and develop new ones.

Reflecting traditional left-of-center ideology, several contributors to Rethinking Schools stress that creating smaller high schools--even if it's a good idea--can't solve the "root causes" of society's problems, which include poverty and racism. Now, I agree completely with Craig Gordon that it is unjust for a single corporate CEO in his city to be paid as much as 600 new teachers. But I'm not at all sure that it's wise to treat economic inequality as the "root" issue, while viewing such matters as the size and structure of schools as superficial.

There is presumably a vicious cycle in which poverty and racism contribute to poor educational outcomes (and also to crime and morbidity); low-income communities receive substandard government services; and problems like under-education, disease, and crime generate and preserve poverty. If this vicious cycle exists, then we ought to intervene wherever we think we'll have the most impact. For example, it appears that cities can reduce crime by changing their policing strategies, even when the poverty rate remains constant. In turn, lower crime rates should encourage economic investment and growth in urban neighborhoods. So the liberal nostrum that poverty is the "root cause of crime" was at least partly a tactical mistake.

The traditional mechanism for increasing equality is after-the-fact. Once people have obtained their incomes in the marketplace, we tax them progressively and spend the proceeds on social programs. I think our tax system should be more progressive, because everyone agrees we have growing needs (including the federal entitlement programs and interest payments on the national debt); we are not meeting those needs; and the only fair way to increase federal income is to raise taxes on wealthy people. But there is no clear political strategy for increasing equity through redistribution. Nor will poorer Americans automatically benefit from more spending in sectors like education.

The U.S. Department of Education recently reported that per-pupil spending on public school students increased by 24 percent, adjusting for inflation, between 1990 and 2002. That is a big increase that enables us to test the proposition that more education spending would be better for the least advantaged America. I see four possibilities ...

1) The new money has purchased substantial improvements in educational outcomes for all Americans. That would counter the angry and sad rhetoric of Rethinking Schools. However, it would support the case for even more spending.
2) The money has not obtained improvements because it has not been well spent; that would underline the importance of institutional reform.
3) The money has been spent on kids who were better off to start with; hence the outcomes of poor kids did not improve. I find this story unlikely, given the recent pressure for equity. But it is possible.
4) The Department of Education is wrong to claim a 24% real increase. That would be a scandal, and it seems implausible.

I don't know which of these four hypotheses is correct, but much depends on the answer. I intend to keep an open mind about education spending until I know more. Meanwhile, I have the feeling that Senator Obama was right when he said at a commencement address last week: "We'll have to reform institutions, like our public schools, that were designed for an earlier time. Republicans will have to recognize our collective responsibilities, even as Democrats recognize that we have to do more than just defend old programs."

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Barack Obama , revitalizing the left

July 29, 2004

Barack Obama (part ii)

Barack Obama's speech was partisan, needless to say. It was delivered at a major party's national convention, it endorsed the party's national ticket, and it was rooted in the core values of the Democratic Party, more than in the legitimate but different values of the GOP. (I disagree with some conservatives who apparently believe that Obama's speech was to the right of the Democratic mainstream. In its elements as well as its overall spirit, it struck me as conventionally Democratic.) However, there is more than one way to be partisan, and some ways are better than others for our political culture.

In all my teaching and professional work, I am relentlessly non-partisan and aim to be neutral with respect to most of today's controversial issues. I'm professionally concerned about our political culture, not about particular policies. I have never before singled out for praise a partisan speech or even an individual politician. But I do believe in parties--and in intense partisan competition--as mainstays of democracy. Everything depends on how the partisans play.

So consider the most quoted passage from Tuesday's speech:

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.

We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?

There is a lot of simple truth in this, especially in the first paragraph. To be sure, Obama takes some shots at unnamed opponents who are allegedly exploiting the Patriot Act, who are cynical, and who won't admit that Democrats are religious or that Republicans have gay friends. In other words, he uses rhetoric against the other party, and I'm not sure that all his implicit charges are 100% fair. However, the critique is oblique and general, not scathing and personal, and for the most part he competes to be more inclusive and more unifying. His aim is to appear more positive about all segments of the American population than the other side is. He is also positive and optimistic about the main features of the political system itself.

Imagine that both major parties competed with this kind of rhetoric, instead of constantly imputing wicked motives to each other. Based on evidence like this, I strongly suspect that the rate of participation would rise. We might even see citizens trust one another more.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Barack Obama

July 28, 2004

Barack Obama

I haven't been watching the Democratic Convention, because I don't really watch TV. But a partial transcript of Barack Obama's speech sent me to the Web for a video of the whole thing. Three-quarters of the way through, I'm wiping tears from my eyes, feeling profound gratitude, and recognizing a basic yearning for really impressive leadership. All kinds of burdens are going to be piled on Obama, because he'll be the only African-American in the U.S. Senate, he's young enough to be a presidential contender, and he enters the national stage with incredible reviews. It won't be possible for him to meet these expectations--but I don't care about unfair pressure. Although I'll defend the American political system, today's politicians just cannot satisfy a fundamental need for inspiring, unifying leadership. Obama can do that; he has the talent, the instincts, the intellect, and the personal integrity for it. So he owes it to his country to spend the rest of his life trying to meet our expectations.

There are people who say that "nothing happens" at a convention, that it's all just an "infomercial" that needn't be covered. But a convention is an opportunity for political leaders to speak without filters to the American people. Doesn't "something happen" when a new national leader emerges?

permanent link | comments (3) | category: Barack Obama

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