Possibilities For Common Ground In The Age Of Trump

Some reflection through the night prompts a reframing of the debate and exchange with David Randall over the last three weeks in Education Week. Randall is author of the report from the National Association of Scholars, Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics. He argues in the report that “By pretending to be old-fashioned civics, the new civics has captured an extraordinary amount of university resources and student time that’s supposed to be devoted to civics education.” It has a hidden agenda. “The movement is one of the most successful tactics by radical left activists from the 1960s to revolutionize America.”

I want to go beyond my argumentative tone in the Huffington Post last night (“Relational Power and Citizen Politics Are Key to Democracy’s Future”). While three weeks of exchange have illuminated differences about where “citizenship education” (as well as “civics”) should take place, and some differences on civic empowerment and cultural diversity, the conversation has also surfaced some common ground – the need to combine both civics and citizenship education; the need to get beyond binary thinking; the need to challenge good-versus-evil mobilizing politics; and, I would suggest, the need for a relational, nonviolent theory of power, unlike that of the late Saul Alinsky’s and other mobilizers.

“The ideas of Saul Alinsky have entered into higher education,” says Making Citizens. “The most serious such transfer occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, via [the] Public Achievement movement.” Public Achievement, it proposes, works toward left wing ends “with more focus and organization [than service learning], via the Alinskyite method of community organizing. The Alinskyite tactical model of Public Achievement is what makes the New Civics formidable.”

Deborah Meier and I invited Randall to participate in a conversation on Education Week in order to explore differences and whether there is common ground. In the last two exchanges, both have asked me for a more extended treatment of Saul Alinsky, the famous community organizer. I'm delighted to take this up to explain why Making Citizens' charge is mistaken about Public Achievement but also why there is common ground.

Making Citizens argues that Public Achievement "relies on the Alinskyite emphasis on power which reduces politics to the use of force to defeat hostile opponents." Unilateral power does, indeed, animate Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky's last book, published in 1971. The book fed mobilizing approaches to civic action and political campaigns.

Mobilizing includes the door-to-door canvass, robo-calls, direct mail fundraising, internet mobilizations, and other mass communications methods. Mobilization has taken "us versus them" to new levels of psychological sophistication, using advanced communications techniques based on a formula: find a target or enemy to demonize, stir up emotion with inflammatory language using a script that defines the issue in good-versus-evil terms and shuts down critical thought, and convey the idea that those championing the victims will come to the rescue.

Today, mobilizing is the approach of the right as well as the left. Thus, as Elizabeth Williamson described in the Wall Street Journal, "Two Ways to Play the 'Alinsky' Card," January 23, 3012, Alinsky's book is widely used by Tea Party activists.

Mobilizing, making everything into inflammatory warfare, culminates in Donald Trump.

But as I detail Everyday Politics (PennPress, 2004), Public Achievement draws from traditions different than mobilizing. These include the early Alinsky, different than late Alinsky, the nonviolent citizenship schools of the civil rights movement which combined "civics" and "citizenship education," and cross-partisan strands of community organizing.

Alinsky always had an iconoclastic tone, but his early efforts were shaped by a movement of anti-communist public intellectuals and activists who focused on countering the dangers of fascism. They hated the Marxist-Leninist division between "mass" and "scientific vanguard." As a result, Alinsky's first book, Reveille for Radicals, emphasized the need for popular organizations to be rooted in local community life and draw on the democratic resources in every community.

By the 1960s, Alinsky had radically shifted his view, reflecting the acrimonious, polarized dynamics of the time. Rules for Radicals embodied the estrangement of mass consumer society and the existentially uprooted person. As Sandy Horwitt described in Let Them Call Me a Rebel, Alinsky had come to reject place as a civic site. Alinsky's depiction of the "world as it is" denuded political life of its cultural and normative dimensions. In Rules, Alinsky proposes a strategy to unite the "have nots" and the "have some, want mores" in alliance against the "haves." This was a reductive view of politics, power, and the human person that fed into mobilizing politics.

Mobilizing politics has the unilateral view of power which Making Citizens describes. This view has come to structure even the way "nonviolence" is defined in conventional terms these days, as a strategy, not a philosophy of human interaction in the vein of Gandhi or Martin Luther King. The philosophy of nonviolence has a relational understanding of power, advancing what might be called "public love," recognizing that we need to understand our adversaries, not demonize, defeat, or humiliate them. In contrast, today nonviolence is seen by many simply as a strategy and set of tactics. Thus Gene Sharp's famous The Politics of Nonviolent Action defines power as "the capacity to control the behavior of others." In nonviolence as strategy, control renders the other side abstractly, into objects to be manipulated. The current best-selling book, This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century, by Mark Engler and Paul Engler, builds directly on Sharp. The Englers propose the aim of nonviolent strategy is winning support from one's friends and polarizing one’s own side against one's enemies. "This is not an unintended consequence. It is central to how [disruptive actions] work."

Working with a team, I started Public Achievement in 1990 with the aim of countering mobilizing politics and unilateral power. We called the alternative "citizen politics." Citizen politics retrieves the skills of association which Alexis de Tocqueville called the "mother science" of democratic society. It teaches how to work across partisan and other differences on constructive civic projects that can be drawn from civics -- improving interactions with governance; social justice -- "creating a more perfect union"; and the commonwealth, public work tradition building communities and their civic and material infrastructure. This depends also on a relational view of power I learned in the civil rights movement and saw in cross-partisan strands of community organizing. Relational power does not deny conflict and tension, but it reframes these not as “good versus evil” but as dysfunctional power relationships that need to be change. It is based on the concept that power interactions, even in situations of inequality, always involve changes on both sides. Power is interactive and evolving. It aims most importantly at "power to," the capacity to act, changing “power over,” coercive power.

These features of Public Achievement won it support from conservative foundations like the Bradley Foundation as well as progressive foundations like the Kellogg Foundation.

We need to get beyond counterproductive polarities and spread ideas of relational power. Though Randall and I have disagreements this exchange has shown that we agree both civics and citizenship education are necessary. We also agree that we need to get beyond "binary thinking" -- not only for "making citizens" but for the sake of democracy's future in the Age of Trump.

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