The Path Not Taken (So Far): Civic Engagement for Reform

Candidate Obama argued that positive change comes from organized social movements, not from the government alone. It's time for President Obama to listen to that logic.
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As a candidate, Barack Obama made the strongest case since Bobby Kennedy in 1968 that we need to engage Americans in changing America. His civic engagement theme was popular with voters (although largely unreported by the press), and I believe it helped him win the primaries.

But 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, or they focused on health care when they should have attended to unemployment. 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, 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."

Ten months later, as he campaigned to win the Iowa Caucuses, Senator Obama said "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."

Candidate Obama argued that positive change comes from organized social movements, not from the government alone. 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.

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 argued 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 was strong and consistent in his speeches.

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. Civic engagement 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. Reporters regard a statement about "active citizenship" much like a comment about how wonderful it feels to visit New Hampshire in January. Yet videos of his speeches clearly show rising applause at the civic moments.

Within the campaign, policy advisers didn't pay much more attention to the civic themes than the media. The Democrats' proposals on matters like education and the environment included no concrete ideas for civic empowerment. The "active citizenship" theme slipped past Democratic Party elites just as it escaped the notice of the press.

On the other hand, 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.

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 new president issued an executive order on Transparency, Participation and Collaboration.

But service does not necessarily build civic skills or address fundamental problems; besides, even an expanded AmeriCorps offers no role to most people. "Transparency" came to mean feeding information to organized interest groups, reporters, and a few independent citizens who have deep interests and skills in particular areas. Participation and collaboration have not been part of the agenda since Inauguration Day.

Service and transparency are not nearly "edgy" enough; there is no fight in them. People are angry - 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. "Active citizenship" reduced to non-controversial "service" or downloading government data completely loses touch with the legitimate anger of the American people.

The White House chose to make health care its major focus and included no aspects of civic engagement in the deliberations about the bill, in its 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.

It is probably too late to try a civic approach on health care. Climate change is so obviously stuck in the Senate that it is the issue I would use. The inside game can't work. 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.

With the strategy for ramming a deeply contentious issue like health care reform through Congress in tatters, the case for active citizen engagement in pursuit of climate change is stronger than ever.

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