By Harry Boyte, Center for Democracy and Citizenship, as follow up to this blog post.
As I argued in the “We the People” post on the American Democracy Project blog on September 22, in an election season dominated by attack ads and hollow campaign rhetoric, voters of every stripe are responding in kind. They express disgust that politicians haven’t fixed our problems, while voicing the certainty that politicians can’t possibly do anything useful. It is a long way from the animating message of collective action embodied in the winning theme of the 2008 campaign, “Yes we can.”
Despite the challenges, a “We the People” initiative that aims to animate “citizen voters” in 2012 could have significant effect. While many leaders are needed in such an initiative, college students in American Democracy Project schools can take key leadership, reminiscent of the roles students played in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
When the question is the civic health of elections, the government, and the nation itself, and when the electoral process is threatening to spin out of control, we need a broad movement in which the whole citizenry works to redeem American democracy. Civically-oriented politicians are allies and partners, not enemies, in this work. Steve Kelley, a friend who ran for the Democratic nomination for governor this last spring on a productive citizenship message, said much the same thing based on his experiences. He had been head of the education committee in the state senate, and came close to winning the nomination. But he said that when your message is civic revitalization, it’s very hard as a candidate to “supply” it unless there is “demand.” This is doubly true for governance – it may be the problem of the Obama administration, which shifted quickly after the election from “yes we can” to “I and my administration will do it.” While Obama’s shift reflects the dominant government-centered approach to governance around the world, it also responds to the never-ending demand from citizens that government “fix things.” This has to change.
A “We the People” movement should aim to create demand for citizen-centered politics and governance, embodying the spirit of the preamble to the Constitution with its powerful, productive verbs. These convey the point that “we the people” create government as the instrument of our collective work. Below are several elements which suggest that preparation for and enactment of a “We the People” movement could transform the experience of citizenship not only for the students but also for the country.
1) Public stages in the civil rights movement. The March on Washington is the obvious example, recounted splendidly by Charles Euchner in Nobody Going to Turn Me Around – a People’s History of the March on Washington. The program notes summarized the message, calling people to avoid provocateurs who might incite violence: “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words and hot insults; but when a whole people speaks to its government the quality of the action and the dialogue needs to reflect the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.” Euchner’s book shows how the March and its long, careful preparation called the nation to citizenship. The new book by Bruce Watson, Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy, could also be a primer for students today. It tells the story of how college students organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee faced down the brutality of racist police and civic organizations to dramatize segregation. At the end of the summer, at the Democratic Convention, Fannie Lou Hamer, a tenant farmer and civil rights leader, transfixed the country on television. Such moments, while transforming the lives of those directly involved, also significantly impacted broader public attitudes, laying the ground for civil rights victories and for deep culture change.
2) Public stages in broad-based organizing. The heart of broad-based organizing (of the kind which shaped Obama) is public stages, “accountability sessions,” where citizens interact with politicians in mature, confident ways. An excellent account is found in Richard Wood’s Faith in Action, a study of the cultural politics of broad-based organizing. He shows how the Catholic priest in an affiliate of the Oakland Community Organization educates his congregation to “act like adults” with politicians, rather than like needy children. There are also limits to this pattern, stemming from organizers’ pessimism about larger change. Interestingly, Obama’s essay in the collection After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois (1990) identified them. Obama observed, “Most community organizing groups practice…a ‘consumer advocacy’ approach, with a focus on wrestling services and resources from the outside powers that be. Few are thinking of harnessing the internal productive capacities…that exist in communities.” With millions of citizens now bewailing the failure of the administration to solve our problems, this is the time for a “We the People”/Citizen Voter movement to catalyze a different dialogue, focused on the agency of everyone.
3) Public stages in Public Achievement. I began Public Achievement, a youth civic education and engagement initiative, in 1990, with lessons of the civil rights movement in mind. In Public Achievement, young people work on public problems and issues they identify, ranging from teen pregnancy and drug use to school curriculum and recreational opportunities. We have seen again and again that when young people feel visible, competent, confident, and taken seriously in public settings they are able to integrate the civic meaning of their work with a new depth and impact. For instance, PA teams from eight schools met with the newly-elected Governor Jesse Ventura in 1999, interacting with him in an “adult way.” They all said their confidence stemmed from the seriousness of their public work. It had large impact on the young people and a huge impact on Ventura, who recognized one of the team leaders, Joey Lynch, a thirteen year old in the PA playground group at St. Bernard’s, as a “citizen leader prevailing against all odds” at the first State of the State address to the legislature. Ventura gave stories from this encounter for months, contrasting it with the gushy celebrity encounters which young people usually had with him.
4) Responses to the “We the People” blog. These speak to the need for self-reflection, discussion, and careful preparation if we are to make much dent in elections and people’s views of government. They suggest passion for taking action to change election dynamics and also the larger alienation from government. As Yasmin Karimian, the savvy president of student government at University of Maryland/Baltimore who led a shift from government as a social service and complaint body into an organizing center, put it, “I cannot wait to get to work [on this].” Karimian observed that despite their success in transforming student government, students need to “really change the way we think about government,” since they feel that broader change is “a daunting task.” Tim Shaffer describes how the consumer/infantilizing culture affects us all. Amy Bravo highlights how elections are a rare moment of visible public encounter in our society. Bill Payne’s comments come from the documentary he and a Republican did about the 2004 election, 50 – 50. It showed how voters are much more sophisticated, complex, and insightful than the partisan boxes they’re usually placed in.
5) The “Millennial Generation.” By 2012 with the election of 2010 as an embarrassing text, young adults, “Millennials,” will be more than ready to help to create a dynamic in which citizens challenge each other and all of us to act like adults, moving from shoppers of government services to owners of the store. Young people are accused of apathy. But as Cecilia Orphan, the young manager of the American Democracy Project, puts it, “While the ‘me first’ is there, it’s not the animating theme for the generation. We’ve had these events in our lives (9/11, the tsunami in Asia, Hurricane Katrina, Obama’s election, etc.) where we got engaged and felt like we were making a difference. But then it tapered off because there were no clear ways forward. There was no one helping us understand that these events were a call to sustained – not episodic – citizenship.” Heather Smith, director of Rock the Vote, made a similar point on the News Hour September 29, explaining why young adults aren’t enthusiastic about the ’10 election. “People got engaged in ’08 [because] they do believe, as a generation, they can change this country and change the world. And [Obama] pointed a path forward to do that. Afterwards, they felt like, where did our leader go? They can be reengaged and re-energized. But someone needs to push that path forward.”
6) ADP as a base. Many campuses in the American Democracy Project have organized candidate forums over the last several years, and Constitution Day, September 17, is widely celebrated. A “We the People”/Citizen Voter effort in 2012 needs to build on such experiences and other deliberative public work, hosting and organizing multi-layered forums.
We’ll need a careful planning process, fundraising, and an organizing team to make this real. It will need to be a step by step process, but several other possible building blocks are appearing: These include
- The November 11-12 Civic Agency Initiative meeting in Washington;
- The civic engagement education minor meetings — making the electoral dysfunction a topic of discussion and constructive work with the five teacher education programs to integrate Public Achievement into their core curriculum can convey the reality and importance of their work;
- We the People/Citizen voter training workshop in the Twin Cities spring 2011. The CDC is considering organizing at least one such workshop;
- The ADP national conference, which may have a citizenship focus;
- Work with the Kettering Foundation on their issue book for 2012; the foundation has expressed interest in making the NIF book a resource for “We the People”;
- Work with the American Library Association Center on Public Life, which has a strong relation with campus libraries. According to Nancy Kranich, such libraries and their staff are underutilized civic resources;
- Constitution Day, September 17, 2011, on ADP campuses, which could be an occasion to talk about and prepare for the election in 2012.
There are many ways to define success in a We the People/Citizen Voter effort, and a spectrum of possibilities. These range from a handful of campuses where students prepare, undertake public work, organize candidate forums, and learn lasting civic lessons, to the generation of a broad movement through ADP and beyond. In the latter case, many other groups and citizens could join in. The potential is very large.
Getting started: We encourage “salons” or “coffee parties” this fall, discussing the election, its problems, and how to begin preparing for a citizen response in 2012. The key, as Bill Payne stresses, is that these should be diverse, with differences especially across partisan divides.
Whatever transpires, the words of the freedom song are to the point: We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.