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We the People Politics

By Harry C. Boyte, Center for Democracy and Citizenship

The election results of 2010 are misread by commentators across the spectrum. On the right the Republican victories are described as a conservative backlash. On the left they are seen as the result of the administration’s failure to push aggressively enough in the direction of European-style social democracy in which government is the driver of change. From the center, the problem is too many issues. Writing in the New York Times, former senator Evan Bayh of Indiana argues Wednesday morning that the Democrats’ mistake was not focusing single-mindedly on economic growth. Going forward, in his opinion, “every policy must be viewed through a single prism: does it help the economy grow?’

A more compelling explanation is that the civic and populist movement which elected Barack Obama in 2008, confounding conventional political labels, is yet to fully emerge.

Populism is caricatured in the media as a politics of grievance and anger. In this view, populism appears in flamboyant protests of the Tea Party or diatribes against government and other enemies on cable television and talk radio. But the genuine politics of populism is based on the view that while politicians and presidents play important roles, it takes ordinary citizens to “build America.”

This populism was central to the cooperatives of black and white small farmers of the late 19th century at the base of the Populist Party, the labor movements of the 1930s and the civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s. All challenged unaccountable elites while also emphasizing the responsibility of everyone for “promoting the general welfare” and creating “a more perfect union.” These movements included large programs of popular self-education and uplift out of the belief that a thriving democracy requires a public who rises to the occasion of citizenship.

Martin Luther King described to me his identification with such populism on a hot summer day in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964, when I was working as a college student for his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I tell the story in my recent book The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference.

Barack Obama’s election victory in 2008 reflected such populism. As Marshall Ganz, a key architect of the campaign’s grassroots organizing operation, reminds us this morning in the Los Angeles Times, the effort was animated by “values that had long been eclipsed in our public life: a sense of mutual responsibility, commitment to equality and belief in inclusive diversity.” The campaign activated millions of ordinary citizens, most of whom had never been involved in formal politics, and taught many the basics of grassroots organizing. It also embodied a deep respect for the talents and intelligence of the people, reflected in Obama’s “The America We Love” speech, June 30, 2008: “The greatness of this country, its victories in war, its enormous wealth, its scientific and cultural achievements, all result from the energy and imagination of the American people, their toil, drive, struggle, restlessness, humor and quiet heroism.”

Ganz urges the administration to return to such values and reliance on ordinary people,  and this is a good idea. But genuine populism is not called into being by any leader, no matter how eloquent. Its roots grow from local communities, as people learn to work across differences of race, income and ideology to address challenges of economic development education, the environment and other issues, and develop a larger sense of themselves as builders of the commonwealth in the process.

Next time around ordinary citizens, schooled in such experiences of public work across differences, will need to insist on a “We the People” populist politics. In such a politics government is neither the enemy nor the savior but our meeting ground and collective instrument.

State colleges and universities committed to becoming “stewards of place” and teaching the skills of civic agency can be seedbeds and anchors for a We the People politics, in the process contributing immensely to the revitalization of our democracy.


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