The Good Society 12.1 (2003) 56-62
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Civic Innovation in America:
Towards a Reflexive Politics
Jean L. Cohen
Civic Innovation in America is a refreshing addition to what has become a growth industry of writing on American civil society. Unlike the influential approach of Robert Putnam, this is not a backward-looking lament about the decline of associational life, although Sirianni and Friedland are aware of the worrisome signs of civic disaffection and citizen passivity in the U.S. 1 Yet they don't join neo-communitarian efforts to revive traditionalistic types of "mediating institutions" in order to secure social integration. 2 Although not adverse to mobilizing old forms of social capital—such as congregation-based community organizations within and across denominational lines—they are primarily interested in networks that expand local organizing capacities for new purposes and with fresh democratic methods. 3 Indeed, the focus of Civic Innovation is on significant recent attempts "from below" to reinvent and revitalize American democracy.
Accordingly, the book points the reader to the ongoing public work of citizens and the actual processes of civic innovation that have sprung up in recent years. The authors maintain that: "Over the past several decades American society has displayed a substantial capacity for civic innovation, and the future of our democracy will depend on whether we can deepen and extend such innovation to solve major public problems, and transform the way we do politics." 4 Theirs is a forward-looking approach: it highlights new forms of cooperative civic participation in civil society and discusses the new modes of governance needed to support them.
This focus also differentiates their view from the self-understanding of many left-wing scholars. The dominant frame of "radical change versus cooptation" typical of the latter tends to belittle collaborative problem-solving, self-help and trust-building strategies that cross political lines. Moreover, the left version of statist governance cum direct democratic politics has emphasized those "participatory" forms with the least potential for deliberation and working together. 5 Sirianni and Friedland situate their own work within the civic republican, progressive (non-partisan) and pragmatist approach to participatory democracy in America: a tradition which also informed an important strand of New Left thinking. Accordingly, they focus on the pragmatic action of citizens that builds the public sphere in localities, that develops citizen capacity within it, that triggers learning about how to devise effective forms of civic participation and innovation, and that fosters cooperative horizontal (across networks of civil society) and vertical (with governmental institutions and corporations) strategies to further empower citizens. Instead of confrontational, ideological, plebiscitary, and partisan politics they opt for non-partisan, collaborative civic work and forms of participation that tend to foster the public good, to revive the "res publica" of contemporary American civil society and to accomplish worthy social goals.
I consider this book to be an important contribution to democratic theory and to the theory of civil society. In many respects, the work is exemplary. It is a model of what we should do as engaged intellectuals: namely to theorize and try to inform democratic practice. Especially today when government elites seem to have abandoned even the pretense that they pursue the public interest, and when our representative political system seems to have been reduced to the crassest oligarchy, it is crucial to focus on how to strengthen concern for the res publica. However, while the project is eminently worthy, I do have some criticisms of the neo-republican political and theoretical frame the authors deploy. In particular, I believe the work is still somewhat under theorized. While the pragmatic approach to innovation and experimentation, self-regulation and learning about what works on the local level is fruitful, it begs for greater theoretical elaboration especially regarding institutional design, regulatory strategies and policy analysis. Nor am I convinced that the discourse of neutrality in the name of fostering the common good or the strategy of nonpartisanship is what is called for today. Rather, we should articulate a general political project for the renewal of political and not only civil...