The Good Society 12.1 (2003) 63-66
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Civic Renewal And Inequality 1
William A. Gamson
Those who are engaged in this broad project of civic renewal can only be grateful to Siriani and Friedland. 2 They have looked around the country and understood the common project that runs through thousands of local and regional efforts. Since the visible effects are often below the radar screen of the mass media, it is easy to feel that inch by inch and row by row will never get one to the promised land. The authors validate these efforts and attempt to articulate the unifying vision that informs its practices.
So what is this "civic innovation?" Drawing on the widely used concept of "social capital," they see it as an attempt to "mobilize social capital in new ways." If there is less social capital to draw on these days, as Robert Putnam's work suggests, 3 then greater is the need to buttress and build up what's left through new institutional forms.
To make them part of this movement, the innovations have to share a vision of an active citizenry as envisioned by theories of participatory democracy. The institutions of civic innovation aim at empowering citizens to act on their own behalf and their practices should be judged by the extent to which they achieve this. As much as possible, the innovations need to institutionalize these changes so they can be self-sustaining and increase the long-term capacity of citizens to influence the conditions of their daily lives.
Sirianni and Friedland call these nationwide efforts a "civic renewal movement." It is not a jazzy label, mainly because of the fustiness of the term "civic." It is redolent of high school classrooms and the progressive era of a 100 years ago, of good government, piety and earnestness. It is no wonder that David Remnick, the New Yorker editor, in quoting some of the rhetoric of civic journalists, asks us to excuse him while he "runs screaming from the room." Do I have a better term to describe this movement? No, but I will argue below that the term "civic" carries additional baggage beyond its fustiness, baggage that compromises the project and makes it less likely to succeed.
Civic Renewal and the Faces of Power
The mixed virtue of the civic renewal movement is its ability to "speak reassurance to power." Of course, it hopes to speak truth as well, but blaming is not part of the game, uncomfortable truths not part of the rhetoric. The face of power it represents is a non-zero sum conception—power is the ability to achieve ones goals. Since the weak and the strong may share some common goals, this makes collaborative work possible.
Representatives of a national media outlet, itself owned by a corporate conglomerate, can meet with representatives of a coalition of Black Churches concerned about the coverage of issues in their community, to explore ways of improving coverage. They can search for ways that will do this without compromising or even challenging conventional journalistic norms and practices. And the relationship, once established, may lead to more stable, institutional relationships that do, indeed, increase the long-term capacity of their constituents to influence the conditions of their daily lives.
But it is essential to keep in mind that these collaborative relationships involve entities that have value and interest conflicts as well. Power also concerns both determining the agenda and prevailing where competing choices have different costs and benefits for the parties involved. The rhetoric of civic journalism carries some of the baggage of the early 20th century progressive movement in which "there aren't Democratic and Republican ways of cleaning the streets" and most of government and politics is technical problem solving.
Siriani and Friedland specifically contrast the civic renewal frame with "rights" and "justice" frames. "The civic renewal movement," they concede (p. 34), "does not have available to itself much of the rhetoric and repertoire of rights and justice movements." Its master frame "reconfigures the relationships among key societal sectors to enable collaborative problem solving and productive...