The Good Society 12.1 (2003) 70-73
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Seeds of a Different Politics
Harry C. Boyte
The splendid achievement of Carmen Sirianni and Lew Friedland in Civic Innovation in America is both to demonstrate and to analyze a cumulative process of civic learning. In recent decades, citizens and civic institutions of many kinds have developed sophisticated, nuanced strategies for addressing tough problems that are not subject to remedy by expert intervention or simple appeal to government. Through an innovative methodology—including engagement with a wide range of contemporary political and social theory, in-depth case studies and network analysis, and hundreds of qualitative interviews—Sirianni and Friedland create an "American case study" in an emerging international pattern. Their book illustrates the stirrings of a new "democracy movement," and is also a textured, rich treatment of some of its key foundations, language, and themes.
As David Bornstein suggested in The New York Times in 1999, this movement, if it can be called that (and one of Sirianni and Friedland's arguments is that it is, indeed, a movement-in-formation) is an international phenomonon. Citizen initiatives have been growing at remarkable rates, with large impacts all across the world. The most dramatic have challenged and transformed dicatorial and brutal regimes—the defeat of apartheid, the fall of communism, the overthrow of right wing dictators in Chile and the Phillipines. Protest politics has continued, of course, in events such as the WTO protests and elsewhere. But a growing number of civic initiatives, less visibly, have shifted toward what can be called a productive focus as well, addressing constructive tasks of democracy-building on local, national, and international levels. These include such examples as the establishment of an international criminal court, or the raising of village income, educational, and health levels for millions of peasants by groups like the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. Moreover, such efforts show signs of a cumulative process of social learning. William Drayton, president of Ashoka, an organization which seeks to catalyze citizen effort, argues that a movement culture is emerging: "A critical mass of institutions, people, and ideas [which] feed on one another and strengthen one another." 1
Sirianni and Friedland show that such a movement culture is appearing in the US in a large number of settings, from the environment to community organizing, from health to journalism. While acknowledging their book's great importance as the first broad overview of a development with enormous implications, in the spirit of advancing discussion I will here focus on three limits I see in their work. All have to do with the authors' insufficient elaboration of their intuitions about politics.
Politics for our time, if it is to have more than parochial impact, must address the changing nature of power in the information society; the importance of "work" as a key self-interest among professional groups tied to organizing for cultural transformation in the mediating institutions which hold potential to be broad instruments of democratic power; and the productive as well as the distributive sides of democratic public action. Conventional discussions of citizen action—including the most sopisticated efforts like the Industrial Areas Foundation, which they treat at length—have yet to take up these questions in a sustained fashion. Yet such a conceptual conversation is crucial to give this emerging force a deeper self-consciousness—to make it more than the sum of its parts.
A case in point is a speech given by Ernesto Cortes to the annual Summit Conference of Campus Compact on November 8, 2002.Cortes, southwestern director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, one of the key networks treated in Civic Innovation in America, evidenced in his talk both the strengths of the fledgling democracy movement and also its conceptual limitations.
Campus Compact includes more than 800 colleges and universities. It has shifted in recent years from a focus on service and service learning to a broader concern with the civic mission of higher education. People in the room were inspired by Cortes' speech. But it was hard to translate to the work of changing their own institutions because...