Engaging Citizens from the White House

The White House now has a new office of citizen participation, so it’s time to set some things straight.  First, some applause is in order.  It is high time that elected officials started paying attention to what the public has to say.  But second, a lot of caution is needed.  Who is engaging whom?  how?  for what?

For over a decade now there’s been a strong movement for participatory democracy and civic engagement, and this has originated within civil society.  Elected officials have barely noticed, except when the public starts slapping them around.  New technologies exponentially increased opportunities for citizens to engage each other, to attend to matters of common concern, and to use new media to get their voices heard.

In his 2004 bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Howard Dean and his staff figured out how to tap this burgeoning new form of social and political organization to rally for his candidacy.  A short four years later Barack Obama’s team took web tools and old fashioned community organizing skills and won the presidency.  So in terms of citizen engagement, it seems like Barack Obama is master of the universe.

We the public, though, shouldn’t look to the White House to organize us.  That’s our job.  There is no substitute for self-organizing, certainly not if it is to be democratic.

What the White House can do is be a good partner, set up channels for communication, and in general do whatever it can to let a million flowers of civic association bloom and make a difference.

We have to be careful that a White House office of civic engagment doesn’t become the office of turning citizens into public interest lobbyists.  It might be well and good for citizens to lobby their elected officials to enact this or that policy.  But lobbying ain’t organizing.

(I know. I used to have the title of “community organizer” for a public interest organization, but my real job was to manufacture the illusion of public outcry, not the reality of a strong public sphere that will decide for itself what is just or unjust.  But this is material for another post.)

So I call on my fellow citizens not to look to Obama’s administration to be the leader on citizen engagement.  And I call on Katie Jacobs Stanton, the new director of this new office, to think of her job as opening a pathway between the govenrment and the public sphere.  That pathway should not be for telling and selling the public on pet policies, though some of that may well go on. As Andrew Nachison cautions,

The Obama team’s precision with producing and staging events and using Web 2.0 digital tools to connect and organize millions of volunteers sets the stage for an era of political engagement unlike any before. It also sets the stage for a system of public opinion management, manipulation and manufacturing of consent drawn directly from the film Wag The Dog, in which governance is theater and politics is lit and directed by unseen artists.

The new office should create pathways through which the public can convey to elected officials what its concerns are and what kind of policies it will decide to support.

But as for the act of deliberating, choosing, and forming public will on matters of public concern, that is something the public has to do for itself.

From Summer 1986 to Senate 2009

Between my first and second year of policy school at Duke University, I spent a sumer at the Advocacy Institute in Washington, D.C.  It was the best summer job ever, even though it paid nothing. Co-Director Mike Pertschuk would come bounding into the office, look me in the eye, exhilirated after some meeting, and tell me about every detail, never minding that I was a lowly intern. At big time parties, the other co-director, David Cohen, would also give me his full focus, telling me how I’d been at the heart of one of the best public interest struggles in the history of public interest struggles.  The Advocacy Institute was a small little group that trained advocates who would fight big battles, like those against the tobacco industry, long before any of those fights had been won.

A few weeks after I arrived, so did another intern.  A young fellow, the son of someone I had carted around the campus at Duke University, board of visitors member Doug Bennett, whose claim to fame at the time was being president of National Public Radio.  Doug Bennett was impressive.  But if he were in a line-up with his son, he’d never stand a chance.  This kid was something else.

The son, Mike Bennett, was young and impressive and clearly the smartest person in the room.  He was also extremely earnest.  He was nice, like you’ve never seen nice.  He was smart, erudite, and all in the most unassuming way.  This was the boy next door with a brain out of this world.  (And I’m no slouch.)  He and I were assigned a task to write up a project.  I thought it merited two pages; he gleaned from it ten.  And there was no fluff. By the end of the summer we all learned he’d won a Coro fellowship, and we knew he was heading out to do some great work.

Indeed.  He’s bounded from one career field to another, Yale law to business to being appointed to superintending the Denver public schools, where he as made astonishing improvements. And now he’s been appointed to fill Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar’s Senate seat, which will make Bennet the youngest Senator of the crop.  (Obama has picked Salazar to be his Interior Secretary.) Colorado’s governor Bill Ritter claimed he wanted someone who was outside the usual circles to finish out Salazar’s term, someone who could meet the new challenges of the era. And despite a field of seasoned politicos ready for the job, he picked Michael Bennet.  This makes me think that Ritter’s a genius. But because Bennet’s relatively young, not a Colorado native, never held elective office, and those “in the know” clearly don’t know the guy, some underestimate him.

I don’t.

Watch this guy.  Really.

Read more: New York Times piece, Washington Post piece, CO Gov’s website, Coro fellowship program site.

Obama’s Pragmatism

On his blog, Requiem for Certainty, pragmatist philosopher Colin Koopman dissects Obama’s inaugural speech and finds lots of good stuff for both pragmatist philosophy and democratic politics, including the recurring pragmatist theme of hope.

The inaugural address also made a pragmatist promise in another key moment.  Obama spoke of “stale political arguments” concerning the relative size of government and market, state and economy, or what is so often today described under the loose banners of ‘public’ and ‘private’.  What has gone stale in these arguments, he seemed to suggest, is the posturing that would suggest that we can know in advance of actual experience what respective roles governments and markets should play in our lives, as if we can cleave off public regulation from private enterprise all at once and be done with it.  His point, I take it, was that we should approach the question of what roles governments and markets ought to play in a more experimental frame of mind.  Sometimes governmental agencies will be needed to get the job done.  Sometimes only markets will work.  The old view that one of these is public and one is private misleads us from recognizing that we ought to invoke both in confidence as situations call for.

Instead of an old politics of certitude, Colin sees in Obama’s speech a politics of experimentalism.  We aren’t going to know in advance what will work, but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for progress.  We need to go in with an open mind, try new things, and see what actually makes a difference.

Morning in America

Now this really is morning in America.  And maybe we can get on with the work of mourning a long dark history of racism and hatred that has always worked against the American ideal of freedom and equality.

I am so proud that my country elected a brilliant man, an African American, a person willing to work through and get past all the stuff that turned upside down what this country stands for.