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.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

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