Who are we waiting for?

During the Presidential campaign, candidate Obama invoked the language of community organizing and the civil rights movement, especially with the discourse of “yes, we can” and “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” That seemed fitting for a campaign that had a place for millions of people to take to the sidewalks and knock on doors to turn out votes.  Does it have a place in an administration?

Harry Boyte of the Humphrey school at the University of Minnesota seems to think it should.   But should it?  Does the buck stop at the President’s desk, or do we all share some deep responsibility to change this country?

Here’s a snippet of Boyte’s recent op-ed on the topic:

Over the first 100 days of his presidency, Barack Obama changed his message from “we” to “I.” The challenge for the president, if he is to achieve his administration’s potential to unleash the energy of the nation, is to return to and flesh out “yes, we can” in the everyday work of addressing our common problems.

Obama launched his campaign for president with the idea that “all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate.” He had learned a philosophy of civic agency — that we all must become agents of change — from his days as a community organizer in Chicago. And in extraordinary ways, he used the presidential campaign as a vehicle for taking the message of agency to the nation. “I’m asking you not only to believe in my ability to make change; I’m asking you to believe in yours,” read the campaign website. The message was expressed in campaign slogans such as “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” drawn from a song of the freedom movement of the 1960s.

It also infused the campaign’s field operation. As Tim Dickinson, a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, put it in a review of how the field operation reflected an organizing approach, “The goal is not to put supporters to work but to enable them to put themselves to work, without having to depend on the campaign for constant guidance.” Field director Temo Figueros explained, “We decided that we didn’t want to train volunteers. We wanted to train organizers — folks who can fend for themselves.”

On Wednesday night, at the news conference marking the first 100 days of his administration, Obama was asked what he intends to do as the chief shareholder of some of the largest U.S. companies. “I’ve got two wars I’ve got to run already,” he laughed. “I’ve got more than enough to do.”

The change has partly reflected the administration’s adjustment to the fierce pressures of the Washington press corps. As Peter Levine noted as early as December 2006, reporters and pundits assumed that Obama’s words about citizenship and involvement “were just throat-clearing.” Journalists and pundits constantly demand that he explain what he is going to do to solve the problems facing the country.

But the general citizenry outside of government is not composed of innocent bystanders. In our consumer-oriented society, we too easily assume that government’s role is to deliver the goods. Dominant models of civic action, as important as they are — deliberation, community service, advocacy — fit into the customer paradigm, as ways to make society more responsive and humane. The older concepts at the heart of productive citizenship — that democracy is the work of us all, that government is “us,” not “them” — have sharply eroded.  [read more]

If we all had a role, what would that be? I want to agree with Harry, but I’m not sure how to “operationalize” that on day-to-day matters, including waging and ending wars.

My guess is that we can still be the ones we’ve been waiting for if we realize the importance of public will and civic capacity.

When I was a kid, my family adopted a retired, champion Afghan hound.  The owners said that she could jump our eight-foot fence, but not to worry — she didn’t know she could.

Likewise, I think that there is tremendous power that the public has to create or block change, but generally we seem to be oblivious to this power, even though it has tremendous effects large and small.  I’m referring to the power that Hannah Arendt noted that is created when people talk and act together — the capacity that is created to create and transform a public world.

As for how to operationalize this, we need practices and spaces to make this real.

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.