Pick your Flavor of Civic Renewal

From the blog of one of my favorite scholar-activists (and fellow NW DC resident) Peter Levine:

Scott Dinsmore (who has a good blog) asks, “What are the pros and cons of populist campaigns and movements carrying the civic renewal banner?”

These are some of the “cons,” in my opinion. There’s a risk that any specific strategies or policies for civic renewal will become identified with a particular candidate, who will inevitably have idiosyncratic interests, values, followers, and frailties. Other candidates may shy away from civic themes, thinking that a competitor has already staked that ground. The version of civic participation that one candidate offers may be thin, limited, or even fake. And then that politician can lose, creating the impression that civic renewal is a loser of a platform.

Now here’s the “pro” side of the argument: There is more than one flavor of civic renewal, so it would be possible for many candidates to stake out civic ground and compete over who is most likely to empower and respect citizens. There can be a “service” version, emphasizing the national and community service programs in and out of schools; a decentralization version, favoring charter schools and local autonomy; a patriotic version, stressing knowledge of the constitution and military service; and a deliberative version, which puts process first. I’d love to see a healthy competition among these “flavors.”

Compared to past decades, we have a richer set of civic experiences and practices at the local level; Bridgeport is just one example. National leaders who understood grassroots civic renewal could bring it to public attention and create supportive national policies.

John Edwards proposed some good ideas for civic participation and explicitly cited the November Fifth Coalition, even though it is a fledgling organization with no money (yet). This was exciting but also risky for us and our friends and allies. We don’t want to depend on any one politician to carry our water, but we must welcome their attention.

Great thoughts for campaign season. Also, a frequent topic in the civic field is whether all civic renewal is good. Scholars Thomas Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse describe bridging and bonding types of groups: heterogeneous (Operation Understanding DC) and homogeneous (neo-Nazis). The symbolic language which mobilizes a party’s base during the primary season is based on homogeneous bonding. The famed independents so fawned over in the general election are immune to that speech, and therefore we end up with photos of Kerry duck-hunting in camouflage to depict a liberal who can hang out with rural people.

Sen. Obama and Edwards must mix their broad national community rhetoric with shows of toughness by attacking other candidates fairly while also signaling affiliation to the Democratic base. That’s 3 forms of speech, more than most candidates and hard to find the right one for each moment.

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