Citizens as Co-Creators of a Democratic Way of Life

Reflections on India and Civic Studies

Harry Boyte with Marie-Louise Ström

Second Revision, Presentation to the School of Law, Rights, and Constitutional Governance
Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS) Mumbai, India, December 20, 2016


I was invited to give a talk on December 20, 2016, entitled “public work citizenship as a civic agency framework for participatory democracy” at Tata Institute for Social Science’s School of Law, Rights, and Constitutional Governance in Mumbai, India. Marie-Louise Ström, my colleague (and wife) contributed stories and insights from African countries where she and her colleagues have adapted and developed public work and related ideas like citizens as co-creators, democratic society not simply democratic state, civic agency, and citizen politics.

Such talks can be occasions for conversations about grounded democratic theory. This certainly proved to be the case for interactions with TISS students and faculty. Our conversation was also enriched by spending December traveling across India, talking with people from many different backgrounds about their work and its significance, and reading about the history, culture, and politics of democracy in India. All provided opportunities to put experiences in India “in conversation” with the transdisciplinary field called Civic Studies. The field’s explicit ideas are agency and citizens as co-creators. An informal project, in my view, is about revitalizing the “civic roots” of institutions, from religious groups, schools, unions, businesses to professions and formal politics in ways that create what we call free spaces.

The School at TISS is a hands-on graduate program for young lawyers who want to develop concepts and skills for using law as a tool for social and economic justice, access, and empowerment for disadvantaged groups. The students and faculty have similar stories from India to stories in Africa (and America) and similar interests to Marie and my interests in civic empowerment. They posed the question: How can we take stories of civic empowerment to scale, reversing the trends that shrink the meaning of democracy?

In this second revision I seek to address this question more fully by drawing on earlier work that argues for “intellectual organizing” as a dimension of movements and citizen professionals potential to contribute.1 I argue that encounter between India and public work strands of theory in Civic Studies, when democracy’s “signs are flashing red,” can be fruitful.

Warning Signs Flashing Red

Across the world, alarm is rising about democracy.2 “Warning signs [are] flashing red,” reported Amanda Taub in the New York Times. The Times cites research and theory building of Yascha Monk and Roberto Foa, who point to three warning signs of “democratic deconsolidation.” Declining support for democracy, openness to nondemocratic governance like military control, and rise of “anti-system” parties which see government as illegitimate all signal danger before democracy is in obvious, overt collapse. They cite examples such as Venezuela and Poland and point to current danger signs elsewhere. “Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is ‘essential’ to live in a democracy has plummeted and it is especially low among younger generations,” the Times reports. “Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too.” The share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing has risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, from 1 in 16 in 1995. 3

In the next issue of The Good Society, our Civic Studies journal, I compare arguments about erosion of democracy from the emerging field of Civic Studies with those of Pope Francis in the 2015 climate encyclical, Laudato Si’.4 Both Pope Francis and many in Civic Studies highlight ways in which marketplace ways of thinking and technocracy are intertwined, working together to degrade human relationships and productive work with larger purposes. As Pope Francis puts it, “The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings.”5 Such a pairing of neo-liberalism and technocracy confounds conventional ideological positions. The left is better at highlighting dangers of spreading marketplace ways of thinking; communitarian conservatives better illuminate technocracy.6

An idea which seems simple -- the concept that citizens can be conceived as “co-creators” of communities at every scale including democratic societies - holds revolutionary potential if developed. To realize this potential requires recalling the practice of intellectual organizing, part of the legacy of social movements. It also means seeing such organizing as a part of building a larger, ideologically diverse movement to revitalize institutions’ civic roots and create free spaces where people “learn democracy.”

Intellectual organizing in the civil rights movement

In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words and hot insults, but when a whole people speaks to its government the quality of the action and the dialogue needs to reflect the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.” (Program Notes, March on Washington, August 28, 1963)

It is important to remember what we have lost. There has been a radical shrinking of political ideas around the world. This shrinkage disempowers people. We need broad, sophisticated intellectual organizing as part of a larger citizenship movement that effectively contests and overcomes today’s narrow definitions.

I was shaped by experiences as a young man in the civil rights movement which generated large ideas about citizenship, democracy, and politics -- the sense (if not the explicit conceptual language) of citizens as co-creators and politics as the way we learn to engage others who are different. The movement song expresses these ideas: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Thus the March on Washington’s hopefulness in a time of divisions and violence in the US grew from its civic qualities, rooted in a myriad of civic settings (black churches, schools, colleges, sororal and fraternal groups, professions, unions, businesses, etc.) where people came to see themselves as agents and architects of democracy. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, justifiably famous, should not eclipse the discipline and dignity of the marchers, which channeled nonviolence, civic and community organizing, and culture change. The marchers, too, conveyed a message of citizenship.

Katherine Charron details one strand of civic leadership development in her splendid book on Septima Clark, Freedom’s Teacher. Clark, architect of the movement’s citizenship schools – Martin Luther King called her “the mother of the movement” – was schooled herself by decades of what Charron calls “civic organizing” as a black woman teacher in the brutal and repressive educational world of the segregated South. Her civic organizing was also informed by experiences at Highlander Folk School (inspired in part by Scandinavian folk school traditions) and traditions like Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, a settlement for immigrants with a robust public culture. "The Settlement recognizes the need of cooperation, both with the radical and the conservative, and . . . cannot limit its friends to any one political party," said Addams. Contrasting Settlement philosophy with cloistered colleges, Addams argued that residents of Hull House "feel that they should promote a culture which will not set its possessor aside in a class with others like himself, but which will . . . connect him with all sorts of people by his ability to understand them as well as by his power to supplement their present surroundings."7 Students are often amazed, in today’s polarized ideological and racial world on campuses, when I tell them that citizenship schools occasionally included poor whites (“Trump supporters” in today’s terms). Indeed, Martin Luther King assigned me organize in poor white communities which included supporters of the Klu Klux Klan – a task I took up in Durham, North Carolina, for seven years.

Clark learned how to negotiate complex power dynamics and build sophisticated alliances, drawing on her network of black women teachers. In the process she also developed a large vision of the purpose of grassroots citizen leadership development. The more than 800 citizenship schools across the South developed the public leadership of nearly 30,000 grassroots leaders – teachers, beauticians, sharecroppers, maids, business owners). She articulated their purpose as “broadening the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepening the concept to include every relationship.”8

Like earlier 20th century movements which challenged exclusion and inequality and fought for a more just, inclusive, and cooperative society such as democratic strands of progressivism of the early 20th century; the popular movements of the New Deal, the civil rights movement combined local organizing with vibrant intellectual organizing.9 It brought to the mainstream of public discussion ideas which challenged the WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant), individualist, and consumerist version of the American dream, advancing concepts of a more pluralist, cooperative, active democracy. Alain Locke, the African American philosopher, architect of the Harlem Renaissance whom King likened to Plato and Aristotle, had argued that, "If we are going to have effective democracy in America, we must have the democratic spirit." That required "more social and more economic democracy in order to have or keep political democracy."10 Vincent Harding, a speechwriter for King, argued. “The civil rights movement was in fact a powerful outcropping of the continuing struggle for the expansion of democracy in the United States,” wrote Harding. “It demonstrates…the deep yearning for a democratic experience that is far more than periodic voting.”11 These themes sparked “participatory democracy” around the world.

Such ways of thinking about active, citizen-centered democracy had old roots. Reflecting on his travels across America in the 1830s, the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville compared European nations in which the citizenry relied on government or great leaders, with the self-organizing efforts of citizens in America. “In democratic peoples, associations must take the place of the powerful particular persons,” he wrote in the classic, Democracy in America. “In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.”12 Recent explorations of the meaning of democracy in Athens, where the term “democracy” originated, shows that Athenian understandings were similar, emphasizing not voting but rather the power of citizens to act. In his essay, “The Original Meaning of ‘Democracy,”: Capacity to Do Things, Not Majority Rule,” an etymological study of language groupings, the classical scholar Josiah Ober shows that democracy does not mean voting. It “means, more capaciously, the empowered demos… in which the demos gains a collective capacity to effect change in the public realm. And so it is not just a matter of control of a public realm but the collective strength and ability to act within that realm and, indeed, to reconstitute the public realm.”13

Despite the movement’s powerful ripple effects, its demands and language emphasized dismantling the system of segregation through advancing civil rights for blacks, not deepening democracy. This constrained subsequent public portrayals. For instance, citizenship schools are almost entirely invisible in the public stories told about the movement in civil rights movement museums. In fact many movement leaders knew that a deeper language was needed. As Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington, observed in 1965 in a famous essay, the movement required a move from “protest to politics” to address successfully structural problems such as joblessness and automation, failing schools, inadequate housing, and endemic crime. Monsignor Geno Baroni, the leading liaison between the movement and Catholics bishops and white ethnics, called for a cross-partisan “new populism.” Both also saw the shift as deepening democracy.

Shrinking democracy and eroding free spaces in the US and India

Such concepts challenge today’s narrow definitions about democracy in US and India. As I read about and talked with a variety of people in India, from taxi cab drivers and tour guides and shopkeepers to senior officials of the India police, participatory organizers and development workers in PRIA and PRAXIS, to students at Tata Institute, I became much more aware of parallels between “freedom movements” in both India and the US. These were much more multidimensional than practices of nonviolence in both movements, as important as that element was. In both countries, a vast process of molecular empowerment made the freedom movements efforts of collective self-liberation.

Sara Evans and I call the settings where molecular civic empowerment takes place “free spaces.” We developed the concept in seeking to understand what makes for specifically democratic movements like civil rights, contrasted with reactionary or parochial movements which seek purification of viewpoints. The concept has proven useful in comparative studies.14 Free spaces generate civic confidence, skills in negotiating ambituities, and other democratic learning. They grow from and teach a citizen-centered politics of sustained engagement with others outside private worlds of family and similarity. They have important “public” dimensions.

Social movement theorist Francesca Polletta has pointed out that the term is used to describe different kinds of spaces. She identifies not only the community-rooted settings we focused on but also communication networks which connect spaces across geographical boundaries, and “prefigurative spaces” where activists seek to live out radically alternative values. The sixties counterculture, women’s liberation groups, and today’s movements like Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter in the US are examples of prefigurative spaces. Our concept of community-grounded free spaces conveys what I mean in this essay by settings with diverse public cultures and “civic roots.”

Though Ramachandra Guha doesn’t use the term free spaces in his richly detailed India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, what we mean by the concept is conveyed in his account of the freedom movement in the state of Kerala. For the purposes of this piece, I treat the book as it is often advanced -- the leading public account of the movement and its aftermath (“a magnificently told history of the world’s largest democracy,” says India Today, while The Washington Post lauds Guha for finally having “given democratic India…the history it deserves”). I appreciate Nikhil Borwankar’s steering me to this source.

Guha’s treatment of democratic educational experiences in Kerala shows something of the diversity of philosophies and ideologies out of which they can grow. Thus, during decades of the freedom struggle leading up to Independence in 1947, the communist movement in the state organized peasant and labor unions, reading rooms and libraries where poor and lower cast Indians learned about the world, and other cultural and civic organizations. Parallel processes developed in Christian settings (Kerala has the largest Christian population in India and one of the oldest in the world) and in caste–sponsored educational and service groups. For all their ideological and philosophical diversity such free spaces joined to create culture change. As Guha observes, “The combined efforts of the missionaries, the princes [more progressive in Kerala than elsewhere], the caste societies, and the communities had seriously undermined traditional structures of authority…defiance replaced deference as the idiom of social exchange.”15

Free spaces and expansive views of democracy are inextricably combined. Likewise, erosion of free spaces and the narrowing of democracy’s meanings are inseparable. Despite differences among candidates in the US election last year, all defined democracy as citizens choosing leaders to act for them. This view is the conventional, dominant view. The official site of the United States Agency of International Development propagates the idea that democracy is elections around the world: “Democracy refers to a civilian political system in which the legislative and chief executive offices are filled through regular competitive elections with universal suffrage.”16 In academia as well as in official proclamations, wider, more citizen-centered views of democracy – and citizens as democracy’s foundational agents – have large disappeared in recent years. As Jeffrey Hilmer observes, “during its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, participatory democratic theory . . . was considered a viable alternative to liberal democracy.” 17 In recent years participatory theory has been marginalized.18

Shrinking definitions are vivid in work of prominent intellectuals and scholars who once championed broader views. For instance Robert Putnam argued in his 1993 book, Making Democracy Work, that effective governments depend on robust civic cultures and public-spirited citizens. In his famous 1998 book Bowling Alone, Putnam noted the erosion of civic culture and its institutional foundations. In his new book on growing inequality, Our Kids, returning to Robert Dahl’s definition, he narrowed the meaning of democracy. Putnam argues “equal voice in government” is “the essence of democracy.” 19

I don’t know if Guha ever argued a larger view of democracy, as Putnam once did, but it certainly is missing in India After Gandhi. Despites treatments like Kerala, overall his book is focused on the activities of prominent leaders and political parties. Moreover, his definitions of democracy and citizenship are framed, like Putnam’s, in state-centered categories. “If one looks at what we might call the hardware of democracy, then self-congratulation is certainly merited. Indians enjoy freedom of expression and they have the right to vote,” Guha concludes. He also sees “the software” of democracy in disarray. “Most political parties have become family firms. Most political parties have become family firms. Most politicians are corrupt.” Other institutions of the software like independent civil service and fair-minded judges, “have also declined precipitously over the years.” But his list is itself telling – it is entirely government-centered. 20

Septima Clark would note the absence of attention to diverse citizenship education in Guha’s account. John Dewey would highlight the lack of democracy as a “way of life.” Civic Studies adds other elements.

Civic Studies

A challenge to narrow views of citizenship, politics, and democracy is emerging in the field of Civic Studies, launched in 2007 by a group of engaged political theorists.21 The group included the late Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics, awarded for the work she did with her husband Vincent and an international network of co-researchers. They explored whether a proposition by Garrett Hardin (“The Tragedy of the Commons”), that common pool resources are destined for extinction in contemporary societies, was in fact true. They found it is true only under certain narrow conditions (for instance, that agents don’t talk with each other). In fact citizen-centered governance of common pool resources, especially when nested in larger structures of democratic governance, can sustain common resources, from irrigation systems and forests to fisheries. “Beyond Markets and States,” her 2009 Nobel Lecture, is a useful introduction to the idea of citizens as co-creators. i

In addition to citizen-centered governance, two other streams of grounded theory, deliberation and public work, feed into Civic Studies. Indian scholars such as Amartya Sen and Vijayendra Rao have greatly contributed to deliberative theory and practice.

Today I discuss the third stream, public work, a concept drawing on traditions of collective, self-organizing communal labor around the world. Public work has been especially developed through partnerships of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship over the years at the Humphrey Institute, now merged as the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College. We began with concern for the erosion of free spaces in the civic life of communities, and came to understand that to regrow such settings requires attention to re-growing the public dimensions of work.22

The concept of public work in extensive terms can be defined as sustained effort by a mix of people from diverse backgrounds and views who create something, material or culture, of lasting civic value. It also can be usefully explored through three key dimensions of “public”: work for public purposes; work in public; and work by “publics.”

Revitalizing the public dimensions of work

Work for public purposes

In the United States, the Trump campaign and its aftermath dramatize the radical narrowing of the meaning of democracy and citizenship. They also illustrate the connections of this narrowing to the evisceration of the public dimensions of work. Trump is the consummate snake oil salesman from America’s past, embodying the idea that “everything is for sale.”23 A striking case in point is education. After the election he chose for his Secretary Education – what would be the Minister of Education here -- Betsy DeVos, a leading champion of diverting public funds to profit making institutions. She is hostile to any idea of education as a public good.24 The appointment culminates long-developing trends toward privatization of purpose in educational work and many other fields.

I often thought about the story of the two bricklayers as we travelled through India. Asked what they were doing, one said building a wall. The other said building a cathedral.

Even asking the question of the purpose in work can be radical in our time, as we discovered in 1997 and 1998 when our Center for Democracy and Citizenship conducted interviews with senior faculty members across the University of Minnesota after the Kellogg Foundation asked us to make an assessment of the possibilities for renewing the public service mission of the university. The UMN is called a “land grant college,” and was once well-known for its extensive involvement with the civic life of Minnesota’s communities (even at times called a “democracy college”).25 This identity has sharply eroded.

Edwin Fogelman, chair of the Political Science Department, and I asked several dozen professors if they went into their fields with the desire for public impact. The question surfaced dramatic and hidden discontents. Virtually all began their careers wanting to have public impact. Almost all felt frustrated by the deepening culture of detachment whose norms hold “value neutrality” to be constitutive of scholarly excellence. Many, widely seen as leaders in their fields, told me that they would not be able even to discuss their discontents given the strong biases of research cultures of disciplines against extensive public engagement.26

Silence about public purposes in research cultures is part of a wider pattern. As citizenship has been consigned to voting and volunteering, we’ve lost citizen lawyers, citizen teachers, citizen beauticians, citizen businesspeople. In her book, The Politics and Civics of National Service, Melissa Bass shows how changing understandings of national service illustrate the severance of the tie between public purpose and work. For President Franklin Roosevelt, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a national service effort which enlisted more than three million young men in conservation projects in the 1930s and 1940s, was important because of the connection. The CCC “generated ‘moral and spiritual value’ to a nation dispirited by crisis and contributed to the ‘up-building of a national culture’ by bringing together a mix of young men, diverse by the standards of the time.” In contrast, when President Kennedy created the National Service Corps thirty years later, he declared work and service programs to be “wholly distinct.” “The Youth Employment program,” he said, “is designed for those young people who are in need help.” In contrast, “the National Service Corps is designed for those citizens of every age, young and old, who wish to be of help.”27

This distinction continues in AmeriCorps under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. And India has similarities. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was passed in 2005 by India’s Parliament as a tribute to Gandhi. But it is an act for the unemployed, with no mention of the moral or civic uplift which Gandhi stress at the center of work. Like the US, the act shows how the public possibilities of work have been eclipsed.

However eroded in today’s public discussion, time in India brought home to me the wellsprings of work with public meaning in Indian history. Gandhi’s vision of the coming of independence illustrates. In Young India in 1930, Mahatma Gandhi envisioned the day when “whole villages” would read the declaration of Independence. The rest of the day should be spent “doing some constructive work, whether it is spinning or service of ‘untouchables,’ or reunion of Hindus and Mussalmans, or prohibition work, or even all these together.” 28

The quote is taken from Guha’s India After Gandhi. But Guha’s treatment neglects traditions and philosophies of work in India’s freedom struggle and its aftermath -- there is no reference to any such themes in the Index. In contrast, Gandhi’s own writings make the connection central. “The great Nature has intended us to earn our bread in the sweat of our brow,” wrote Gandhi in 1929. “Every one, therefore, who idles away a single minute becomes to that extent a burden upon his neighboursIn my view, the same principle has been set forth in the third chapter of the Gita.” He continued in his Gospel of Work in 1935, “There can never be too much emphasis placed on work.”  Gandhi imagined a conversation with the Buddha. “If I had the good fortune to be face to face with [the Buddha], I should not hesitate to ask him why he did not teach the gospel of work, in preference to one of contemplation.” Gandhi combined belief in work’s dignity with passionate belief in its public significance. “A person who labours for the general good of all serves society,” he said.29

With such Gandhian thoughts in mind, I raised the issue of work’s public meaning with many people in our travels. None were reluctant to discuss the connection -- quite the opposite. For instance, the idea of “citizen professionals” — professionals who see themselves as working to improve the society and their professions, not simply to fit in them – resonated.

Thus, Nirja Matoo, chairperson of the Centre for Development of Corporate Citizenship at the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research, described the curriculum which their Centre has developed to teach students in business fields that the purpose of business should be far larger than simply making profit. The curriculum operationalizes such a lesson by having students spend five weeks a disadvantaged community, helping build capacities of groups – women, rural poor, untouchables and others — to develop successful small businesses. In return, students learn to think about the social purposes of business. She said there was initial resistance from students who thought narrowly about their careers. But over the years students have become enthusiastic, and are often transformed by the process. The Center for Corporate Citizenship is publishing a book of stories of 25 successful CEOs who changed their careers to be involved in socially useful work as a result of the curriculum.

Nirja liked the concept of citizen professional. At TISS, the idea of citizen professional – professionals who work in civically empowering ways as citizens – seemed to make sense as well. This was the pattern throughout our travels. We discussed the idea of citizen professional with our long-time friend, Meeran Borwankar, the most senior woman in the Indian police at any level, who directs the Bureau of Police Research and Development. When Pinarayi Vijayan, Chief Minister of Kerala, blasted participants in an All India Police Science Conference on December 8 for being out of touch with the “common man,” she responded with the idea of citizen police: “We are citizens first and professionals second.”30

When students in the United States are introduced to the idea of citizen professionalism it awakens a similar spirit. Ali Oosterhuis, an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota who plans a career in socially relevant law, describes the dedication to being a “citizen lawyer,” developed through learning skills of political empowerment through the youth initiative Public Achievement and by reading books like Charron’s Freedom’s Teacher and Charles Wilkinson’s Blood Struggle, on how rights-oriented law was used by American Indians in a decades-long Indian struggle from “termination to self-determination.” “My goal over the next few years is to create a concrete mission that I can work toward during my career as a citizen lawyer,” says Oosterhuis. “This feat will not be easy. However, I will not give up, just as the Indians refused to give up in the long struggle for their rights. My vision will propel me on the path of creating change as a citizen professional and making a difference in the world in the years to come. I will use the skills I have learned through Public Achievement, this book, and organizing experiences I have had so far to follow a rich tradition of organizing.”31

Ali’s statement is a generational manifesto. She shows the desire we often see among students for work with public purpose, citizen professionalism. Citizen professionalism depends on breaking out of the silos of narrow ways of knowing and learning to function in what we call free spaces, work in public.

Work in public

Ramachandra Guha decries the disappearance of deliberative, honest political leaders India, prominent in the first years after Independence. In his last speech to the Constituent Assembly in 1949, B.R. Ambedkar, a brilliant lawyer, statesman, and leader of the movement of the “untouchable” caste, “urged that disputes in India be settled by constitutional means, not by resource to popular protest. He…also warned against the dangers of bhakti, or hero-worship, of placing individual leaders on a pedestal so high that they were always immune from criticism.” Guha draws a sharp contrast with 21st century politicians, describing violent religious, class, caste and other battles of recent years, regularly fueled by political parties. “At the slightest excuse political parties organize strikes, shutdowns, marches and fasts, seeking to have their way by threat and intimation rather than by reason or argument.” He also has an explanation – too much interaction by politicians with the people. “Sixty years after Independence, India remains a democracy. But the events of the last two decades call for a new qualifying adjective. India is no longer a constitutional democracy but a populist one.”32

Mainstream commentators in the United States regularly use “dangers of populism” to explain the poisonous public debate of recent years. But Civic Studies creates another lens. As Peter Levine, a co-founder of Civic Studies puts it, the way disciplines and fields are structured and taught separates fields of knowledge from each other. Empirical fields of natural and social sciences are separated from cultural and normative fields. Scientists are supposed to be “objective.” Humanities and cultural scholars are concerned with questions of value but critics not actors. Both are separated from professions and professions are usually little concerned with citizen’s capacity to act.33 As Philip Nyden, co-chair of the American Sociological Association’s Task Force on Public Sociology, observes, “Academics may be well trained in methodology and theory, but they are not always trained or experienced in…the political process of bringing about change…[their] ‘problem-oriented’ approach-- which assumes that the community has a deficit – obscures that fact that academic researchers themselves may have a deficit that needs to be corrected by experienced community leaders and activists.” Nyden observes that every sociology department has a course called “social problems.” He has never heard of one with a course called “social solutions.” 34

Higher education institutions shape the professional identities and practices which dominate across the sweep of American society. Thus the loss of public experiences in professionals’ preparation, noted a hundred years ago in Jane Addams description of cloistered college cultures, has large impact. Not only do professionals learn to live in bubbles detached from the larger civic culture, they also reproduce bubbles of ideological, racial, cultural, and other kinds of epistemic enclosure.

In contrast, the United States once had an abundance of citizen politicians, along with other kinds of citizen professionals. Thus the late Minnesota senator and later vice president Hubert H. Humphrey – who at times called himself a populist -- traced his famous political career to his father’s drug store in Doland, South Dakota, in his autobiography, Making of a Public Man (1991). The drug store in Doland functioned as a public space for deliberation, argument, and action. “In his store there was eager talk about politics, town affairs, and religion,” Humphrey wrote. “I’ve listened to some of the great parliamentary debates of our time, but have seldom heard better discussions of basic issues than I did as a boy standing on a wooden platform behind the soda fountain.” It created a cross-partisan root system for formal politics, schooling the father – and certainly, it seems plausible to argue, the son – in skills of political engagement. Humphrey’s father was one of a handful of Democrats in a town with hundreds of Republicans. “Dad was a Democrat among friends and neighbors who took their Republicanism – along with their religion – very seriously.” His father became the highly regarded mayor. But activities his focus was on the drug store, which enriched the civic culture of Doland in multiple ways. The store functioned as local lending library and cultural center – music came from the window of the second floor, from his father’s rickety phonograph. It embodied a rich conception of citizens as co-creator and democracy as a way of life built through citizen labors.

All these elements shaped the career of Humphrey in ways which sometimes put him at odds with the rising state-centered, distributive politics of the Democratic Party. According to those who knew him, Humphrey regularly challenged and educated his audiences, pointing to complex interactions between government and lay citizens and the need for citizens to claim agency. “Government isn’t supposed to do all of this,” said Hubert Humphrey in a 1967 Phoenix television interview, in response to a caller who asked him to fix the problems with politics. “If you think politics is corrupt, get your bar of political ivory soap and clean it up. Get out there and get roughed up a little bit in the world of reality. Join the community action groups in the war on poverty, volunteer your services.”35

We heard comments again and again about the loss of civic identities and the rise of bubble cultures after the interviews we did at the University of Minnesota, when we worked with the provost, Robert Bruininks, to create a Civic Engagement Task Force. The Task Force charge was to develop strategies for revitalizing the public purposes of professions and disciplines as well as the university as a whole. To undertake this work with had conversations with many different groups -- state legislators, African American clergy, teachers, business leaders, nonprofit managers. Again and again professionals said their institutions (and their own work) had lost the “civic.” Their work was driven by narrow dictates, outcomes, and accountability measures, whether winning elections, preparing students for tests, or making as much profit as possible.

Consequences of the loss of free spaces were dramatically evident in last year’s US election in both parties. In the 1980 election, the “fighting 9th” Congressional District on the Virginia-West Virginia border was the only rural county in Virginia that went Democratic in the Republican landslide. In 2016, more than 75% voted Trump. Dudley Cocke, founder of the Appalachian community-based Roadside Theater in Virginia’s 9th district, points out that among different reasons, “among the most decisive was the loss of the United Mine Workers in the late 1980s as a center for political analysis and continuing community education.” Theda Skocpol points to Trump’s huge margins in rural areas, small towns, and exurban areas where unions have been decimated. Cocke calls unions “democracy’s classrooms.”36

People are not born knowing how to work with publics, those who make them uncomfortable, whom they disagree with or may dislike intensely. Learning the skills of work with people who are very different involves a citizen politics, politics that revolves around citizens not politicians. It requires spaces where such politics is learned. In the United States – and I would hazard in the Indian freedom movement – free spaces abounded. They schooled the general population in a larger civic identity and the skills to act on it. They generated citizen politicians and other professionals who see themselves as “citizens first,” and knew how to interact with different kinds of people. They helped to create” publics.”

Work by publics

Politicians today generally prefer approaches which create dependency and mobilize around group identities, “voting banks” in Guha’s felicitous phrase. In contrast, the rural employment initiative named for Gandhi and passed in 2005, according to Jayati Ghosh, an activist supporters in the movement which fought for the legislation, “involved a crucial reversal of the underlying basis of public delivery in India, which has mostly been driven by a paternalistic view of the state as delivering “gifts” to the people.” Ghosh describes the government’s steady withdrawal of public support, arguing that the legislation “came into being not because of a benevolent government, but because of pressure from social movements and rural workers. Much more pressure will be needed now to save it.37

In the US there are strong, if submerged, traditions of government taking a different role, empowering partner. We heard about parallel practices from Praxis and PRIA. In the 20th century, a view of government as empowering partner, not dependency-creating deliverer of services, is a submerged but powerful tradition.38 James Kloppenberg’s Virtues of Liberalism, Lisbeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal, and Jess Gilbert’s Planning Democracy: Agrarian Intellectuals and the Intended New Deal, richly describe these currents in the 1930s.

Interaction between popular movements of the Great Depression and government sometimes generated large scale examples of government working in collaborative ways that helped to “create publics.” From 1938 to 1941 a group of agrarian leaders in the Department of Agriculture worked with land grant colleges, cooperative extension workers, and community leaders to develop an initiative on rural America. “They believed that democracy required continuous learning, personal growth, cultural adjustment, and civic discussion,” writes Gilbert. The effort involved farm organizations and unions, churches, youth clubs, professional and business groups, and government agencies, training about 60,000 discussion leaders. It involved three million people. It conveyed the idea that democracy is something people make together and launched a process of participatory land use planning across the country that helped to birth soil conservation districts and plans for preventing soil erosion, fertility depletion and protection of family farms.

The rural initiative created precedents for government initiative like the programs of the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the president of Jimmy Carter, organized by Geno Baroni, who served as director of the Office of Neighborhood Self Help in the years. In recent years a view of government as empowering partner has been returning. Carmen Sirianni’s Investing in Democracy details examples. Each June the Frontiers of Democracy conference sponsored by the Civic Studies Institute and Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life includes many examples. These point to a challenge which is emerging to the “citizen as customer” model of government practice.

The work of professionals affiliated with the Citizen Professional Center – Bill Doherty, Tai Mendenhall, Jerica Berge, Shonda Craft, and others – shows what this approach can look like both inside and outside of government. The Citizen Professional Center was founded by Doherty, a leading family therapist and professor at the University of Minnesota. Doherty and his colleagues developed the public work framework in family and health professions, based on the idea that the energy and talent of families and communities are the most important resource for addressing complex problems. Citizen professionals are catalysts and organizers who work with lay citizens, not on them or for them. Over the years the Center created partnerships with a wide variety of communities and groups, including middle class families worried about the erosion of family life in a hyper-competitive, individualist culture where “activities” crowd out relationships; American Indians in the Twin Cities, who have led in the creation of a campaign for abatement of diabetes, combining traditional native healing practices with scientific medicine, African American fathers fighting cultural messages which degrade fatherhood, and many others; and Hennepin County in Minnesota, reorienting their professionals as “citizen professionals” who do not have the answer to complex problems. In every case, their work has combined on the ground development of civic skills and leadership with high level “cultural organizing,” finding ways to frame concerns which resonate widely with Americans who are concerned about increasing materialism, consumerism, and individualism. Their work and partnerships have received widespread visibility and publicity from major news outlets like the New York Times, USA Today and the networks.

During the election Doherty organized Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism because he was worried about the development of authoritarian, divisive politics around the world. More than 3000 therapists have signed the manifesto, and the group is now transitioning to “Citizen Therapists for Democracy,” to be launched on January 20, 2017. Doherty says the core argument is that “personal and collective agency are at the heart of the work of psychotherapists [and] only flourish in a democracy where we the people are responsible for our common life.” The movement affirms the public role and responsibilities of therapists. “For me the key starting point is to ask professionals to think about their work as a contribution to the capacity for democratic living,” Doherty told me. He adds that “it’s a startling question for many therapists to think about.”

Other signs of citizen professionalism point to reinvigoration of schools, congregations, businesses, unions, and health clinics, and cultural groups as free spaces. At Augsburg, where our Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship moved the University of Minnesota several years ago, both the nursing and education departments have missions to prepare their students to be change agents – citizen nurses and citizen teachers. Appalshop, begun as a cultural site in the mountains of Kentucky and Virginia, is organizing what they call a cultural hub as explicitly a free space – what Ben Fink, the organizer, called “building democracy in ‘Trump Country.’”39 A new manifesto of the John Dewey Society, Educators for a Democratic Way of Life, describes stirrings of democratic change in schools and colleges.

It will take a substantial movement building on such examples to challenge disempowering views of democracy, citizenship, and politics. This requires revitalizing the civic roots of institutions, creating “new” social capital, not simply activating remaining pockets of social capital, as Archon Fung observes is the usual strategy even among the best civic groups.40 We need a myriad of new free spaces and democratic experiences.

This is a new frontier of democracy, when signs are flashing red.

i The intellectual movement concerned with wider, deeper views of citizens and democracy includes many beyond the founders of Civic Studies. To note a few of many recent authors in this vein, they include not only Peter Levine and Karol Soltan, editors of the volume Civic Studies and teachers of the annual international Civic Studies Institute in Boston, but also David Mathews (Ecology of Democracy) James Kloppenberg (Toward Democracy), Archon Fung (Empowered Participation), Meira Levinson (No Citizen Left Behind), Doris Sommer (The Work of Art in the World), Lani Guinier (The Tyranny of Meritocracy), Luke Bretherton (Resurrecting Democracy). They also include Jane Mansbridge, a co-founder of Civic Studies, who wrote the classic Beyond Adversarial Democracy.

1 See Harry C Boyte, Civic Agency and the Cult of the Expert (Dayton: Kettering Foundation, 2009); “Brining Culture Back In,” The Good Society special issue on populism, 2012).

2 For earlier alarms, see Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, New York Times, September 15, 2015. For debates, see Larry Diamond and Marc F Plattner, eds., Democracy in Decline? (2015).

3 Amanda Taub, “How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red,’ New York Times November 29, 2016.

4 Harry C. Boyte, Laudato Si’, Civic Studies, and the Future of Democracy,” forthcoming, The Good Society: A Journal of Civic Studies.

5 Francis, Laudato Si,62–63; see also Bill McKibben, “The Pope and the Planet,” New York Review of Books, August 13, 2015.

6 See Harry C. Boyte, Everyday Politics (Philadelphia: PennPress, 2004), Chapter Two, “Populisms.”

7 Addams quoted from Harry Boyte, “The Struggle Against Positivism,” Academe (2000).

8 Clark quoted in Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press: 1965), p. 68.

9 Martin Luther King had a genius for entering the intellectual and cultural fray of American public culture with such a vision, but many others contributed in different ways as well. For King, see especially “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and “Drum Major Instinct.” For the poetry, music, literature, art, intellectual contributions and many other ways black America challenged the dominant version of the American dream with an alternative vision of a more cooperative, pluralist society, see the new African American Museum of History and Culture.

10 Alain Locke, “The Presentation of the Democratic Ideal,” Alain Locke: Four Talks Redefining Democracy, Education and World Citizenship, eds. Christopher Buck and Betty J. Fisher World Order 38, No. 4 (2008): 23-28.

11 Vincent Harding Hope and History; Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement (New York: Orbis Books, 1990), pp. 5-6. Boyte’s experiences as a young man in the movement regularly involved discussions about a broadened view of democracy.

12 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Edited and translated by Henry Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 491-492.

13 Josiah Ober, “The Original Meaning of "Democracy": Capacity to Do Things, Not Majority Rule,” Constellations 15, no. 1 (2008), p. 7.

14 Sara Evans and Harry Boyte Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992 second edition with response to critics); for detailed accounts of the uses of the concepts, and also the several kinds of movement spaces conveyed by those who employ it, see Francesca Polletta “ ‘Free Spaces’ in Collective Action,” Theory and Society 28 (1999), pp. 1-38; and Polletta and Kelsy Kretschmer, “Free Spaces,” in Snow, della Porter, Klandermans, and McAdams, Eds. Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements 2013.

15 Ramachandra Guhu, India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (London: Macmillan, 2007), pp. 286-287); review comments from front material and cover.

16 USAID AID Strategy on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (Washington: US Government Printing, 2013), 37; for a detailed exploration of shrinking views of democracy, see Harry C. Boyte and Margaret Finders, “’A Liberation of Powers’: Agency and Education for Democracy,” Educational Theory Vol 66, No. 2 (2016).

17 See for example Jeffrey Hilmer, “The State of Participatory Democratic Theory,” New Political Science 32 (2010), p. 43.. Margaret Finder

18 For a detailed discussion of this shrinking, see Harry C. Boyte and Margaret Finders, “‘A Liberation of Powers’: Agency and Education for Democracy,” Educational Theory special issue on the Dewey Centenary (2016).

19 Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015).

20 Ibid., p. 749.


22 Ober’s idea of democracy as power is usefully expanded by the classicist Victor Hanson, who stresses the work-centered dimensions of Greek democracy. See The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). For a sampling of contributions to public work, see for instance Mary Dietz, “The Slow Boring of Hard Boards: Methodical Thinking and the Work of Politics,” The American Political Science Review Vol. 88, no. 4 (1994), pp. 873-886; Harry C. Boyte and Nan Skelton, Reinventing Citizenship: The Practice of Public Work (Minneapolis: Minnesota Extension Service, 1994); Harry C. Boyte and Nan Kari, Building America: The Democratic Promise of Public Work (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996); Harry C. Boyte and James Farr, “The Work of Citizenship and the Problem of Service-Learning,” in Richard Battistoni and William Hudson, Eds., Experiencing Citizenship (Washington, D.C.: AAHE, 1997); Roudy Hildreth, “Theorizing Citizenship and Evaluating Public Achievement, PS: Political Science and Politics Vo. 33, no. 3 (2000), pp. 627-634; E.J. Dionne and Kayla Meltzer, “The Promise of National Service?” in Dionne, Meltzer and Robert Litan Eds., United We Serve: National Service and the Future of Citizenship (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2003); Peter Levine, “Collective Action, Civic Engagement, and the Knowledge Commons,” in Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom, Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice (Boston: MIT Press, 2006); David Mathews, Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy (Dayton: Kettering Foundation Press, 2006); Harry C. Boyte, “Public Work and Civil Society,” in Michael Edwards, Ed., Oxford Handbook of Civil Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 324-336; Albert Dzur, Democratic Professionalism: Citizen Participation and the Reconstruction of Professional Ethics (State Colle, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008); Scott Peters, Democracy and Higher Education: Traditions and Stories of Civic Engagement (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010); Harry C. Boyte, “Constructive Politics as Public Work: Organizing the Literature,” in Derek W.M. Barker, Noëlle McAfee, and David W. McIvor, Eds., Democratizing Deliberation: A Political Theory Anthology (Dayton: Kettering Foundation Press, 2012), pp. 153-183 (originally published in Political Theory 2011); Gerald Taylor, “Prometheus Unbound: Populism, the Property Question, and Social Invention,” The Good Society Vol. 21, No. 2 (2012), pp. 219-233. Harry C. Boyte, “Reinventing Citizenship as Public Work,” in Boyte, Ed. Democracy’s Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2015); Melissa Bass, The Politics and Civics of National Service (Washington: Brookings, 2013); Ben Fink, “Organized Ideas, Or Defeating the Culture Wars,” Ph.D. Dissertation University of Minnesota 2014; Luke Bretherton, Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

23 Harry C. Boyte, “How Consumer Culture Is Killing Citizenship,”, August 26, 2016, .

24 Kate Zernike, “Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Education Pick, Has Steered Money from Public Schools,” New York Times November 24, 2016.

25 On this tradition, see Scott Peters, Democracy and Higher Education (Michigan State University Press).

26 See Harry C. Boyte, Public Engagement in a Civic Mission (Kettering Foundation, 2000); and Boyte, Everyday Politics, Chapter Eight.

27 Melissa Bass, Lessons from America’s Civilian Conservation Corps (IDASA: Pretoria, 2003).

28 Guha, India, p. 4.

29 These passages taken from the Gandhi philosophy site,

30 “CM Blasts Expensive Police Enclaves,” Hindu Today December 9, 2016.

31 Ali Oosterhuis, “Reflection on Blood Struggle,” November 27, 2016, Independent study with Boyte.

32 India after Gandhi, pp. 690-691.

33 See Peter Levine, “The Case for Civic Studies,” in Peter Levine and Karol Soltan, Eds., Civic Studies (Washington: AAC&U/Bringing Theory to Practice, 2014).

34 Philip Nyden “Public Sociology, Engaged Research, and Civic Education,” in Civic Studies, p. 109.

35 Hubert H. Humphrey, Education of a Public Man: My Life in Politics (Garden City: Doubleday, 1976), p. 10; quoted from student video.

36 Dudley Cocke, “Three Days After the Election,” ; Josh Marshall, “Theda Skocpol Responds to Judis,” TPM Ed Blog, November 11, 2016.

37 Jayati Ghosh, “India’s Rural Employment Program Is Dying a Death of Funding Cuts,” The Guardian, February 5, 2015.

38 This is taken from Harry Boyte, “Democratic Awakening,” BillMoyers.Com, October 14, 2016.

39 Ben Fink, “Building Democracy in ‘Trump Country,” Unpublished manuscript (draft 12/20/16), in author’s possession.

40 Archon Fung, “Can Social Movements Save Democracy?” Boston Review, February 1, 2003.

Copyright © Harry C. Boyte & Marie-Louise Strvm, 2016


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