Moving Cultural Change Beyond Partisan Warfare

In the view of many, attack ads and internet tools that inflame voter passions have replaced problem-solving and removed the human element in politics. But here and there, examples of "a different kind of politics" based on building public relationships push back against polarizing politics.

Though support for Obama among those concerned about partisan wrangling has eroded, in fact his campaign this year suggests lessons for a different kind of politics. There are also insights from earlier histories of democratic movements and work with public qualities that point to sustaining such a politics, for the long term.

Below the surface of the visible ad campaign, the Obama ground game has sought to re-embed elections in face-to-face relationships, beyond sound bites. As Jeremy Bird, director of the Obama field operation, told Ryan Lizza ("The Final Push," The New Yorker, Oct. 29), the ground game has taken the animating principle of face to face contact in the 2008 election to large scale.

During the 2008 campaign, Bird, a student of community organizer and Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, directed Obama operations in South Carolina and Ohio. He resisted the common "mobilizing" approach which demonizes the opposition. Rather his field operation rooted work in local sites like barber shops and beauty parlors, spread the idea that everyone -- including McCain supporters -- deserves respect and has a story, and encouraged local leaders to act as organizers.

In 2012, elements of this approach have gone national. Barbershops and beauty salons are campaign centers. Conference calls are organized specifically for barbers and hairdressers. Lizza writes that "from his study of the 2008 campaign, Bird concluded that the single most effective medium was not TV ads or glossy mail but contact from an enthusiastic human being."

If we are to move to cultural change beyond partisan warfare, citizen politics also has to point beyond elections, gaining support from more than the "fifty percent plus one" formula. Lessons from the civil rights movement are worth recalling.

Thelma Craig, an African-American leader in the movement in southern Alabama, told me that "Real change in culture takes place when the overwhelming majority of the population learns to see it as in their own interests." As a college student in the southern civil rights movement, I saw first-hand the role which barbers and hairdressers, as well as clergy, teachers, bus drivers and others played in such culture change. Earlier this year Blase Scarnati and I described how her "different kind of politics" finds grounding in settings around Northern Arizona University.

Histories of earlier democratic movements underscore the point.

In his autobiography, Making of a Public Man, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey traced his career to his father's drug store in Doland, S.D., at the heart of civic life, part of the populist ferment of the Midwest in the 1920s and 1930s. "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."

The store created a cross-partisan civic root system. "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 of the town, but saw elective office as only one of his contributions. The store functioned as lending library and cultural center -- music came from the window of the second floor, from his father's rickety phonograph. The store also catalyzed action. "When most of the town wanted to sell the municipally owned power plant to a private utility, Dad... fought the idea tooth and nail. I was twelve years old... he would take me to the evening meetings of the council, install me in a chair by a corner window, and then do battle, hour after hour."

In short, the drug store was a public space sustained by his father as a citizen businessman, who championed a commonwealth of public goods, and organized with other citizens.

He also mentored his son in the civic possibilities of small business, of vital importance today as well.

In a Senate debate about box stores in 1952, Humphrey declared that the purpose of small business was not cheap prices but survival of democracy."Do we want an America where the economic market place is filled with a few Frankensteins and giants?" he asked. "Or do we want an America where there are thousands upon thousands of small entrepreneurs, independent businesses, and landholders who can stand on their own feet and talk back to their Government or anyone else?"

Humphrey saw the civic side of business as tied to citizens as the agents of democracy, embodied in the Preamble to the Constitution with its message of "we the people." He touted this through his career, challenging audiences looking for saviors. "Government isn't supposed to do all of this," Humphrey declared on Feb. 22, 1967, in a 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, volunteer your services."

We need a new generation of civic leaders like the barbers and hairdressers of the civil rights movement -- or Hubert Humphrey's father a generation before.

Changes in "upstream" institutions like colleges and universities will be crucial as they reorient themselves to education for civic agency through public work. We also need people in many settings who turn their jobs into public work and make their workplaces public spaces.

These will be the architects and agents of democracy's future in 21st century America.

Harry Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership.

Bringing Hope Back in: A New Story for Our Future

At a level deeper than policies and prescriptions, elections are contests about different collective narratives -- the story that each candidate is telling us about the future. These involve not only the candidate and what he or she will do but what the rest of us do as well.

All of us need to flesh out a new story for our future by building on President Obama's successful challenge in the second debate to Mitt Romney on the Benghazi attack which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. citizens.

Obama applied the "terror" label to the attack in his first public statement. But the more important aspect of the administration's response was a "different kind of politics." Such politics, far from demonizing opponents, is based on recognizing different interests and finding common ground where it is possible. Though it goes against the grain of our highly polarized society, examples can be found, in very different places.

For instance, Minnesotans United for all Families is using such a politics in their fight against a proposed anti-gay marriage amendment to the state constitution. Such politics is emerging in efforts at reform in higher education. It has roots in civic and populist movements like the freedom struggle of the 1950s and '60s.

In the case of Libya, such politics needs to be explained.

Obama's White House and the State Department responded to the Libyan attack and more broadly to demonstrations across the Arab world in the wake of an anti-Muslim film released on YouTube, in ways far different than the simplistic "good versus evil" foreign policy touted by Romney and his neoconservative advisers. And their response, in significant measure, worked.

By now, Mitt Romney's story is well-established. He's less a diabolical right winger portrayed by many on the left than a "boss" who tells lame jokes and waits for people to laugh -- and they better, as James Lipton of Inside the Actors Studio put it on Chris Matthews' Hardball after the second debate.

A boss-president would also throw his weight around in the world. A U.S. leader trying to be a global CEO in the 21st century is a worrisome thought.

Do we want a boss or a president? Lipton asked, comparing Barack Obama, facing down Romney on the issue of Libya, to Gary Cooper in High Noon.

Lipton has Romney down cold. But he misses on President Obama.

Obama generates hope and connects best with the American public when he is a "citizen president," not a town marshal but rather an organizer of collective efforts to address common problems. Obama is more like Will Rogers, who brought communities together to address their challenges in his movies of the 1930s, than Gary Cooper in High Noon.

Obama's role as citizen organizer, widely missed (or dismissed) by political pundits, was key to the 2008 Yes We Can campaign. Obama revived it in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention this year, when he declared that "as citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government."

Such citizen work is a different kind of politics. It engages people "where they are," not where one would like them to be. It recognizes the right of people to be different, based on respect for their stories, interests, and cultures. Far from being weak or apologetic, it requires great skill and poise.

Such politics appeared in Obama's Cairo speech to the Arab world on June 4, 2009. Long practiced by successful diplomats as well as by community organizers, it has been at work in the aftermath of the Benghazi attach and in the midst of the anti-American violence after the anti-Muslim YouTube video.

Republicans charge that the Benghazi attacks were part of the global al-Qaeda movement and that the administration has been covering up the connection. But facts on the ground appear to be far more complex.

David Kirkpatrick reported in The New York Times on Oct. 16 that Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers say they had another motivation:

"A well-known group of local Islamist militants struck the United States Mission without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video. That is what the fighters said at the time, speaking emotionally of their anger at the video without mentioning Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or the terrorist strikes of 11 years earlier."

It was important for the president and the State Department to send a message that "no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States of America," as Obama put it. It was equally important to signal respect for Muslims and for Islam, and to recognize that the anti-Muslim video generated legitimate anger.

This was the strong message of the administration immediately after the attack and in the weeks following, from UN Ambassador Susan Rice's remarks on news shows to Obama's speech at the United Nations. The press corps and voters should be pressing Republicans about their views on such respect.

As a result of the U.S. message, Libyans turned out in large numbers in pro-American demonstration expressing shock and shame about the Benghazi attack. Libyan officials declared their intentions to work with the FBI team investigating the attack. Across the Arab and Muslim world, the combination of behind the scenes pressure and public pronouncements from the administration distancing the US from ant-Muslim views calmed the situation.

Violence and anti-American demonstrations subsided.

In sum, the administration's different kind of politics helped to tame a wave of anti-Americanism threatening to get out of control.

Americans are desperate for such politics, in a time of profound dysfunction in politics as usual.

Harry C. Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership.

Presidential debates – and deliberations

Barack Obama believes in deliberative democracy. As he puts it in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope:

“What the framework of our constitution can do is organize the way in which we argue about our future. All of its elaborate machinery – its separation of powers and checks and balances and federalist principles and Bill of Rights – are designed to force us into a conversation, a “deliberative democracy” in which all citizens are required to engage in a process of testing their ideas against an external reality, persuading others of their point of view, and building shifting alliances of consent.”

I have no idea what Mitt Romney thinks about deliberative democracy. I doubt that he believes in it, but then he seems not to believe in anything  very strongly.

The  televised presidential debates are the antithesis of deliberation. They feature  personal attacks, cheap point scoring, pandering to the perceived distribution of opinion in the audience, distortions of the truth, coded messages to particular groups of supporters. Obviously the candidates care only about winning, and doing whatever they can to facilitate that.

We have three debates between the two major party candidates: why not a deliberation as well? This could be moderated by a facilitator versed in standard deliberative principles. So it would rule out ad hominem attacks; it would encourage reasoned discussion of the issues, respectful listening, sticking to the point under discussion, an effort at reciprocal understanding, and an attempt to persuade.

Now the very point of an election campaign is to win, so it is hard to imagine a presidential deliberation being accepted by either side in the campaign. There is an obvious solution: hold the deliberation after the election. Aside from its potential contribution to reasonable resolution of issues that gets distorted by the unremittingly adversarial nature of the campaign, it could actually contribute to the legitimacy of what whoever is elected subsequently wants to do – because that program will have been subject to a moment of deliberation by someone representing many of those who did not vote for the winning candidate. As a moment of closure, it would be much better than the simple claim of victory by one candidate, and conceding of defeat by another.

John Dryzek

Deliberating around the world

From October 5th to 7th 2012 an interesting deliberative event was realized in Italy. The experiment took place in Monteveglio (BO) Emilia Romagna, a region which has had historically a primary role in the political development of modern Italy.  In mid-November, citizens from five different municipalities (a total of about 30,000 people) nearby the city of Bologna will be called to decide whether to proceed with an amalgamation proposal put forward by the local administrations. In occasion of this referendum a three days assembly was realized. The aim was to give to 20 quasi-randomly selected citizens an opportunity to deliberate on the referendum question and share their insight with the broader community. The Iniziativa di Revisione Civica (Civic Revision Initiative) presents the first Italian deliberative event inspired by the seminal model of the Oregon’s Citizens’ Initiative Review although the former did have its own peculiar features. The area where the Iniziativa di Revisione Civica was hosted is a very dynamic political environment and citizens as well as speakers appeared remarkably good in participating to this new type of assembly. The Iniziativa di Revisione Civica is also of particular interest to our D2G2 Centre as we offered scientific advice there and conducted research to understand the quality and the possible impact of this deliberative forum on the wider community. Interesting findings are expected over the next months!