The New Civic Politics: Civic Theory and Practice for the Future.
We see before us an emerging civic politics, along with an emerging intellectual community, a field, and a discipline. Its work is to understand and strengthen civic politics, civic initiatives, civic capacity, civic society and civic culture. It is emerging in many disciplines and fields of human endeavor.
What does it mean to put the civic idea at the center of one’s concerns in this way? And what is its connection to citizenship? What, finally, is the relevant meaning of citizenship?
Citizenship as a form of membership (separating those who are in from those who are out), with its associated rights and duties, is not the relevant notion; and certainly not citizenship as a form of membership in the state. Our understanding of citizenship derives instead from a distinctive civic ideal and set of practices involving creative agency and a form of loyalty—a commitment to a civic minded co-creation.
This civic ideal builds on two elements:
- Public spiritedness, or the commitment to the public good, the res publica (to make explicit the republican roots of this idea in the Western tradition), a certain form of patriotism, a loyalty directed toward political communities.
- The idea of the citizen as a creative agent, not simply acquiescing in the demands of the political community, but also working to reform and improve it. A citizen is the co-creator of the worlds to which she or he belongs.
The political community in question is not to be associated exclusively with the state or the nation (or the regime or the country): there are various small local polities as well as global ones, with multiple crosscutting boundaries. Civic initiatives can occur at various levels, forming a mosaic of crisscrossing — and sometimes contradictory — efforts, a layered and complex democracy, drawing on such principles as federalism and subsidiarity.
When citizens are genuinely willing to express their opinions about diverse options or past practices, they may find themselves in conflict with one another. Learning how to structure debate and discourse so greater understanding is achieved by digging down and finding out about the core reasons for conflict may lead citizens to design new ways of relating to one another over the long run so that they avoid sources of past conflict in the future. This is not an easy lesson. But, if citizens do not learn how to gain better understanding of the sources of conflict, they may find themselves in physical conflict and violence.
The dominant ways of thinking about human action and human agency, about power and politics do not support the efforts of citizens understood in this way as co-creators ofthe structures of power (large and small) that govern us and the systems of culture that give meanings to our lives. The division of intellectual labor into disciplines has scant room for a field in which the civic ideal would be elaborated, and its components tested; and which would serve as a forum for the discussion, evaluations, and work of different conceptions of the civic ideal and of its various components.
We do find, but only at the margins of various disciplines, efforts to think deeply about the issues that face civic initiatives and about what we must understand, and how we should see the world, in order to support them. We need a civic intellectual community, a discipline, a forum for debates, in which these issues will be central.
Two Central Commitments
We propose two central identifying commitments for this intellectual community.
- First, it is an effort to understand human action as a human creation, a product of design based on skills, not simply a product of causal structures (e.g. power structures).
- Second, those skills are taken to include the elaboration of ends, not just instrumental rationality.
Consider first the distinction between structure and agency. Human action is partly a product of causal structures. Human action is also a product of human engagement and skill, institutionally organized and guided by systematic and disciplined thinking. Some of those skills are inherited. Others are learned, but not taught. But an important subcategory is that of teachable skills.
One way to combine these two perspectives is to think of actions as produced by structures of power, but to think of structures of power as themselves a result of design, redesign, and human labor. According to such a view human beings are both ruled (subject to structures of power) and rulers (designers of the structures of power). And this conception is rooted in Greek and Aristotelian definitions of a citizen, but generalized and made more abstract. In it, an association with the polis or with the state is replaced by an association with any structure of power and human community. To make such a generalization we need to understand power broadly. It includes both power based on threats and promises and power whose source lies in the shared institutions and shared ideas which make it easier to make the world better or to protect it from damage and deterioration, power based on relationships, and power based on generative and productive effort. This conception of power recognizes that while political life involves sometimes intractable clashes of interest — indeed, open politics sometimes brings to the surface conflicts of interest that are otherwise submerged — at its best politics also involves “power with” and “power to,” not only “power over.” It aims at negotiation of differences, containment of conflict, generation of productive public action, and realization of civically valuable outcomes.
As against a broad range of positions in the social sciences we take the view that human beings can be seen as co-creators and designers of their actions and of the power structures within which they act. Action is a product of skills, not simply causes. The system of causes (power) is subject to design and redesign, creation and reform. Only some forms of creation and design, of course, are the special province of those concerned with strengthening civic initiatives, civic society and civic culture. Some would say it is institutional design (which then incorporates constitutional design and organizational design among others); others would stress systems of meaning and cultural dynamics. A broader view would suggest that it is the creation and design of the structures of power, understood broadly as suggested above.
The relevant design skills cannot be reduced to instrumental reason.We need a larger set of skills, guiding the choice of ends as well as the choice of means. If we assume that rationality in the choice of ends is the domain of philosophy, than we need to incorporate a certain amount of philosophy.
Our task is to formulate the relevant skills and capacities, and to develop our understanding of the structures of power in a way that helps this formulation. It is also to promote the teaching and learning of those skills, and hence to develop ways of understanding them in a way that helps in such education. Teaching and education here must be understood most broadly to include what a parent (say) does with an infant child, what schools do with children, what communities do with all their members, and what universities do with students.
Our task is to expand an intellectual community concerned with these issues and to strengthen the process of the creation of an intellectual community which has already begun. This requires strengthening the intellectual ties within this community, and enhancing its influence. It also requires clarifying its boundaries by indicating what we are not and what we are against.
What We Are Not
- We are not simply communitarians. The civic ideal is to serve the common good in a distinctive way as creative agents, as reformers.
- We are not a community of public intellectuals, who aim to address themselves directly to large audiences. The goal is a cultural transformation through the creation of a new intellectual community, and this cannot be done by speaking only to large audiences.
- We are not positivists. We do not relegate normative concerns to others, or question their legitimacy.
- We are not utopians. We put much effort into determining the boundaries and structure of social potential: what is possible and impossible, what is easy and difficult.
- We are not technocrats, social engineers or supporters of technocracy. The relationship of expertise to civic initiative is a complex matter requiring careful formulation.
- We are not postmodern skeptics. A better world is possible, and we can create it. There are credible big stories to be told about human history and human potential. Rationality is not simply an instrument of domination.
What We Are Against
- The weakening and downright disappearance of the public spirit, understood not simply as a commitment to the common good and public service, but as a commitment to help create a better world.
- Loss of civic artisanship, understood most broadly, as an attitude and a set of skills reflected in the capacity to create public things as individuals and to create those things together.
- The excessive domination of elites. Elites have expertise, so most people are content to allow a certain level of elite domination, but this process needs to be balanced and constrained by more broadly based civic initiatives.
To create such an intellectual community the initial steps need not be large and they can build on what has already been done. We will work to establish a summer institute around which we can organize both conferences and courses, and to establish a journal. But the long term potential, if the effort succeeds, is a cultural transformation of modernity that will help us see human beings as creative agents, capable of intelligent elaboration of their ends as well as the rational choice of their means. We are not simply causally determined creatures, capable only of the cynical manipulation of our environment. Modern culture and politics can look quite different when we take these principles really seriously.
As contributors to an intellectual field, our primary audience is other potential contributors to the field. As teachers within this field, our primary audience is the students. The field as a whole addresses itself directly to all who want to adopt the civic perspective, whether they are leaders or citizens, or lawmakers.
- To understand and promote civic capacities, civic society, civic culture and collective civic agency. To promote democratic learning in multiple institutional settings.
- To develop our understanding of the principles for the design and creation of institutions, and more broadly of the structures of power, including the elaboration of ends and the choice of means.
- To enhance a form of politics that centers around public problem solving, conflict clarification, recognition and clarification of legitimate interests, and the transformation of culture.
- In pursuing these goals we hope to join civic theory and civic practice, to move theoretical discussions beyond the communitarian-liberal debate, and to contribute to an emerging global movement of civic renewal.
Harry Boyte, University of Minnesota
Stephen Elkin, University of Maryland
Peter Levine, Tufts University
Jane Mansbridge, Harvard University
Elinor Ostrom, Indiana University
Karol Sołtan, University of Maryland
Rogers Smith, University of Pennsylvania
September 28, 2007