Printer Friendly

CommonWealth: A Return to Citizen Politics.

CommonWealth: A Return to Citizen Politics

Critics called Michael Dukakis a "technocrat" during last year's campaign. But exactly what that meant was usually a bit obscure. Mostly, it seemed a jab at Dukakis's affectless style; the candidate himself thought so, hence his pathetic protests in the second debate that yes, he really cared deeply about things.

The technocracy problem went a lot deeper of course, and not just for Dukakis but for the Democratic party itself. As Harry Boyte suggests in his new book, CommonWealth: A Return to Citizen Politics,* the Democrats long ago became the national party of experts and programs. They speak at voters from the standpoint of government, rather than at government from the standpoint of voters. There is little sense of political culture, of people solving problems on their own, beyond the biennial electoral flurry.

CommonWealth is about public space - how Americans define it, what they do to fill it. It is about the blight that has encroached upon public space. If national Democrats see public space as a land of elections and programs - as a gaping void waiting to be filled with "policy" - then to Republicans it shouldn't even exist. Under Reagan, Boyte observes, Republicans redefined community in economic terms, as a marketplace in which the only legitimate activity is the pursuit of self-interest. They claimed public life in order to disparage it.

"Reagan's focus on the marketplace as the key public space for citizen activity - as consumers, not citizens - obliterated ground for common action, and with it, the possibility of public life itself," Boyte writes. (And even now, the best the Democrats can come up with is a bidding war, holding forth an IRA tax break for the merely wealthy to counter a Bush capital gains cut for the very rich.)

Boyte speaks from the decentralist, Jeffersonian strain of the Democratic tradition, as opposed to the Hamiltonian, top-down view that dominates the party and its New Republic/Kennedy School intellectual axis. Based in Minneapolis, he has long experience in local organizing. Unfortunately, the style of CommonWealth is oddly out of synch with its message. The book began as a Ph.D. thesis and it shows. There is much tedious exposition of the obvious and much burdening of points with superfluous academic authority. (Such as this startling revelation from Robert Dahl: "A has power over B to the extent he can get B to do something that B would not do otherwise.") The historical research is patchy; for some reason, much of the best material is relegated to footnotes. Most important, Boyte gives short shrift to the rich historical dimensions of the commonwealth theme. So when he invokes it in the context of local organizing projects in Baltimore and other cities, it is flat and lacking in evocative power.

Still, at its core, CommonWealth says perhaps the single most important thing that national Democrats need to hear. Their basic problem right now isn't lack of programs. (Virtually every book from a Democratic standpoint these days sets forth a "new agenda" on something or another.) What they need is a sense of small-d democracy that extends beyond constituents pressing claims upon Washington - a sense of life in the local public realm out of which a compelling national politics can arise.

The great community

The commonwealth ideal is perhaps the most noble in the Western political tradition. Rooted as much in religion as in politics, the idea does not parse out along modern notions of "Left" and "Right." Boston Common, once a community pasture, provides faint echoes of a world view in which community was more than the incidental sum of its constituent parts and free enterprise occured within a context of communal concern.

The high-water mark of commonwealth idealism in America was the agrarian populist revolt of the late 19th century. The populists were neither central statists nor against private property. Their "cooperative commonwealth" was basically free enterprise without money sharks. The role of government was neither to manage the economy nor to redistribute wealth. It was rather to restrain the railroads and other monopolies and to provide a system of credit that gave the small producer a chance.

The populists fought enclosure of grazing lands in Georgia as independent producers, not collectivists: no one, they argued, should be able to monopolize what was a free gift to all. This sense of property (but mainly land, a distinction Boyte misses) as public trust barely exists today.

Boyte finally cuts loose from the thesis mode when he comes to how modern liberals lost touch with this populist tradition. These are the intellectual scores he really wants to settle - with Marx on the one hand, and liberal centralists such as Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann on the other. Together, he says, these disparate influences helped shift the Democrats' center of gravity from local involvement to a redistributive managerial state.

Marx saw history the way free market economists do, as restraining and benighted, a weight to be shed. "Most socialist thought has assumed that a sundering of people's communal and historical identities - of `their roots' - is the indisputable prerequisite to freedom," Boyte writes. Radicals looked with condescension upon the churches, social clubs, ethnic groupings, small businesses, which were the basis of real life political engagement. These diverted loyalty from the millenial imperative of class.

In much milder forms, early 20th century liberals such as Croly also talked about the "great community" of the state, which would control the trusts and manage the economy, leaving little for individual citizens to do but make the most of the economic opportunities thus provided. Amidst the centripetal forces of the New Deal, a few, such as Harry Hopkins, had a localist instinct. David Lilienthal, for example, wanted the Tennessee Valley Authority to foster employee-owned businesses and local self-sufficiency. But he lost out to the interests who wanted nothing more than a cheap source of energy.

This centralizing impulse was the lineage of a Walter Mondale, to whom all problems traversed the mental circuit from interest group to Congress and thence to federal agency for administration. It was the lineage as well of Michael Dukakis, to whom the problems of governance were essentially ones of program and technique. Boyte is especially insightful regarding Students for a Democratic Society, which posed a brief intellectual challenge to this liberal technocracy. SDS talked about community, Boyte observes. But it wasn't communities rooted in time, place, or mutual obligation. It wasn't communities in which people actually worked and lived. Instead, there was the Peter Pan quality of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Former SDSer Todd Gitlin called it a "transcendentalist fantasy of the wholly, abstractly free individual, finally released from the pains and distortions of society's traps." A community without history (parents?), for which the self-indulgent anarchy of Woodstock was the perfect embodiment.

It is no wonder that Ronald Reagan and not Walter Mondale could co-opt the mental rythms of the Port Huron Statement - the SDS manifesto - with its invocations of "self-cultivation, self-direction, and self-understanding" and its injection into the political discourse of such matters as "finding a meaning in life that is personally fulfilling." Nor is it surprising that so many from the Woodstock generation could feel comfortable in the Reagan camp. Reagan appealed to the same kind of romantic individualism, the fixation on personal fulfillment. If the Mondale-Dukakis mind was wired permanently through the institutions of government, then the Reagan mind ran a solipsistic loop back to self. Reaganite economics are the hedonism of the sixties drug culture, transferred to the economic realm.

What middle class?

The heroes of CommonWealth are Saul Alinsky and his followers at the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in Chicago. Alinsky was the former social worker who tried to revive local activism in Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods. He worked through churches and labor unions and built on such institutional loyalties rather than supplanting them. He identified with neighborhood leaders, rather than with the politicians on whom they exerted pressure.

Alinsky became cynical toward the end of his life, Boyte notes, and lapsed into a mode that oddly mirrored the Democratic polity generally. Through the sixties and seventies, to be an "Alinsky organizer" was to be a kind of political Sam Spade, shrewd about self-interest and the ways of prodding it to action. Grass-roots groups like ACORN (Associated Community Organizations for Reform Now), which followed the Alinsky model, got caught up in the pursuit of power. "The problem was that organizers of such groups, motivated themselves by passionate ideals, buried their values in the process of organizing," Boyte writes. "They felt themselves to be motivated by powerful democratic aspirations. But . . . they saw the `people' they worked for in a far more narrow and even cynical fashion."

Thus welfare rights groups could pursue self-interest agendas as parochial as those of the American Petroleum Institute, resting on the de facto virtue of the interests they represented. Boyte might have added that middle-class consumer advocates fell into the same trap, seeing public virtue in no larger terms than a better washer warranty.

By way of contrast, Boyte tells the stories of IAF organizing projects in such cities as San Antonio, Baltimore, and Brooklyn that embrace a more encompassing vision. BUILD, the Baltimore organization, has achieved something called the Baltimore Commonwealth, which guarantees a college scholarship to any public-school graduate with good attendance and a B average. The Baltimore Commonwealth also will give communities more say in the running of the schools (one hopes Baltimore will learn from the experience in New York City, where community school boards became cesspools of corruption).

"Like the old village greens in New England towns," Boyte writes, "the [Baltimore] Commonwealth created a new forum, both city-wide and in the tangible, localized spaces of particular schools, through which diverse elements of Baltimore could meet, identify problems, disagree, find areas of agreement, plan, work on programs together." (The sentence is an example of the prolixity that tends to blur Boyte's argument with a verbal haze.) Unfortunately, Boyte gets so engrossed in the details of these efforts that when he resurrects the commonwealth theme, it's as though he's suddenly remembered what he's writing about. A bigger problem is that Boyte can't quite figure out what to do with the middle class. While rejecting Marxian class analysis, he is not immune to class bias. Boyte observes early on, for example, that small freeholders in 17th century England embraced commonwealth thinking in their fight against monarchy and aristocracy. In the American Revolution, leading Republicans included middle-class lawyers and businessmen such as John Adams and Ben Franklin.

But theirs is not the commonwealth upon which Boyte chooses to dwell. He focuses instead on urban radicals, such as the ones in Philadelphia who challenged the merchant Robert Morris for shipping grain outside the city at a time of local scarcity. "The property of the vessel is the immediate right of the owners," they argued, but "the service of it is the right of the community collectively with the owners."

Agreed, and nicely said. But that doesn't confront the middle-class aspects of the idea - in particular, the tensions between community and property that are the central challenge today. Gliding past the middle class is a rather serious omission, if one is talking about political revival in America. It's especially a shame because commonwealth thinking is showing up in all sorts of middle-class contexts: environmentalism and recycling, for example. In New Jersey, the latest development trend is to build new communities on the model of New England towns, with public spaces and town commons.

Then too, there have always been pretty good reasons for invoking the larger national community. Black Americans may know that better than anyone. It may be true that the civil rights era rendered liberals incapable of Jeffersonian thinking; many still see small town Babbitts and Bull Connor's dogs behind any mention of local control or state's rights. But the policy dogs were real; communities can be benighted just like the federal government can. As Boyte notes, Alinsky's signature organization, "Back of the Yards" in Chicago, turned racist in its later years. This doesn't refute Boyte's case for a return to commonwealth politics. But his argument would be richer if he had confronted such difficulties more.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Rowe, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Previous Article:Restitution: real fine for criminals.
Next Article:Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising, Israel's Third Front.

Related Articles
Political Thought in Europe: 1250-1450.
From Politics to Reason of State: The Acquisition and Transformation of the Language of Politics, 1250-1600.
The Reign of Elizabeth I: Court and Culture in the Last Decade.
The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life.
The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life.
Political Culture in the Reign of Elizabeth I: Queen and Commonwealth, 1558-1585.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters