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The politics of community.

With the triumph of Reaganism and the collapse of liberalism in the recent Presidential election, a moral void entered American political life. It is being filled by the savage individualism of the right, masked by nostalgic invocations of community and calls for a return to traditional values. But in that same election the stirrings of an alternative approach were discernible in many local elections. It can be called the new populism because it takes from older movements the idea that power should be returned to the people. A number of Democrats who ran on populist-style programs successfully appealed to some of Ronald Reagan's conservative constituencies.

In the House of Representatives those Democrats, who include Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, James Weaver of Oregon and Robert E. Wise Jr. of West Virginia, have organized a Populist Caucus. In the Senate there are three populist freshmen--Tom Harkin of Iowa, Paul Simon of Illinois and Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee. As Michael Calabrese, Simon's research director, pointed out shortly after the election, "By espousing a sort of neopopulism that attracted the votes of the traditional Democrats who defected in large numbers in the Presidential balloting, [the new populists] proved that the Democratic Party need not abandon progressive policies to build a new governing coalition."

Populism is a term fraught with ambiguity. It is used these days to label everything from Jesse Jackson's campaign to Treasury Secretary Donald Regan's tax plan. But the left's customary blanket avoidance of the subject amounts to a politics of self-destruction. A closer look at the themes and spirit of the new populism is a matter of practical politics. But its implications are far more wide-ranging, suggesting not only the need for a different, more folksy vocabulary but for some fundamental rethinking as well.

Populism is more than a rhetorical pose or specific programmatic agenda; it grows from the living fabric of communities seeking to control the forces that threaten to overwhelm them. While populism raises issues, challenges unresponsive elites and seeks changes in structures, it is ultimately about values and cultural meanings. Rather than drawing its base from large organizations like national unions or reform groups, in which people are often cut off from their family roots and communal ties, populist politics finds its power and vision in the institutions integral to social life: churches, synagogues, neighborhood associations, union locals, civic and ethnic groups, Parent-Teacher Associations, farm organizations and the like.

Indeed, modern American capitalism, with its mass culture, flow of capital across regional and national boundaries, enormous bureaucracies and economic upheavals, assaults all forms of historical identity. The resulting dislocation of values, cultural memories and ties to place has fosttered a populist mood, but it also makes the definition and outcome of populism more ambiguous and uncertain.

Ironically, Ronald Reagan has proved himself to be far more rhetorically adroit in evoking populist themes than have most Democrats. He claims to believe that "a renaissance of the American community, a rebirth of the neighborhood, is the heart and soul of rebuilding America." Indeed, as William Schambra, a conservative political theorist at the American Enterprise Institute, argued last December (expressing concern that Democrats might "catch on"), there is strong evidence that Reagan's appeals to particular groups and his use of the theme of community renewal have been the major factors in his popularity. In contrast with both traditional liberalism's emphasis on big government as the embodiment of a "great national community" and traditional conservatism's focus on the enterprising individual, said Schambra, "the election of 1980 brought to office the first President in the last fifty years who spoke not of the great national community but of the sort of community to be found in family, church, neighborhood and voluntary association."

But Reagan's use of those themes provides an opportunity for a populist challenge. Contrary to its rhetoric, the Reagan Administration sees each community as isolated and in competition with every other one. It has tried to eliminate programs that have proved useful in community self-help and revitalization (as the Catholic bishops documented, in considerable detail, in an earlier study of the impact of Reagan budget cuts). IT counsels those in areas of economic distress to move elsewhere. And it attacks the idea that government is the instrument of communities that have joined together to advance their common interests and concerns.

A vision of commonweath runs through the programs of nineteenth- and twentieth-century popular democratic movements, one which holds in tension the relationship between particular communities and the whole. A considerable body of historical studies suggests that populism nourishes a more democratic, inclusive and generous sensibility. In the past, populist movements have given rise to what historian Lawrence Goodwyn called "a new way of looking at things . . . individual self-respect and collective self-confidence." Their active, participatory style has provided a schooling in the skills and values of citizenship. The greatest accomplishment of the civil rights movement, according to Martin Luther King Jr., was the "new sense of dignity and destiny" that ordinary people gained from their involvement.

Moreover, the resurfacing of populist politics is not accidental. It has its origin in the tens of thousands of community and citizen organizations, environmental and peace groups, women's self-help projects, rural protest movements and the like that have formed in recent years, first around issues close to home and then in connection with other communities, regions, ethnic and racial groups. Indeed, as John Herbers pointed out last year in The New York Times Magazine, though the most visible grass-roots activism has been on the right, the scale and impact of such leftist organizing efforts, "both actual and potential, may be greater." On local and state levels, community groups are widely credited with the victories of "new populist" politicians: for example, in Texas, Communities Organized for Public Service was instrumental in the elections of San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros and Secretary of Agriculture Jim Hightower. Nationwide, Citizen Action--a confederation of state coalitions, with a staff of more than 2,500 and millions of members--played a central, perhaps determinative, role in five victorious Senate races and about fifty House campaigns.

Such grass-roots groups are the building blocks of a national political movement. If that movement if to develop a vision, vocabulary and political momentum, several elements are essential: an equating of populist politics with civic involvement; a conception of government as an instrument of and by the people, not merely for them; a vision of economic life grounded in values of ecological balance, justice, equity and human scale; an awareness of the moral interdependence of all nations and peoples; and, finally, an penness to new forms of political organization.

* Civic participation. In the earliest expressions of American democratic philosophy, civic involvement was regarded as the foundation of a free society--indeed, as the only way in which active public life, personal and communal responsibility and the broader commonwealth could be renewed and sustained. Thomas Jefferson thought that the Iroquois' primary reliance on the moral force of community opinion rather than laws to control social problems furnished the model of democratic self-government. "What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time their people preserve the spirit of resistance?" he wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia. Citizen activism of recent years renews this venerable philosophy and enriches it. The most successful examples of community revitalization combine issue-oriented activism with cultural celebrations, history projects, value discussions and the like. And in the 1980s, democratic activism promotes pluralism, diversity, expanded roles for women and others who have been excluded from full participation, and new definitions of "community" and "leadership." Indeed, many of the most prominent female politicians today, including Representatives Barbara Mikulski and Geraldine Ferraro, got their start in community organizations that sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s.

* Government of the people. "The resorption of government by the citizens of a democratic community," Lewis Mumford wrote, "is the only safeguard against those bureaucratic interventions that tend to arise in every state." Populist politics has always expressed the belief that government is neither the problem, as conventional conservatism has it, nor the solution, as liberalism tends to view it. Local initiatives across the country in recent years have revived the idea that government should provide the necessary tools and resources so that particular communities can revitalize themselves and become self-reliant. In this view, government does not seek to regulate and impose uniformity; it recognizes the diversity of American communities--from street corners in the Bronx to Hawaiian pineapple farms--as perhaps our greatest source of social creativity and energy. As the National Commission on Neighborhoods put it in its 1979 report, government should "work in and through the neighborhoods themselves."

* An economics of value. As critics from John Ruskin in the ninetheenth century to economist Hazel Henderson today have pointed out, economics suffers from the fantasy that it is separate from the rest of life. Narrow economic versions of populism perpetuate that illusion by merely demanding a fair share of the pie for all citizens. A more fundamental approach reintroduces themes of value, community and commonwealth into the economic debate as well. There is a growing body of studies and documents to draw on--from the proposals for community-based planning put forth by Representative John Conyers Jr. or by the Project for Industrial Policy and Democracy to the moral imperatives outlined by Episcopal urban bishops and by the Catholic bishops's recent pastoral letter, which calls on society to "[take] the side of those who are powerless or on the margins of the society." Such perspectives are animated by a demand that values such as community preservation, justice, awareness of our intricate ties to the natural world and decentralization take precedence over imperatives of technological innovation and traditionally defined progress.

* Global interdependence. People who fear the future, who feel they have been severed from their deepest values and historical memories, tend to be susceptible to militaristic propaganda. But many of the populist movements of the 1880s and 1890s opposed war. The new populism finds links between military spending and the decay of towns and cities, and calls for an end to violence and confrontation abroad. It stresses the common bond that exists among diverse communities in America and offers as an alternative to Reagan's bellicose rhetoric the proposition that America is strong enough and confident enough to build on the bond that exists among all the world's peoples.

These themes are espoused by community groups battling against widely different ills, from farm foreclosures to urban drug problems to violence against women, from utility rate shut-offs to ecological degratation. The techniques of value-based community organizing have proved remarkably effective in uniting groups with divergent heritages, racial backgrounds, life styles and objectives.

One such effort--the Committees of Correspondence, a new "populist-ecological" organization which draws inspiration from the European Green Parties and movements like Solidarity and the Latin American base communities--has already begun and plans to organize on local and regional or bioregional levels, as well as nationally. Committees of Correspondence will hold its founding meeting next fall (for information, write Box 40040, St. Paul, Minn. 55104; $15 enlists one as a founding participant). Third parties, local and state organizations and the like could also develop, uniting in new ways groups that share fundamental concerns. Despite the drift and sense of moral chaos that prevail widely in America today, it is also a time of opportunity and transition. It is time for the seeds of political organization, power and value sown locally in recent years to bear fuit.
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Title Annotation:the new populism
Author:Boyte, Harry C.
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jan 12, 1985
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