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Families & the Community Opinion

Beyond ‘Civics’ Vs. ‘Citizenship': Possibilities for Common Ground

By Harry C. Boyte — February 21, 2017 4 min read
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Dear David, Deb, and colleagues,

You invite a more extended treatment of Saul Alinsky, the community organizer.

I’m delighted to take this up to explain why Making Citizens’ charge is mistaken about Public Achievement but also why there is hope for finding common ground.

“The Alinskyite tactical model of Public Achievement is what makes the New Civics formidable,” says Making Citizens. It argues that Public Achievement “relies on the Alinskyite emphasis on power which reduces politics to the use of force to defeat hostile opponents” (pp. 78, 83).

Unilateral power does, indeed, animate Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky’s last book, published in 1971. The book fed mobilizing approaches to civic action and political campaigns. Mobilizing includes the door-to-door canvass, robo-calls, direct mail fundraising, internet mobilizations, and other mass communications methods. Mobilization has taken “us versus them” to new levels of psychological sophistication, using advanced communications techniques based on a formula: find a target or enemy to demonize, stir up emotion with inflammatory language using a script that defines the issue in good-versus-evil terms and shuts down critical thought, and convey the idea that those championing the victims will come to the rescue.

Today, mobilizing is the approach of the right as well as the left. Thus, as Elizabeth Williamson described in the Wall Street Journal, “Two Ways to Play the ‘Alinsky’ Card,” January 23, 3012, Alinsky’s book is widely used by Tea Party activists. Ironically, the report, Making Citizens, also has the demonizing, mobilizing approach.

Mobilizing culminates in Donald Trump.

But as I detail Everyday Politics (PennPress, 2004), Public Achievement draws from traditions different than mobilizing. These include the early Alinsky, different than late Alinsky, more important, the nonviolent citizenship schools of the civil rights movement which combined “civics” and “citizenship education,” and cross-partisan strands of community organizing.

Alinsky always had an iconoclastic tone, but his early efforts were shaped by a movement of anti-communist public intellectuals and activists who focused on countering the dangers of fascism. They hated the Marxist-Leninist division between “mass” and “scientific vanguard.” As a result, Alinsky’s first book, Reveille for Radicals, emphasized the need for popular organizations to be rooted in local community life and draw on the democratic resources in every community.

In 1960s, Alinsky had radically shifted his view, reflecting the acrimonious, polarized dynamics of the time. Rules for Radicals embodied the estrangement of mass consumer society and the existentially uprooted person. As Sandy Horwitt described in Let Them Call Me a Rebel, Alinsky had come to reject place as a civic site. Alinsky’s depiction of the “world as it is” denuded political life of its cultural and normative dimensions. In Rules, Alinsky proposes a strategy to unite the “have nots” and the “have some, want mores” in alliance against the “haves.” This was a reductive view of politics, power, and the human person that fed into mobilizing politics.

Mobilizing politics has the unilateral view of power which Making Citizens describes.This view has come even to structure the way “nonviolence” is defined, as a strategy, not a philosophy of human interaction in the vein of Gandhi or Martin Luther King. The philosophy of nonviolence has a relational understanding of power, advancing what might be called “public love,” recognizing that we need to understand our adversaries, not demonize or humiliate them. In contrast, today all too often nonviolence is seen simply as a tactic. Thus Gene Sharp’s famous The Politics of Nonviolent Action defines power as “the capacity to control the behavior of others.” In nonviolence as strategy, control renders the other side as an object to be manipulated. This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century, builds directly on Sharp. They propose that the aim of nonviolent strategy is winning support from one’s friends and polarizing them against one’s enemies. “This is not an unintended consequence. It is central to how [disruptive actions] work.”

Working with a team, I started Public Achievement in 1990 with the aim of countering mobilizing politics and unilateral power. We called the alternative “citizen politics.” Citizen politics retrieves the skills of association which Alexis de Tocqueville called the “mother science” of democratic society. It teaches how to work across partisan and other differences on constructive civic projects that can be drawn from civics -- improving interactions with governance; social justice -- “creating a more perfect union"; and also the commonwealth, public work tradition, building communities and their civic and material infrastructure. Both depend on a relational view of power I learned in the civil rights movement and saw in cross-partisan strands of community organizing. Relational power is based on the concept that power interactions, even in situations of inequality, always involve changes on both sides. Power is interactive and evolving. It is “power to,” the capacity to act.

These features of Public Achievement won it support from conservative foundations like the Bradley Foundation as well as progressive foundations like the Kellogg Foundation.

In the age of Trump we need to get beyond counterproductive polarities. Though we have disagreements about where civics and citizenship education take place and the civic engagement movement in higher education, this exchange over the last three weeks has shown that we agree both civics and citizenship education are necessary and also that we need to get beyond “binary thinking” -- not only for “making citizens” but for our democracy’s future.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.