Social Studies Opinion

A Different Kind of Politics

By Harry C. Boyte — January 26, 2017 4 min read
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Dear David,

I welcome our conversation. We have several areas of common concern as well as differences. Our biggest area of agreement is the need for respectful conversation on campuses across partisan divisions. It doesn’t happen often enough.

We need a different kind of politics beyond binary thinking. Donald Trump is a master at picking fights and debasing the other side. Binary thinking, “us” versus “them,” is also fed by progressives. George Lakoff, the cognitive scientist at the University of California Berkeley and major figure in Democratic Party messaging, asserts that the country is divided between liberals who believe in “government as nurturing parent,” and conservatives who believe in “strict father,” authoritarian government. Speaker after speaker in the 2012 Democratic convention sounded like they were reading from his books.

The NAS report, Making Citizens, which you authored unfortunately also feeds binary thinking. It is a caricature to propose that my aim and the aim of the “civic engagement movement” in higher education is “to create a thoroughly administered state (p.92)” and turn America’s young people into “left wing radicals.” That simply isn’t true.

The old civics teaches a very narrow understanding of citizenship. Here are three resources for a more active and expansive view which I believe is the key to moving us beyond left versus right.

1) Building civic life. Across partisan divisions, Americans have “made America.” This is what amazed the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville when he traveled the nation in the 1830s. In America, people organized to solve problems like alcoholism themselves, with government as partner. In France they would have petitioned the king to solve the problem. “In democratic peoples, associations must take the place of the powerful particular persons,” he wrote in Democracy in America. Our own public work approach highlights work-centered traditions of citizenship as well as voluntary ones which Tocqueville emphasized. This work-centered tradition of citizenship was grounded in experiences like building libraries and schools, congregations and businesses. It predates Independence. Benjamin Franklin’s Leather Apron Club, founded in Philadelphia in 1727, included tradesmen, artisans, and shopkeepers -- “the middling people.” It combined hard work and civic commitments - “doing well by doing good” was its motto. It birthed a myriad of projects including a street-sweeping corps, volunteer firefighters, tax-supported neighborhood constables, health and life insurance groups, a library, a hospital, an academy for educating young people, a society for sharing scientific discoveries, and a postal system. Franklin’s view of education combined practical and liberal arts, a wellspring of land-grant colleges and many religious schools like our center’s new host, Augsburg College.

2) Combining old civics and active citizenship. The report’s proposal to return to teaching “old civics,” like how bills become law, neglects Abraham Lincoln’s government as partner, “of the people, by the people” as well as “for the people.” America’s strength comes when “old civics” is joined with skills of active citizenship, a case I have constantly made (strangely not noted in the NAS report). To go back to Tocqueville, we need cross-partisan “citizen politics,” teaching everyday skills of working across differences in local communities, as well knowledge of government. As the late Sheldon Wolin showed in Tocqueville Between Two Worlds, Tocqueville identified citizen politics as different than party politics.

I agree with the report’s concern about the erosion of traditional civics but it not a left wing plot. It comes from high stakes testing, a hyperindividualist meritocratic educational culture, and the loss of public purposes in education. Students need to learn about government. They also need the skills of working across differences. Interestingly, studies by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) and McKinsey and Company (see for instance “Why Diversity Matters”) show that skills of negotiating ethnic, cultural and gender diversity are highly prized by employers. Tocqueville argued collaboration among diverse citizens “is the mother science,” upon whose progress, “the progress of all others depends.” The old civics by itself doesn’t teach these skills.

3) Power and nonviolence. Another odd feature of the NAS report, repeated in your blog, is the idea that our public work concept of power comes from Alinsky and Foucault. I have criticized their power theories at length. Power is best conveyed by the Spanish poder, capacity to act, not “people and money” (Alinsky) or unnamable, pervasive “disciplinary” power (Foucault).

As a young man in the civil rights movement, I was introduced to power as the capacity to act in the citizenship schools of the movement, described in Katherine Charron’s Freedom’s Teacher. Citizenship schools educated tens of thousands of grassroots leaders across the South. They taught citizenship, as well as civics. The curriculum joined knowledge of government, literacy, skills of working together, black history, and American patriotism. It also taught nonviolence. Not a pacifism that refrains from physical violence in any circumstance, nonviolence is a set of disciplines. As Martin Luther King argued in Stride Toward Freedom, the practitioner “not only avoids external, physical violence, but he avoids internal violence of spirit. He not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he refuses to hate him.”

I see what the report calls the civic engagement movement as growing from such traditions of citizenship education. Others include the Hull House settlement approach of Jane Addams, adult education, and cooperative extension traditions of teaching citizenship -- not left wing politics. We need it more than ever in today’s polarized and acrimonious America.

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