Democratic Engagement:Bringing Populism and Liberalism Together

Liberalism and populism exist in an uneasy but symbiotic relationship. Liberals are wary of populism's tendencies toward parochialism, nationalism, and romanticism about community and "the people." Populists see liberals as wary of mass democracy and bending toward elitism. Yet these two strands of the American political tradition have been closely linked, from Franklin Roosevelt's tirades against "economic royalists" to the appeals of Robert Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson, or Barbara Mikulski.

As the 1990s begin, populist anger has been piqued by the savings and loan scandal, mounting economic difficulties, government ineptitude, and the sense that the rampant greed and reckless economic policy of the 1980s papered over and exacerbated deep problems in American society. Political analyst Kevin Phillips argues that a populist perspective may color politics through the decade, despite the popularity of George Bush in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

All of this suggests possibilities for action on large economic and social problems. Liberalism needs the political energy of populism; populism needs the liberal values of respect for diversity, civil liberties, commitments to procedural fairness, and open debate to realize its democratic potential.

Populism is Janus-faced, pointing in different directions. Populism revolves around the theme of power. On both right and left, the call to "return power to the people" can easily shape a politics of grievance and demagoguery. Demagogic populism is Manichean, extolling the innocence and virtue of the people against corrupt, nefarious elites.

Yet a far different sort of populist politics animated the movement by that name in the late 1880s and the 1890s. Nineteenth-century Populists challenged restrictive and centralized power while they also cultivated the political potential of ordinary women and men. They wedded struggles for power and justice with a strong sense of public responsibility.

This marriage, resulting in a populism of liberal and democratic inclination, has a renewed relevance today. It would offer important resources for moving beyond the contemporary crisis in politics, in which a cacophony of claims for rights and assertions of prerogative threaten to drown out any concern for refurbishing the civic capital upon which we all depend. A populism infused with the spirit of liberalism would also provide a much-needed model of civic education of the young and others, stressing cooperative problem-solving approaches that are effective in the public arena.

The last two decades have seen an efflorescence of "populist movements" on the right, from anti-tax revolts against "big government" to the xenophobic and anti-Semitic "Populist Party" that briefly gained a following among hard-pressed fanners during the mid-1980s. Conservatives who spoke in populist accents found a ready audience by fusing anger toward the "pointy-headed bureaucrats" who "look down their noses at the average man" with popular anger about protests from such outsiders as blacks, the poor, feminists, gays, lesbians, and other cultural minorities.

"Decisions have been taken out of the hands of the people," declared George Wallace's campaign platform in 1968. Or, as Ronald Reagan put it a decade later, "Thousands of towns and neighborhoods have seen their peace disturbed by bureaucrats and social planners through busing, questionable education programs, and attacks on family unity." It was a time for "an end to giantism," according to Reagan, a "return of power to the people."

But conservatives defined "power" in negative and privatized terms: an end to "government interference" in traditional communal patterns, on the one hand, and an effort to have government aid in the enforcement of "traditional" moral prescriptions in private lives, on the other. 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. Thus, the Reagan years reinforced people's sense of themselves as spectators of the political process.

Right-wing rhetoric obscured the dynamics of power. Conservatives played upon people's experiences of being powerless, but sought to demobilize and deactivate even conservative popular organizations. "When you demythologize the rhetoric and look at the specific things the administration has cut, you find that they've specifically targeted all those programs that [are] essential components of self-help," explains Kathy Desmond, who conducted a study for the American Catholic bishops on patterns of administration defunding. "The Reagan people didn't want the government to fund groups that were going to stir things up," she concludes. "Anything that was organizing or advocacy."


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On the left, versions of "populist politics" have also been widespread, reflected in a variety of forms of grassroots activism that champion disadvantaged groups in the name of "the people," defined far differently from the right wing's use of the term. Contemporary progressive grassroots activism is a direct descendent of the social movements of the 1960s.

The protests of the 1960s were effective in dramatizing crucial, unaddressed problems in the nation. Martin Luther King, Jr. electrified a national audience with his description of the "forces of light" in their nonviolent confrontation with the "forces of darkness." But King also stood in the tradition of a reform-minded public that combines the demand for rights and recognition with the acknowledgement of civic responsibilities. Through the decade of the 1960s, the dominant mode of discourse framed each issue as a question of good versus evil, despite the fact that many problems on the national agenda did not lend themselves to such clear-cut moral dichotomies. As the linkage between reform and public responsibility eroded, cultural and social warfare between left and right consigned most Americans to the sidelines.

Today, most issue advocacy is framed in highly moralistic terms. From affirmative action to abortion, garbage incinerators to AIDS, partisans on both left and right claim their own righteousness and characterize their opponents with inflammatory labels such as "racist," "sexist," "homophobic," "warmongering," or "unpatriotic," "uncaring," "soft on crime," and "baby killer." Most activist groups in politics -- Southern whites and racial minorities, the old and the young, pro-choice activists and "pro-life" demonstrators, labor and management -- use this approach.

Yet casting controversies as the clash of righteous causes dramatically constricts the possibilities of any engagement with one's opponents, since no listening or exchange of views can occur. With the disappearance of a strong sense of a public world where different perspectives have equal standing and value, we have seen the emergence of hierarchies of innocence based on degrees of suffering. Political language is corrupted by competition for the mantle of greatest suffering. Ironically, it is the winner of such debates who achieves the position of power. This creates a "politics of innocence" that fails to acknowledge the legitimate interests of others with conflicting claims or to voice complementary responsibilities. Grassroots activism in this vein positions citizens as permanent outsiders who depend on someone else to fix the problem.

Against this background, the real political crisis is not voter apathy. Rather, it is evident in the increasing difficulty of finding anyone to mind the store, to be concerned with the long-term vitality of democratic institutions and the public interest. The nation has developed a culture of "sixty-second management." Institutional leaders are pressed for quick fixes, crisis management, and short-term calculation of gain. This leads to the pattern of reaction to problems and short-term planning that plagues our decision-making about issues from schools to prisons, from transportation bottlenecks to infrastructure repair. Fights around short-term interests block the ability to weigh long-term needs. A 1990 study, 'The Public's Role in the Policy Process," done by the Harwood Group on behalf of the Kettering Foundation, found chronic patterns of distrust among officeholders, the media, and the citizenry. All sides disclaim responsibility for the pattern. It is here that the legacy of Populism offers important lessons.


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In the nineteenth century, American public life was complex, turbulent, rent by bitter controversies, and riddled with injustices, such as the exclusion of women from formal political participation and the brutality of slavery and its aftermath. Public life was vivid, dramatic, and engaging, from the local community level to national affairs. When Alexis de Tocqueville travelled across America, he was struck by the role of its citizens: "Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations...At the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association."

This strong sense of the public as actor and deliberator shaped all aspects of society. Thus, American educational institutions and the press had their roots in an understanding of the public as deliberator about political issues of the day. Similarly, public libraries were created through citizen efforts and justified as "arsenals of democracy." Civic education movements like the University Extension Service and the Chautauqua home study circles also grew from this tradition.

Popular movements of groups excluded or marginalized by dominant terms of politics and citizenship used republican language and gave it new vibrancy by wedding civic responsibility to struggles for power and justice. Thus, Horace Mann's Common School Movement organized around the demand for education for poor and working-class communities. In this view, public school education was both an instrument of democracy -- the means for educating common people to be full citizens -- and, increasingly, a new form of social property. The very acquisition of schooling was seen as a foundation for independence and participation in public affairs.

During Reconstruction, the black population of the South undertook a crusade whose twin goals of education and land challenged America's racially restrictive commonwealth. "It was a whole race trying to go to school," recalled Booker T. Washington about those years in his autobiography, Up from Slavery. "Few were too young, and none too old, to make the attempt to learn. As fast as any kind of teachers could be secured, not only were day-schools filled, but night-schools as well. The great ambition of the older people was to try to learn to read the Bible before they died."

The Freedmen's Bureau in 1865 opened more than 4,000 schools across the South and, in the next five years, almost a quarter of a million people attended them. Throughout the South, those with education became leaders during the years of Reconstruction.


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Populism drew upon this legacy of public life and democratic insurgency for its central images and vocabulary as it developed into a massive farm movement in the latter years of the 1880s. Desperate to retain their land, escape tenantry, and maintain their independence, farmers devised a new method of cooperatively marketing their crops and purchasing their supplies. When the very existence of their cooperatives was threatened by the refusal of banks to extend credit, they created the People's, or Populist, Party to challenge government policies. Ultimately the party could not break the hold of the two-party system for a number of reasons: white racism, the cultural chasm between largely Protestant farmers and the growing Catholic immigrant population in northeastern cities, fierce loyalties to party and party machine. Nonetheless, the language of populism helped shaped decades of subsequent reform, while the populist legacy of political education remains a rich source for us to draw upon today.


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At the heart of the Populist movement was a conception of citizens as responsible agents in the public world, whose sovereignty was threatened by the crop lien system that mortgaged farmers' produce to the banks and merchants and by the growing concentration of financial and monopoly interests in the nation. The wedding of the language of civic responsibility with the demand, as the Populist Party platform put it, "to restore government of the republic to the hands of the 'plain people' with whom it originated," had several dramatic effects. Populists not only called for renewed civic responsibility for large property, along with ways to hold property accountable. They also applied the rhetoric of civic responsibility to themselves through extensive programs of self-education.

Building on old traditions in the South and Midwest such as parades and revivals, farmers' cooperatives and lecture circuits developed to "educate the people." The movement encouraged a measure of women's participation in public roles unprecedented in the nineteenth-century social environment. Its leadership was more ethnically diverse than any other political institution. It even raised tentative questions about the bedrock cultural premise of the white South, racial superiority.

The movement challenged concentrated property by recalling the "commonwealth" theme of the social nature of property. The cooperative commonwealth that the Populists envisioned was not hostile to enterprise or private ownership. Rather, the thrust of the Populist platform proposed ways to hold accountable basic elements of the nation's economy such as transportation, money supply, and land policy, which were seen as essential to citizen independence and small-business survival.

Such language created the rhetorical repertoire for twentieth-century reformers who challenged the social irresponsibility of concentrated economic power. In his famous "New Nationalism" speech, Theodore Roosevelt challenged the "sinister influence or control of special interests," which he identified with ancient threats to democracy. "Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War," said Roosevelt,
so now the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit...The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth...The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being...

Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt declared during the 1932 election that economic power "is a public trust [and] enjoyment of that power by any individual or group must depend upon the fulfillment of that trust."

As large government agencies and corporate structures came to predominate in the twentieth century, a new generation of managers and technical specialists emerged who drew their basic metaphors and language from science. A culture of professionalism detached knowledge from local communities in field after field, emphasizing rationality, methodical processes, and standards of "objectivity" in place of public deliberation and active citizenship. Today, experts define and diagnose the problem, generate the language and labels for talking about it, propose the therapeutic or remedial techniques for problem-solving, and evaluate whether the problem has been solved.

Thus, society has lost its public dimensions. Voluntary groups' goals shifted from public deliberation and problem-solving to service provision that treats people as individual clients with deficits and problems that need fixing. The local union moved from the center of community life to a marketing operation geared to securing a series of specific benefits. Teenage programs de-emphasized citizenship and developed programs stressing self-esteem and career skills. Schools came to focus on personal expressiveness and "feeling okay about yourself."

As with grassroots protest, this service-oriented approach has developed its own distinctive politics. Community service programs, for example, given bipartisan sanction by the National Community Service Act of 1990, profess to teach young people "citizenship" through teaching care for others. The consequence, however, is that youths are far more likely to see "service" as an alternative to "politics," with its themes of power, policy, and interests.


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In a world of experts and service providers, political language loses its public resonances. Progressive politicians tend toward the technocratic; Michael Dukakis's embrace of manager-ialism is a prime example. But politicians also frequently adopt a highly personalized and therapeutic vocabulary themselves, more like that of television talk-show hosts than public policymakers. Former Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, accused and eventually convicted of drug use while in office, appealed for public sympathy for his drug problem. Senator David Durenburger of Minnesota, censured by the U.S. Senate for unethical conduct, asked voters to pity him because he was "lonely" after his colleagues expressed their opprobrium. Even politicians with no tinge of crookedness use a vocabulary suffused with personalized imagery. New York Governor Mario Cuomo compares America to a "family" where everyone cares.

The loss of a strong language of public life has colored recent debates over populism. Political theorists and social critics such as Christopher Lasch, Robert Bellah, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Michael San-del, Alasdair Maclntyre, and others have criticized the "thinness" of liberalism and the left as expressed in technocratic, modernist, and therapeutic languages. They call for a politics that reflects communal traditions and the "values of ordinary Americans," centering on family, place, and religion. These arguments have a real-world counterpart in the widespread revival of neighborhood activism that has developed in recent years. Community action has been effective in addressing such issues as crime and housing.

Yet it also has clear limits. The politics of community neglects the bitter divisions and prejudices that often structure everyday experience. Historically, local communities have provided many cultural resources, but they have also been divided along lines of gender, race, and culture. Moreover, today many of the neighborhood building blocks of community action, such as ethnic groups, religious congregations, extended family networks, and political party organizations, have weakened. In recent years, neighborhood action has tended toward a parochial and reactive "Not in My Backyard" stance. And contemporary community politics often fails to connect local problems and community efforts with larger arenas of public policy, power, and change. As a result, proposals for communitarian politics sound idealized and nostalgic. Sandel's argument for the Democratic Party to adopt a community-based language was illustrated, for a 1988 New Republic cover story, with the image of a nineteenth-century small town.

Populism of liberal spirit cannot collapse politics or the public world into community, any more than politics can be formulated as simply electoral activity and expert advice, protest, or service. Rather, the challenge is to generate a different sort of politics that teaches the concepts and arts of a turbulent, diverse, and variegated public world stretching across particular community lines. What gets lost in institutional politics and in the dominant forms of citizen activism -- protest, service, and community action -- today is precisely this public arena, and the sense of the public as a strong agent that can act within it.


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An understanding of the public as responsible agent teaches the moral ambiguity and open-ended, provisional quality of the pragmatic tasks of the public life, where the search is not for personal closeness or "truth" or final vindication or normative communal consensus but rather appropriateness, fit, and provisional, if sound, resolution of concerns. In private life, one looks mainly for intimacy and similarity of outlook, values, and background. In a problem-solving public, however, the objective is not the experience of "bonding" with kindred spirits or the attainment of self-knowledge. Personal interests often bring people into the public world (hence the insight in the 1960s slogan "the personal is the political"). But neither an intimate and personalized style nor communal principles like trust, loyalty, familiarity, and friendship are very effective or productive for action in larger public settings.

The public arena is best structured by principles like accountability, strategic action, respect, and recognition. Politics involves a pragmatic interplay and bargaining among a variety of interests, values, and ways of looking at experience. Knowledge is not simply divided between categories like "objective" and analytic or "subjective" and emotional. Different perspectives are valued because they are helpful and create more power, in just the sense suggested by the Jainist fable of the twelve blind men surrounding an elephant who only know "the truth" by pooling their knowledge.

In a public sphere of actors as well as protesters, no one is simply a victim or an innocent. The development of minimal agreement about ethical standards for public life becomes essential, but everyone bears a measure of responsibility. The reward is an otherwise unattainable experience of public creation and public freedom, where ordinary people learn they can help shape the world around them according to their values, interests, and aspirations.

To revive this sense of public life, populism needs self-consciously to combine particular interests with attention to the wider welfare of the society as a whole. This approach proposes practical solutions that locate the interests of specific groups in relation to the public interest. For some years, this has been the unique contribution of public interest leaders such as Ralph Nader and groups such as Common Cause. Recently, arguments for universal, as contrasted with targeted, entitlement and benefits programs of the sort advanced by The American Prospect illustrate such a strategy.

Similarly, a new populist politics will draw upon the legacy of the original Populists by making civic education a central project. Today, authentic efforts at democratization are far more complicated than nineteenth-century challenges to "the monied interests." Effective political pedagogy for our time necessarily involves teaching concepts of public life itself, including the simple notion that there is such a thing as the public world, different from private or community experience. Such political education connects local efforts with strategies for larger changes in many institutions and public policy, not simply the economy.


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In this vein, the program that I direct, Project Public Life at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, has tried to show how the concepts and skills of public life, defined as a distinctive, diverse arena of practical action and deliberation, can be used to reengage citizens in the political dimensions of settings as varied as government, education, health care, and the workplace. Creating a map of public concepts -- frameworks for analyzing the interactions among varying interests, viewpoints, and power relations in the public arena -- we have attempted to lay a foundation for political reengagement and action, allowing people to put themselves back into the political world, rather than remain as spectators. Looking at situations in terms of concepts such as public life and power adds another dimension, like putting on 3-D glasses in the movies.

For instance, Project Public Life's Public Achievement initiative, undertaken with St. Paul Mayor Jim Scheibel and Minnesota 4-H, challenges teenagers to reclaim politics as a means of everyday problem-solving of issues in which they feel a stake. Public Achievement begins with discussions in which teens react to the word "politics." Out of more than a thousand teenagers, a handful have had any positive reactions, and those were mainly students involved in student government. Most defined "politics" as sleazy politicians lying about each other on television.

Teens have positive reactions to the word "public," however, making a variety of associations, ranging from public parks and rock concerts to "ordinary people" like themselves. Moreover, they identify a multitude of problems in which they see a direct and personal concern, such as school governance, crime, day care for unwed mothers, and race relations.

Public Achievement creates opportunities for teams of teenagers, working with coaches from community organizations, local college campuses, and schools, to develop a plan to combat problems relevant to their lives and communities. The art of Public Achievement is to open space for teens to "own" their own effort -- designing and implementing strategies for action, establishing public forums where they deal with diverse groups of teens from other communities -- but also to create productive relationships with adults who challenge rather than dominate them.

Such a process is a stark contrast to other forms of public engagement most young people have seen, from service to protest. Public Achievement's public language differs sharply from one-on-one service involvements, which characteristically stress the personal growth themes that reflect the ascendancy of psychology in recent years as the disciplinary touchstone of American elementary and secondary education.

Even sophisticated high school service curricula stress self-esteem, personal discovery, and bonding with others. Typically, students are taught Care Bear politics: how to "express their feelings." Personal expressiveness is valuable in relatively intimate settings. But an emphasis on feelings alone does little to teach young people about the legitimate uses of power and the negotiation of differences in the political world.


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A politics for the 1990s should differ from encounter group-style experience and 1960s-style protest politics alike. Yet young people are fed a steady diet of consciousness raising about social ills, from race conflict and global warming to falling SAT scores, by parents and teachers who came of age in the 1960s and assume that awareness inexorably leads to action. What these kids haven't seen are many practical solutions. Public Achievement stresses pragmatic public action and relationships based on common issues of concern rather than personal affinity or agreement.

Such a process vividly illustrates that teenagers are not so much apathetic or unconcerned about politics as they are usually unaware of any ways the political process might be productive or accessible. Teams from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds show enthusiasm, seriousness, and creativity in public problem-solving work, where the point is not bonding or learning to "care for others" but rather having an impact, gaining visibility, and doing politics well. Politics stops being an unpleasant spectator sport, and becomes something which is interesting, challenging, and rewarding.

Similarly, another initiative of Project Public Life, undertaken in conjunction with the Kettering Foundation in a number of cities, is built around strategies for teaching low-income communities to develop ongoing, practical public relationships with educators to address school problems. The affiliated Lazarus Project has brought concepts and skills of public discussion, debate, and action into nursing home settings and educational programs of health care professionals where previously a therapeutic language of "care" had rendered themes of interest and power almost invisible.

Today, growing numbers of citizens feel disengaged from the political process and from public affairs. Voting levels have declined precipitously. Citizens voice common complaints: the political process rewards posturing and hype; there is little serious discussion of the problems that the country faces. Without the involvement of large numbers of citizens, politics is dominated by extremes.

The problems with politics have not simply been inflicted upon the citizenry, however. No matter how much complaint or how many reforms are proposed, politics is unlikely to get much better until citizens reclaim their public roles.

Neither a narrowly technocratic politics, a moralized politics, a politics of intimacy, nor an invocation of community is enough. To meet the challenge of citizenship and effective reform, we need something larger: a liberalism that reengages the American people in democratic participation, and a populism that shows the connections between people's everyday lives and interests and the realm of political society and public affairs. This combination of liberalism and populism, long overdue, is essential for America's political and social renewal. It is from this synthesis that we can imagine revival of a public world in which citizens once again become subjects and creators of history, not history's objects.

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