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'Nehemiah-style' leaders and Better Angels: the movement for civic repair

Harry C. Boyte

Electoral politics in June shredded Minnesota Nice. But the month also had signs of a movement for civic repair, suggesting the revival of citizen-centered democracy.

Calls for partisan warfare were on stage at the DFL convention on June 2. Gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Otto said the party didn’t need moderates and rural voters. When Otto dropped out, her delegates mainly went to Erin Murphy. Murphy won the nomination over Tim Walz, running as a candidate committed to bridging the rural-urban divide.

On June 20 in Duluth, Republicans responded in kind when thousands of Trump supporters booed 17 times, according to the White House transcript, as the president went through his litany of villains – Fake News, Crooked Hillary, Obamacare, immigrants, and protesters who need haircuts. The president enthusiastically endorsed Pete Stauber, running for Congress from the 8th District on a platform attacking “liberal elites.”

Channeling 2016

Both Democrats and Republicans are channeling the 2016 presidential race, when polarization was fed by claims from both candidates that they could defeat the enemy and fix our problems. Hillary Clinton branded both Trump and his supporters, her “basket of deplorables,” as enemies. Her theme was “I’m fighting for you.” Trump railed against his own enemies list – liberals, minorities, immigrants, the media, and others. He also posed as champion. “I have joined the political system so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people who cannot defend themselves,” he told the Republican convention. “I alone can fix the system.”

In Minnesota, an Erin Murphy-Tim Pawlenty contest could well resemble the 2016 campaign, with candidates who demonize the other side and present themselves as saviors.

I learned a different view of elections and the role of citizens in the civil rights movement. In 1964, a zealous activist too young to vote, I proclaimed to Oliver Harvey, a janitor at Duke who was organizing a union, that there was no difference between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties: “Johnson won’t desegregate the South!” Harvey replied with a wry smile, “That’s ridiculous. No politician will desegregate the South. That’s what we’re doing.” He then detailed the ways a president makes a difference by influencing what the news media covers, supporting legislation, appointing key officials, and more. I got his point: Government and politicians are crucial partners for democratic change, but the people drive the process.

This was the heart of American democracy, according to the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville. He argued in his classic work, "Democracy in America," based on traveling the country in the 1830s, that “in democratic countries the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.“ He continued, “In democratic peoples, associations take the place of powerful particular persons.”

Working across differences

Citizen-centered democracy requires citizens learning the skills of working across differences, Tocqueville’s “science of association.” It also requires politicians who are “Nehemiah-style” leaders. Nehemiah was the Old Testament leader who brought 40 often antagonistic groups together to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. “Moses” leaders, by contrast, pose as saviors of the people against their oppressors. Leaders are at the center. People are passive spectators.

Nehemiah leaders are common in Minnesota history. Jim Scheibel, Democratic mayor in St. Paul from 1990 to 1994, called himself a “citizen politician.” In a signature initiative, he catalyzed a diverse coalition that developed a highly innovative food policy. Elizabeth Kautz, Republican mayor of Burnsville, Minnesota, declared in her first campaign, “I can’t solve the problems of Burnsville by myself, but I can bring people together to do the work of the community.” Burnsville gained national recognition for the success of her approach on problems like youth disaffection, crime, environmental challenges, inadequate housing, and the lack of a civic center. Kautz became president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2010.

There are signs of a new movement for civic repair. On June 6-7, 150 delegates representing the group called “Better Angels” held a founding convention at Eastern Mennonite University, in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Better Angels takes its name from Abraham Lincoln’s hope that the bitterly divided nation could be healed by “the better angels of our nature.” It was created by equal numbers of Trump and Clinton supporters after the 2016 election. After conducting 150 workshops across the country, the organization has several thousand members. The convention of “Reds” and “Blues” declared their intent to reclaim politics from the forces that “would have us put faction over country, treat our opponents as enemies, and reject the idea of common ground.”

The listening process that allows Reds and Blues to find common ground was crafted by William (Bill) Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. Doherty co-founded Better Angels with David Blankenhorn, long-time advocate of cross-partisan relationship-building. Bill has crisscrossed the country conducting workshops and training trainers. Minnesota has more than 500 members – the largest number per capita in the country. Bill told me that there is “a hunger to get beyond polarization everywhere I’ve been, from the Civility Caucus in the state legislature to regular citizens.”

'We have to work together'

Bill Doherty believes that an underlying factor in Better Angels’ success is people’s desire to develop capacity for work across differences. In the first workshop, in Lebanon, Ohio, people told him, "We have to work together in this community. We're worried that we won’t be able to do that if we don't get past this polarization."

Better Angels is part of a larger movement. "Our Towns," a book by James and Deborah Fallows, based on extensive travels across the country, describes “an intensity of local civic life that generally escaped any outside notice.” Civic and economic revitalization, in their view, depend on people learning to “work together on practical local possibilities rather than allowing bitter disagreements about national politics to keep them apart.” David Brooks in the New York Times describes this as an invisible American Renaissance. “As the national scene has polarized, people in local communities are working effectively to get things done.”

This brings us back to the question Oliver Harvey posed to me more than a half century ago: Who can help us relearn the science of association, not drive us apart? Our future depends in part on the answer.

Harry C. Boyte is author of the forthcoming “Awakening Democracy through Public Work,” which details stories of civic repair in many settings, from communities to schools and colleges.

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