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How can we awaken democracy? Groups explore the concept of civic muscle

image of cover of atlantic magazine issue about democracyThe current issue of The Atlantic is organized around the question, “Is Democracy Dying?” Contributors make a case for “yes” around the world.

Anne Applebaum, a Washington Post columnist living in London, writes a poignant essay, “Warning From Europe.” It begins with a party she and her Polish husband hosted at the turn of the century, when high-spirited partygoers were full of democratic anticipation. In intervening years, hope gave way to cynicism. Polish politics came to be defined by demagogic appeals to a sense of victimhood, inflaming ethnic and religious hatreds, giving rise to belligerent nationalism.

The historian Yuval Noah Harari argues in “Why Technology Favors Tyranny” that the digital revolution “will create unprecedented upheavals in human society, eroding human agency and, possibly, subverting human desires. Under such conditions liberal democracy and free market economics might become obsolete.”

Fewer think democracy ‘essential’

Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, professors at Yale Law School, describe bitter divides in “The Threat of Tribalism.” They write that “Americans on both the left and the right now view their political opponents not as fellow Americans with different views but as enemies to be vanquished.” They note deepening skepticism about “once sacrosanct American principles” such as freedom of speech among Yale law students. Youthful disillusionment extends much more widely. “Only 30 percent of Americans born in the 1980s believe that living in a democracy is ‘essential,’” they report, based on recent polling. In contrast, 72 percent born in the 1930s believe democracy is essential.

In our own work, I have sometimes heard even students passionate about issues like racial justice and immigrant rights declare that voting is “irrelevant.”

Compared to the freedom movement of the 1960s — which shaped me, working for the citizenship schools sponsored by Martin Luther King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — something is most certainly missing. It involves much more than youthful apathy about voting. Democracy was the freedom movement’s guiding star. In his classic statement, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King claimed that the movement “was bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers.” A different meaning of democracy animated the movement.

Current alarms about democracy usually define it as elections. Even more expansive definitions focus on voting procedures. Yoni Appelbaum, who draws attention to the larger culture in his Atlantic essay, “Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy Anymore,” argues that self-governing associations once “provided the people with their greatest school of self-governance.” Once these eroded, people’s democratic interest atrophied. “As young people participate less in democratically run organizations, they show less faith in democracy itself.”

A much larger view

Harry C. Boyte

In contrast, freedom movement participants had a much larger view. Everyone recognized that voting rights were essential in the fight against segregation. But Septima Clark, architect of the hundreds of citizenship schools across the south, saw the most important movement goal as “broadening the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepening the concept to include every relationship.” Vincent Harding, friend and speechwriter for Martin Luther King, wrote in “Hope and History,” “The civil rights movement was in fact a powerful outcropping of the continuing struggle for the expansion of democracy in the United States … it demonstrates the deep yearning for a democratic experience that is far more than periodic voting.”

People’s capacities to shape the world around them, what can be called civic muscle, was the heart of democracy in the movement. Civic muscle was developed by public work at the grassroots level, work with public purpose in beauty parlors and barber shops, churches, colleges and schools as well as in the citizenship schools. Civic muscle was, in fact, the original view of democracy, according to the classics scholar Josiah Ober. In his essay “The Original Meaning of Democracy,” Ober challenges views of democracy as “a voting rule for determining the will of the majority.” He argues that the Greeks believed “demokratia … more capaciously, means ‘the empowered demos in which the [people] gains a collective power to effect change in the public realm … the collective strength and ability to act and, indeed, to reconstitute the public realm through action.”

The novelist Marilynne Robinson recalled this view in a conversation with President Barack Obama in the fall of 2015, reprinted in the New York Review of Books“Democracy,” she told the president, was “something people collectively made.” The work of making democracy created ownership and mutual respect. The New Deal embodied democracy creation in a myriad of forms, from the nation’s parks created by the 3 million men in the Civilian Conservation Corps to rural cooperatives, electrification, and soil conservation districts. This was the democracy that soldiers in World War II saw themselves defending, as Stephen Ambrose describes in “Citizen Soldiers.” Such experiences explain older people’s commitments to the idea.

Reviving under the radar

Democracy as something we make is reviving under the radar screen in groups like Better Angels and the communities described in “Our Towns,” by James and Deborah Fallows, as I noted in MinnPost in July. My forthcoming book, “Awakening Democracy through Public Work,” points to many other stories.

An effort called emPowerU of the Heartland Foundation in the northwest region of Missouri and adjacent counties in Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska has adapted the youth civic education and public work initiative Public Achievement to involve more than 20,000 young people. According to sustained evaluation, emPowerU has dramatically increased their plans to remain in the region. In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Clear Vision, a citywide citizen coalition based on public work has had major impact on economic and cultural development while generating a widely shared sense of civic responsibility.

A movement for civic muscle emerged from the evaluation unit of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which used the concept of public work that builds community strength as its evaluation framework. Spearheaded by the group RethinkHealth, the concept of civic muscle is significantly impacting health policies and health practices. Examples abroad include a nationwide movement to repair relations between police and villagers in Burundi, one of the world’s poorest countries. A citizenship education initiative in Tokai University in Japan, one of the world’s most technologically advanced universities, is introducing all nonmedical freshmen, more than 7,000, to public work in the coming school year.

These are building blocks for understanding democracy as a way of life and ourselves as democracy’s architects and agents. Over time, the view can transform people’s motivations for public involvement from anger and fear to hope. In the process we might also revive a sense of shared destiny, realizing again that we are all in it together.

Harry C. Boyte is a senior scholar in public work philosophy at Augsburg University and the author of “Awakening Democracy through Public Work,” forthcoming in November from Vanderbilt University Press.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Chris Commers on 09/26/2018 - 01:03 pm.

    Terrific article Harry! Thank you for your tireless and thoughtful work to reacquaint us with our civic muscle. We (teachers in Eastern Carver Co, Minnesotans, U.S. citizens) have the capacity to create rich, abundant public lives and nurture our democracy. CEA and ECCS focus on student agency. Essential to that work is a self-awareness of every educator’s civic muscle! We should all read “Awakening Democracy through Public Work”.

  2. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 10/04/2018 - 07:03 am.

    Thanks for your continuing work, Harry. Over many decades, i’ve seen the value of young people to analyze problems and take steps to reduce or eliminate them. When youngsters do this, they see themselves as people who can make a difference. They also see the importance of being active, constructive citizens.
    Another great source for examples of this kind of work is the website http://www.whatkidscando.org
    Thanks again for your continuing leadership.

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