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Building Blocks for an American Renewal : Citizenship: The people must reclaim politics in every arena, recognizing that elected leaders can't solve our problems alone.

December 25, 1991|HARRY C. BOYTE | Harry C. Boyte is senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, where he directors Project Public Life, a national initiative to reengage citizens in politics

After this last session of Congress and the Bush Administration's fumblings, "throw the bums out" is a bumper sticker most everyone would endorse. But the simple anger at politicians will let the rest of us off the hook in 1992. As a pundit once put it, we get the government we deserve. Today, politics is seen as the work of politicians. If citizens claim a role, it is as marginal players in the game of politics: volunteers, complainers, special-interest advocates. Unless we reinvent the idea of citizen, few things will change.

What some have called the "paradox of democracy"--its efflorescence around the world and decline in the United States--is usually wrongly diagnosed. Symptoms are mistaken for causes. In this vein, many problems are identified in politics. Washington Post reporter E. J. Dionne argues for a shift from moralized posturings to a politics of pragmatic problem-solving. Fellow journalist Thomas Edsall, pointing to the bitter racial divide, urges political officeholders to look at the sharply different ways that recent decades have been experienced and understood by blacks, on the one hand, and working and lower middle class whites, on the other. Common Cause documents the corrosive impact of large sums of money and political ads.

These are useful insights. But they all define politics like James Madison's "Federalist Paper No. 10." Madison argued that deliberations of representatives, "a chosen body of citizens," are "more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves." He gave title to officeholders.

Alan Ehrenhalt, in "The United States of Ambition," has demonstrated the consequences of this limited ownership. A generation of politicians has come of age who went into "politics" motivated by 1960s issues, such as civil rights, feminism and the environment. They challenged back-room maneuvering, generating a wave of institutional reform. As a result, we have politicians who may be our best policy-makers ever. Yet they face isolation and policy gridlock like Rick Knobe, who won the mayoral race against the Establishment of Sioux Falls, S.D., in 1983, only to find that "I was carrying the whole city on my back. I was an island unto myself."

Thomas Jefferson gave a different rendition of politics. He argued that "where every man is participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year but every day he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte." The 10th Amendment, reserving "powers not delegated to the United States" to the states and to the people, expressed his view. The work of politics was also embodied throughout American history in "mediating institutions" like political parties and civic groups that connected people's everyday lives and efforts to a larger sense of civic participation. For instance, the ethnic political machines of the past, whatever their flaws, gave people vivid experiences in the rough and tumble of politics that made clear its relevance.

Citizens now experience government as a distant spectacle they watch rather than own. This was reflected by one man on a recent TV show about the savings and loan scandal: "The taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for this; the government should!"

Just as the Protestant Reformation once challenged the clergy's exclusive franchise over religion, citizens need to reclaim politics in 1992. This means that in addition to voting for President, we need to return to the root meaning of the word politics, the activity "of the citizen." Until we connect our everyday lives to the larger public world, neither volunteerism--"points of light"--nor institutional change will do much good.

Not even the best President and Congress can solve our major problems by themselves. Today, issues from racial conflict to crime, school reform and pollution abatement require the judgment and energy that only can emerge from widespread, pragmatic citizen engagement reminiscent of periods like the Great Depression and World War II.

Practicing a citizen-centered politics, we will see the 1992 election not as the main act but rather as one moment in an unfolding drama in which we develop the power, knowledge, values and organizations needed for public action. Voting will be understand as a process in which we, as citizens, temporarily--if wisely--give away our agency to those whom we judge will best represent us. Our roles include continuing pressure for accountability from whomever we elect. More broadly, the work of citizenship means ongoing public action in every arena, based on the recognition that politicians can't solve our problems alone.

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