Immigration. Financial reform. Inequality. Climate change. Dysfunction has paralyzed America’s national politics and alienated its citizens. Not only do crises go unaddressed, but elected officials seem incapable even of agreeing on the need for government to fund itself. Politics has become more polarized, less reasonable, more ideological, and increasingly animated by a growing hostility to government itself. A clique of professionals now run politics, it seems, simply for careerist stakes rather than for the public good. Unsurprisingly, polls find that Americans are increasingly alienated from their government and trust each other less and less.
Since Watergate, many thinkers on both the Left and Right have decided that the problem is with institutional politics itself, corrupted as it is by money and the narrow calculus of winning elections. Instead, they argue, Americans must reground politics in social relations that sustain a commitment to the collective good—what renaissance thinkers once labelled civic virtue. While often overshadowed by liberal and socialist thinking, the idea that regard for others is a better basis for political action than individual self-interest has persisted. Just as important, for contemporary thinkers as diverse as Robert Putnam, Harry Boyte, Carmen Sirianni, Peter Berger, and Richard Neuhaus, is the idea that this virtue is incubated in civic associations, nonprofit organizations, unions, and churches, not in formal politics. Politics, then, must be made accountable to organized citizens lest it spin off into the orbit of well-heeled corporations and campaign funders. Civic engagement can reconnect the alienated to public political life, provide a platform for the vox populi to fight corrupt politicians and bureaucratic experts, and develop the political skills of individual citizens. Citizens and community organizations could even replace impersonal and unresponsive government bureaucracies.
Two recent books, Peter Levine’s We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For and Benjamin Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World, both tender this hope, though they differ on how the reconnection of citizens and politics might best happen. Levine’s sober argument builds directly on much of the civic engagement tradition. In contrast, Barber’s more speculative argument asserts that cities, rather than citizens, may be the locus of democratic potential and civic virtue.
On the one hand, Levine and Barber’s arguments for civic engagement over national politics only become more plausible as the Supreme Court dispenses with campaign financing and pressing national problems go unaddressed. On the other hand, the election of Barack Obama and the inequalities of the Second Gilded Age present renewed challenges to the civic critique of politics. Obama’s presidency raises the question of whether the American polity is simply too resistant to citizen critique for civic renewal to be a viable platform of reform. Even if the polity can be responsive to engaged citizens, is it possible for the civic imagination to survive growing socioeconomic inequality? Advocates of civic renewal today must confront these questions.
Both authors are aware of this fundamental problem but they deal with it in different ways. Levine uses piles of research on civic renewal in order to offer an uncharacteristically wonkish take, for this genre, on what is possible and what needs to be done. Barber, on the other hand, makes a speculative and original argument laden with rhetorical flourishes, but limited analysis and data. Both lean heavily on optimism, perhaps a necessary position given the hopelessness, cynicism, and outrage that dominates so much political discussion today. Levine argues we should have faith in regular people when they work and talk together. The key, for him, is deliberation with a purpose. Given such a setting, citizens pursue collective goals.
Levine’s vision of renewal hinges on virtuous, civic, moral, and deliberative citizens holding corrupt, ideological, and self-interested politicians to account.
Where Levine uses research and analysis to encourage us to see these possibilities, Barber is much more likely simply to dismiss skepticism as bad behavior not to be taken seriously by more collegial intellects. Instead, he encourages the reader to imagine an emerging polity based on cities. Ultimately, neither author gives much reason to think that civic renewal can solve pressing political problems, regardless of whether such renewal comes through newly empowered cities or newly empowered citizens, but their efforts to convincingly argue this position reflect the state of play in contemporary thinking about civic renewal.
Levine’s vision of renewal hinges on virtuous, civic, moral, and deliberative citizens holding corrupt, ideological, and self-interested politicians to account. Community organizing, community development, civic education, community service and voluntarism, efforts to reform media and politics, and efforts at collaborative governance are all examples of this populist vigor. In situating these various efforts under the banner of civic renewal, though, Levine pays little heed to the frequently intense conflicts among them.
Nonetheless, with a hundred civic flowers blooming, Levine does want to do a bit gardening. He argues that the key values of civic renewal are “collaboration, deliberation, and civic relationships.” For Levine, civic deliberation is necessary for the formation of identities, motivations, and goals that are more expansive than individual self-interest. Talking and even more importantly, listening to others talk, can help people appreciate the “implications [of choices] for other people, as well as abstract considerations of ethics and justice.” Levine’s gardening trims back political conflict to let deliberation flower. Enabling people to recognize a common humanity, deliberation breaks down divisions and strengthens the “scarce but renewable sources of energy and power” of “civic relationships.” Virtuous values and morals are realized when citizens deliberate among themselves without the interference of experts, elites, or professional politicians. Levine’s citizens see each other as assets; they are committed to their communities, and they see politics as an open-ended process rather than a forum for debating partisan platforms. Good participation, deliberation, and collaboration together produce good political outcomes.
Levine distills the diversity of civic renewal efforts into considerations of the values, facts, and strategies necessary for effective civic life. Values, for example, are necessary to guide strategies. If citizen participation is to be valued for overcoming alienation and realizing human development, then strategies need to avoid expert or charismatic leadership. At the same time, our values should be limited by our strategies—we should value goals that are achievable. Facts, in turn, are necessary to understand the country’s problems—the growing class divide, the segregation by race and income, the collapse of voluntary associations, and the corruption of our public institutions—as well as the promise of civic renewal for addressing them. Finally, the strategy is straightforward: any practices and policies that facilitate the development of citizens through deliberative speech and collective work should be supported. Institutions should enable the development of effective citizens, not because that’s how a democracy is supposed to work (the traditional populist argument), but because government works best when institutions perform this role.
Indeed, Levine is more communitarian than populist. The distinction is important. Both traditions of thought argue that virtue lies with citizens and that the renewal of politics can happen only when they have greater authority. The movements for civic renewal were once dominated by activists and veterans of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s who were committed to establishing popular authority in politics, even if this required contentious protest and activism. Saul Alinsky, a self-identified “urban populist” and the founder of American community organizing, argued that conflict was necessary for building the political sophistication of the citizenry and holding power to account. Today, in contrast, writing in the civic renewal genre is dominated by academics who predictably have more faith in the potential of reasoned deliberation to resolve political conflicts.
The title of Levine’s book—We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For—is an inspiring call to action, and in this sense, at least, is similar to Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals (1946). However, rather than arguing for the possibilities of popular power, Levine is more interested in establishing the potential of citizen engagement for policy. Much of the book seems oriented around questions like “What are the measurable effects of community engagement on school effectiveness?” Levine’s form betrays a shift within the civic renewal movement, as it gains a foothold in foundations, academia, and even the White House. In the process it is becoming more communitarian in its celebration of the values and morality of citizens, while de-emphasizing popular authority and political sense. In terms of practice, contemporary advocates of the civic renewal movement emphasize correct deliberative communication among citizens as a solvent for all manner of political differences. In contrast, many in this tradition from Tocqueville on argued that civic virtue could only thrive in settings of relative socioeconomic equality. Challenging elites with popular power and cries that they are economic parasites, once central to populist activism and discourse, have been trimmed away in Levine’s account to make room for the idea that inequality can be overcome through a more virtuous and deliberative politics.
Still, Levine’s argument is evenhanded and knowledgeable, especially when read next to Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World. Like Levine, Barber thinks the American polity is broken and he is interested in a democratic revival. But Barber makes a novel argument in the context of the civic renewal tradition: the problem with politics lies with national sovereignty, not corruption. This is especially the case, he claims, in a moment like this one, when the most intractable issues are global rather than national. Because national governments will only cooperate after their sovereignty has been secured, they are poor institutions for dealing with 21st-century problems like climate change, terrorism, crime, and migration.
In Barber’s view, cities have done much better than national governments. Unconstrained by the posturing and zero-sum politics that necessarily accompany the politics of nation-states, cities are more innovative and cooperative. Moreover, because the relationship between governments and citizens are closer in cities, they are more democratic. So, while cities suffer from contemporary global problems, they are also in a better position to deal with them. In contrast to nation-states, cities are centers of commercial and cultural activity that attract migrants with their economic opportunity and tolerance. They are communal and cosmopolitan; they “inspire neighborly affection” but are “defined by connectivity.” They are “glocal” (an ugly neologism for simultaneously global and local). They are inherently “relational and interdependent,” publicly-oriented, and, Barber quotes Richard Florida to say, “magnetrons for creativity.” Urban citizens are worldly, making them not only sensitive to global problems but also well-equipped for cooperation across lines of state sovereignty. They are pragmatic problem-solvers, unlikely to be diverted by ideology or unnecessarily resistant to modifying their views. They are “driven by aspiration, not history.” Taking up and spreading an increasingly prevalent meme among the urban punditocracy, Barber sees a pragmatic, commercial, participatory, and cosmopolitan Hanseatic League of interconnected cities emerging from the decaying ruins of national politics to deal with global problems.
In Barber’s view, cities have done much better than national governments.
Cities can overcome the zero-sum game of international politics when they are connected to each other and cooperating like Levine’s deliberating citizens, generating the “global trust and transnational civic capital” necessary to cope with global problems. When cities are “woven into an informal cosmopolis,” they can become “as the polis once was.” Cities cooperate voluntarily and organically even without guidance or permission from higher authorities. Cities can realize Levine’s civic politics on a global scale.
Barber acknowledges problems with his optimistic vision. He knows that cities just as often sprout corrupt as virtuous politics, and he knows that cities often operate under severe legal constraints which prevent them from realizing their aspirations. Given these constraints, what room is there for faith? Barber says: “Born in the self-governing and autonomous polis, democracy realizes its global telos in the self-governing and interdependent cosmopolis.” This unabashedly metaphysical optimism is not exactly convincing, but it does invite wishcasting about a democratic urban future.
But are cities really incubators of democracy, as Barber claims? For many European social thinkers, who thought the countryside was dominated by feudal backwardness, cities were indeed the source of democracy and culture. In contrast, cities have tended to be understood as immoral and parasitic in much American thought since Jefferson. This attitude persists today in conservative ideas about dependence and poverty. Barber’s resistance to this line of thinking is indeed attractive, overcoming even the breathless essentialism which is Barber’s default rhetorical form in If Mayors Ruled the World. Given how the American hostility to cities manifests itself not just in attitudes but in our constitution, which privileges rural voices over urban ones, it is refreshing to read Barber’s celebration of cities’ democratic and problem-solving potential. Given the state of national politics, it doesn’t take a huge imaginative leap to believe that a polity grounded on cities will be more successful.
Barber supports his speculations with two types of data. First, he catalogs the large and growing number of organizations engaged in inter-city cooperation on a host of pressing issues. Several chapters contain tables of such organizations and the sheer number of them, not to mention their scope, is impressive and compelling though we have little idea about their effectiveness. Second, Barber conducted interviews with mayors from around the world and each chapter begins with a sympathetic profile of a mayor who embodies what being a mayor is all about. These vignettes certainly capture the self-image and self-importance of mayors, many of whom do indeed face serious challenges. Unfortunately, there is almost no effort to contextualize these attitudes or critically engage with them. Legally and institutionally, mayors are usually quite weak and have a limited scope of action. The views of citizens, city councilors, bureaucrats, philanthropists, business leaders, or activists, which might help to bring forward these limitations remain almost entirely absent from Barber’s account. Not to worry. For Barber, every apparent sow’s ear is a future silk purse. The limited legal scope for mayoral action just drives mayors toward more cooperation and deliberation, which in turn produce more inter-city trust and innovation.
Barber’s bold vision trades
on the optimism of the will, not the pessimism of the intellect.
Barber does not simply rest his argument on mayoral dispositions and hope we overlook their often limited autonomy and resources. He claims that mayors are avatars of urban citizens. (“Cities make mayors,” he says; apparently, laws don’t.) Mayors mirror citizen desires and represent them to the rest of the world. They concentrate, distill, and express the preferences of city-dwellers. Quirky mayoral dispositions tune up democracy. They have strong and idiosyncratic characters; they are pragmatic problem-solvers who abhor ideology; they are funny and irreverent; they don’t vacation much. Many examples he gives strain against the evidence. For Barber, mayors that use violence to expel squatters or convert public parks into shopping malls are all really just pragmatists. Elected officials at other levels of governance, in contrast, stand out for their incompetence. This isn’t analysis; it is advocacy.
When understood as a manifesto, Barber’s book is forceful in its hopefulness, ambition, and originality; it resembles Enlightenment-era proposals designing institutions for a more democratic and reasonable world. His bold vision trades on the optimism of the will, not the pessimism of the intellect. We should not, according to Barber, let problematic “mountains of shit” divert our gaze from the “shimmering towers” of the city and its role in our future (but still, that’s a lot of shit).
Surprisingly, given that Levine and Barber are writing at the height of a new Gilded Age and in the wake of a financial crisis that devastated hundreds of communities, neither author is much concerned with the economy. For Barber, corporations and wealthy individuals are stakeholders in the urban enterprise. Because they need functioning cities as much as everyone else, they do not hold a distinct urban agenda. The problem isn’t financial and real estate markets, but rather “absentee power”—that is, the power of economic actors who have no commitment to particular places and, therefore, lack civic orientations. Even when markets do create problems, Barber says, cities actually ameliorate their inequalities through their essential egalitarianism, democracy, fellow-feeling, and cosmopolitanism. The persistence of inequality is bad news, but “the city as a form of human community inherently inclined to integration is the good news.” This seems fanciful. Cities are often significantly more unequal than their surrounding regions and nations. Reduced inequality comes often either because the poor are priced out or the affluent leave. It seems at least as plausible that cities are engines of inequality than that they are solutions to it, and Barber offers little of empirical substance to convince skeptics otherwise (though he is quick to dismiss such questioning as “cynicism”, as if Gini coefficients were a matter of attitude rather than fact).
Like Barber, Levine sees inequality not as a threat to civic renewal but as a pressing problem to be addressed by civic renewal, though he is notably more willing to confront the facts on the ground. Money threatens democracy, he insists, but only because of its corrupting influence on politics. For Levine, strategic and self-interested actors endanger democracy by narrowing political speech and heightening its adversarial nature; he does not consider that they might produce inequalities that are resistant to political change. Classical republican thinkers always assumed that economic independence and relative equality are the soil of civic virtue. Levine, channeling our post-materialist intellectual age, sees deliberative speech as its loam; democracy does not require equality, it requires cultivating appropriate individual dispositions. We don’t need opportunity and egalitarianism; we need better citizens and institutions that recognize their contributions. Inequality can be vanquished, but only through the discussion, mutual regard, and social solidarity expressed in a more civic polity. Narrow interests will be trumped by fellow-feeling and empathy. Empowering people to win contests of power with intellectual and economic elites is unnecessary, because, with enough talk, common interests will prevail.
The election and presidency of Barack Obama presents the second challenge for to intellectual advocates of civic renewal, a challenge that is met more successfully by Barber than by Levine. As a former community organizer in the Alinsky tradition, Obama has offered an opportunity to reconnect citizens and national politics not seen since the People’s Party. In speeches, Obama has deplored the ideological polarization dominating American politics and placed faith in the inherent reasonableness of American citizens. In its work building relationships to sustain effective mobilization, his campaign drew upon the repertoire of community organizing. The campaign was a signal to the nation’s civic renewal movement that Obama intended to practice a different kind of politics; it showed that face-to-face conversations and competent organizing could defeat ideology and prejudice.
Obama promised civic renewal, but he also foreshadowed its dilemmas. In The Audacity of Hope (2006), Obama noted the corrupting influence of elected office. He fretted about his ability to do the public’s work, his growing distance from regular people, his dependence on money. By 2012, any hope that Obama’s election would renew the connection between formal politics and the citizenry had languished. Obama himself continues to perform many characteristics of his ideal citizen—he is pragmatic, open to dialogue, repulsed by ideology—but these rarely carry over to the way he governs. The Affordable Care Act was an extravaganza of special interest lobbying and, while the nation is better off for it, it seemed to make clear that President Obama was a different creature than Community Organizer Obama. If anything, Obama’s roots in community organizing have come to be understood as a liability in the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics, rather than a source of political transformation. The Obama presidency is the elephant in the room—for any author who hopes for the civic renewal of politics.
Levine worked with a number of organizations connected to the 2008 Obama campaign and the experience was clearly disappointing. Although Obama relied on experienced organizers like Marshall Ganz to get elected, he has relied on Democratic Party stalwarts to govern. In We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, Levine laments: “Because Democratic Party elites are ignorant of, or sometimes actually hostile to, civic engagement, it proved impossible to translate the civic themes of the campaign into new approaches to governance.” Politicians and parties have an ambiguous relationship to mobilized citizens. They must appeal to the electorate, but, at the same time, they are usually hostile to the idea that their authority should be subordinated to the people’s demands. Obama has not altered this preference for political and bureaucratic expertise. Still, the lesson of this betrayal does not alter Levine’s storyline, which is drawn from the annals of populists and civic renewal advocates: formal politics is corrupted by its dependence on money, its ideological polarization, and its patronizing relationship to the citizenry. If corruption has gotten worse, then we simply need more civic renewal.
Barber doesn’t address Obama’s presidency directly and he doesn’t have to. If national politics is hopelessly corrupt, let’s abandon national politics! Cities, those notorious sites of clientelist and corrupt politics, are civic and pragmatic! Cities are diverse and cosmopolitan! The ineffectiveness of national government has prompted cities to step into the fray. Cities are best situated to advance solidarity, innovation, cosmopolitanism, and pragmatism, because, today, they nurture those virtues.
Corruption alone cannot explain the problems we currently face.
When political and social life seems venal and corrupt, the idea that it can be otherwise is compelling. When elites seem acquisitive and contemptuous of communal spirit, the idea that real virtue lies with citizens is inspiring. When nation-states lack the wherewithal to deal with existential threats, the relative pragmatism of cities is a source of hope. We don’t need to find better politicians, which seems hopeless anyway. We are indeed the ones we have been waiting for, or, if not us, mayors are.
Regular citizens have changed the world in the past, and they might do so again. Because of this, civic critiques of politics remain, and should remain, an important element of our political discourse. But their consistency in the face of change can be troubling. Is corruption, albeit worse today than a generation ago, really still the most insuperable barrier to greater citizen voice in politics? Can we make this claim even after the people have elected a president whose political dispositions were formed in the civic renewal movement? I am not so sure.
Corruption alone cannot explain the problems we currently face. Reconnecting politics to civic life might not be a cure-all. In fact, the constant celebration of civic virtue and popular participation disempowers government, making the problem worse. The true beneficiaries of this dynamic are corporations and economic elites, whose power has only expanded. At the same time, the very foundations of social trust and solidarity have been undermined by inequality and the abandonment of formal politics as a venue worth fighting for. All the while, too many advocates of civic renewal have forsaken critiques of economic and intellectual elites and arguments for the necessity of building power to contest these developments. Whatever their virtues, the limitations of these two ambitious books suggest that the promise of civic renewal is increasingly disconnected from the problems of the moment. The question is whether the civic critique of American politics today can reimagine itself for the problems of the 21st century.