The New Citizenship
Redefining the Relationship Between Government and the Governed
From Rebuilding Civil Society. A Symposium from: The New Democrat, volume 7, number 2 March/April 1995.
After more than a half-century of centralizing decisions in Washington, people are beginning to reclaim power from government. The New Deal's main motif-the confident and expansive use of federal power-is fading into history. To replace it, Americans are inventing a post-industrial model of governance that relies less on central bureaucracies and more on citizen and community initiative.
Last year's election emphatically confirmed that Americans want radical changes in government. Yet while the nation's political and media elite persists in viewing this phenomenon in ideological terms, as a shift to the right, its origins are technological. Instead of blaming Newt Gingrich or Rush Limbaugh, defenders of Washington's ancien regime ought instead to be pondering the political implications of the personal computer and "real time" global communication.
Just as the Industrial Revolution disrupted the rhythms of a predominantly agricultural society, the techniques of the information economy are reshaping the social and political order of 20th century America. Specifically, they are diffusing information-and therefore power-from large institutions to individuals. This decentralizing tendency, in turn, is changing the way we organize private and public institutions.
During the 1980s, businesses began dismantling corporate hierarchies that prevented them from swiftly adapting to fast-changing global markets. Now it's government's turn. The Administration's National Performance Review, led by Vice President Al Gore, represents the first serious effort to "reinvent" the federal government for the Information Age. So far, its focus has been on shrinking the federal workforce and making agencies work better. That's progress, but a more fundamental task beckons: returning power and responsibility to local institutions and individuals.
In their haste to shrink government, the Republicans have missed this essential aim of devolution. They propose folding welfare and other federal programs into block grants and dumping them on the states, offering governors more flexibility in return for less spending. But block grants merely reshuffle responsibilities. The point is to reduce state as well as national bureaucracy and to redefine the relationship between citizens and their government.
Civic leaders already are taking the initiative. From the charter school movement for public school choice to Boston's City Year youth volunteer corps, from community policing initiatives to Habitat for Humanity and other private community development ventures, public entrepreneurs are creating a civic alternative to bureaucratic problem-solving.
The emergence of the "new citizenship" movement, which unites civic practitioners and theorists of civil society, also attests to the rebirth of civic consciousness in America. In its Civic Declaration, for example, the American Civic Forum urges national policymakers to consult citizens, not just political elites, and to revisit some basic questions: Which tasks are properly the responsibility of citizens or community institutions, and which require direct governmental action? How can citizens get more involved in public decisions, to prevent experts and political professionals from dominating that process? How can we better gauge the impact of government actions on the character of our citizens or the health of our social institutions, especially the family?
Such questions rarely arise in conventional left-right debates. Modern liberalism defines its very purpose as affirming governmental activism. On the contrary, say conservatives, government is the problem, not the solution. They are both wrong. It's clear that Americans don't want a paternalistic state superintending every detail of their lives. But there's scant evidence that they want to disable government as an instrument of common purpose.
The new citizenship represents a third choice in American politics. It is defined by four key themes: reciprocal responsibility; catalytic government; civic culture; and civil society.
The decline of contemporary liberalism began when its concern for broad social justice degenerated into special interest politics. Having fought honorably and successfully to secure equal justice for workers, blacks, and women, liberals looked for new wrongs to right. This led not only into the morass of preferential policies, but also to the minting of new "rights" for children, welfare mothers, homosexuals, the handicapped, and practically anyone else who could claim that society or fate had victimized them. U.S. corporations also got in the act, wringing billions of dollars in federal subsidies to shield them from the rigors of market competition.
The politics of proliferating rights and entitlements, unleavened by a corresponding ethic of obligation to the commonweal, has literally and figuratively bankrupted the nation. And by making government the ultimate arbiter of every public dispute, it has sapped individual and civic initiative and turned self-reliant citizens into passive consumers of public benefits.
While liberals have seduced the public with promises of something for nothing, conservatives erode the civic ethic in a different way, by extolling private competition and consumption over public life. Despite their superficial differences, in fact, both the left and the right validate a selfish materialism that encourages individuals to grab all they can, whether from the welfare state or the market.
The civic alternative is a new politics of reciprocity that links rights and responsibilities: Government should expand opportunities for citizens willing to give something back to their communities and their country. National service is emblematic of this approach. It offers young Americans aid for college or postsecondary training in return for a year of community service work. Why not go further and demand that all federal programs ask beneficiaries to contribute something in return?
Although conservative propaganda has obscured the good that government does, Americans lack confidence in government mainly because major public sector systems are failing. Our public schools lag international standards and provide poor students with an abysmal education. Public housing has become synonymous with social dysfunction. The criminal justice system seems powerless to stop endemic violence, especially by juveniles.
Moreover, these public systems have become formidable obstacles to public innovation. In order to dramatically improve the quality of our schools, liberate poor people from dependency, help low-income families get decent housing, and protect our streets, we must either bypass or dismantle bureaucracies that monopolize resources and resist change.
The critical task is to replace bureaucratic government with a catalytic model for governing that equips citizens and communities to solve their own problems. Such a model decentralizes decisions, puts resources directly in the hands of citizens, expands choices in public services, uses competition to lower costs and spur innovation, and focuses relentlessly on outcomes rather than process.
A prime example is the charter school movement, which harnesses the power of choice and competition to reinvent public schools from the ground up. Begun in Minnesota, charter schools break the local school districts' monopoly by allowing people outside or innovators within the system to start public schools of their own. These schools must be chartered by a public agency, to ensure their adherence to broad performance and non-discrimination standards. Beyond that, however, they operate free of the yoke of bureaucratic rules and restrictive union practices. The new schools give families more choices and ossified school districts real competition. No longer able to take their "customers" for granted, the districts are forced to innovate and customize their offerings to meet the community's needs. And unlike the conservative push to privatize public schools through vouchers, charter schools retain the public mission and character of our education system.
The new citizenship represents a fresh choice for Americans frustrated by a sterile public debate framed in stark polarities: left versus right; public versus private; government versus markets. It speaks from the vantage of America's "third sector"-the myriad civic enterprises, religious, education, voluntary, press, business, labor, and charitable organizations that mediate between citizens, government, and markets.
Yet America's civic sector has long been in eclipse, squeezed by an overreaching government and the market's "invisible hand." If the left remains wedded to government action in pursuit of distributive justice, the right seems oblivious to the destructive impact on civil society of unrestricted competition. Today's global redistribution of jobs and investment has devastated whole communities and driven down wages for low- skilled workers. Conversely, the breakdown of family, neighborhood, and social networks, combined with the erosion of the values of hard work, self-reliance, and personal and community responsibility, deplete the cultural strengths we need to cope with fundamental economic changes.
Without a new burst of civic energies and innovation, the United States is unlikely to make much headway against our most intractable social problems: teen pregnancy, welfare dependency, drugs, and violent crime. As Peter Drucker notes in Post-Capitalist Society, government's record in solving social problems is uninspiring. Public sector productivity is very low, and government bureaucracies have few incentives to improve performance.
Government, therefore, should contract social work to social institutions, which are both more productive and less impersonal. Non- governmental organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous and the Salvation Army, says Drucker, are virtually the only ones to show any sustained success in helping people overcome the problems that hold them back.
Government can redistribute wealth to redress economic imbalances, but it does not know how to reweave America's shredded social fabric. Bureaucratic compassion has proven a poor substitute for the nurturance, moral support, and guidance traditionally provided by families and communities. We face no greater social challenge today than socializing the children of broken and impoverished families, many of them born to teenage mothers. Social institutions, which operate within a framework of social discipline and community norms, are best suited for this work.
Finally, the new citizenship offers a unifying creed for a nation struggling to build a strong multiethnic democracy amid incredible diversity. America's racial, ethnic, and religious variety is integral to our dynamism and creativity. But an obsessive emphasis on group difference is corroding the bonds of mutual trust and common belief that tie us together as a nation.
In a paper for the Progressive Foundation, Jim Sleeper, author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York, describes those beliefs as a "civic culture" that transcends group identity:
The democratic precepts enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution form the common core of our national identity. Around these vital principles has grown a less formal but palpable civic culture, emphasizing such characteristically 'American' virtues as tolerance, optimism, self-restraint, self-reliance, reason, and civic activism in the public interest as a function of both benevolence and enlightened self- interest.
A civic perspective is fundamentally at odds with the identity politics that classifies Americans along lines of race, ethnicity, national origin, and gender. The new ethnocentrism animates the quest for ethnic and racial preference in hiring, college admissions, and government contracting. It is behind the recent push for racial gerrymandering of congressional districts, which has undermined biracial politics, especially in the South.
In the American political tradition, rights and responsibilities inhere in citizens, not in groups. A robust ethos and practice of citizenship is an essential antidote to the growing balkanization of America. As Sleeper says, "Defenders of American pluralism need to make clear that whenever multiculturalism turns into identity politics or ethnocentrism-that is, whenever it becomes an ideology that forecloses a common culture and a polity based on shared principles-it undermines freedom and therefore the basis for multiculturalism itself."
The new citizenship fulfills a deeply felt need in America for a middle ground between the domains of government coercion and market competition. It says to liberals that public activism need not be denominated in the currency of bureaucratic programs. It says to conservatives that the market cannot supply the civic values and skills necessary to sustain family and community life. And it begins to resolve the dilemma facing progressives in the late 20th century: how to champion public purposes without embracing bureaucratic governance. By decentralizing power from government to citizens and communities, we point the way toward a new politics for the Information Age. reg.
Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute.
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