Legacies of Public WorkPosted: October 31, 2012
By Harry C. Boyte
In the view of many, attack ads and internet tools that inflame voter passions have replaced problem-solving and removed the human element in politics. But here and there, examples of “a different kind of politics” based on building public relationships and public work push back against polarizing politics. Higher education can claim a key leadership role in spreading these.
Though support for Obama among those concerned about partisan wrangling has eroded, in fact his campaign this year suggests lessons for a different kind of politics. There are also insights from earlier histories of democratic movements and work with public qualities that point to sustaining a different politics, for the long term.
Below the surface of the visible ad campaign, the Obama ground game has sought to re-embed elections in face to face relationships, beyond sound bites. As Jeremy Bird, director the Obama field operation, told Ryan Lizza, the ground game has taken the animating principle of face to face contact in the 2008 election to large scale.
During the 2008 campaign, Bird, a student of community organizer and Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, directed Obama operations in South Carolina and Ohio. He resisted the common “mobilizing” approach which demonizes the opposition. Rather his field operation rooted work in local sites like barber shops and beauty parlors, spread the idea that everyone — including McCain supporters — deserves respect and has a story, and encouraged local leaders to act as organizers.
In 2012, elements of this approach have gone national. Barbershops and beauty salons are campaign centers. Conference calls are organized specifically for barbers and hairdressers. Lizza writes that “from his study of the 2008 campaign, Bird concluded that the single most effective medium was not TV ads or glossy mail but contact from an enthusiastic human being.”
If we are to move to cultural change beyond partisan warfare, citizen politics also has to point beyond elections, gaining support from more than the “fifty percent plus one” formula. Lessons from the civil rights movement are worth recalling.
Thelma Craig, an African American leader in the movement in southern Alabama, told me that “Real change in culture takes place when the overwhelming majority of the population learns to see it as in their own interests.” As a college student in the southern civil rights movement, I saw first-hand the role which barbers and hairdressers, as well as clergy, teachers, bus drivers and others played in such culture change. Earlier this year Blase Scarnati and I described how her “different kind of politics” finds grounding in settings around Northern Arizona University.
Histories of earlier democratic movements underscore the point.
In his autobiography, Making of a Public Man, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey traced his career to his father’s drug store in Doland, South Dakota, at the heart of civic life, part of the populist ferment of the Midwest in the 1920s and 1930s. “In his store there was eager talk about politics, town affairs, and religion,” Humphrey wrote. “I’ve listened to some of the great parliamentary debates of our time, but have seldom heard better discussions of basic issues than I did as a boy standing on a wooden platform behind the soda fountain.”
The store created a cross-partisan civic root system. “Dad was a Democrat among friends and neighbors who took their Republicanism – along with their religion – very seriously.” His father became the highly regarded mayor of the town, but saw elective office as only one of his contributions. The store functioned as lending library and cultural center – music came from the window of the second floor, from his father’s rickety phonograph. The store also catalyzed action. “When most of the town wanted to sell the municipally owned power plant to a private utility, Dad…fought the idea tooth and nail. I was twelve years old…he would take me to the evening meetings of the council, install me in a chair by a corner window, and then do battle, hour after hour.”
In short, the drug store was a public space sustained by his father as a citizen businessman, who championed a commonwealth of public goods, and organized with other citizens.
He also mentored his son in the civic possibilities of small business, of vital importance today as well.
In a Senate debate about box stores in 1952, Humphrey declared that the purpose of small business was not cheap prices but survival of democracy. “Do we want an America where the economic market place is filled with a few Frankensteins and giants?” he asked. “Or do we want an America where there are thousands upon thousands of small entrepreneurs, independent businesses, and landholders who can stand on their own feet and talk back to their Government or anyone else?”
Humphrey saw the civic side of business as tied to citizens as the agents of democracy, embodied in the Preamble to the Constitution with its message of “we the people.” He touted this through his career, challenging audiences looking for saviors. “Government isn’t supposed to do all of this,” Humphrey declared on February 22, 1967, in a Phoenix television interview, in response to a caller who asked him to fix the problems with politics. “If you think politics is corrupt, get your bar of political ivory soap and clean it up! Get out there and get roughed up a little bit in the world of reality. Join the community action groups, volunteer your services.”
We need a new generation of civic leaders like the barbers and hairdressers of the civil rights movement — or Hubert Humphrey’s father a generation before.
Changes in “upstream” institutions like colleges and universities will be crucial as they reorient themselves to education for civic agency through public work. We also need people in many places who turn their jobs into public work, and make their worksites public spaces.
These will be the architects and agents of democracy’s future in 21st century America.
Harry C. Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership.