Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Thoughts on Civic Engagement

This Sunday, Dave Denison, the former editor of CommonWealth magazine, had a piece in the Boston Globe's Ideas section about what exactly grassroots governing really means. If you haven't yet gotten a chance to read it, I recommend checking it out.

I think he spends a little too much time talking about the ballot initiative process as a grassroots tool in the article. While you could certainly say that the gay marriage ballot is the product of a grassroots movement, I don't think you could say the same about the ballot initiatives we voted on just this past November. Does anyone really think that Question 1, which would have allowed wine to be sold in grocery stores, was the product of a public clamoring for such sales? If it were, I imagine that it would have passed.

In any event, the most important part of the article, in my opinion, comes at the end, where Denison makes the point that there's more to encouraging an engaged grassroots than just getting people to vote.

Nevertheless, [Benjamin] Barber, who directs CivWorld, a New York-based organization that promotes democratic innovation, contends that a governor must take a bold approach if he wants to expand citizen democracy. The answer, Barber says, is in moving beyond "let the people vote."
[ . . . ]
"Part of the point of direct democracy and strong democracy is not just to get citizens to vote on things but to get individuals to turn into citizens," Barber says. "And that's a process that is more than just about voting."
This is particularly relevant in light of the Civic Engagement community meeting I attended last week. Blue Mass Group has posted the transcript of that meeting and Charley has his thoughts on the meeting as well. What struck me was how much of the testimony focused on increasing voter registration or voting machines and how little of it focused on how to get people more involved in their communities. To my recollection, only one person's testimony gave us any examples of what they did to get people involved locally. While certainly voting is an important part of civic engagement, I would argue that it is the bare minimum required of citizens in a democracy and when Patrick talked about a return to civic life, I feel like he was talking about what we as citizens can do for ourselves, not what programs or reforms the government should enact to encourage them to come out on election day. The classic anecdote he would tell was that of Ms. Jones, the neighbor who would whup you just as if you were one of her own children. This was a community where people looked out for each other, not where the government looked out for them.

Denison speaks to this aspect of civic engagement at the end of the annotated version of his article (though, if you're going to annotate something on the web, Dave, you may want to make your footnotes into links):
Patrick's rhetoric was mostly that of a "civic republican." Perhaps he's closer to Harvard government professor Michael Sandel than to Ben Barber in his thinking. As Sandel writes in Democracy's Discontent (1996), "the republican tradition emphasizes the need to cultivate citizenship through particular ties and attachments . . . [which requires] a concern for the whole, an orientation to the common good." That's Patrick's language, too.
This, I think, is that part of civic engagement that can help Patrick deliver on his promises. The more people who are involved in local civic organizations, the more likely that they are to be filling the needs of the community that are currently unmet by the state. If my experience is any indicator, Patrick has already had some success in this area. Previous to my work on the campaign, I was not particularly involved in local issues here in Watertown. Now that I've met so many people in town, I've started not only becoming involved more locally, but also donating to local causes. This is the sort of civic engagement that I imagine the governor-elect is most concerned with.

As an aside, I really do like the idea of authors posting their own annotated work on the web. That's a great use of the Internet! Kudos to Dave Denison for taking advantage of the medium.