Civic Agency in America, Past and Present

Americans live in an age of market driven anxiety.  There’s a fear of being poor, fear of disease, fear of corruptive governmental powers and fear that the common good is a thinly veiled advertising slogan for a political party.  With the fusion between corporations and government gaining strength, democracy is shifting towards becoming nothing more than mere ideology practiced by untrustworthy government officials. We are comfortable with corporate interests being responsible for our elected officials because it will provide us with more technology, more comfort, more information, and more happiness.  Advertising and product marketing to the greater public has become so pervasive in American society that advocating for the common good is considered narcissistic, self-serving, and socialist. The time for mutual self-interested organizing is upon us.

The fear of an untrustworthy government existed in the time leading up to the American Revolution as well.  Unlike today however, most middle-class colonists faced life or death situations in their everyday lives. While many were farmers, everyone had to rely on a stable monetary system to feed their families.  When the British Parliament, under King George III, banned the use of paper currency due to its devaluation from massive inflation, poor farmers left their family to fight the British Army despite there being no country to fight for.  Also, similar to the social centers of the Progressive Era, common ordinary men gathered within pubs and churches to organize themselves for social disobedience and eventually war. Not until the gentry was able to create the Continental Army and declare independence from England was there an opportunity for nationalistic pride like there is today – but the common man fought anyway.  Unfortunately, shortly thereafter the promise of a fair and just society based on democracy fell flat. Elite gentry men such as Robert Morris sought to oppress the new American citizen in nearly the same ways as the British had, by creating his own currency for his own private banks and working to eliminate the paper currency being circulated. The American Revolutionary war relocated elitist powers from English parliamentary members and Kings to affluent, property owning, merchant members of the gentry, and all it took was to for them to promise a democracy to an unorganized public.

The constitution declared, “all men are created equal”. Of course at the time “men” was understood to be white, property owning Christians, a bellwether of what was to become of American democracy in the years following the Revolution. Another prevailing theory was that a proper democracy required the elite gentry run it, and by 1788 the Federalists launched a campaign to create a “barrier against democracy” (Bouton, 171). This theory concluded the common man would never be capable of determining the leadership for services and property considered important to the security and welfare of the state, and that this responsibility should be granted to the adept and capable hands of the rich and powerful. The common man was once again poor and purposeless, caught in a vicious cycle of empty promises and a failure of leadership.

Christopher Lasch writes about how liberalism failed the fresh promises of democracy in the 1780’s and 90’s America in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.  Going against the older view by John Adams, “public virtue is the only foundation of republics” Lasch quotes James Wilson as saying, “a proper system of constitutional checks and balances would ‘make it advantageous even for bad men to act for the public good’”. The liberals of a newly created America believed the “principles of a society may be virtuous, though the individuals composing it are vicious” (Lasch, 94). Elite gentry agent Stephen Collins declared in 1786, “the people have become theaves and pirates, entirely destitute of honor”. Collins believed that “’the people’ had taken control of the government and were now using it to unleash their ‘madness’ upon gentlemen with a host of ‘abominable laws’” (Bouton, 172) This mistrust resulted in reduced public ownership of the democracy and a broader separation of power from the common man towards the elite property owning gentry. Unfortunately, this also meant common American citizens would experience a decline in representation and inaccessibility to capital and wealth. On the eve of the war for independence, colonial Pennsylvanians had approximately $5.30 in circulation for every person, but by 1790, it stood at $0.30 per person (Bouton, 91). This marked the beginning of liberalist ideals constituting an over reaching state in place of the previous single ruling dictatorial party, or monarchy.

Reducing the size of government has been the battle cry of conservative right-wing professional politics since the 1970’s and continues through today with organizations like the Tea Party and clock-watching libertarians. However, since they have failed to promote civic agency as a means to replace the services the government provides, and have grown the size of government in the areas of national defense and security, the movement falls short.  To them, the concept of a democratic public has turned from the pluralist values of the Progressive Era to that of the individual.  Individual service, not civic action, is promoted resulting in a largely disconnected democratic public driven to make change happen through volunteering rather than organizing. Instead of encouraging individuals to create groups to solve issues of social justice and make change for the common good, they encourage individuals to invent businesses that create jobs, goods and services that attempt to enhance the common good, leaving whomever can’t afford to participate to suffer alone.

The claim of replacing government services with private industry as a means to empower the people to progress the common good is paradoxical. Promoting the idea to replace one form of an over reaching institution driven by attempting democracy with one that is entirely profit driven and responsible for very little common good is not only shortsighted, but implies the problem only lies with having a government you don’t like. Corporations are not of, by, or for the people. Corporations exist with or without populist ideals, and corporations can only enact laws that benefit themselves (and especially not other competitive corporations), because to do otherwise would be unprofitable.

Although the destruction of grass roots organizations, civic agency and labor unions may have been the target of the Nixon and Reagan administrations, the standard that democracy is reliant upon federal economic policy was a result of the Great Depression, The New Deal, and World War II. As Michael Sandel points out in Democracy’s Discontent, “World War II brought a growing consensus that government should employ fiscal policy to assure full employment during times of peace as well as war.” (Sandel, 261)

After the Great Depression brought 30% unemployment, the Roosevelt administration attempted to use policies and controls, which were then ignored by industry giants. Next they tried to break up monopolies but the enforcement was fumbled. Finally, The New Deal was implemented by increasing the federal budget to record breaking levels with tax cuts and government works projects. “With the triumph of fiscal policy, the political economy of citizenship gave way to the political economy of growth and distributive justice.” (Sandel, 262) . The federal government invoked mass production during WWII and its ability to restore the economic status of America as a world power proved democracy would be forever linked with a consumer based economy. If America wasn’t going to make tanks to fight the Germans, they were going to make bread and automobiles to fight the communists. Mass production and the affluence it gifted was considered the strongest defense against socialist policies, even if it really only benefitted the few and not the many.

We can see the effects of this today. Corporations are more accountable to share holders than ethical practices, and government bailouts of failing banks due to risky investments are at an all time high. The corporation is fast becoming a citizen, and as Gerald Taylor writes, “Corporations are granted the same rights and opportunities to influence the spaces of democratic decision making as individual living citizens” (Taylor, 229). The phrase “it’s just business” is used in more and more situations involving the common good as our democracy slowly separates itself from the people and draws towards corporate industry.

The truth has become self-evident; the best government is one created and maintained by the people practicing civic agency to empower populist movements. These populist movements will come and go, some will remain unresolved and others will forever change the face of our society and world. Some movements will involve violence and instability, and others will require peace. This is the cycle of human understanding, and the gradual progressive increase in consideration and awareness of all human needs.

In general, politics are practiced during an election cycle, or when a scandal is reported, or when our government has to make decisions we feel will directly impact the future of our country. But as Harry Boyte points out in Everyday Politics “[everyday politics] requires learning the skills of negotiation among diverse interests among citizens of relatively equal standing, across partisan and other divisions, to accomplish tasks or to solve problems.” (Boyte, 37) Learning these skills requires what Stephen Smith points out in Stoking the fire of democracy when he writes about finding the “why” in an organizing project, “We must tell others what matters to us. We need to hear how it sounds to us and to them.” (Smith, 30) When we talk to each other about what matters to us, we are practicing everyday politics, the building blocks of our society and the crucible in which we can make change happen.

There are great examples of this personal engagement and practice of everyday politics during the progressive era, the most successful of them being social centers. Creating what Mattson calls a “democratic public” involved creating structures that gave everyone, not just the educated elite, an opportunity to practice everyday politics. Within a social center the people “decided what was to be debated and who was to do the debating”. (Mattson, 52) They provided a venue for political candidates to hear about issues outside of special interest groups “thus creating an institutional basis for the Progressive Era challenge to political corruption.” (Mattson, 57)

The corruption of government officials prior to the Progressive Era was included in The Omaha Platform and was a driving force for “The Peoples Party” of 1892. The rights of women, the commonwealth consisting of land ownership by those who could produce by it, and Black Populism were also core tenets of the larger movement overall. Although Black Populism was never truly accepted by The Farmers Alliance as evidenced in its constitution, “No person should be admitted as a member of this order except a white person over sixteen years of age” (Ali, 46), the creation of The Colored Farmers Alliance, The Colored Farmers Union and the Knights of Labor was to represent Black Populist ideas and initiatives. This was absolutely required at the time because most government officials chose to only represent a white constituency, a much more severe form of government corruption because it specifically denied American citizens representation based solely on their ethnic background.

The book “Free Spaces: The sources of democratic change in America” uses the example of Black churches during the apartheid American south as being a free space. According to Evans and Boyte, a free space is an “environment in which people are able to learn a new self-respect, a deeper and more assertive group identity, public skills, and values of cooperation and civic virtue” (Evans, 17) Black churches were free spaces because members could discuss and debate any topic they wished, learned about and practiced leadership, and worked collectively to make change happen.

Civic agency is grown from the free spaces that democracy and populism define. Civic agency is the action and tangible result of a free space.  Civic agency is as Dennis Donovan put it “power achieved through mutual self-interest” and in the space between private life and large-scale institutions lies the ability to find mutual self-interest.

Since the advent of the Internet and subsequent rise in social media, organizing has changed significantly. Now people can be engaged in causes thousands of miles away by producing a Youtube video, or by using a Twitter hashtag. Engagement is faster for organizers, but the same problem of lasting engagement in the cause persists, and because the issue is not locally visible, trust becomes more of a factor. Ella Baker was able to engage with people thousands of miles away, but only through a slow process of networking and working with local political offices. These days, anyone can reach out in hours not days to a broad constituency kept abreast of the latest happenings in the movement via Facebook.

But social media has also increased the rate at which terms like democracy and civic action are diluted. The increasing amount of information (based on both evidence and opinion) delivered to an all to eager public forces us to choose which bits of it to consume. This has changed not just the political landscape over the last few decades, but the public’s perception of democracy and civic agency.  The democratic public sees such terms right next to advertisements and useless news broadcasts.  Because we have to work less to get the information we need and desire, we actively participate less in our local, state and national communities. It’s just too easy to think someone else is going to get us what we need, and we aren’t often wrong. This is a recent change in America, as people fighting for what they need to survive have driven movements of times past.

Today people can easily communicate and share ideas with anyone they please. Unfortunately an understanding of what is best for the public or the common good can then be more easily filtered out. Population increase only exacerbates this as people are forced to be more and more selective with whom they communicate. Why care about the common good when I can keep in constant contact with only the people I like? How accurate will my thoughts of a common good be when the population has reached 310 million people? Historically, this connectedness was not possible. People had to spend time with people they didn’t like or people that didn’t agree with them, and then compromise. An understanding and appreciation for the common good was easier to obtain because people had no choice but to live within it. Today, it’s all too easy for people to separate themselves from the public and only focus on the people or things they care about. Ella Baker had to work with and for people she actively despised, and while organizers must still do this today, our democratic public has the option to ignore that which is not liked without fear of retribution.

Our town hall meeting on Free Spaces was a very effective way to build a power map. The attendees who came to the meeting had mutual self-interest in the topic being presented, and we could speak with them after about who else would be interested in the topic. There was even a chance they would become branches on our power map by discussing the issue with their mutually interested peers. We were all in this meeting space because we cared about and wanted to discuss an issue, not because we wanted to network or meet and greet, that was just a nice bonus. The one-to-one meetings also included building the power map as part of the discussion. The connections in a power map grow exponentially, but when you first start out it’s hard to see it. Power maps also reflect the objectivity in the issue or cause and present a populist face to the group. Power maps cannot center on a person or organization, they must center on an issue. Above all, power maps reflect the mutual self-interest that is so important in building lasting organizations.

The way forward presents itself. Face to face communication is still free to perform, and cannot be replaced by digital means. I found my one-to-one interviews with Augsburg professors and Harry Boyte to be some of the most meaningful learning experiences in my time at Augsburg, beyond anything I anticipated. There was no better way for us to have discussed the topics and ideas we shared. If we had the same discussion over email, SMS, or Facebook, the content would have appeared to be much more controversial and argumentative. I learned how to actively listen, and how to stay on topic so others would listen, I learned how to measure silence, and I gained a greater understanding for what we as a people have in common.  I’ve both conducted and taken job interviews, given lectures to classes as a software trainer, and presented to large groups at corporate events, but it was nothing like the very worthwhile one-to-one interviews. Our societies greatest opportunity for progress lies within its ability to find meaningful connections with its members.







Ali, Omar H. In the lions mouth : Black Populism in the New South, 1886-1900. University Press of Mississippi, 2010.

Bouton, Terry. Taming Democracy. New York , NY: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Boyte, Harry C. Everyday Politics : reconnecting citizens and public life. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Dewey, John. The Later Works, 1925 – 1953. Vol. 14. Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.

Evans, Sara M. and Boyte, Harry C. Free Spaces: the sources of democratic change in America. University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Lasch, Christopher. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Mattson, Kevin. Creating a democratic public. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University, 1998.

Sandel, Michael. Democracy’s Discontent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Smith, Stephen Noble. Stoking the fire of democracy. ACTA Publications, 2009.

Taylor, Gerald. Prometheus Unbound: Populism, The Property Question, and Social Invention. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University, 2012.