Everyday Politics

1) What is “everyday politics” as defined and practice by Boyte and Smith?  How does it relate (or not) to what we know about democracy and populism?

2) What are the strengths and weaknesses of the “everyday politics” that Harry Boyte describes?  Why do these strengths and weaknesses matter?

3) Based on these readings–and earlier ones–what does civic agency look like?


I believe Boyte said it best on page 36, “Everyday politics involves people reclaiming politics as an activity owned and engaged in by citizens, in environments that reach far beyond the formal political system”. He also goes on to say that politics has historically always been about bringing diverse ideologies together to form a broad based coalition. Groups of like minded individuals have no place in everyday politics and result in only professional politicians participating in a democracy. “[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.” (pg37)

Smith upholds this regard when he describes how it is necessary to reach out to others when “stoking the fire of democracy” on page 35 with “This chapter could be summed up, 1 + 1 > 2.” Smith repeatedly claims in his book how engaging with citizens and doing “work” – actual work like building parks, performing a sit in, making phone calls, meeting with government and other business people one-to-one, is the only way to truly instantiate real change. Observe, judge, act is his mantra, and he repeatedly enforces his belief that if you only intellectually observe and judge without working directly with and of the people you are trying to help, you will not truly succeed in affecting long lasting change.

So far, Boyte and Smith seem to resonate with Lasch and Goodwyn in terms of “the people” performing work for themselves rather than an over-educated group of liberal elites telling everyone what is best for them. Lasch decries the liberal ideals and Goodwyn doesnt believe populist movements sprouted from communitarianism or liberalism, but from ordinary citizens recognizing their ability to institute change. All four of these cited authors believe that the ideals of democracy, the actions of populism and the belief in a common good hinge upon citizen action and public work.  Communitarianism, while pure in its intent to provide for the common good, does not include enough mutual self-interest and the people involved are simply going through the motions of doing “good” things. Liberals wish to separate leaders from the populous and provide a counterweight against conformity (and the promotion of individual rights) and big business consumerism in a zero sum game of “we know whats best for you”.

The strengths of everyday politics lie in its ability to engage people to work together for the common good of mutual self-interest. Mutual self-interest is at the heart of every human interaction. Without mutual self-interest, ideas and actions fade or are never implemented at all. Because everyday politics is already addressing this requirement by stating it crosses idealogical boundaries (religious, cultural, economical) its strength is recognized from the very beginning.

Everyday politics strengths include breaking from the technological techniques used by professionals to wield power over others. Everyday politics is just that, political engagements you have with other people everyday.  One doesnt use techniques or leverage their friends and family when deliberating over whether or not an after school program should be funded and staffed. Political engagements happen all the time outside of partisan debates or arguments falling along party lines. I believe, the reason so many people are so disgusted with congress and the government in general, is because they know they are not correctly practicing “everyday politics”.

While the strengths are especially strong because they are obvious, the weaknesses are also quite deadly. Power. The word only seems to be used either when talking about physical power (force, electricity) or how another group or person is taking advantage of other persons. Power is associated with dominance and corruption. When you use the word in a political context, it can influence the audience to believe you are engaging them to gain something.

Because of this, the participants in everyday politics refuse to embrace or even admit that they have power. The power of everyday politics comes from again, mutual self-interest. When people can engage each other politically, that is to say, across cultural and religious boundaries, they then have combined power to institute action and real change. Unfortunately, this power is seldom recognized and the everyday politics we all partake in, fade into apathy and indifference. There are other weaknesses too. Without a sense of mutually self-interested power, people can become separated from each other to the point of disinterest and disengagement. Why bother to work hard “crossing boundaries” when the outcome always falls short?

How can you institute leadership in a world of everyday politics knowing that power must be both mutually self-interested by all involved and also taken? The answer spells out why the strengths and weaknesses matter in everyday politics. Overcoming those weaknesses requires an understanding that while power must be taken, it is taken by the whole and not the one.

Civic agency is the result everyday politics. Civic agency is individuals acting to uphold a common good and progress towards a greater world. However, it is not utopian. Civic agency is work. It is observation, judgement and action. It is the simple recognition that when everyone does better – everyone does better, and that everyone includes you and me.  It is not utilitarian or Kantian or minimal liberalist or conservative or libertarian. It is all of those things and none of those things at the same time. Civic agency is participation in one-to-one interactions with real people, people who make up the society and produce happiness for themselves and everyone else.