Book Club Final Week: Constructive Politics as Public Work

Our summer book club on Democratizing Deliberation comes to a close this week, with Harry Boyte’s chapter “Constructive Politics as Public Work: Organizing the Literature.” Like Harry, this week’s chapter leader, Wendy Willis, is an extraordinary leader in her own right — Wendy is Executive Director of the Policy Consensus Initiative and Deputy Director for Research of the National Policy Consensus Center.

Chapter Summary from Wendy Willis…

It’s an honor to bat cleanup for the inaugural NCDD book club and to have the opportunity to reflect on Harry Boyte’s fine chapter on constructive politics as public work. And, really what a rangy and imaginative chapter it is! It travels from 11th century Holland to post-genocide Rwanda, from rock star German sociologist Jürgen Habermas to the New Yorker’s George Packer, with twists and turns and stories along the way, each of them challenging us to be more ambitious in how we conceive of—and nurture—civic agency.

With his discursions amongst the various strands of active citizenship, Boyte brings to the surface a deep current of democratic theory and practice, a current that he captures in the term “public work.” As he puts it, “citizens need ways to reconstruct the world, not simply to improve its decision-making processes.” (155) And further, “public work”—and its companion concept “civic agency”—focus on “the productive, not simply [the] distributive, side of politics, including creating the commons, shared resources of a common life.” (155)

In short, he argues that democracies require citizens to co-create their shared environment and that we—we citizens—cannot wait on our sofas for either the government or the “great leader” to come along and build the world that we want to live in. And, because I had the opportunity to speak to Harry recently about his provocative work, he spelled it out very clearly: “From my vantage, deliberation is best used as a single dimension of ‘civic agency.’ It is important, but not enough to transform our institutions.”

His vision of civic work is a kind of loud, gritty and politically pragmatic version of communal labor that can be found across the world. He cites examples from Kenya and Ecuador, as well as New Mexico and Oaxaca. It most certainly is not a wan call for “voluntarism” or “community service.” It is a fully realized and active version of shared decision-making, followed by shared implementation rooted in the practical imperatives of sustaining a way of life together, across differences.

With this robust, empowered, and somewhat messy notion of citizenship, Boyte explicitly calls out the limits of deliberative politics. He questions the Habermasian theory—one that I am quite susceptible to—that institutions, including the government, are “impervious to change.” (159) He argues that we can—and indeed must—generate new and transformative narratives for our shared visions, challenges, and institutions. We must resist stories that disempower and make invisible the work of people joined together in common purpose, and we must produce and reproduce stories that generate creativity, empowerment, and resilience.

Boyte asserts that those stories are central to reconceiving ourselves as public actors saturated with civic agency. Extrapolating from the work of John Holland on complex adaptive systems, Boyte argues that political resilience requires us to embrace and reflect, rather than reduce the world’s complexity. As he puts it, “Politics, like poetry, is partly about complex interpretative acts, concerned with meaning, purpose, justice, and even beauty… Politics adds practical concerns for getting things done in a world of plurality.” (164)

Now, it’s not all unicorns and rainbows in Boyte’s world of democracy fueled by public work. Not at all. He acknowledges that industrial specialization and the cynical use of the consumer-based model of citizenship have stunted our civic imaginations and socialized whole professions to see themselves outside a common civic life. And, he argues that the “mass politics” advanced by many progressive movements reinforces a “consumer conception of the person as concerned with individual appetites and needs.” (168)

Despite a clear-eyed explication of those challenges, Boyte asserts that there are traditional and emerging resources for us to draw on in expanding the practice of public work in self-governance, including:

  1. Historical examples of decentralized economies and decision-making;
  2. Well-tested practices of broad-based organizing;
  3. Pressure generated by complex and urgent problems; and
  4. Emerging theoretical foundations for “civic professionalism, based on the thesis that democracy is best understood as a “society,” not a government-centered system of governance, and professionals of all kinds are also “citizens,” co-creators of such a society working with fellow citizens who bring immense, often overlooked talents to the table.

Boyte observes that examples of public work are sprouting up around the world. But that those outposts of civic agency can be fragile and susceptible to sloganeering and institutional co-optation. Central to these risks is the question of how we strengthen, support and protect promising instances of public work. As Boyte probed during our conversation, he asked: “What are the places and institutions that can serve as centers of democratic power, sustainable foundations for civic agency?” Indeed. What are they? And, so I turn that question back to you, along with some others. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

  1. What are some compelling cases of civic work that you know of? How can those models be strengthened and expanded upon?
  2. At what scale is the concept of “public work” most promising?
  3. What are the places and institutions that can serve as centers of democratic power, sustainable foundations for civic agency?
  4. How do you see—or not see—public work as a frame for empowering citizens to transform our institutions?

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