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Healing the broken society

March 26, 2010

This post was written by Harry Boyte, founder and co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship.

“The United States is becoming a broken society,” wrote David Brooks in his March 18 column for the New York Times.“The public has contempt for the political class,” he continued. “Public debt is piling up at an astonishing and unrelenting pace. Middle-class wages have lagged. Unemployment will remain high. It will take years to fully recover from the financial crisis.”

What is most notable about the column is that Brooks traces our crisis to the centralization of power in government and economic institutions alike.

Citing the British writer Phillip Blond, Brooks argues that the political left has promoted individual freedom and ignored mediating institutions like families, community groups and local associations. A welfare revolution has taken place in which “social workers displaced mutual aid societies and self-organized associations,” wrote Brooks. Meanwhile the political right has promoted a wave of deregulation, in which “giant chains like Wal-Mart decimated local shop owners,” continued Brooks. “Global financial markets took over small banks, so that the local knowledge of a town banker was replaced by a manic herd of traders thousands of miles away. Unions withered.”

Both left and right have talked the language of personal freedom and change, but the result has been greater centralization, “an atomized, segmented society…[in which] a bureaucratic, centralised state presides dysfunctionally over an increasingly fragmented, disempowered and isolated citizenry,” concluded Brooks.

This line of analysis points toward a meeting ground for people from the left and the right alike around a common effort to decentralize power and to recommunalize our society. Brooks suggests a few of the policy implications.

I would add that such change will also require a deep, sustained focus on our collective civic agency and a reconceptualization of democracy as our common public work. In this framework, government is not “them” out there, but rather “us,” the expression and instruments of our collective efforts to address our challenges.

Civil service with a stress on “civil” means people in government structures claim an identity as citizens working with fellow citizens, where citizens are not in a consumer role–asking government to do things or simply giving up and doing it themselves–but rather working in partnership with government. This model will take a lot of culture change and organizing to implement, but one can find rich precedents and small current efforts on which to build. It is the crucial change needed around the world in order for communities to flourish.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 26, 2010 11:36 am

    Brooks’ concern for our broken society is part of a growing chorus of pundits’ pleas for citizen fixes. Including Tom Friedman, who expressed a similar concern in his recent column.

    I agree with Harry that citizens should work together as solutions-producers, not passive consumers or, worse, detached complainers. In fact, I’m guessing such “real people” intentional and sustained efforts are the very fix media pundits would love to cover to prove their points.

    I point out small but powerful examples of citizens in Burnsville, Minnesota who have overcome political divisions to work together rebuilding community and cultural ties in my recent post “Pundits calling for real people passions” on the Nonpartisan/Nonidealogical Productive Dialogue blog. You can find it here: http://nonpartisanproductivedialogue.wordpress.com/

    Andrea Grazzini Walstrom
    Nonpartisan/Nonidealogical Productive Dialogue

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