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Neither ‘nurturing mother’ nor ‘alien force,’ government of the people needs a rebirth

June 24, 2010

This op-ed by Harry Boyte was originally published in the June 24, 2010, Pioneer Press. Boyte is co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and author of “The Citizen Solution – How You Can Make a Difference” (Minnesota Historical Society Press). He co-chaired the civic engagement group in the Obama campaign.

The fall governor’s race in Minnesota offers a chance to bring back the genuinely populist politics which created the “Minnesota Miracle.” But it will be up to everyone to make it real. Both Democrats and Republicans have forgotten the essence of this politics–productive citizenship in which government is partner of citizens in addressing our problems. A campaign built on renewed citizenship would be far different than the pro or anti-government approaches that now dominate.

There is no better formulation of the authentic populist philosophy than Abraham Lincoln’s. Lincoln called for government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” In his formulation government was not simply for the people. It was embedded in the life of communities, of the people. And it was meeting ground and instrument of the people, by the people.

Many Minnesota Republicans have followed in Lincoln’s tradition. Elmer Andersen, two-time governor, was an eloquent champion of the commonwealth of civic goods, reaching far beyond government, that all are responsible for creating and taking care of. Al Quie, governor in the early 1980s, has spent his entire career promoting citizenship and citizen involvement.

In contrast, Tom Emmer, who defeated Marty Seifert for the Republican Party’s gubernatorial nomination, is often called a populist, but this label reduces populism to being an anti-government outsider.

“We need leaders who have a lifetime of experience outside of government,” he said. He proposes reducing government 20 percent. Emmer portrays government as an alien force robbing private citizens of hard-earned tax dollars to do with whatever it likes. His vision resembles a hotel where people decorate their apartments while the building collapses.

Democrats in recent years have differed with Emmer on taxes, immigration, and the size of government. But like him, they have neglected active citizenship. The Democratic message has largely been what government can do for citizens, not how it can work with them. Their view of the citizen-as-consumer has been championed through Democratic ranks by consultants like Mark Penn, chief strategist for Bill Clinton in 1996 and Hillary Clinton in 2008, and George Lakoff, who proposes describing government as like a nurturing mother.

This message of government that takes care of us was reinforced by the reinventing government initiative in the Clinton years, which defined citizens as customers and the role of government agencies as customer service. It is also sustained by a larger culture of detached expertise, the view that experts know best not only in government but in many institutions.

The expert-knows-best culture has spread across Minnesota in recent years, weakening civic life. Local businesses have been replaced with giant box stores. Schools have redefined students as consumers. The local YMCA traded community problem-solving efforts for racket ball courts.

But there are signs of discontent with this state of affairs, and the time may be ripe for change. Research by the think tank Demos has found that the liberal customer-service framework does not work, especially with swing and independent voters. When people are treated as consumers, they are likely to become angry shoppers, not citizens concerned with the commonwealth.

Demos also found that an alternative framework of government as a meeting ground to solve problems generates far more positive sentiments.

Such findings suggest rebirth in the Minnesota tradition of citizen partnership with government. Minnesota Democratic leaders as well as Republicans like Anderson and Quie, once understood the importance of such partnership, and saw it rooted in locally owned businesses, VFW halls, farmer cooperatives, union locals, schools and many other settings.

In a 1952 Senate debate, Humphrey argued that small businesses and family farms are crucial not because they produced cheaper goods, but because they “produced good citizens, and good citizens are the only hope of freedom and democracy.” He asked, “Do we want an America where the economic marketplace is filled with a few giants? Or do we want an America where there are thousands upon thousands of small entrepreneurs, independent businessmen, and landholders who can stand on their own feet and talk back to their government or to anyone else?” Humphrey translated this philosophy into a consistent challenge to voters who asked him to fix things. “Government isn’t supposed to do all of this,” he said in 1967 in Phoenix in response to a voter who urged him to fix politics. “If you think politics is corrupt, get your bar of political Ivory soap and clean it up.”

This message animated the Obama campaign in the 2008 election, expressed succinctly in “yes we can.” In Springfield, Ill., on Feb. 10, 2007, announcing his campaign, Barack Obama said, “This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose.” As he campaigned in the Iowa caucuses, he described his experiences as a community organizer. “In church basements and around kitchen tables, block by block, we brought the community together, fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with some measure of dignity.”

He said that “active citizenship… will be a cause of my presidency.”

This message resonated in Minnesota. After the election, the president’s language shifted from “we” to “I,” showing the power of Washington to reshape even the best of intentions.

A message of active citizenship in 2010 would present a radical alternative to the culture of “Me First” spreading across the state and the nation — “radical” in the original sense of the word, return to roots, not left or right. And like an invisible process of re-vegetation, a generation of community-building institutions and citizen efforts has begun to create foundations of a revitalized civic culture and populist politics, with potential broad appeal across party lines.

We can’t wait for candidates to issue this call on our behalf. We the voters also need to champion a rebirth of citizenship and citizen-government partnership, using the forums of the 2010 governor’s race to make the case. If we do, we could lay foundations for a new civic “Miracle,” one needed desperately not only in the state but also in the nation.

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