Rebuilding the Commonwealth

Throughout most of American history, democracy depended for its vitality on the sense that people created it. The notion that government was "the people's" was expressed in the idea that America was a commonwealth. Today, America is in danger of dismantling even the idea of public things. Market efficiency and privatization are watchwords throughout government. Citizens have been redefined as consumers of government services. Political campaigns resemble the selling of toothpaste.

In stark contrast, the commonwealth conveyed a view of democracy as the creation of the whole people, whose efforts wove together an overarching unity from a vast multiplicity of cultures, backgrounds, and interests. Today, we need a revival of a commonwealth understanding of politics that values the well-being of the whole and that sustains public goods of many kinds.

There is much discussion of strategies for progressive politics. Should there be a new party, free of special interest ties? What is the relationship between electoral politics and organizing? But the larger question is how to regenerate a democratic movement within varied sectors and institutions in America, in which citizens once again take on strong identities as "producers" of the commonwealth and government is grounded in the life and work of the people.

During the 1996 presidential election, on both sides of the aisle, the momentum was overwhelmingly toward protecting private wealth, not building commonwealth. But here and there political leaders articulate a commonwealth approach. This is the perspective of Elizabeth Kautz, mayor of Burnsville, Minnesota.

Kautz ran her campaign on a slogan that confounded the opposition: "Government doesn't have to be bad!" What she meant was that all people potentially contribute to the community through their public work. Government should best be seen as the people's instrument. "All of us together need to do the work of the public," Kautz said. "Government can help. It can be a catalyst. But in an era of limited resources and great challenges, I can't pretend to fix things anymore, and neither can anybody in government."

For instance, when a group of teen-age skateboarders were repeatedly in trouble for skating downtown and in school buildings, Kautz asked them what could change the dynamic. "If you get us a skateboard park, we'll stop skating where we're not supposed to," they replied. Kautz told them, "I'm not going to 'get' anything for you—that's not how I see my job. I will work with you to open some doors. But you're going to have to organize the community yourselves."

In 1995 and 1996, the teen-agers, working with several adults, negotiated agreements with neighborhoods, city agencies, businesses, and insurance companies and slowly gained support from the city. After a year, the city council—initially opposed to the idea of a skateboard park—voted unanimously to support their plan.

FROM ONE ANGLE, Burnsville's story of Kautz and the skateboarders seems dwarfed by the huge issues of global economics or the environment. But in an important way it represents precisely the right example. Today, we need a multitude of leaders of all ages: elected officials, civil servants, and leaders outside of government who recall America's tradition and practices of government of the people and by the people. We need an ethos for a public service that has dignity, spirit, and a larger rationale that is impossible to achieve with a customer-service mentality.

Political renewal like this requires associations that are more "organizing" and "educational" in nature than they are electoral. The vast lecture circuit of the populists, the farmer-labor educational associations of the 1930s, and the grassroots citizenship-education program of the 1960s civil rights movement—all were examples of democratic movement building. How such a network is created cannot be blueprinted in advance. It needs wide conversation engaging different perspectives and voices.

Renewal of a commonwealth democracy faces enormous barriers, including power structures that are far more complicated than older forms of concentrated wealth and privilege. Earlier generations fought enemies like robber barons, segregation, and economic royalists that opposed labor organizing. Today, hierarchies of knowledge, specialization of experts, and the power of multinational corporations stand in the way.

If there are difficulties, there are also new possibilities. Americans know that the public things upon which we depend are not working well today. People hunger for work with larger meaning. Moreover, in an information age, ideas become critical forms of power.

Democratic renewal will require catalyzing discussion about the central ideas of democracy: The current state of democracy reflects the nation's very soul. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, it is "a great unfinished task," ours to create anew in every generation.

NANCY KARI and HARRY BOYTE are co-authors of Building America: The Democratic Promise of Public Work (Temple Press, 1996).

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