Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Democratic Power & Potential of Civic Agency in Obama's Campaign


An important and perceptive article on the U.S. Democratic Party primary election by academic critics and political analysts in South Africa that outlines and confirms precisely what I and many others have been saying from the very beginning about the programmatic, strategic, and tactical dimensions (as well as larger ideological implications) of Obama's mass participatory and community based grass-roots campaign vis-a-vis Clinton's traditional and fundamentally authoritarian top-down micromanagement style (all italics and bold face type in article are mine)...


Obama Presents Decisive Choice Not Only to U.S.
Business Day (Johannesburg)

25 March 2008

By Harry Boyte And Peter Vale
Johannesburg, South Africa

A PHRASE that US presidential hopeful Barack Obama has used in several speeches -- "We are the ones we've been waiting for" -- comes from a song of the American civil rights movement. It has an interesting link with SA, having been inspired by June Jordan's The Poem for South African Women, which commemorated the August 9 1956 Women's March to Pretoria.

And the way it is resonating in the buildup to the US presidential election suggests that civic agency, the form of politics it has captured, has relevance to SA. Civic agency politics views citizenship as active, informed and skilful participation.

Bernice Johnson Reagon composed the song, We Are The Ones, in the early 1960s. It became a rallying cry of the freedom movement, capturing the spirit of citizenship and freedom schools, which trained blacks in skills of collective action. These skills fed into the community organising movement that shaped Obama as a young organiser in Chicago. Today, civic agency and self-empowerment are the secret of Obama's appeal.

Commentators who miss the point about this form of self-empowerment invariably mischaracterise the US civil rights movement. A case in point was the debate in January's New Hampshire primary election about which leader, Martin Luther King or Lyndon Johnson, should get credit for civil rights achievements. As King often acknowledged, the power of the movement came not from great leaders but rather from ordinary men and women in communities who saw themselves as agents of change.

Civic agency is different from most forms of citizen action, which take the form of mass mobilisation. These strategies are all largely formulaic: find a target to demonize, stir up emotion with inflammatory language, and create a "script" defining the issue in terms of good and evil. The activist experiences of the Clintons have always been closely associated with this approach.

In contrast, Obama and other broad-based citizen organising networks made up of religious congregations, trade unions and other civic groups, emphasise organising rather than mobilising. This involves an intense focus on developing the public skills and talents of citizens. Members of broad-based organisations are taught to understand human complexity. Activists become skilled at creating what are called "public relationships", overcoming differences for the sake of effective public action. They are encouraged to think in long-term and strategic ways.

Organisers pay close attention to local cultures and networks. Their overall goal is not simply to win victories but also to foster what Doran Schrantz, a leader in Obama's old organising network, calls people's "public growth".

So, the idea of civic agency shapes not only Obama's message of "a different kind of politics", but also his entire operation. This partly explains why his campaign has been far more attentive to local cultures, social networks and the building of public relationships than have other recent contests within the Democratic Party. Skilful organising and faith in citizen agency, far more than Obama's personal charisma, is the reason for the large voter turnout he has inspired.

Are there lessons for SA in this?

Since the late 1970s, a pervasive culture of "customer service" has become the dominant motif of government throughout the world. Notwithstanding the recent genuflection towards the idea of a "developmental state", South African policy discourse is shot through with the logic of management and delivery. As a result, South Africans are more prone to ask, "What can I get?" than, "How can I help solve public problems?" Not only has this left them powerless, but it has undermined the buoyancy once found in vital corners the country's civic life -- the unions, the universities, the churches.

South African democracy is certainly poorer by this retreat of citizens from the everyday decisions which determine their individual and collective futures.

It will of course take far more than a US presidential campaign to change this trend in SA and, indeed, elsewhere.

But the power of civic agency is certainly on the rise -- Obama's success shows that ordinary people can respond to the message that they can become responsible, powerful architects of their lives and shapers of their environments.

The choice between Obama and Clinton is the choice between a new kind of politics based on civic agency and the politics of division and fear based on consumerism. It is the choice between a citizen-driven and an expert-driven world. It is also a choice between democracy and control by the rich, the powerful and the expert.

Boyte is founder and co-director of the Centre for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota and author of the forthcoming The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference. Vale is the Nelson Mandela Professor of Politics, Rhodes University, and professor in the department of politics and international relations at Macquarie University, Sydney.

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