Conventional wisdom misses the mark on the election

I am convinced that conventional wisdom misses the mark on what will determine the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. The key will not be toughness, experience, or a message of hope. Rather, it will revolve around whether any of the candidates gives flesh to civic agency.

Civic agency means the development of people’s capacity to be agents and architects of their own lives, shapers of their communities, and collaborators with others who are different on common challenges. It is different than service.

All three of the remaining candidates for president, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, are strong proponents of national and community service, which they identify with citizenship. Obama and Clinton both propose new initiatives to help students pay off college tuition or loans in return for community or civil service, such as work in food shelters and nursing homes. For years, John McCain has forcefully argued that all Americans, not simply those in the military, must do their part.

“It's a mistake, I think, to believe that...Americans do not love their country and aren't motivated to fix what is wrong,? he declared immediately after 9/11. “The growth of local volunteerism and the outpouring of sentiment for ‘the greatest generation’ suggest a different explanation: that Americans hunger for patriotic service to the nation, but do not see ways to personally make a difference. What is lacking today is not a need for patriotic service, nor a willingness to serve, but the opportunity.? McCain has proposed a variety of programs to expand service opportunities.

When service initiatives help to rebuild face to face relationships and strengthen values of caring and responsibility, they contribute to a culture of citizenship. But in our age of credentialed experts and technocratic power, service programs can also be disempowering. They can reinforce tendencies to see people as needy clients or as oppressed victims in need of rescue. They can turn civic meeting grounds such as local schools and congregations into service delivery operations for customers.

Service is not the same as civic agency, or people’s capacity for strong, powerful, productive public action. Civic agency draws attention to how people develop public skills and habits of action in open environments where there are no predetermined outcomes. Civic agency also emphasizes questions of public policy, institutional design and culture change - how environments can support and facilitate civic agency or undermine it.

There is growing knowledge about how government can help create environments that facilitate civic agency, at both the local level and in the work of federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Housing and Urban Development, and the Centers for Disease Control.

McCain, Clinton and Obama all have potential to draw on this knowledge and further develop policies that create environments which facilitate civic agency. John McCain often quotes the poem “Invictus? by William Ernest Henley, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.? He could deepen his challenge to “big government programs? that disempower people by drawing on the extensive research of the American Enterprise Institute’s Mediating Structures Project in the 1970s and 1980s, which looked at the ways professional systems undermine the authority and vitality of families, neighborhoods, ethnic groups and religious congregations. The project also advanced alternative approaches which support mediating structures between the individual and the large forces of the world (see To Empower People: From State to Civil Society). Hillary Clinton could explain how her long-time interest in bottom up economic measures such as micro-lending could be developed in broader economic terms.

For Barack Obama, fleshing out the theme of agency is perhaps the most urgent. He has conveyed the message that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,? from the freedom movement song of SCLC’s Citizenship Education Program in the 1960s (see A Defining Moment, the Mar. 4 op-ed by New York Times columnist David Brooks). He has told stories of being a community organizer. His web site declares, “I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to make change in Washington. ... I'm asking you to believe in yours." But Obama has yet to show how his public policies can help citizens to become powerful agents of change and partners with government on issues like education, health, or global warming. After last Tuesday’s primary defeats, the temptation will be for him to fall back into more typical liberal approaches of government programs to fix our problems and attack politics. If he follows this path, his hopeful message could well fade in a fearful public climate and in the face of candidates who are highly skilled in stoking fears and a sense of dependency. The only real antidote to fear is powerful action, in which people can imagine themselves as agents of change in their environments.

Civic agency is a way of thinking – and a way of life - that Americans are hungry for and will respond to.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs