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We need the self-help politics of public work now more than ever

Two items in the news yesterday concerning Hillary Clinton illustrate aspects of the “mobilizing politics? that now tends to dominate in U.S. elections. One shows a good versus evil mindset. The other sees political leaders (and by extension, government) as rescuing people.

The first news item is an incident I witnessed, reported by Sam Stein in the Huffington Post (“Hillary Clinton on Southern Working Class Whites in 1995: Screw 'em?). Shortly before President Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union address, the administration held a Camp David summit on the future of democracy with several public intellectuals, myself included. At that meeting, during a discussion of voters who were voting Republican out of concern for social issues (so called Reagan Democrats), Hillary Clinton dismissed the whole group, saying “screw them.? I thought to myself, How ironic, since I knew that Hillary saw herself as a champion of poor and working class people like those she was dismissing. Her remark said more about the good versus evil mindset that dominated in progressive and activist circles than about her as an individual.

This mindset is rooted in the formula of mobilizing politics I described in my March 11 post.

As developed in techniques like the door to door canvass, direct mail and, recently, Internet mobilization efforts, mobilizing politics divides the world into good versus evil, whips up emotion, and shuts down critical thought. A final element is the implication that those doing the mobilizing will rescue people. Senator Clinton voiced this perspective in the Democratic debate in Philadelphia last night, when she said she had devoted her entire life to “empowering people.? Mobilizing politics is technocratic politics: control by well-intentioned but elitist experts who see themselves as separate from the people they are attempting to rescue.

A great challenge of our time is to develop an alternative to technocratic politics. We need a politics in which people are not empowered by leaders but rather empower themselves. At the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, we call this the politics of public work. Public work involves a mix of people who develop the capacities to work across differences as they solve problems and create things - material and cultural - of lasting civic value. Such a politics educates as it operates. People learn how to work with people they disagree with. They learn that everyone has their own self-interests and is profoundly complicated.

Public work also means seeing government and leaders as partners, not saviors. Government’s role is to provide tools and resources, to convene and to energize.

One can see signs of a new politics of public work. For instance, a 2004 book on poverty commissioned by the World Bank (“Culture and Public Action?), calls for a shift from “equality of outcome? to “equality of agency,? from expert-dominated Third World development to an approach in which development agencies create “enabling environments? and provide tools for poor people to navigate their own way out of poverty.

There are also traditions to build on. Msgr Geno Baroni, a much beloved architect of modern community organizing and Under Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Carter Administration, headed the Office of Neighborhood Self Help and reshaped government programs into resources for communities to use.

We need the self-help politics of public work now more than ever.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs