Category Archives: citizen participation

A Cause Larger Than Self

I disagree with many policy positions of John McCain (among them, his being anti-abortion, appointing judges who would fail to protect Americans’ rights, lack of environmental concern, believing that cheap oil will help solve our longer climate-crisis problems, tax cuts for the wealthy, etc.).   But McCain did sound two notes in his convention speech last night in St. Paul with which I heartily agree (although I shy away from his bellicose imagery): the notion that our gridlock in Washington stems from self-interested politicians and the fact that regardless of our government in power, we all owe it to ourselves to change that with which we disagree.  His notion that if you disagree with government you should work to change it, deeply parallels our suggestion #70 in 150 things to do to build social capital (“When somebody says “government stinks,” suggest they help fix it.”)

Two snippets of McCain’s speech:

1) “The constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving these problems isn’t a cause. It’s a symptom. It’s what happens when people go to Washington to work for themselves and not for you.”

2) “My country saved me [speaking of his experience as a tortured MIA soldier in Vietnam]. My country saved me, and I cannot forget it. And I will fight for her for as long as I draw breath, so help me God.

“My friends, if you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you’re disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them….

“Become a teacher. Enter the ministry. Run for public office. Feed a hungry child. Teach an — an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed.

“Our country will be the better, and you will be the happier, because nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself.

“….And with hard work, strong faith, and a little courage, great things are always within our reach.

“Fight with me. Fight with me.

“Fight for what’s right for our country. Fight for the ideals and character of a free people.

“Fight for our children’s future. Fight for justice and opportunity for all.

“Stand up to defend our country from its enemies. Stand up for each other, for beautiful, blessed, bountiful America.

“Stand up, stand up, stand up, and fight.

“Nothing is inevitable here. We’re Americans, and we never give up.

I must admit I still heavily favor Barack Obama and having been burnt by George W.’s meaningless claim that he would be a “compassionate conservative”, I am naturally distrustful of McCain’s rhetoric.  Moreover, Republicans have had 8 years in power and McCain voted with Bush 95% of the time in 2007 and 100% of the time in 2008, according to Congressional Quarterly.  With most of the same Senators and Representatives likely returning to Washington, I am skeptical that McCain could achieve real meaningful change even if he wanted to.  But I do agree that we all have the power to refashion a better and more engaged America, and it is at least refreshing to hear from the bully pulpit that we have larger duties to our country than shopping (as George W. suggested).

While we’re on shout-outs, a hearty praise to Barack Obama’s wonderful nomination acceptance speech In Denver last week and his assertion to open the doors to higher education for those who serve our nation.  “[W]e will keep our promise to every young American: If you commit to serving your community or our country, we will make sure you can afford a college education.”  It echoes a promise made by Bill Clinton in the “rights and responsibilities” mode when he first promised AmeriCorps in the 1992 presidential campaign, although the reality that he and we were able to achieve on AmeriCorps was far smaller than Clinton’s promise (not nearly all young people, and they only got a $4,725 educational voucher for their year of service).   Let’s hope that Obama is better able to fulfill his vision; our ability to compete in the global economy will depend on the better education of our citizenry (see Glaeser Op-Ed “The Dream for a Human Capital Agenda“, Boston Globe, 9/5/08).  It is also worth noting two things: 1) that the World War II GIs who went to college through the G.I. Bill were extraordinarily grateful to their country and would up paying back in the country in so many ways beyond their higher earnings; and 2) more educated Americans tend to be more socially and civicly involved so this education-through-service approach is likely to further enhance America’s social capital.  [For more information on Barack and national service, see this earlier post.]

On the theme of McCain/Obama and civic engagement, both candidates have mini essays in the current issue of Teaching Tolerance:  Obama writes in Choices for a Rising Generation:”[A]t this historic moment, we must ask our rising generation to serve their country…. Because that’s how real change has always come — from ordinary people coming together to do extraordinary things.” In A More Peaceful and Prosperous World, McCain writes, “After 9/11, leaders in Washington missed an opportunity to call young people to service. Young men and women, who are willing to give of themselves and sacrifice, want a leader who will ask something of them.”  [And see Sabrina Karim's critiques of these essays.]

And one final un-related note on the conventions:  I think Rudoph Giuliani would be a bit less nasty and more effective if he actually had served as a community organizer (a hallowed role that he mocks).  If Sarah “Barracuda” Palin is the pitbull in lipstick, Giuliani is just a plain old pitbull (or pitbully) and it makes one realize why so many New Yorkers disliked him when he was Mayor.

The impact of deliberation on participation and trust: evidence from CaliforniaSpeaks

AmericaSpeaks organized a multi-site day of participatory meetings across the state of California in August, 2007 on health care, called CaliforniaSpeaks. Like the ad slogan, *Not your father’s Oldsmobile*, this is not your father’s public hearing. AmericaSpeaks wired the different sites together and wired small tables into a central software system that let individuals converse in small groups but also be cognizant of what all the other small tables were discussing both in their site and others. More specifically, “some 3500 Californians convened in eight sites across California: San Diego, Riverside, Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Fresno, Oakland, Sacramento, and Eureka. The eight sites were linked to one another through voice and data connections so that, in a sense, the event was one very large meeting.”

Taeku Lee, an outsider and associate professor at Berkeley, was invited to observe the event and examine its impact. He concluded that:

  • As a group, participants’ substantive discussions about health care priorities and reform proposals reflected a high degree of sophistication and closely matched the two reform proposals that were
    ultimately submitted to the state legislature.
  • Participants’ opinions on health care reform itself, however, changed very little as a consequence of the deliberative event, or five months after the event.
  • Participants’ views about politics itself changed more significantly – specifically, their trust in government and their political efficacy increased appreciably.
  • Participants’ level of political engagement – at least on the issue of health care reform – rises markedly as a consequence of the deliberative event.

To see Taeku’s whole post, click here. It was especially interesting to see Taeku’s 3rd and 4th bullet points. One wonders whether there is a multiplier effect on these changes. Does the increased trust, for example, in government extend only to those participating in these events, which while large in terms of public meetings is tiny compared to the state of California? Or conversely, as they discuss this with family, friends, colleagues, does the impact of the increased trust extend out to others? Similarly, does their increased sense of efficacy enable them to persuade others to get involved?

Note: they have an interesting control group, people who said they were going to come but then didn’t show up. However, as one should note, there may be differences between these two groups beyond their exposure to the CaliforniaSpeaks event. It might be that the the no-showers are less trusting or efficacious people in general, or more likely to lack commitment. It could be something about these people that both caused them not to show up at the meeting and to show less trust and efficacy than the people who did attend the CaliforniaSpeaks meeting.