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February 10, 2005

Rebuilding democracy and civic engagement

Katrin Verclas riffs eloquently on Zephyr Teachout's America Offline: An Open Letter to the DNC, the ACLU (among others).  Both are worth a read if you're thinking about how revitalize democracy and civic participation.

Zephyr, drawing extensively on Theda Skocpol and her book and articles on the subject, says:

"Why aren’t more people involved in secular offline communities? Part of the answer is wrapped in the logistics of helping people connect, the hassle of finding regular physical spaces to meet in, a lack of federated community organizations, and a lack of aggressively marketed/evangelized options. The net can help solve all these problems."

I indeed believe that the Net helps.  Of course, that is my line of work.  I also think that people yearn for community that is political, but not partisan; that is genuinely cross-disciplinary and not focused on a narrow 'issue,' that is  alive and vibrant in the diversity of people and opinions present. 

That is why coffee shops are great good places -- community places where there is heterogeneity and life, where the conversations are not technical and tactical but wide-ranging and hence far more holistic.

Katrin goes on to ask:

What is the conceptual equivalent for the coffee shop for social change?  I am more and more beginning to think that narrow interest groups won't ever fulfill this function, the ability of the Web to connect for people on their narrow and special issues notwithstanding. Call me a cynic.

In short, I do not believe that getting people out for 'Rights Night' will not revive civic life or really make that much of a difference, if that is what Zephyr is after.  Nor do I think that a lot of narrow issues generate the kind of mass mobilization necessary to sway issues, especially not when they are highly technical and complicated, and when there is little ostensible connection of a particular bill or rule to people's actual daily lives.

I am also personally not interested in generic civic life but social change that is both far sweeping but ultimately eminently local.  I envision a politics -- small 'p' where many ideas get circulated and where infrastructures exist beyond what is currently available on the web. 


Katrin then argues that

Community organizing as we see it now grew out of this work in the 20s, 30s and 40s -- organizations that are vibrant, vital, raw, alive, and multi-disciplinary because people's lives are complex, complicated and "multi-issue" -- housing, jobs and income, community and police violence, food, transportation, you name it.   Is there not something to learn here?

How do we rethink institutions, build movements, create "coffee shops" of activism, and yet are grounded in facts, politics, and start shifting this crazy political landscape?

Great, smart questions that capture a lot of what I have on my mind these days.   Guess I'll have to out and read Theda Skopcol now too.

Posted by Jon Stahl on February 10, 2005 at 09:00 PM in Washington Culture | Permalink


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