Government and Civil Society

Transpartisan Note #4

by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

America has a representative government. Voters elect leaders who appoint civil servants, and they implement ‘public policy’. This works for much public business, but in areas involving social services—school reform, drug rehabilitation, criminal justice, race relations, poverty and even security policy, results fall far short of aspirations. These programs (War on Poverty, Cancer, or Drugs are examples) tend to follow a similar trajectory: fanfare at the launching followed by years and even decades of slogging disappointment.

Failure in social areas starts with the focus on objective conditions alone (poverty reduction measured in dollars), ignoring the, which can often be measured in civic engagement or community-building. Failure happens when governments follow (mechanistic) ‘rule of law’ approaches, only operating objectively, without empowering citizens as active participants for change (subjective) Empowering people subjectively requires recruiting them as informal public policy partners.

Recruiting citizens requires seeing everyone as independent and capable of self-governance. This means embracing core assumptions claimed by both left and right: the left’s assumption that there are ways that government can help people and the right’s that people are more than ‘victims’ dominated by ‘oppressors’; properly integrated open new policy roads.

Social problems are often rooted in personal isolation. Connection can help address problems from poverty to alcoholism to drug addiction. Personal engagement creates connection, with people spiritually bonded. Engagement cannot be accomplished mechanically (objectively). Engagement happens when people come together either spontaneously or in common purpose.

Shared ownership of public spaces in a school, housing project or police station gives people incentives to connect. When public property is ‘owned’ not by government alone but also by parents, teachers, kids, residents—even bureaucrats—working to common purpose, transformational effects can follow. This is true for pre modern-conscious, tribal people becoming citizen-entrepreneurs in tribal societies, and in twelve-step programs addressing addiction. These activities build on generating objective outcomes from subjective engagement.

Shared ownership of public spaces and working for the common good incorporate both objective and subjective aspirations and values. We intend The Transpartisan Review to address these concepts–drawing on real experiences involving the most disadvantaged and most marginalized, along with the most objectively successful—as constantly recurring themes.

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