What are the public spaces of modern life? This is a central question raised in Hannah Arendt’s work since Arendt insists on the importance of public spaces for the flourishing of the human condition. To be human, Arendt writes, is to be free in public, which means to act and speak in ways that matter in the public world. Public freedom requires spaces where our actions are attended to, considered, and taken seriously enough to merit a response. Such spaces—the Greek Agora, the Roman Senate, the town square, the New England town meeting, the French debating societies, the Russian Soviets, the American jury, and all those civic institutions that spring up to give the power of collective action to individual citizens—are the pre-political and yet necessary conditions of democratic politics.
The problem today is that such spaces are ever more rare and in decay. Town hall meetings are largely gone or ceremonial. Local governments have ceded all real power to state or federal authorities. And even democratic elections—the most sickly form of political participation, has been corrupted by both money and size so that voting has come to be seen as so meaningless and ineffectual that few people bother to do so. As Albert W. Dzur writes in a recent essay in The Boston Review, we lack the public spaces that call us to attention and encourage our engagement in a collective civically minded world:
In our time of late modernity, the public is even more scattered, mobile, and manifold. Zygmunt Bauman and other leading social theorists write of contemporary social structures that, paradoxically, destructure common life, distance us from each other, and make it increasingly hard for us to interact with others in anything but a partial, superficial, and self-selecting fashion. Absent are the places that, in the past, helped us realize who we are as a public, as Tony Judt has illustrated in sketching the lost civic world of his childhood. We lack sufficient means today for calling ourselves to attention, for sobering ourselves up to our responsibility for the world all around.
Dzur offers a remedy for our diseased democracy. We need, he writes, to re-think the spaces and places of modern democracy.
Democracy, he writes, is usually thought a political movement and participatory democracy points to public involvement in protests, plebiscites, and public action aimed at governmental change. But democracy may also be thought of as a way of life focused on individualism and respect for the power and judgment of each person. Might it be, Dzur wonders, that the space of democracy is shifting from governmental to professional institutions?
The spaces of democratic participation Dzur has in mind are schools, prisons, hospitals, and other institutions of government bureaucracy. Such institutions too often, he writes, adopt rationalist and rule-bound ideologies that insulate them from the very people they are supposed to serve. What is needed, he suggests, is a new vision of the democratic professional administrator.
Democratic professionals in schools, public health clinics, and prisons who share their load-bearing work are innovators who are expanding, not just conserving, our neglected democratic inheritance. … Democratic professionals adapt the formal rationality of institutions to appreciate and act upon substantive contributions that lay citizens can make to a reflective legal judgment, a secure environment, or a stimulating education. And, importantly, democratic professionals bring citizens together who had not planned to be together.
In short, Dzur argues for a new vision of the professional administrator or bureaucrat, one inspired by intelligence, flexibility, and a willingness to replace rationalist bureaucratic rules with a determination to do justice by attending to particular individuals and persons.
Dzur’s vision of the new professionals who inhabit new democratic spaces is, whether explicitly or not, related to the insights of the recently popular French thinker Pierre Rosenvallon. It is always difficult to keep up with academic fashions and I only recently learned of Rosenvallon from one of our Arendt Center Fellows Jennifer Hudson, who is finishing up an excellent dissertation that addresses Rosenvallon’s vision of an intelligent and adaptive bureaucracy. In a nutshell, Rosenvallon addresses what is typically referred to as the crisis of legitimacy in representative democracy, the widespread sense on both the left and the right that government simply has become too big, too distant, and too impervious to citizen change. Rosenvallon’s answer is to empower government administrators—what we usually call the bureaucracy—to act more autonomously and freely outside of set rules and solve problems with more attention to local and individual conditions.
Dzur takes a similar approach in what is now promised to be a new series about participatory democratic politics in the typically administrative spaces of schools, offices, and courtrooms, Dzur generalizes about those who are engaged in this kind of "trench democracy":
[Democratic professionals] take their public responsibilities seriously and listen carefully to those outside their walls and those at all levels of their internal hierarchy in order to foster physical proximity between formerly separated individuals, encourage co-ownership of problems previously seen as beyond laypeople’s ability or realm of responsibility, and seek out opportunities for collaborative work between laypeople and professionals. We fail to see these activities as politically significant because they do not fit our conventional picture of democratic change. As if to repay the compliment, the democratic professionals I have interviewed in fields such as criminal justice, public administration, and K-12 education rarely use the concepts employed by social scientists and political theorists. Lacking an overarching ideology, they make it up as they go along, developing roles, attitudes, habits, and practices that open calcified structures up to greater participation. Their democratic action is thus endogenous to their occupational routine, often involving those who would not consider themselves activists or even engaged citizens.
The attraction of Dzur’s embrace of administrative democratic legitimacy is clear. At a time when public democratic institutions are broken, it is tempting to turn to professional administrators and ask them to solve our problems for us, to not only make the hospitals work better but also to revitalize democratic attention. There is the hope that intelligent and flexible administrative rule can not only make the trains run on time, but also make the train schedules more responsive to the needs of their riders and the trains themselves more comfortable and inviting. In short, democratically inclined professionals can make our public institutions more open to citizen feedback and energy.
The turn to what might be termed an administrative or executive democracy, however, comes with potential costs. In empowering professionals, administrators, and bureaucrats to revitalize and improve democratic participation, we turn attention away from the political concern with a public world and focus, instead, on the technocratic aim of efficient administration. Given the seeming incompetence and obstructionism of elected officials in the United States and around the world, taking refuge in professional administrators is tempting. And yet, it carries the seeds of a technocratic turn that will further weaken the participation in more traditionally political institutions and activities that turn us away from our parochial self-interests and toward a common political world. In short, the worry is that the shift from democratic politics to democratic administration will trade the rarefied human activity of forming meaningful political communities with the everyday desire for institutions that work.
Dzur’s essay is well worth attending to. We will be following his future inquiries as well. For now, enjoy Dzur’s “Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places.” It is your weekend read.
I watched President Obama’s second Inaugural Address with my seven-year-old daughter. She had just completed a letter to the President—something she had been composing all week. She was glued to the TV. I found myself tearing up at times, as I do and should do at all such events. “The Star Spangled Banner” by Beyonce was… well, my daughter stood up right there in the living room, so I followed suit. The Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco began strong—I found the first two stanzas powerful and lyrical.
The invocation of “One sun rose on us today,” is Whitmanesque, as is: “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” That second verse really grabbed me:
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yearning to life, crescendoing into our day,
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
I was hooked here, with Blanco’s rendition of a motley American life guided by a rising sun. But the poem dragged for me. I lost the thread. Still, I am so grateful for the continued presence of poetry at inaugural events. They remind us that the Presidency and the country is more than policy and prose.
In the President’s speech itself, there was too much politics, some prose, and a bit of poetry. There were a few stirring lines affirming the grand dreams of the United States. His opening was pitch perfect:
Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Storytelling, Hannah Arendt knew, was at the essence of politics. The President understands the importance and power of a story and the story of America is one of the dream of democracy and freedom. He tells it well. Some will balk at his full embrace of American exceptionalism. They are right to when such a stand leads to arrogance. But American exceptionalism is also, and more importantly, a tale of the dream of the Promised Land. It is an ever-receding dream, as all such dreams are. But that means only that the dream must be kept alive. That is one of the purposes of Presidential Inaugurations, and President Obama did that beautifully.
Another stirring section invoked the freedom struggles of the past struggles for equality.
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
The President, our nation’s first black President now elected for a second term, sought to raise the aspiration for racial and sexual equality to the pantheon of our Constitutional truths. Including the struggles of gay Americans—he mentioned gay rights for the first time in an inaugural address—the President powerfully rooted the inclusivity of the American dream in the sacred words of the Declaration of Independence and set them in the hallowed grounds of constitutional ideals.
When later I saw the headlines and the blogs, it was as if I had watched a different speech. Supposedly the President offered an “aggressive” speech. And he came out as unabashedly liberal. This is because he mentioned climate change (saying nothing about how he will approach it) and gay rights. Oh, and many saw it as unabashedly liberal when the President said:
For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
How is it “liberal” to value the middle-class and pride in work? There was nearly nothing in this talk about the poor or welfare. It was about working Americans, the people whose labor builds the bridges and protects are people. And it was about the American dream of income and class mobility. How is that liberal? Is it liberal to insist on a progressive income tax? Granted, it is liberal to insist that we raise revenue without cutting expenses. But where was that said?
And then there are the swarm of comments and critiques about the President’s defense of entitlements. Well here is what he said:
We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed. We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. (Applause.) For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.
If I read this correctly, the President is here saying: We spend too much on health care and we need to cut our deficit. Outworn programs must change and we need innovation and technology to improve our schools even as we reduce the cost of education. We must, he says, “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.” Yet we must do so without abandoning the nation’s creed: the every American has equal worth and dignity. This is a call for changing and rethinking entitlements while cutting their cost. It is pragmatic and yet sensible. How is it liberal? Is it now liberal to believe in social security and Medicare? Show me any nationally influential conservative who will do away with these programs? Reform them, yes. But abandon them?
More than a liberal, the President sounded like a constitutional law professor. He laid out broad principles. We must care for our fellow citizens. But he left open the way that we might do so.
Perhaps the most problematic section of the President’s speech is this one:
We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
Here the President might sound liberal. But what is he saying? He is raising the entitlement programs of the New Deal to Constitutional status, saying that these programs are part of the American way of life. He is not wrong. No Republican—not Reagan, not Romney, not Paul Ryan—proposes getting rid of these programs. They have become part of the American way of life.
That said, these programs are not unproblematic. The President might say that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” But saying it does not make it true. There are times when these programs care for the sick and unfortunate. And yet there are no doubt times and places where the social safety net leads to taking and weakness. It is also true that these programs are taking up ever more of our national budget, as this chart from the Government Accounting Office makes clear.
The President knows we need to cut entitlements. He has said so repeatedly. His greatest liability now is not that he can’t control opposition Republicans. It is that he doesn’t seem able or willing to exert leadership over the members of his own party in coming up with a meaningful approach to bring our entitlement spending—spending that is necessary and rightly part of our constitutional DNA—into the modern era. That is the President’s challenge.
The problem with President Obama’s speech was not that it was liberal. Rather, what the President failed to offer was a meaningful example of leadership in doing what he knows we must do: Rethinking, re-imagining, and re-forming our entitlement programs to bring them into the modern era.
Here's the headline of the day from our friends over at Via Meadia.
Illinois’s Blue Robin Hoods Stealing from the Young to Give to the Old
The topic is the pension crisis, specifically in Illinois, where the legislature has decided to cut spending on education by $400 million — for the third year in a row. All to pay back money owed to the states horribly underfunded pension plan.
Sticking it to either group, the young or the old, isn’t appealing, but the boomers are politically organized and better positioned to fight for their interests, particularly because powerful unions are on their side. The young, by contrast, are among the least politically active groups in the country, making them much easier for politicians to ignore. Illinois has obviously chosen the path of least resistance.