Yes, Our Democracy Is a Mess, and Yes, Our Opportunities Are Real

By Richard Harwood

The following article appeared in The Kettering Foundation's annual newsletter, "Connections."

As part of the Kettering Founda­tion’s efforts to take stock of trends affecting citizens and communities, I have recently held 10 in-depth conversations with leading thinkers and practitioners in the areas of democracy and American life.

In these discussions, we talked about the current condition of the country and the forces that are shaping it today. I asked those I interviewed about the positive trends they see among people engaging and working together in com­munities. I also asked how widespread these positive developments are, what is driving them, and how we can acceler­ate and deepen them. And I explored with these individuals what they believe resulted from the so-called civic renewal movement of the 1990s (the attempt to build new civic capacities and practices among organizations, leaders, networks, and citizens) and the implications of that movement for us today.

When I combine these conversations with what I have seen and heard working in communities over the past few years, it seems that the 1990s movement was simply too shallow and narrow in scope to withstand larger economic, political, and social trends, such as the Great Reces­sion and the September 11 attacks. While the leaders I interviewed differed in their interpretations of what exactly happened, there was general agreement that the ideas behind those civic activities did not penetrate American society widely or deeply enough. The innovations simply failed to be adopted and embedded into the necessary structures, processes, and organizations. Indeed, the civic renewal movement didn’t succeed in permeating our collective sense of how we want to connect with one another, work together, and get things done.

Harry Boyte, codirector of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augs­burg College, told me, “In some ways the civic impulse spread in spaces that were less structured and bureaucratized, where the politics of knowledge was not as hier­archical and rigid. But that was also the weakness because it was quite vulnerable.”

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, highlighted many of the posi­tive elements of that earlier period while suggesting that the efforts did not go far enough. She observed that while the civic renewal work “was incredibly important on shifting professional practices . . . it didn’t get embedded into ongoing medi­ating organizations in the communities it was attempted in.”

What I kept hearing, in other words, is that the civic renewal movement faded away. Without question, it made a differ­ence at the time: it changed how people, organizations, and communities worked and helped establish a foundation for many of the positive actions we see today. But it did not firmly take hold.

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