To rebuild after a hurricane, be an architect of democracy

For all the talk about a consensus on the need for effective government after Katrina, Democrats and Republicans divide along predictable lines. Conservatives argue that rebuilding New Orleans offers an opportunity to show how private initiative, not public action, gets things done. From the perspective of Bush critics, reconstruction efforts, unlike the New Deal, are likely to fall prey to cronyism and corruption.

Yet today's polarized politics is a symptom of larger cultural problems. Americans remain a compassionate people, as support for flood victims shows. But the disaster of governance in New Orleans - the failure to work together to prevent death, suffering, and looting - illustrates the erosion of our capacities for cooperative action.

In recent years, public affairs scholars and practitioners have argued for a concept of "governance" that is broader than "government." Governance describes how approaches to complex challenges have shifted, whether preparing for disasters or reforming schools. No one in the real world of public policy believes that government is always the center of the universe or the only source of solutions. Yet what is to prevent corporations, nonprofits, or others from advancing their own interests at the expense of the public good? If no easily identifiable group of people can be held to singular account for outcomes of public benefit, then there is an urgent need for accountability and cooperative work to become core values in the civic culture.

The 1930s was a good example of cooperative governance - democratic values - at work. Liberals portray the New Deal as a triumph of government activism, but federal initiative was part of a broad culture of democratic governance. The American dream shifted from individualist, WASP-oriented, consumerist ideals of the 1920s, to a far more cooperative, racially pluralist, and egalitarian vision. The reform movement had combined efforts like trade union organizing with organizing for change in culture-shaping institutions like the motion picture industry, journalism, and education. Again in the 1960s, the civil rights movement worked profound changes in American culture. In both cases, millions of people deepened a democratic way of life.

Today's images of what it means to be a success undermine a democratic culture. The good life is defined by private pursuits, whether shopping in the mall or battling it out on reality TV. Cooperative labors that solve problems are more empty pieties than principles we live by. Consumerism contributes to the erosion of human solidarity, as religious leaders such as the late John Paul II have observed, but part of the problem also comes from liberal education. Professionals are trained to look at people in terms of their deficiencies not their talents, and to be detached from the civic life of places.

Yet the response to Katrina also suggests that Americans are searching for a rediscovery of the democratic faith. Under the surface, there are multiplying signs of a movement for democratic renewal.

For instance, the cultural crisis drives the work of broad-based citizen organizations that involve several million families. Racially, religiously, economically, and politically diverse groups such as the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), based in congregations of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith and other local institutions, organize around issues like schools and jobs, but they frame their work in terms of a "war of values."

These organizations distinguish themselves by focusing on principles of respect, sound relationships, concern for the poor, and participation that come from both faith and democratic traditions. They contrast with unbridled competition and greed. Positive Hip Hop among young African-Americans contrasts with their portrayal as thugs and addicts in the mass culture. Higher education groups like the Campus Compact challenge the message that education is simply about monetary gain with a message of active citizenship. Environmentalists make long-term agreements with industry, farmers, local governments, and others to create sustainable ecosystems. The Global Campaign Against Poverty connects Americans to other parts of the world.

Beyond organizations designed to effect change are "culturemakers" - clergy, educators, businesspeople, entertainers, health workers, journalists, housewives, steelworkers, and politicians - who shape the culture, its values, and its practices. Students, shoppers, and spectators also create an impact through their individual choices and collective action.

Many today are appalled at the prospect that private images of the good life - reality TV shows, strip malls, and schools that teach children to pass standardized tests while they fail at life - will continue to dominate as problems mount. People often feel powerless to change prevailing trends. But if called to recognize, in the words of the old civil rights song, that "we are the ones we've been waiting for," millions of people might take up the challenge of being architects of a democratic culture. This is the way to solve our problems, not blame others for the failure.

Harry C. Boyte, a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute, is the author of 'Everyday Politics.'

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