Public Life Without Politics

This week saw the ending of a tragic saga that has been decades in the making. Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon negotiated a plea agreement to obtain Probation Before Judgment in which she promised to resign as mayor within 30 days. She entered an Alford plea, in which she did not admit guilt but admitted that the prosecution had sufficient evidence to convict her.

But the real story here isn’t about Dixon; it is about the long-term systemic abandonment of public life by the American citizenry.

And I use that term loosely. Americans take a cynical eye towards civics and citizenship. Public servants are routinely portrayed as buffoons and as half-witted wards of the state. Politicians are universally derided as corrupt, megalomaniacal, and intensely self-interested. Depending on the election, Americans vote in anemic numbers. Children are no longer seriously raised with the idea that civic engagement or public service is a kind of higher calling.

We are now consumers of politics rather than participants in civic life. And the accompanying “fanboyism” that we see in consumer behavior has effectively destroyed intelligent political discourse. Presumably somewhere out there there is a sticker of Calvin Elephant pissing on a Democrat Donkey. Enough.

The Dilemma of the American City

A confluence of factors over the last 90 years has drawn people from the urban core to the suburbs: air quality, the invention of the automobile, the Great Depression, unchecked suburban planning, school policy, racial prejudice and realignment, blockbusting profiteers, the end of urban manufacturing, ineffective urban planning, drug use, tax imbalances, poor transportation infrastructure, and incompetent city governments.

This has resulted in cities that have neither the tax base nor the level of civic engagement required to operate. The politicians do not have the skill or vision to initiate meaningful change. The population wants improvement and change but is often unwilling to exchange their short term interest for any long-term good. Surrounding jurisdictions point fingers at the city, and the problems become self-reinforcing. For each day that our cities slog on in dysfunction, the more people are convinced that dysfunction is a permanent and intractable condition.

To change things in the long term, we need to attract people back into our cities. And there are workable strategic reasons why this is possible: cities provide real competitive advantage, particularly for industries based on ideas and information.

Urban Feudalism

It is not a coincidence that the graft case against Dixon was centered around her relationship with multiple developers. This 2008 City Paper article gives a good sense of the shadowy web of relationships surrounding the Mayor, her predecessor, and developers.

It requires a special kind of optimism to think that the gift cards, cash, and other baubles that Dixon received were anything other than bribes. While it is laudable to offer her the benefit of the doubt, the reality is that she did receive these gifts from developers. And developers have more impact on the design and function of our city than any other single business constituency.

While we can defend Dixon’s sincere love for her city, her ambitious agenda, her mostly-functional administration, and her political bravery, the tragic truth is that she fell victim to the inherent flaws of the very place that made her. The culture of personal gain over civic duty is pervasive and inescapable in Baltimore. And the government accurately reflects the values of its people.

Our cities plod along, hostage to the special interests and powerful “players” to whom we have consigned our urban future. We have enabled and continue to refine a new system of urban feudalism, its landscape populated by warlords each concerned with their own particular brand of self-interest. There is precious little difference between a corner drug dealer and the Mayor of Baltimore when everybody’s on the take.

A Path to Recovery

It is easy to complain about American public life and politics, and real solutions are hard to find. James Fallows argues in this Atlantic Monthly article that while the American system of government has been horribly hamstrung by special interests, the only hope we have is continued engagement. He argues that we cannot divorce public life and the private sector, as both fail when that happens.

I believe there may be yet another pathway forward, inspired by the great American thinker and architect Buckminster Fuller’s quote: “You never change things by changing the existing reality. Instead, build a new model that makes the existing reality obsolete.” If there is a way forward it is in this direction.

Public Life Without Politics

We have become accustomed to the idea that participation in public life comes only in the form of elected office or through lumbering nonprofit organizations. But there is an emergent form of public engagement centered around alignment behind ideas. The Internet has enabled likeminded people to converge both online and in the real world to achieve amazing goals, all without the burdens of machine politics and the slow-moving governance of nonprofits.

American cities offer an exceptionally strong opportunity for our country to return to competitiveness on the world stage. Compact, efficient, and diverse, our cities are platforms upon which we can design an economic life predicated on two key core values: respect for place, and respect for people and their time.

If we truly love our place and our people, competitive advantage will flow naturally from there. Embracing our cities is a pro-business agenda. It’s a future where everyone wins.

An Apolitical Future

Until recently, the flow of information to citizens has been imperfect and incomplete, and political parties have acted as proxies to enable people with similar values to coalesce.

But as information flow becomes more perfect and attitudinal alignment can occur in higher-resolution ways, political parties may no longer be effective channels for achieving important public goals.

To the extent that people can rally around goals and achieve real results using apolitical modern organizing efforts, we may find that the future of public life lies in individual action rather than in elected office or in nonprofit organizations.

Our country’s future demands that we find the answer.


#1 Adrian Bye on 01.09.10 at 11:51 am

I would suggest that this is the kind of issue that will work itself out naturally. Both entrepreneurs, and like you say, social minded people will find approaches which are simple, effective and work well.

#2 Gordon on 01.09.10 at 12:58 pm

Citizen engagement as you say is key.

#3 robotchampion on 01.10.10 at 12:48 am

Dave – I love this post. I agree in many ways and differ in one.

I truly never thought aboutthe city as an entity that should be focused on. I am always just drawn to them as the highest impact change areas. Living on the east coast now they are definitely centers of leadership that ripple out to other cities and suburbia.

This is new to me since suburbia is different on the west coast and California in
particular. They are more vibrant and powerful andin some ways equal to cities. However, with the east coast as my new home I look to leaders like u for ideas and leadership.

I also completely agree that politics is not the answer. Personally, I love politics and political life but I refuse to enter that life. I would not want to burden my partner and my family with that life. Without that outlet I am forced to find other ways to make change and help out.

I too find the civic sphere lacking and most uninterested. It is shameful how many folks care about the welfare of people in other countries and ignore their neighbors. I mean there are starving dying babies in america too!

If we could all develop a healthy dose of domestic engagement, in addition to our international focus, we would all be much better off. I do feel that it is a tripartite focus on yourself (family, friends), ur community (neighbors), and ur world (outside ur borders).

With such a focus we may well solve global warming and pollution. Since both problems ask our citizens to care about their community. To understand that their actions effect 'our' air, 'our' rivers, 'our' bays, and more.

Ok so point I differ on is with non-profits. The digital transition has vastly changed the nature and responsibilities of these corporations. Online fundraising and email radicalize them. Where before huge staffs were needed to raise funds and correspond with reciepts, now 'everything' is automated and online.

All non-profits should be cutting their admin staffs and putting more money than ever to causes. Add on to that the transparency that the web allows.

Now look at any non-profit and if they are not following these changes then they are wasting precious money. They're easy to find too. Just look at their websites for this kind of change. You know how many still don't allow online donations?

Ok so maybe I'm making ur argument for u, so just one more point. As those “old-fashioned” non-profits are crumbling, new modern ones are rising. They are small lean focused and effective. I know this because I run one. It's incredibly easy to do so and offers many advantages. Even the IRS has enacted digital enhancements to make it easier.

So please don't write them off. Some of us are doing amazing things.

#4 davetroy on 01.10.10 at 2:03 pm

Steve — thanks for the thoughtful response.

To your point about non-profits, I am not opposed to non-profits at all and agree that some are doing amazing work, efficiently and in-line with current best practices.

My objection comes when people assume that the *only* way to get anything done is to form a non-profit, and more often than not, it is completely unnecessary. In fact, the process of forming and governing a non-profit brings out the worst in people's organizational instincts and typically results in paralysis of vision and action.

Furthermore, there is a limit to the number of non-profit boards and orgs that people can find time to be involved with, mostly because of the drag caused by governance.

If people instead were to become comfortable accomplishing hard goals with “virtual” organizations (Baltimore Angels is one as is Barcamp, SocialDevCamp, TEDxMidAtlantic, etc) then they might be inclined to be involved in more things. If each of those had to have a full board of directors and tax filing, they would probably not exist.

That said, I am the president of the Friends of the Maryland State Archives, and that needs to be a non-profit for a variety of reasons. That's appropriate.

I just hear about people forming non-profits for no particular reason (often it's just inexperience) and it makes me cringe. So much can be done in the short life-cycles of immediate action possible on the web, we just don't have time for non-profits in a lot of cases.

But for those non-profits that are appropriate and acting intelligently, I am totally supportive.

#5 carl ehrhardt on 01.13.10 at 5:53 pm

great post, dave. very exciting and thought-provoking. I hope i can help.

#6 Baltimore: City of Shit on 01.15.10 at 12:02 am

[…] care enough about themselves and their city to redefine their own accessible future, together, and shape new politics and polemics around their own unified […]

#7 Jackson on 01.18.10 at 12:59 pm

The city paper was right their was crookeness afoot at that breakfast club meeting. Too many scoundrels. Well one has fallen. We don't teach civics in school no more so it is not unusual for people to be lead astray by pompess loud talking politicos who do not care about the people but about their pockets.

#8 mojohiho on 01.27.10 at 8:50 pm

Truly.. it couldn't have been her fault. Per usual, excuses are made for the corrupt on one end of the political spectrum. Had this been someone on the right, they would have let the system down…. but because she is a woman, a minority, and on the left, it is the systems fault. Corruption is more prevalent than a civic ideal or desire to be a public servant, I agree…. but the individual is ultimately responsible. What HAS changed in American politics is that very idea, that we are responsible for our own actions, and the lengths the media will take to excuse inexcusable behavior.