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Can Public Life Be Regenerated?

The 32-page report, Can Public Life Be Regenerated? (2016), was written by David Mathews and supported by the Cousins Research Group of the Kettering Foundation. This report is based on a presentations Mathews gave the the Independent Sector conference on issues of community, civil society, and governance. In this report, Mathews explores the possibilities to “reweave the social fabric” within society, to improve its social capital and revitalize its sense of community, and create a healthier civil society.

Below is an excerpt of the report and it can be found in full at the bottom of this page or on Kettering Foundation’s site here.

From the guide…

This paper was written in 1996 for an Independent Sector conference. At that time, the term public life was used to distinguish political life from other kinds of collective living. This was intended to counter a tendency to conflate largely social phenomena (attending a picnic) with more political activities (building a playground to give children a safer place to play). If I were writing this paper today, I likely would title it Can Democracy Be Regenerated? The Kettering Foundation’s research has led to a distinctive understanding of democratic politics that puts citizens at the center. By citizens, we mean people who join with others to produce things that serve our common well-being. As our research evolved, we came to use “making democracy work as it should” as a central, organizing theme. We define democracy, at its most fundamental, as a system of governance in which power comes from citizens who generate their power by working together to combat common problems—beginning in their communities—and by working to shape their common future, both through what they do with one another and through their institutions. – David Mathews April 4, 2016

These days we seem willing to consider the possibility that democracies need something more than written constitutions, multiple parties, free elections, and representative governments. They also depend on a strong public life, a rich depository of social capital, a sense of community, and a healthy civil society. Now comes the obvious follow-up: Is it possible to “reweave the social fabric,” to generate social capital where it is lacking, to build a sense of community in a fragmented, polarized city, to invigorate public life at a time when many Americans are seeking security in private sanctuaries? No one knows. Maybe a democratic civil society takes centuries to develop, building layer upon layer like a coral reef. Maybe the places we admire most result more from happenstance than we would like to admit. These reservations notwithstanding, we do have cases where a civil order changed its character in a relatively short period of time. Modern Spanish democracy emerged from Franco’s fascism in only a few decades, according to Víctor Pérez Díaz. And Vaughn Grisham Jr. reports that Tupelo, Mississippi, changed its civic character in roughly the same amount of time, the result being that the poorest city in the poorest county in the poorest state of the union became a progressive community with a per capita income close to that of Atlanta.

So maybe—just maybe—it is possible for towns and cities, perhaps even counties and states, to change their politics. Maybe public life can be regenerated. I say “regenerated” because I am assuming that some vestige or memory of public life exists almost everywhere. I think modern public life is rooted in the earliest institutions and norms created for collective survival. So my instincts tell me that strengthening public life is best accomplished by following the advice of J. Herman Blake, a very effective community organizer, whose practice is to “build on what grows.” With that as a predicate, I want to go on to the question of how people might change the character of their civil order. There is some urgency surrounding this question; I sense a danger in trying to strengthen public life with only a thin concept of the public, civil, or communal to guide the way. That would create a problem akin to trying to paint a barn red without clearly distinguishing red from pink or orange. There is a tendency to take descriptions of cities with a rich reservoir of social capital and try to replicate their features. If they have a lot of festivals, why not generate public life with a pig roast? (Actually, a foundation in Europe was asked to do just that.) But are community barbecues and festivals the product of something that happens prior to the events, of some precondition that we haven’t been able to identify? Are we in danger of mistaking the symptom for the cause? If we do, our strategies for building civil society will be the equivalent of dress-for-success strategies that tell us we can get ahead in the world by wearing the right tie or dress.

Developing a Concept of Public Life
Here is what I will try to do in this paper: Drawing on what the Kettering Foundation is learning from its research and observations, and from studies others have done, I will propose a way of thinking about public life, or a paradigm.5 Kettering has been developing a hypothesis about what public life is in order to have a better idea about how to strengthen it. The way we understand the structure and function of a public suggests ways to regenerate public life. Since no one knows the answer to the question of whether such life can be renewed, surely the thing to do is to spell out our assumptions, which can be tested by experience.

The Influence of Studies of Social Capital and Community Development
We aren’t making empirical claims when we develop a hypothesis. Yet our experiences influence our imagination of what might be. For 15 years, Kettering has been observing public life in communities from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to El Paso, Texas, and from Newark, New Jersey, to Orange County, California. We have also commissioned independent research on public life. And we have been influenced by studies like Pérez-Díaz’s on Spain, Grisham’s on Tupelo, Robert Putnam’s on north central Italy, and that of the Heartland Center for Leadership Development on the difference between dying and prospering rural communities, among others. Putnam and Grisham reinforced our own impressions that the “soft side” of the social order or an intangible such as social capital is critical to public life. Social capital is said to consist of networks of civic associations, along with norms of reciprocity and social trust, that result in high levels of voluntary cooperation. This capital is generated where public life is strong, that is, where people are involved in public matters and in relationships that run horizontally (among equals) instead of vertically (between haves and have-nots). As you know, while Putnam found these characteristics in some areas in Italy, they were noticeably absent in others. People in the “uncivil” areas did not participate in either local politics or social organizations, and their relationships tended to be hierarchical, with the have-nots dependent on the haves.

This is an excerpt of the report, download the full guide at the bottom of this page to learn more.

About Kettering Foundation
KF_LogoThe Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research. Kettering’s primary research question is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Kettering’s research is distinctive because it is conducted from the perspective of citizens and focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation.

Follow on Twitter: @KetteringFdn

Resource Link: www.kettering.org/catalog/product/can-public-life-be-regenerated

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