Not since the 1930s has infrastructure captured the political imaginations of so many Americans. And no wonder. President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan (AJP) envisions the most ambitious investment in the nation’s infrastructure since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—not only in terms of its physical and economic scale, but also in terms of its social and political goals.
The Administration’s “fact sheet” on the jobs plan, published March 31, pledged to “spur the buildout of critical physical, social, and civic infrastructure”—especially “in distressed and disadvantaged communities” long excluded from full participation in the American political experiment. This was not some domesticated, domestic-only version of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Biden named the far higher stakes a few days earlier, in his first press conference. “This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the twenty-first century and [that of] autocracies,” he said. “We’ve got to prove democracy works.” A month later, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, Biden reiterated those stakes. “Autocrats will not win the future. America will.”
It was—and is—a powerful framing. But it is missing something essential to a “working” democracy: the people. In the AJP factsheet, the welcome recognition of “civic infrastructure” as crucial to such a democracy was followed by pledges of government support for grand economic development projects and vague “community-driven” efforts to mitigate pollution and redress its harms to those most affected. The rest of the document, like Biden’s address to Congress, abounds with Administration pledges to repair, invest, create, protect, rebuild, modernize, upgrade, revitalize, and train.
We laud the spirit and substance of most if not all these pledges. But we miss the spirit and substance of the civic. We are not surprised to see the national debateon infrastructure focusing ever more narrowly on what government can do for citizens—and thus, inevitably, on the purely economic costs and returns to government (and wealthy taxpayers) of doing it. We are worried that in the negotiations over what Democrats have called a “generational” infrastructure investment, another generation of citizens will be relegated to consuming rather than generating the politics, policies, and outcomes that will shape their common life.
Such worries need not materialize. The Administration’s commitment to investing in the current and future wellbeing of all Americans presents a historic opportunity to elevate the civic, and energize the citizen, in ways that draw upon the best traditions of both major parties and the nation generally. It is a chance to prove not only that democracy works, but that it works through as well as for the American people; that a genuinely democratic government must empower as well as provide for individuals and communities; that its policies and politics must both emerge from and further stimulate the work of diverse people, collaborating across differences, to build, share, and steward a commonwealth; and that good jobs—personally rewarding, publicly meaningful work of all sorts—can be sites of such constructive citizenship. It is a chance, in short, to put “the public” back in public works, while placing the work of the public at the center of American democracy.
What would such a “public-work” version of Biden’s democracy renewal project look like? Luckily, the American democratic tradition offers both historical and contemporary examples to build on—including many of the Biden Administration’s own proposals. Before turning to those examples and sketching their implications, however, it pays to locate the public-work vision of constructive civic politics in the broader conceptual and structural history of democracy.
New Paradigm, Noble Pedigree
Free elections, through which citizens entrust representatives with important tasks and hold them accountable for carrying them out, constitute the essential skeleton of a democratic society—much as roads, bridges, ports, utilities, emergency services, schools, courts, and communications networks help constitute the essential skeleton of a thriving economy.
But a truly living, growing, resilient democracy requires more than a sturdy skeleton. It requires the collective muscle of “We the People” working, across differences, to navigate, animate, and build the life we share, in the ways we want to share it. Democracy demands civic muscle.
The language of civic muscle is relatively new. But the conception of democracy it seeks to express is not. It harkens back to Tocqueville’s picture of American democracy: to a way of life that citizens build together over time, through regular practice, in myriad settings and ways. These include neighborly collaborations; voluntary associations; professional and trade organizations; religious congregations; collectively and publicly funded education, health, and aid institutions; and deliberative, participatory governance processes like town meetings and peer juries. Civic muscle connotes the habits, skills, social capital, mediating institutions, government access points, and any other public goods that connect the experiences and efforts of individual persons and groups to one another and to their government, allowing them to move in sync to shape their world. This view of democracy as a way of life (rather than merely a voting rule) has a pedigree stretching to ancient Greece. In several sources, “demokratia” clearly connotes a demos empowered: a public imbued with collective capacityto act, and even to reshape the realm of action.
As in the classical Greek case, bald self-interest and glaring inequities have often set the course and marred the landscape of American politics. These factors cannot be ignored. But neither must they obscure the persistent and significant counterforce of empowered publics in American history.
Unlike most governments preceding it, the U.S. government was explicitly created and legitimated by “we the people.” “We the people” is a problematic phrase. Its theoretical human referents have always been contested, and those excluded in practice have always been too numerous. Yet its power to expand the circle of the included and empowered has been evident throughout American history. By the mid-eighteenth century, the phrase was tied through usage to the term commonwealth, growing from the experiences of European settlers who worked together, across kinship lines and classes, with friends and rivals, to build public goods like wells, roads, schools, and (crucially) governments. These were not “selfless” people, denying their interests or dissolving their identities into a homogeneous collective. These were people like the members of Benjamin Franklin’s Leather Apron Club, founded in Philadelphia in 1727 as a place for tradesmen, artisans, shopkeepers, and other “middling people” to discuss the day’s news, develop plans for individual and community self-improvement, and foster an ever-growing network of citizens committed to “doing well by doing good.”
The Leather Apron Club generated scores of self-organized civic projects, including a street-sweeping corps, volunteer fire brigade, and tax-supported neighborhood constabulary; a library, hospital, and youth academy; health and life insurance groups; a society for sharing scientific discoveries; and a postal system. Its members generated civic muscle across the city as they stretched and flexed their own. Nor were these Philadelphians unique. Less famous (not everyone has a Benjamin Franklin to promote them) but no less consequential were the efforts of similar groups to create the civic infrastructure of towns and cities up and down the Eastern seaboard. So seminal were such civic-muscle building experiences to American traditions of self-rule that, upon independence from Great Britain, John Adams wanted all the colonies reorganizing themselves as members of a new united government to call themselves “commonwealths” rather than “states.” (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and later Kentucky chose to do so.)
The ideal of a public empowered and a commons in constant creation persisted into the nineteenth century, with continued influence on American life. As David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, has observed, “self-rule” meant “a sweaty, hands-on, problem-solving politics” for most Americans, “rooted in collective decision making and acting.” Schools and libraries, wells and waterways, greens and granaries: all were built and maintained by groups of individuals combining practical self-interests with public purpose. As in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a tragic amount of that collective work was destructive, especially of black and indigenous lives and cultures. But the cooperative commons-building work of the era must also be recalled. “Settlers on the frontier had to be producers, not just consumers,” Mathews writes. Meanwhile, in response to adversity, Black and indigenous Americans continued to generate their own extensive examples of productive, commons-building politics, often invisible to most whites but, ironically, routinely adopted and adapted by them. From mainstream and margins, it was everyday Americans who fed the wellspring of democracy. “Their efforts,” Mathews concludes, “were “examples of ‘public work,’ meaning work done by, not just for, the public.”
In fact, the civic muscle-building politics that public-work democracy affirms has been a primary motor of social justice and economic progress throughout American history. It informed the “free labor” republicanism of antebellum Americans, Black and white, who celebrated the individual and civic benefits of work, and who informed Abraham Lincoln’s vision for an American democracy unfettered by slavery. During the Civil War, exemplars of the civic muscle-building, public-work mode of democracy included thousands of former slaves, who served in the Union Army, taught one another to read and write, and (upon discharge) organized to preserve their liberty through guilds, congregations, relief organizations, and unofficial police forces. After the tragic failure of Reconstruction, its products included the Black churches, schools, businesses, and colleges that would incubate and orchestrate the twentieth-century freedom struggle.
The New Deal and Public Work
Perhaps the clearest precedents for the sort of civic growth spurt we envision can be found in the New Deal era. The New Deal’s public works strategy, at its best, was not a dole or a make-work strategy, or even primarily an investment in physical infrastructure. It was a public workout program that developed the civic muscle of millions of American individuals, families, and communities, combining economic and civic empowerment to restore flesh to the bones of an ailing democracy.
Take the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). As President Franklin Roosevelt explained upon its launch in 1933, the CCC would comprise federally funded, locally organized units devoted to commons-building work such as “forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control, and similar projects.” Such work, he predicted, would benefit “present and future generations” through its impressive “material” products. “More important,” however, would be “the moral and spiritual value of such work” to those who performed it—for themselves, their families, and society simultaneously.
To be sure, the CCC—with its mostly male, racially segregated, military-style camps—was no ideal model of democracy. Yet it had democratically transformative effects on many who served. Years and decades later, corps members recalled expanding their conceptions of who and what was American; learning to work with others from unfamiliar backgrounds; building confidence and skills to challenge injustices such as wage theft and segregation; and developing a sense of contribution to purposes bigger than, yet including, their own.
CCC “service” also transformed corps members’ conceptions of what “service” could mean, breaking down arbitrary distinctions between service and work on the one hand, and work and citizenship on the other. Corps members were paid well for their work—enough to support their families during the Great Depression—and regularly exposed to a variety of career opportunities through presentations from local professionals, tradespeople, business owners, and academics. In this, they were personally well served. At the same time, they were reminded that their work served countless other Americans and would do so long into the future. They were also expected to attend the citizenship classes that each camp was mandated to offer. These classes gave them historical perspective on the U.S. government and economy and insight into its contemporary workings and points of citizen access. Intentionally or not, they also prompted corps members to reflect on how their immediate struggles to improve their personal lot, through “service” in the CCC, were connected to the struggles of other citizens near and far, past and present, to build a better-working world.
The CCC’s legacy of concrete, “surface-infrastructure” public works remains astonishing. But as CCC historian Melissa Bass concludes, the program’s most important legacy was not the billion new trees or thousands of miles of roads or hundreds of bridges, dams, and parks its members built. It was the “civic generation” of Americans it weaned. Nor was the CCC the only example of civic muscle-building “public-work” public works in the New Deal era. In the 1930s, citizens nationwide organized themselves to address hunger, unemployment, poverty, and environmental degradation. In many cases, government became a partner and supporter rather than controller of such work. In others, the federal government created spaces in which state and local communities could creatively experiment. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), for instance, gave local communities and the formerly jobless wide latitude to choose and direct the work to be done. Thousands of communities nationwide still use the schools, libraries, post offices, hospitals, theaters, and plazas financed by the WPA. In sum, the CCC was not the civic exception proving the big-brother rule of New Deal policy. A major legacy of New Deal public works generally was to feed, fledge, and free a “civic generation” of Americans who loved their country because it gave them succor even as they helped to build it.
Of course, there were many top-down, technocratic aspects of the New Deal. But FDR would not have inspired the electorate the way he did had the New Deal treated Americans solely as economic beings looking to government for the quickest route to material comfort. Here the cultural programs of the WPA and other federal agencies are especially illuminating, for they helped to popularize an American story far different from the individualist, consumer-oriented narratives of the 1920s.
Between 1933 and 1943, the federal government supported the public cultural work of thousands of artists, musicians, photographers, actors, writers, and dancers, many of whom celebrated the patterns, rhythms, beauty, and dignity of everyday life and work. The explicit rationale for such support was poverty relief. The effects were wider ranging. Public work gave artists a sense that they were workers among other workers, who, in the words of social critic Lewis Mumford, had “achieved the liberty to perform an essential function of life.” That function, in the main, was twofold: first, to remind tired, sore, cold, and hungry Americans that they were not just physical but spiritual beings (with consonant value); and second, to elevate the work of such common but potent beings in rebuilding the nation.Nor was this perspective on the work of democracy restricted to an intellectual elite. As film historian Lary May has shown, even Depression-era Hollywood broke from dominant 1920s style to elevate themes of cooperation and the intrinsic value of work in its audience-chasing allegories of the American Way. Writers, directors, and producers seemed to recognize that working Americans in the Depression did not want to be seen or treated in one-dimensional economic terms, whether on the make or on the skids. They wanted to live as capacious, autonomous beings, rewarded and honored for contributing to a common enterprise.
The Shrinking of Democracy
In today’s highly technocratic, meritocratic society, the empowered public of Depression-era dreams has gone the way of the Cheshire Cat. Like Alice in Wonderland, we are left with the disembodied, mocking smile of a creature that seems to know something we don’t—a chorus of gleaming paeans to the freedom, power, and sovereignty of the American people that too often concludes with a prix-fixe policy menu (or bill of goods) rather than an invitation to assess, imagine, and govern our fate. Citizens are not muscular co-creators of a commonwealth, but fickle, flaccid consumers to be wooed, clients to be served, or patients to be saved. Certainly, few if any officeholders, powerbrokers, or pundits openly or even consciously adopt such a view of democracy. Still, when public figures of either major party talk about democracy these days, they reveal scant appreciation of its public valence and potential.
The result has been a drastic shrinking of democracy, conceptually and practically. For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that democracy describes governments. Period. The official site of the United States Agency of International Development propagates this concept around the world: “Democracy refers to a civilian political system in which the legislative and chief executive offices are filled through regular competitive elections with universal suffrage.” Government-centered definitions of democracy also inform main currents of academic literature, which even in castigating the American political system for its persistent inequities routinely defines the role of citizens in terms of voting, campaign contributions, campaign volunteering, cajoling officials, protesting abuses of power, and demonstrating for or against policies or those who make them—all of which exclude many poor, marginalized, or overworked people while vesting ultimate agency, at least conceptually, in a professional political class.
A truly transformative public works program must challenge this conceptual shrinkage of democracy and democratic citizenship. Unlike monarchies, aristocracies, or so-called “people’s republics” in thrall to an enlightened vanguard, the United States was founded on a story of the people themselves as agents, authors, and architects of their individual and collective lives. Just how true that story is has varied throughout history and according to social location. Moreover, government structures and policies always have been and always will be factors in its truth. But government cannot make the founding story true solely by serving the material needs and meeting the material demands of citizens. Government cannot make it true “solely” at all. Government can best make the story of a self-governing people true by encouraging the people themselves to believe in it—and the best way to do that is to give them the chance to write the story themselves.
A Big Public Deal
So, how to put the public pen—and other implements of public power—back in the people’s hands? What does the public-work tradition tell us about how government can catalyze a new growth of civic muscle today?
There are four main lessons. First, administration, congressional, and local leaders must transform their conception of their calling from one of governing for the people to one of governing with the people. There is no government of, by, or even for the people if the people are not partners.
Second, the American people must demand that their representatives articulate specific ideas and policies for building civic muscle: for involving citizens more deeply in the formal processes of government as well as for supporting their independent efforts as neighbors, parents, worshipers, workers, and entrepreneurs to build a genuine commonwealth.
Third, each particular citizen, community, class, and organized interest must accept that the benefits they glean from any society aspiring to genuine democracy should and can be proportional to the investments they make in it, and then must insist that they be so.
Finally, and following from the above, the American people must demand and foment a conceptual revolution in the meaning of democratic citizenship that puts their own talents, wisdom, and co-creative capacity at the center of every policy discussion.
With much of post-Trump America yearning for a government that gets back to business without just returning to business as usual, the time to act on these lessons is ripe. But there is much work to do to make this vision a concrete reality.
Putting the Civic in Civic Infrastructure
We are not alone in descrying and promoting the potential of a federal investment in “civic infrastructure.” Holly Russon Gilman and Marci Harris, writing in The Hill in April, seized on the phrase to demand not only better services to protect citizens from the fickle darts of fate and fraud, but also better processes for transmitting public opinion to decision-makers and better spaces for forming such opinion in the first place. Biden’s recently unveiled American Family Plan (AFP) seems at first to fit that bill. It wisely proposes several initiatives to provide a material floor upon which every American person, family, and community can build a politically efficacious life—a foundation of living wages, equitable education, information access, and public health. But it does not explain whether and how these measures will help make citizens genuine constituents of their government rather than supplicants of it.
This is not only a philosophical but a strategic error. If the AFP is presented as a list of gifts, concessions, or reparations from government, it will be viewed by many Americans in one of two ways: either as unrelated to the more concrete work of “building back better” or as a distraction from it. A public-work approach to the AFP would ask (and seek to answer) questions putting citizens and communities at the center of a renewed and more resilient America. Fortunately, there are good examples to build on, including in our own home state of Minnesota.
Take the imperative of equitable education. Clearly, we need to ensure that struggling districts have the money and diverse talent pool to ensure that their students thrive in school, and thus help all of us thrive in future. But flush schools and diverse faculty are not enough. Instead, we would highlight efforts like those of the Minnesota Humanities Center and its partners in the Roseville, Minnesota, and Omaha, Nebraska school systems. These partnerships work to bring students and families into regular and trusting conversation with teachers and administrators through “story circles” and other tested approaches that mutually familiarize and humanize the parties involved, while also opening policy decisions and classroom climates to the influence of community wisdom.
We would also highlight long-running programs such as Public Achievement, in which trained coaches guide cohorts of students to undertake commons-building projects (say, transforming a vacant lot into a playground, or bringing a no-smoking bill to the city council) that they themselves conceive, and that they themselves execute—not just through their own intellectual or manual labor, but through methodical efforts to understand the thinking and enlist the aid of all stakeholders. At a time when Democrats and Republicans alike are lamenting the lack of civics education in schools and worrying about students gaining skills to thrive and adapt in changing workplaces, such approaches make more sense than ever. Commons-building work can be built directly into civics courses—or, for that matter, history, language arts, math, and science courses. Even in small doses, such project-based, public-work learning would hone research, writing, numeracy, and critical thinking skills while linking core knowledge of the nation’s past or scientific laws to the environments, problems, opportunities, and people that students care about.
Public health presents similar opportunities. There is no question that our society should invest more in ensuring better and more equitable health outcomes for all. But money alone won’t cut it. Almost a decade ago, that recognition led Jeanne Ayers, then assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, to spearhead a “Healthy Minnesota Partnership” that moved beyond simple provision of health care to address the “social determinants” of health: factors such as conditions of birth and early childhood, education, transportation, work, housing, and—crucially—a community’s sense of self-efficacy. As a result of her team’s 2014 report—based on years of work with more than one thousand community leaders and health professionals—a new story of health in Minnesota emerged. For the first time in official statewide discussions, it highlighted the state’s alarming racial disparities in health access and outcomes.
But that was only the beginning of the story. Addressing structural racism from a public-work perspective, Ayers’s team engaged health workers, legislators, and community members in promoting new narrative practices—new ways of seeking and telling health stories—that changed public conceptions of health in the state, leading to major changes in policies governing local public health departments as well as grant making for Minnesota’s indigenous and minority communities. Critically, these changes were sparked by inviting individuals and communities to identify their own health needs, experiences, assets, and goals, rather than treating them as problems or submersing them in statistical patterns.
Similarly stirring health narratives are circulating nationwide. In March, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control commissioned a high-level task force whose subsequent findings herald aparadigm shift in public health, moving the focus from crisis intervention by experts to consistent support for the intellectual, social, and cultural resources embedded in communities. As explained in the group’s July 2020 report, Thriving Together, sustainable public health depends less on experts identifying and fixing community deficits than on the “community strength” and “civic muscle” that communities already have, and that others with power and resources can help them build.
No one claims that critical or chronic health problems like disease outbreaks or widespread obesity should be ignored. The point is that communities are less susceptible and more resilient to such threats when several “vital conditions” are in place: a thriving natural world, basic needs for health and safety, humane housing, meaningful work and wealth, lifelong learning, reliable transportation, and (product of all the foregoing) a sense of “belonging and civic muscle”—a sense that health professionals risk undermining if people are not included as partners in assessing and managing their own health. This is not civic pseudo-science, either. The importance of belonging and of civic muscle is now widely recognized by thousands of professionals across sectors, including Surgeons General from both Republican and Democratic administrations.
From Civic to Public
As Americans continue their endless debate over the primacy of personal versus collective responsibility in achieving the American dream, a compelling vision for more participatory and empowering education and health systems should gain Biden’s American Families Plan a large audience (popular, if not congressional). But what about infrastructure and civics more traditionally conceived? Increased investment in “hard” infrastructure and higher quality civic learning both poll well across partisan divides. Yet their theoretical appeal will become popular mandate only when false dichotomies between government and citizen, and between the civic and the everyday, crumble in the minds of an American public invited and excited to exercise its civic muscle. Several ideas now percolating offer potential means to catalyze such a material and civic transformation. To tap public capacity and capture the public imagination, however, they must be moderately retooled and significantly reframed.
Take, for instance, Biden’s January executive order to revive the Civilian Conservation Corps as a Civilian Climate Corps: a program to “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers” to protect societal and planetary health while developing skills and technologies that will drive prosperity in the future. A great platform. But its base needs broadening in at least two ways.
First, a national, climate-focused CCC need not start from scratch. More than 130 nonprofit, local, and state-run corps operate today, many in partnership with the nation’s official service program, AmeriCorps. The best of these, and their best practices, should form the core of a national CCC. Second, and on the latter point, a national CCC cannot afford to be organized or even perceived as a federal missionary project sending do-gooders to educate and rehabilitate their backward, fossil-fuel addicted, fast-food dependent, or monoculture-maniacal fellow Americans. As political scientist Carmen Sirianni and other proponents of “civic environmentalism” have long argued, legislators and agencies should set broad goals for, say, ecosystem restoration or sustainable urban development, then let communities and regions develop and implement plans, following general but essential guidelines ensuring inclusive and collaborative citizen involvement. Such involvement is not just ethical. It is strategic: critical to ensuring widespread adoption, appreciation, and stewardship of new public goods and lifeways. Those serving in a Climate Corps must therefore be coached in what political scientist Albert Dzur and others call “democratic professionalism” or “citizen professionalism”: deploying their knowledge, talents, and resources in ways that leverage the wisdom, talents, and cooperation of laypeople who know the landscape and lend local legitimacy to the work.
A civically oriented Climate Corps would be an excellent vehicle for another idea whose promise a public-work approach could magnify and realize: an inter-regional or urban-rural service-learning exchange. A domestic version of the classic foreign exchange program has been suggested by former Clinton official Isabel Sawhill, former George W. Bush official John Bridgeland, and Democracy editor Michael Tomasky, among others. Americans, as Tomasky puts it, “are strangers to each other” across state and even county lines. The idea is that, over two decades or so, a program placing thousands of young people a year in unfamiliar environments to work and build relationships with Americans of vastly different backgrounds (particularly rural versus urban or “red” versus “blue”) would prime a generation of leaders to depolarize the nation’s politics. But much more could be accomplished with just a little public-work scaffolding. Indeed, a domestic exchange program could be a model for transforming national service generally from an individualistic exercise in personal growth or altruistic sacrifice to a social exercise in civic muscle-building.
An example is the fledgling Minnesota-based non-profit Move4America, now working with VISTA to combine urban-rural exchange with stipended placement in local nonprofits. Instead of simply tutoring elementary kids in reading and soaking up the strange surroundings, participants undertake a series of civic inventories—of their non-profit, of the community in which it is embedded, and of themselves. Through interviews and personal reflections, they ask and seek to answer: What voice do the “served” have in the enterprise that is supposed to help them? What assets do they bring to the work, and are those assets recognized and utilized, or ignored and thus eroded? How do my organization’s leaders, and how do I, react to the answers? Such work turns hierarchical service into mutual civic learning, casting the structure of the local polity in a new light that reveals not just its weaknesses and injustices, but its strengths and possibilities.
Such civic work is important for its own sake. But it is also pertinent to the nation’s more concrete infrastructure and workforce development needs. The Biden Administration should consider bringing all its infrastructure projects, climate-focused and otherwise, into a new Civilian Commonwealth Corps through which Americans rebuild their nation physically, economically, and civically. We can think of no bigger bang for the national buck, for three reasons. First, a genuine sense of ownership is the surest way for communities to appreciate and steward the investments they make and the goods they share. Second, a genuine sense of contribution and agency is the surest way for individual workers to make the most of their experience, stretching themselves to learn new skills and thus learn how to learn, thereby enhancing their lifetime productive potential. Finally, genuine collaboration with diverse individuals across lines of difference is the surest way to broaden horizons, deepen empathy, foster grace, and unleash a new era of civic and political creativity.
Businesses would have a big role to play and much to gain. As in the original CCC, workers could be exposed to the various career paths that cross their complex projects and that businesses can explain and open to them. Even if the Commonwealth Corps were wound down eventually, it could help bring business into the robust movement for community-based scholarship and learning that has developed across higher education in recent years. The model could spur businesses and academic institutions to revive the cooperative education paradigm that flourished from the 1960s to the 1990s, in which faculty and consortia of local employers co-develop curricula and internships that reconciled the goal of education for economic productivity with that of education for informed citizenship. In the best of those “co-op” programs, such as flourished at Augsburg College (now University) in Minneapolis, students were encouraged to undertake civic inventories of their internships like those we endorse for service programs. The insights of such reflections would be invaluable to participating businesses taking seriously the mission of “stakeholder capitalism” and seeking ways to operationalize it while sustaining their core enterprise.
Indeed, the business community generally would benefit from a national Commonwealth Corps or “co-op” campaign. The skills such programs would hone are those that businesses and business analysts in many sectors are calling for: critical thinking; lifelong learning; perspective-taking; teamwork. If properly framed and structured, moreover, such experiences will yield much more important fruits. They will address immediate problems and create immediately useful goods that boost economic growth, while also providing the supple skills that make for the best and most versatile employees and the happiest and most resilient communities. Surely, the savvy business leader can see value in that.
What Will It Take?
The programs outlined above need not be theprograms that define a “public-work” program of public works, and certainly not the only ones. We offer them primarily as a concrete starting point for the most important work the Biden Administration and anyone else invested in “building back better” must undertake: the work of conceptual change. Sparking such change—from a shrunken vision of democratic citizenship as voting and consuming to a larger one of building and stewarding the commons—is essentially a problem of cultural organizing. Like all genuinely democratic change, it cannot be the work of government alone.
Thankfully, there are signs that such change is already brewing. Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s new book, The Upswing, has made a splash recalling rich earlier histories of America “coming together” to affirm the possibility of moving, once again, from “me” to “we.” A few years ago, James and Deborah Fallows found such me-to-we movements occurring in towns across the country, despite the increasingly toxic polarization of national and state politics. Acknowledging such civic ferment, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in its high-profile report of 2019, Our Common Purpose, adopted a notably larger view of democracy than has long been common in academia. Surveying the country, the report’s authors noted “stories of surging participation and innovation, of communities working to build new connections across long-standing divides, and of individual citizens suddenly awakening to the potential of their democratic responsibilities.” Meanwhile, the burgeoning, cross-partisan depolarization group Braver Angels is part of a wider grassroots movement for healthier public deliberation which seeks to counter the demonizing, war-like discourse of national media and politics with a focus on common humanity, overlapping values, and a shared political identity of ‘We the People” through carefully facilitated workshops, town hall forums, and free-spirited debates that end without identifying “winners” or “losers” but instead ask participants to reflect on growth and change in their thinking. A renewed focus on community and a call for service are also appearing in avowedly conservative circles. Leading voices include communitarian intellectuals such as Pete Peterson, director of The American Project at Pepperdine University, and Yuval Levin, Director of Social, Cultural and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute; as well as politicians like Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who recently repurposed the Joint Economic Committee of Congress to focus on building social capital by supporting the self-directed activities of families and local mediating structures.
As Lee’s effort suggests, politicians have a duty to publicize and continue to catalyze the cultural organizing efforts of their constituents. Recognizing the dignity and public value of work—defining “good American jobs” as more than living wages or economic ladders—is a good place to start. And indeed, political champions of the idea are appearing. In Congress, Democratic senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Raphael Warnock of Georgia each have made the “dignity of work” central to their messages (both inspired by Martin Luther King’s support for the 1968 garbage workers strike in Memphis, Tennessee). Republican Oren Cass, Mitt Romney’s former policy advisor, argues for imbuing work with purpose and meaning in his recent book, The Once and Future Worker, calling on society to provide clear but voluntary career pathways encouraging “people of diverse abilities, priorities, and geographies…[to] become contributors to their communities.” Former President Barak Obama, too, has recently endorsed the public purpose of work. “The pace of change is going to require us to do more fundamental reimagining of our social and political arrangements, to protect the economic security and the dignity that comes with a job,” he told a South African crowd in 2018. “It’s not just money that a job provides; it provides dignity and structure and a sense of place and a sense of purpose.”
Both Cass and Obama caught a pulse. The Harvard Business Reviewfound in 2018 that nine of 10 Americans surveyed were willing to earn less money to do work with a larger purpose. Judging by a recent Gallup/Bates College report, “Forging Pathways to Purposeful Work,” many Americans have felt that way since their student days (and have been disappointed). Fortunately, business leaders have begun to take these priorities seriously. As the Business Roundtable declared in its widely publicized endorsement of “stakeholder” rather than “shareholder” capitalism two summers ago, “Americans deserve an economy that allows each person to succeed through hard work and creativity and to lead a life of meaning and dignity.” That civically constructive vision for American business is paralleled in the same Surgeon General’s report—aptly titled Community Health and Economic Wellbeing—that endorsedthe vital conditions of healthy civic muscle. The report calls for business leaders to become “stewards” of community wellbeing, in the interests of their businesses as well as the common good. “Today’s business leaders,” it reads, “can play a meaningful role in the lives of their employees, consumers, and communities—some of the key stakeholders that help businesses succeed.”
The job of the Biden Administration is not to plan in excruciating detail exactly how communities, governments, and businesses should go about imbuing work with dignity, building civic muscle, and renewing American democracy. Its job is to inspire the American people to take on that task, and to catalyze and support their efforts. That requires articulating a rich and expansive vision of democracy that puts the work of the people at its center and highlights its dazzling radiations in all directions. And it requires constructing and funding a bold policy framework that Americans can grasp, examine, critique, adapt, and make their own.
That is what it means to put the public back in public works. It will not be easy, but it will not be any harder than muddling through democracy as usual—a process most Americans despise, and which only erratically rewards the Democratic Party. It may not win a single additional vote from Republicans in Congress. But at least it will help Biden say to the nation, in good faith, that he is taking seriously the onetime Republican tenet that government cannot just grow and grow to solve people’s problems for them. Government can be a partner, a catalyst, for the type of economic growth that neither a powerful state nor unfettered business alone can provide: broad, lasting, and equitable. Moreover, constituents are not nearly as intractable as opposing politicians, especially if they feel that the economic benefits of a policy are joined by the civic and even spiritual benefits of enhanced capacity to shape their own lives and the public realm.
Thus it would be folly for Democrats to ignore Republican Senator Tim Scott’s rebuttal to Biden’s congressional address: “Government is not the solution, you are.” Democrats need to realize that what seems like magical thinking on Scott’s part is just that to many Americans: magical. However crackpot its economic logic or shallow its social analysis, the “you are the solution” mantra evokes, for millions, a better reality, in which they have a role and control. Since the Reagan years, Republicans have known that most Americans—especially the blue-collar Americans whose loyalties are most in doubt—do not want to be treated as dependents. They do not want to feel taken care of. Americans want to be empowered. And a good many of them understand what many political professionals forget: that democracy will only outperform and outlast autocracy if “we the people” remain in control—that is, if it remains democracy in its truest sense.