Looking For A Voice in All The Wrong Places

(From the April 5, 2004 edition of The Christian Science Monitor)

If you’re someone who believes the right wing has more “opinion leader” outlets than it can shake a stick at, and that the left has done a dismal job of keeping up, these are heady times indeed. The new “liberal radio station,” Air America, is up and running with Al Franken as the marquee draw. Former Clinton White House official John Podesta has gotten the new “liberal think tank,” the Center for American Progress (CAP), off the ground.

Meanwhile, former vice president Al Gore is rumored to be near a deal to establish a liberal cable channel.

These efforts are designed to combat the many conservative talk-radio stations, conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, and conservative TV news outlets such as Fox News Channel.

But the new organizations all suffer from the same problems. They are all in danger of failing to do what they claim they want to do: become “antidotes” to right-wing thought.

Why?

* They’re too negative. Each of these outlets (save the cable channel, which does not yet exist) defines itself by what it opposes or what it is not. Air America says, “The right has had its say for the last three years.” CAP says, “Every day we challenge conservative thinking that undermines the bedrock American values of liberty, community, and shared responsibility.”

* They’re too stereotypical. Both Air America and CAP behave like the right’s caricature of the left. In an environment in which non-Republicans are having their patriotism questioned, does Air America really need to offer a morning drive show called “Morning Sedition?” It just confirms the suspicions of the skeptics and further marginalizes the left.

* They’re too gleeful. CAP is designed to be (and billed as) a think tank, offering concrete policies and ideas that are essentially progressive. But think tanks work and are listened to because, while they take an ideological stance, it is typically not overtly political. But CAP seems to revel in playing electoral politics. Someone discovered some private notes and memos of a Bush administration staffer, and CAP has, for days now, been enthusiastically posting them and commenting on them. Its website reads more like a campaign site than it does a source of information.

If the desire is to offer red meat to the faithful, this strategy may work well. But, to win the hearts and minds of undecided America, they are far, far from where they need to be.

Think about Fox News Channel’s infamous motto, “Fair and Balanced.” It promises something that a broad swath of Americans feel they lack: balanced news coverage. Certainly conservatives believe themselves to be shut out of the opinionmaking industry, and will gravitate to such slogans, but in addition, most of America sees no place for themselves in public discourse. Fox’s motto speaks to them, too … and so the network picks up adherents; people begin to look to Fox as an information source.

Meanwhile, the new Air America focuses on not being Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly. If a listener is vacillating, or just feeling fed up with what he hears, he’s not going to seek out information from sources as polarized as these. But maybe he will if he wants propaganda, or only to hear opinions he agrees with.

But if a listener’s heart or mind is ready to be won over by an alternative to the anger and vitriol seen on the right, these new left outlets will turn him off just as much, if not more so. He’ll end the day even more shut out than when it began, because of these frantic efforts to achieve partisan parity.

And so, where are we to look for a public voice that is truly balanced, is not trying to sell, and is not spinning the truth?

I’ve yet to discover it.

[(c) 2004 Christian Science Monitor. Used with permission.]

Or Give Them Death

Last month Montgomery County, Maryland high school students were let out of school early and offered community service course credit for attending a rally to press for more education funding. There were two small pieces on it in the local weekly paper. Such news stories typically get short shrift. Even the editorial decrying what it called “bribing students” into political involvement seemed to disappear into the pond without a ripple.

And why not? It’s civic education in action. The mission of the public schools is, after all, in part to form better citizens (ask Thomas Jefferson). Kids taking part in politics as a way to get there is great, but it makes for a snoozer of a story, the kind editors pull out when things are slow.

But the hitherto-sleepy front of youth civic engagement now may be about to erupt into a culture war.

We’re in the second week of a spate of news stories in many of the major outlets focusing on what looks like a sinister connection between organized home schooling, a college for home schoolers (Patrick Henry College), and the Religious Right. Pieces have run prominently in the New York Times, the Economist, and The Christian Science Monitor, among others. They raise the concern that home schooling has become a breeding-ground for conservative activism. Many Patrick Henry grads are interning in certain conservative political offices in Washington. And, Generation Joshua, a conservative civic project, seeks to get home-schooled youth to volunteer helping conservative churches get voters to the polls and on conservative campaigns.

In one online forum discussion devoted to the issue, a reader demanded to know how home schooling is “different from the madressa’s [sic] in Pakistan?” Strong stuff — and unfair — but not atypical. Other posts on the “Smirking Chimp” web forum include parallels to the Nazification of Germany and mean-spirited jabs portraying conservatives (not just home-schooled ones) as stupid.

What’s going on here? Why are conservatives volunteering in politics so troublesome? What makes it worth precious column inches, day after day? Why the fascination?

The story is so interesting because it entwines three compelling narratives:

* First, there is the presidential election. Everything remotely connected to politics this year is seen through that lens. With interns in the Bush White House and detractors decrying such students as mere conservative foot soldiers, the story has built-in political conflict.

* Second, there is the rise of the Religious Right. Since the early days of the Christian Coalition, the press has been intrigued with the up-front and disciplined way the Right went about its strategy to become ascendant. The tactics included starting at the grass roots and developing conservative leadership, knowing that such leaders would rise in the ranks and achieve power. The Patrick Henry story is another installment in that ongoing saga.

* Third, there are the home schoolers themselves. Mainstream America does not quite know what to do with them. Without a way to talk about them, journalists easily resort to stereotypes. The New York Times points out that some estimate two thirds of home schoolers are self-identified conservatives, opting out of what they see as a values-bereft society. This makes it easy to see home-schooling as a cult, and as Patrick Henry College as a kind of conservative bunch of Branch Davidians. But, what of the residual one third? Are they a sub-cult? A faction? Can home schooling truly be as monolithic as it is described?

The real question is this: Why does opting out of the public school system — indeed, any school system — trouble us so? Maybe it is because we understand that citizenship requires engagement with the world, requires us to act with others and tolerate different views — and we worry whether those schooled at home truly develop these sensibilities.

And so, those in the mainstream scapegoat and stereotype those on the margin. But it is ironic that Patrick Henry’s mission of political change is, while perhaps unpalatable to some, exactly what we might wish to ask that home-schoolers do. It is a way of engaging.

More troubling, though, is what the home school movement represents. It is a symptom of the breakdown in the relationship between the public and its schools. Families have decided that the institutions on which generations before had relied are just not up to the job and are looking elsewhere. But people see the movement politically and culturally, without recognizing its civic aspects — and it is those aspects that represent the greatest threat to our schools.

Home schoolers’ concerns are real, and must be addressed. The mainstream media does not help by connecting them with partisan politics, and those who support public schools would do well to listen carefully to families who exit the system. Taunting those who have chosen a different way will not invite them back in.

True Leadership

The man over at the edge of the room had the look on his face that people get when they really need to say something. He raised his hand. “We need to remember,” he said, “that as public leaders we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard.” I was in Charlottesville, Virginia with the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at UVA, addressing a leadership group on ethics. Sorensen runs one of the better such programs in the nation, mixing ethics and political leadership in a sustained, integrated way.

The comment crystallized a number of themes that many had brought up that morning. For some, it was a breath of fresh air. We had been talking about the “appearance of impropriety” while we debated a case study, as if the way something looked was more important than whether it was or was not ethical. The man was right, people seemed to say to themselves. We need to think about something deeper than appearance here.

The man indeed had a point. This endemic mistrust underlies many of our civic dysfunctions. The fundamental problem is that, in public life today, the ability to understand, talk about, and act upon ethical obligations has been eviscerated. No longer is there room for “ought” in the public square. But that is precisely what we need.

Thankfully, some people see it that way, too. And not just at the Sorensen Institute. There is an instinct to reclaim the responsibilities of citizenship in a way that makes sense in today’s fragmented world. Talking to people across the country, this instinct can be felt, but is often hidden from view.

People are extending themselves, in small ways and large. When you talk to them, in their voices you hear a desire for themselves and others to live up to the ethical sense they have about what citizens should do and how they should behave. You can see it in the new discussion groups that are forming, with new rules and new members: People who had been shut out are finding political voices. You can see it as others take advantage of network technologies to communicate with public institutions: Just a few years ago, they would not have ventured out of their homes. All of these people are expressing a desire for something deeper than politics as usual, something that feels real.

This is nothing short of a new way of thinking about what we bring to the public square — and what we should do when we get there.

These instincts need nurturing. The people who seek an authentic connection with their responsibilities want to hold themselves to that higher standard. They need inspiration, motivation, guideposts. Where are those things?

Today’s elite discourse is choked, on the one hand, by partisan ranting and, on the other hand, by professional civic theorists who speak incessantly of “process.” In few places is there real discussion of ethics in public life, but in many there are arguments over so-called “values” that are really conflicts over power.

But there are emergent leaders who are beginning to sidestep all that and to speak instead to those with open minds and a desire for something more in public life. People in communities across America, who are more concerned with their neighbors than with the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and who wonder “what is the right thing to do?” instead of considering just the expedient thing.

These emergent leaders work hand in hand with their fellow citizens, at the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, at the Common Place Family Learning Center in Peoria, and so many other places. These leaders are looked to as reliable sources of street-level information and as moral exemplars. Some of them have begun to filter into leadership programs such as the one at the Sorensen Institute. But their credibility begins in the community. In the neighborhoods, people don’t wonder, “What would Colin Powell do?” but instead they wonder, “What would Sally down the block do?”

And to these neighbors, true leaders do not shout but instead they whisper. “You can do better,” they whisper. “You should do better.”

How do you answer?

In The End, It's The Hands

My daughter is an animal person; has been ever since she discovered them. She loves farms, pet stores, the pound, and the zoo. So I have been closely following the sad spectacle at the National Zoo. Management has fallen victim to a classic nonprofit ethics trap, one to which all mission-driven organizations are prone: they forgot they had to execute ethically.

Many nonprofit organizations right now are pleased that the latest Harris Interactive reputation survey shows them to be more trusted than for-profit corporations — but it’s only 15 percent to three percent. Hardly a ringing endorsement from an essentially untrusting society. Given this context, the Zoo should serve as a warning.

For months now, the National Zoo has been besieged. Animals have been dying. In their last review from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association they received an unusually short one-year accreditation, a form of probation. Staff has been leaving. The Washington Post ran a series of high-profile examinations of the practices and deficiencies at the Zoo. And, the National Academy of Sciences has launched an investigation and just issued a scathing interim report. The final report, due out in the summer, is unlikely to be much rosier. Under intense criticism, Zoo director Lucy H. Spelman has said she will resign, rather than be such a “lightning rod” for public controversy.

On the one hand, another high-profile controversy at a public institution (even a quasi-governmental one) cannot be good for the nonprofit sector. But on the other hand, such times can lead to a positive introspection, as leaders examine what went wrong and what they can do to avoid the same fate.

What happened to one of the jewels in the crown of the Smithsonian? While many may say it’s a management problem, that assessment skirts the issue. It’s an ethics problem.

Nonprofit leaders thus ought to take note, and ask themselves a set of probing questions. The answers, like many things relating to ethics, will require rigorous honesty. The questions get at the three dimensions of ethical action, all of which must be aligned: intention, practice, and execution. Leaders should ask themselves:

* Intention: What is my mission and purpose? To what extent is the achievement of this mission more important than the way I go about it?

* Practice: Are the systems, structures, and procedures I have in place sufficient? Are they truly designed to foster ethical action or are they just meant to appear that way?

* Execution: Am I carrying out my plans? Am I following my own rules? Or are they just plans on paper that I would follow in a perfect world?

Many will answer the first two sets of questions gladly and well. In mission-driven organizations such as most throughout the nonprofit world, executives feel comfortable with their purpose, and see themselves as ethical. Their hearts are definitely in the right place. And, most savvy nonprofit leaders have readily grasped the need for both the appearance and reality of a robust, ethical management strategy. Their heads are not in the clouds.

But, what about execution? How effectively are the hands of nonprofits operating? So many groups that I talk to are strapped for cash, time, and other resources. It’s hard to make ends meet and keep the lights on, let alone dot every i and cross every t.

That was the Zoo’s experience. In releasing its interim report, the chair of the Academy investigatory panel said, “We believe there has been pervasive weakness throughout the institution, from the keeper level to management.” The Zoo has plenty of policies and procedures. They’re good ones, all designed to ensure that the Zoo’s public trust is upheld. But they aren’t being followed.

It is easy to scapegoat Spelman and deride the Zoo. The problems are clearly deep ones at that institution. But the Zoo is not alone. The United Way and the Nature Conservancy in Washington DC, PipeVine in San Francisco, and Provena Covenant Medical Center in Illinois all come to mind. Good missions. Systems galore. Bad execution.

Thankfully, there is a movement among nonprofits and foundations towards greater effectiveness. New ways of measuring effectiveness are being devised. This can only be a good thing for this vital feature of the American landscape.

Because, sometimes in the nonprofit world, commitment to mission seems to trump everything else. It may have in Spelman’s case. In the news conference at which she resigned, Zoo director Spelman said, “I have pushed, pulled and prodded to move the zoo forward.” Her intentions were good. “Everybody here is here to try to make sure the animals are okay,” she said to the Washington Post, lauding the good intentions of the staffers who changed medical records and made mistakes that cost lives. In response to her chief critic, former chief pathologist Don Nichols, she said, “I’m sad that Don would be as critical as he is, given that I know he does care about the animals.” In this alternate world, it seems, if you care then that’s enough.

But it clearly wasn’t enough. Hearts must be in the right place, and heads must not be in the clouds. But, in the end, it is the hands that must do the work.

In The End, It’s The Hands

My daughter is an animal person; has been ever since she discovered them. She loves farms, pet stores, the pound, and the zoo. So I have been closely following the sad spectacle at the National Zoo. Management has fallen victim to a classic nonprofit ethics trap, one to which all mission-driven organizations are prone: they forgot they had to execute ethically.

Many nonprofit organizations right now are pleased that the latest Harris Interactive reputation survey shows them to be more trusted than for-profit corporations — but it’s only 15 percent to three percent. Hardly a ringing endorsement from an essentially untrusting society. Given this context, the Zoo should serve as a warning.

For months now, the National Zoo has been besieged. Animals have been dying. In their last review from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association they received an unusually short one-year accreditation, a form of probation. Staff has been leaving. The Washington Post ran a series of high-profile examinations of the practices and deficiencies at the Zoo. And, the National Academy of Sciences has launched an investigation and just issued a scathing interim report. The final report, due out in the summer, is unlikely to be much rosier. Under intense criticism, Zoo director Lucy H. Spelman has said she will resign, rather than be such a “lightning rod” for public controversy.

On the one hand, another high-profile controversy at a public institution (even a quasi-governmental one) cannot be good for the nonprofit sector. But on the other hand, such times can lead to a positive introspection, as leaders examine what went wrong and what they can do to avoid the same fate.

What happened to one of the jewels in the crown of the Smithsonian? While many may say it’s a management problem, that assessment skirts the issue. It’s an ethics problem.

Nonprofit leaders thus ought to take note, and ask themselves a set of probing questions. The answers, like many things relating to ethics, will require rigorous honesty. The questions get at the three dimensions of ethical action, all of which must be aligned: intention, practice, and execution. Leaders should ask themselves:

* Intention: What is my mission and purpose? To what extent is the achievement of this mission more important than the way I go about it?

* Practice: Are the systems, structures, and procedures I have in place sufficient? Are they truly designed to foster ethical action or are they just meant to appear that way?

* Execution: Am I carrying out my plans? Am I following my own rules? Or are they just plans on paper that I would follow in a perfect world?

Many will answer the first two sets of questions gladly and well. In mission-driven organizations such as most throughout the nonprofit world, executives feel comfortable with their purpose, and see themselves as ethical. Their hearts are definitely in the right place. And, most savvy nonprofit leaders have readily grasped the need for both the appearance and reality of a robust, ethical management strategy. Their heads are not in the clouds.

But, what about execution? How effectively are the hands of nonprofits operating? So many groups that I talk to are strapped for cash, time, and other resources. It’s hard to make ends meet and keep the lights on, let alone dot every i and cross every t.

That was the Zoo’s experience. In releasing its interim report, the chair of the Academy investigatory panel said, “We believe there has been pervasive weakness throughout the institution, from the keeper level to management.” The Zoo has plenty of policies and procedures. They’re good ones, all designed to ensure that the Zoo’s public trust is upheld. But they aren’t being followed.

It is easy to scapegoat Spelman and deride the Zoo. The problems are clearly deep ones at that institution. But the Zoo is not alone. The United Way and the Nature Conservancy in Washington DC, PipeVine in San Francisco, and Provena Covenant Medical Center in Illinois all come to mind. Good missions. Systems galore. Bad execution.

Thankfully, there is a movement among nonprofits and foundations towards greater effectiveness. New ways of measuring effectiveness are being devised. This can only be a good thing for this vital feature of the American landscape.

Because, sometimes in the nonprofit world, commitment to mission seems to trump everything else. It may have in Spelman’s case. In the news conference at which she resigned, Zoo director Spelman said, “I have pushed, pulled and prodded to move the zoo forward.” Her intentions were good. “Everybody here is here to try to make sure the animals are okay,” she said to the Washington Post, lauding the good intentions of the staffers who changed medical records and made mistakes that cost lives. In response to her chief critic, former chief pathologist Don Nichols, she said, “I’m sad that Don would be as critical as he is, given that I know he does care about the animals.” In this alternate world, it seems, if you care then that’s enough.

But it clearly wasn’t enough. Hearts must be in the right place, and heads must not be in the clouds. But, in the end, it is the hands that must do the work.

Another First Internet Campaign

Whether he has withdrawn or not (and it’s unclear what the answer is), Howard Dean is out of the race. Now his supporters are rallying around the idea of continuing the “movement” his campaign started. The unprecedented success of this pioneering campaign has got to be harnessed, they say.

But what, if anything, is behind the curtain of the “first true Internet-based campaign” mystique? Less than might be hoped. We have been here before. We have heard about the brave new political world being ushered in by technology, especially where the Internet is involved.

After Jesse Ventura won the Minnesota state house, there was a spate of “first Internet-based campaign” pronouncements. They were all in response to the fact that the campaign used e-mail to get people to rallies. Ordinary Hockey dads who had never been politically active were coordinated through e-mail lists to great effect. Later, the McCain campaign raised a lot of money over the Internet and so it became in its turn the “first Internet-based campaign,” ironically heralding a new era in political money.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Project Vote Smart appeared to be on the vanguard of forging a new Internet-enabled relationship between citizens and politicians. It posted a searchable database of answers to candidate questionnaires. But then, the next election cycle, those same answers were used in politics-as-usual attack ads and the project suddenly found it hard to convince candidates to fill out their forms. It is now a rare candidate who takes them up on their offer of posting their positions (not even the Dean campaign did).

Now, even in its demise, the Dean campaign is seen as validating the democratically transformative effects of the Internet. In this case, the hype is based on the fact that the campaign had a “weblog” (which in reality was a way for the campaign to continually update what it said about itself); and employed a field-based approach to organizing in which local cells of support had a fair degree of what seemed like autonomy. People across the country are avid and self-referential about how “first” they are, or were. A recent technology conference featuring ousted Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi became the functional equivalent of Comdex, and weblogs are abuzz with parsings of what Trippi said and didn’t — and what needs to happen for the Internet to continue to take over politics.

But, the real reason the Dean campaign is the first “real” Internet campaign has nothing to do with the uses made of the Internet for political purposes. No, the Dean campaign was able to create the simulation of widespread support by clever use of Internet-based (i.e., “narrowcast”) marketing tools. People thought they had a “relationship” with the Dean campaign the same way my bank wants me to think I have a “relationship” to it.

The Dean campaign was the first to simulate a real campaign, just as Pets.com simulated a real business and the AOL-TimeWarner merger simulated real strategy. The Dean campaign looked exactly like a successful campaign — only it wasn’t.

This found perhaps its most perfect expression when the campaign found itself to be very successful and sent out an email suggesting that it was wrestling with a tough decision about whether to forego public financing. The “interactive” nature of this missive was touted by many at the time as yet another example of the Internettiness of the campaign. The campaign used the sense of intimacy brought about by the Internet to make people feel as if they had been asked an important question. “Hey!” thought people at home. “The campaign cares what I think!”

But it was hollow. The decision was a foregone conclusion. Dean was going to go where the money was.

Ultimately, what the Dean campaign showed us (reminded us) is what real grassroots political organizers have long known: political “transactions” are fundamentally different from commercial transactions. It is easier to get my money than my civic time. What the Dean campaign forgot, or more precisely what the hype about the Dean campaign forgot, was that the appearance of a network and message of hope is far different from the real thing.

And it’s the real thing in which people place their trust.

The Democracy Shop

The field has winnowed and the retail politics of January has given way to the wholesale politics of the rest of the year. Turnout has been up, especially among younger people. Since Iowa, opinion pages have been awash with cautious optimism that civic engagement is on the rise.

But forgive me if I don’t unwrap my party hat just yet. The reports of the death of youth disengagement are, as were the stories of Samuel Clemens’s demise, greatly exaggerated. Indeed, in a recent survey by the Council for Excellence in Government and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, youth are twelve percent less likely to trust government than they were two years ago, and only thirty-five percent say most people can be trusted. The divide between the people and political leaders — indeed, between people and each other — remains as deep as ever.

Meanwhile, the stalwart “civic engagement” industry — the many nonprofit groups and other organizations that mount voter registration drive after voter registration drive and create massive get-out-the-vote campaigns — lumbers on with seemingly less and less effect.

The problem is the very means that are used to promote participation in the first place. Young people are asked to “raise their voice” and “be heard” through voting. They are told that whether or not they vote “matters,” that their vote “counts” (all disingenuous propositions). They are exhorted to “send a message on election day” to political leaders.

This is the rise of the marketing-based approach to public life. But citizenship cannot be sold. It is telling that this very rhetoric appears in an advertisement for Coca-Cola that was making the rounds in movie theaters recently. In a mythic place called “Football Town,” one fan proudly proclaims, “I know I can make a difference!”

Such messages work if participation is a decision akin to making a purchase — an economic decision. But citizens are neither customers nor fans. Here in the longest-running experiment in self-governance on the planet, citizens are those who have voluntarily adopted the obligations of self-rule.

However, the model that is too-often used to think and talk about civic participation relies on self-interest and not on other-interest. It denies that there is any real moral consequence to staying home on PTA night, to keeping quiet when fellow citizens bash those “politicians,” and taking a Mulligan on election day.

Needed is an honest approach. Citizens ought not to participate simply because they may get something out of it, or because their “voice” might be “heard.” Americans need to be reminded of their civic duty, not pandered to with proposals of election-day holidays and EZ absentee ballot forms.

But, I am pessimistic that this will come to pass any time soon. Such a movement would not be popular. It would require sacrifice — not the dramatic sacrifice of the rescuer or soldier, but the ordinary, noble sacrifice of the citizen. It would require attendance at community meetings rather than relaxing at home after a hard day’s work or study. It would require actively learning about current events rather than keeping up with Entertainment Tonight. It would require giving up weekends in favor of volunteering on a political campaign. It would require writing a letter to the editor of the newspaper rather than complaining at the dinner table. It would require voting on election day, rather than complaining about being stuck in traffic.

The civic machinery of youth participation is gunning its engine, as it does every four years, but it will continue to remain stuck on the ice for as long as it misrepresents the point of citizenship.

When it comes time to buy, I fear the newest potential customers of democracy will continue to patronize other, more exciting shops, while they wait in vain for an honest invitation to join public life.