Beyond Polarizing Politics -- Lessons From the Shutdown

10/20/2013 10:28 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

In my last post ("Reclaiming Our Democracy - Lessons from the Trenches of Citizen Advocacy," October 15) I described the highly effective methodologies of RESULTS, the citizen-driven global anti-poverty organization, and its offshoot, Citizen Climate Lobby. These methods, described in Reclaiming Our Democracy, the new book by Sam Daley-Harris, founder of RESULTS, address not only challenges in these organizations but also obstacles to collective action across society.

In the first installment, I described the problem of the narrow focus on disseminating information, widespread in expert-centered problem solving.

A second obstacle is polarizing politics. Polarizing politics was dramatized by the furious campaign of the Tea Party and its allies against Obamacare, which shut down the federal government and brought the nation to the brink of default. It is not hard to see its profoundly counterproductive nature.

But key features of the Tea Party campaign -- its righteous demonization of opponents and good versus evil framing; its delusional qualities; its lack of attention to wider, collateral damage to the society -- are widespread in polarizing campaigns of many kinds, across the political spectrum. These warrant examination.

The RESULTS method highlights the problem. "The most profound breakthroughs and transformations come when those whom we perceive as against us or our cause begin to see the truth and importance of our issue and embrace it as their own," writes Daley-Harris. "But that can only happen through partnership, not partisanship. We must see the humanity and essential goodness in each person, especially those who are seen to oppose us."

During the dialogue which Sam and I had about empowering citizen action at the Humphrey School on October 9, former dean Brian Atwood observed the difference between poverty-reduction strategies like micro-lending, which RESULTS has championed around the world, and action on carbon emissions which are leading to climate change.

Micro-lending is easily able to win support across the political spectrum. In contrast, forces opposing reduction of carbon emissions include the enormous fossil fuel industries, and their polarizing politics is fueled by "climate-denialists" stoked by skepticism toward scientific experts among a large segment of the population.

There are also wider problems in the ways people take civic action generally. Polarizing politics is a sign of the times, using a dysfunctional "prophetic rhetoric" described by Cathleen Kaveny, professor of law and theology at Notre Dame University.

In her forthcoming book, Prophecy without Contempt, Kaveny describes "positive disruptions" in conventional American life like the civil rights movement, which challenged racist beliefs and practices.

But today's prophetic rhetoric differs from civil rights movement language in crucial respects. Thus, what Kaveny calls Martin Luther King's "just prophecy" did not demonize the doer, "the other." He focused on the deed. Drawing on the Old Testament prophetic tradition, he spoke as part of "Israel," the people, not as outside critic. He identified himself as a fellow citizen, "tied in a single garment of destiny," as he put it. His prophecy was tempered by lamentation. He evidenced humility. His vision was of a reconciled community.

In contrast, today's promiscuous prophetic rhetoric is oblivious to larger impact and tends strongly toward condemnation, not reconciliation.

It is also fueled by the blogosphere.

As Sue Halpern has described in "Mind Control and the Internet," internet algorithms allow an enormous amount of data on individuals and groups to be mobilized to inflame emotions, now branding whole segments of society in good versus evil terms. Moreover, as many observe about the Tea Party-Republican government shutdown, supporters existed in a self-enclosed bubble, in which neither politicians nor rank and file had incentives to listen to opposing viewpoints.

For the climate change movement or other efforts aimed at deep change (such as the movement for democratic education and the movement to reverse growing inequality) to succeed will require returning not only to the "just prophetic rhetoric" of civil rights leaders like King. It will also mean returning to the political sense of the movement.

King and others sought to win support of the vast majority of the population, far beyond the ranks of the highly committed. Here, he was deeply influenced by brilliant strategists like A. Philip Randolph, the great labor leader, and Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington. He was also shaped by architects of the Citizenship Education Program (CEP) like Esau Jenkins, Miles Horton, Septima Clark, and Dorothy Cotton. CEP was the grassroots organizing and public leadership development initiative of the movement, based at Dorchester Center. King was often at the Dorchester Center. Thousands of people came there from across the south to learn how to create local citizenship schools. He drew inspiration from the stories of people he met there.

Like CEP leaders, he also believed that the task of the movement after the end to legal segregation was building a majoritarian citizen movement to "broaden the scope of democracy." The Memphis garbage strike, where he was killed, illustrated this focus with its unforgettable images of garbage workers holding signs, "I Am a Man."

His focus on broad, diverse democratic movement building was also illustrated by his assignment to me in 1964, then a field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in St. Augustine, Florida, to organize poor white southerners.

This was a challenge. By the time I began work with SCLC, my southern white working class relatives had disowned my father, on SCLC's executive committee, and our immediate family because of his civil rights involvements. "Organizing poor and working class whites" felt in some ways like "returning to the enemy." It meant learning disciplines of listening, building relationships, working on a public narrative in which poor and working class whites would see themselves, their stories, and their own interests.

I did this work for several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s with textile mill workers in Durham, North Carolina. The community organization which resulted, ACT, had some notable successes. I was also greatly impressed by the capacities for generous, interracial action among those whom my friends at nearby Duke University dismissed as "rednecks."

Dismissing poor and working class whites as reactionary continues today among many progressives. But all those who are serious about making significant change need to get over it.

We need to "return to the people," in all their vast complexity and heterogeneity. Like the participants in RESULTS and Citizen Climate Lobby, we need to move beyond polarizing politics. This means seeing and acting on the potential for change and contribution among everyday Americans of all political stripes, if we want to build a democratic, sustainable America.

Harry Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.