06/16/2015 04:22 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2016

Reviving the Real American Dream


"In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words and hot insults, but when a whole people speaks to its government the quality of the action and the dialogue needs to reflect the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government." - Program Notes, March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

As those of us in the March on Washington will never forget, the experience created a transcendent sense of hopefulness. In my view, this grew from the march's remarkable civic qualities. The civil rights movement made a statement to the nation and also to itself about the meaning of citizenship.

The question for today, as we head into an election season marked by bitter polarization--"stunts, rough words, and hot insults"--is how we can develop a renewed sense of ourselves as a "whole people," responsible for democracy as a way of life, not simply elections. This larger democratic imagination is what the nation is waiting for.

Stories of public work and civic action from the grassroots of American society and the tools of social media developed in recent years give us resources to help accomplish this task if we use them to integrate democratic stirrings into a larger democratic narrative that challenges today's overly materialistic and individualistic version of the American Dream.

There is a history to build on, detailed in books like Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters. The March on Washington channeled years of disciplined, nonviolent action in communities across the South. Such action by everyday citizens gave the nation a civics lesson. The country had watched unforgettable, televised images of thousands of domestic workers in Montgomery walking with dignity and determination to their work rather than ride of segregated buses. People had seen black children in Little Rock on their way to school brave crowds of segregationists who yelled insults and threw rocks. Television had dramatized nonviolent demonstrators in Birmingham facing down police dogs. Such scenes created the background for the march.

The march integrated and amplified such stories. It also deepened a citizen identity and a shared sense of people-hood.

This civic identity was expressed in Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. King called the nation to "rise up [and] live out the true meaning of its creed" that all are created equal. He also countered divisive politics. "Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline."

Citizenship was also expressed by the determination and dignity of the marchers. They took to heart the message of the program notes (above), which called for marchers to understand themselves as a "whole people" speaking to "its government," taking responsibility for "the quality of [their] action and the dialogue," and showing the nation and the government their worth as a people.

Acts of citizenship continue in the present below the surface of today's degraded public discourse. In his book Ecology of Democracy, David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, shows what this looks like. Citizens, in his definition, are those who act with others to address "the problems behind the problems," what he calls problems "of" democracy not simply problems "in" democracy.

Problems of democracy--polarization, devaluation of the talents of lay citizens, feelings of widespread powerlessness and others--cripple our collective ability to respond to the vast array of issues in democracy. These range from incarceration of black males to inequality, failing schools to climate change.

Sometimes citizenship acts are very localized such as acts of kindness to neighbors, or visits to lonely people in nursing homes. Sometimes they are community wide, as in the stories of what is called "broad based community organizing" bringing together people of different faiths, races, and income levels to address complex problems like economic development or school reform. In other cases, they involve creation and care for public goods, from garden groups to public spaces. Finally, some involve large acts of public reconstruction, like the efforts I recently described at the Rutgers University-Newark to discover and live out the identity of a "democracy university," reviving a once great American tradition.

Such civic stories furnish a foundation for an American Dream far different than the scramble for fame and fortune we see on the nightly news. By tending to the welfare of the community and the larger society, they suggest a renewed story of "the whole people" taking responsibility for democracy as a way of life.

In recent years we have heard a call for strong citizenship from political leaders. I saw first hand President Clinton's interest in citizenship when I coordinated the "New Citizenship" effort with the Domestic Policy Council from 1993 to 1995, culminating in a Camp David meeting on the future of democracy on January 14, 1965, just before Clinton's State of the Union address. In that address, "The New Covenant," Clinton described the work of citizenship as "the great strength of America." Barack Obama struck this theme in the 2008 election campaign, as Nancy Cantor and I detailed in an earlier Huffington Post blog.

The lesson of recent years is that political leaders by themselves will not sustain a strong citizenship message in the face of ferocious opposition from the elite political culture, even if they believe in it and have strong evidence of its appeal.

For a new sense of "the whole people" to take hold will require the work of the whole people.

The tools of social media offer us opportunities. For instance, in recent years they have shown their immense potential for responding to natural disasters. As Dina Fine Maron described in Scientific American, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wrote in its 2013 National Preparedness report that during Hurricane Sandy, "users sent more than 20 million Sandy-related Twitter posts, or "tweets," despite the loss of cell phone service during the peak of the storm." Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, testified to the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications that "the convergence of social networks and mobile has thrown the old response playbook out the window."

We need to define our elections as now a "civic disaster." And we need to develop a strategy for enlisting the energies and talents of the people in the work of response.

Harry Boyte is editor of the collection Democracy's Education, with many contributors describing the stirrings of a democratic American Dream.