12/04/2012 12:49 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

Information Age Populism

On November 27, in the midst of arguments about taxes and the debt, another debate took place in Washington. This one involved two political traditions eclipsed in recent years, now stirring again to life: civil society conservatism and progressively-inclined populism, which animated the New Deal, the black freedom movement, and community organizing.

The forum, billed as "Civil Society and the Future of Conservatism," included three Republicans who champion "mediating institutions" such as family, congregations, and businesses: Yuval Levin, recently tagged as a young, leading conservative intellectual by The New York Times columnist David Brooks; seasoned African-American activist Bob Woodson who works with gang members, ex-convicts, and public housing tenants; and Jimmy Kemp, president of the Jack Kemp Foundation.

It also included me, the only non-Republican in the group. Forum organizer William Schambra wanted another point of view. I was joined in advancing populism by Gerald Taylor in the audience, long-time community organizer and African-American populist intellectual.

The discussion highlighted connections and differences. "What was interesting was seeing conservatives reconnecting with their roots of family, work, and congregation," Taylor said later. "That may create some common space around a different role for government."

With the connections, there were also differences, having to do with how to understand citizens, the nature of mediating institutions, and the role of government.

During the election, Levin criticized both Republicans and Democrats for ignoring civil society, charging the debate turned into a fight between "simple-minded and selfish radical individualism," on the Republican side, and "a simple-minded and dangerous radical collectivism" on the Democratic side. Levin argued that "the premise of conservatism has always been, on the contrary, that what matters most about society happens in the space between the two, and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space is a prime purpose of government."

He observed that "numerous speakers at this summer's Democratic Convention equated society and government, arguing, for instance that 'there are things that a civilized society needs that we can only do when we do them together, and when we do them together that's called government.'"

I agreed that institutions of faith, family, and locally grounded business are crucial to a decent society -- and argued that the list needs to include education in our knowledge society. Mediating institutions also need to be thought about as sites of power, not simply as schools of virtue. Taking off from Dorothy Cotton's new book, If Your Back's Not Bent, which describes how ordinary people changed from victims to active citizens in the citizenship schools of the civil rights movement, the issue is how citizens become foundational agents of democracy.

Obama believes in citizens as agents of change.

Yuval Levin criticized Obama for slighting civil society. But the roots of progressive neglect are much earlier, taking shape in "mass politics" over decades. Mass politics is organized around what Steven Fraser, in Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, calls "the concept of a new man -- existentially mobile, more oriented to consumption than production, familiar with the impersonal rights and responsibilities of industrial due process." As Michael Sandel describes in Democracy's Discontent, mass politics is "based on consumer identities."

As I have observed, President Obama has long been a critic of the "consumer advocacy style" of citizen action. Though four years in the center of mass politics showed its effects in the 2012 campaign -- the civic agency spirit of "yes we can" was less evident than in 2008 -- Obama stressed citizenship and the work of self-governance in both his acceptance speech and his victory speech.

Most to the point, Obama understands that presidents alone can't restore civil society. In the first term, his administration took important if fledgling steps to catalyze independent citizen initiative.

The late Monsignor Geno Baroni, champion of community organizing and a "new populism," helps to flesh out the alternative to mass politics and Burkean conservatives alike. Though Saul Alinsky often gets credit -- and blame -- for birthing community organizing and schooling Obama, Baroni was a more important figure.

"The organizer has to believe that ordinary people can build bridges across racial and ethnic lines," Baroni argued. "The organizer has to get ordinary people in touch with their roots, their heritage, their best. The organizer has to give ordinary people hope." Obama's speech on race during the 2008 raised the same themes.

Baroni-style populism develops powerful citizens, not only caring citizens, builders of democracy, not democracy's consumers. It renews mediating institutions as sites of democratic power. It sees government not only as protector of civil society, but as partner in citizen empowerment.

Baroni showed how such politics can be practiced anywhere and needs to be practiced everywhere. He organized not only in communities but also in the church as Catholic coordinator to the 1963 March on Washington and architect of the social justice funding group, the Campaign for Human Development. He organized among ethnics, founding the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs. He organized in government as Assistant Secretary for HUD under President Carter, creating the Office of Neighborhood Self-Help, championing Community Development Block Grants, changing categorical grant programs into resources for citizen initiative.

The Center for Democracy and Citizenship has long worked in the Baroni tradition to revitalize educational institutions like settlements, schools, and colleges as centers of civic life, with connected professions which are empowering .

From our vantage, the administration illustrated its interest in civic agency when Jon Carson, who directs the White House Office of Public Engagement, invited us to organize the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP), an educational alliance which works with the Department of Education to strengthen education as a public good. ACP promotes empowering civic education, colleges which are part of places, and citizen-centered democracy.

The civil society conservatism advanced in the Forum, far more attentive to racial and cultural diversity, local institutions and the poor than this year's Republican campaign, may grow. Paul Ryan gave one speech in the election channeling the views of Levin after hearing from community leaders brought together by Woodson. More meetings are planned across the country. Ryan's staff was there on Tuesday.

If there is expansion of government efforts during the Obama years to catalyze citizen agency, it will help to grow the information-age populism which is beginning to appear. Such populism finds common ground with conservatives who champion mediating institutions, recognizing their wisdom about the human person. Information-age populism also advances a broader agenda -- return of "we the people" to the center of democracy.

Harry C. Boyte is National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.