Friday, June 15, 2007

Does Citizen-Centered Work Have to be Nonpartisan?

Of all the critiques of Citizens at the Center, the charge that it is “yet another ideological attempt to promote a liberal (or conservative) agenda.” Yes, both have been levied at the concept, which, in practice, is neither, ironically, proving the adage that people will see what they want to see, despite a cigar sometimes being just a cigar...

One of those discussions took place in Washington, D.C. this past December with a group of citizen-centered practitioners and scholars. Part of the group strongly believed that nonpartisanship is essential to deliberative processes if the goal is to create civic cultures built on mutual respect. That can only happen, one person said, “when a diverse group of people feel that their views – all views – are ‘heard’ and valued.” This does not preclude, he added, people having strong political views or engaging in more targeted efforts based on similar political interests or views, but to ensure that this kind of engagement is sustained and supported, “communities must first start from an equal platform to get everyone’s input and see where there are areas of mutual agreement.” Having pre-determined agendas is “antithetical to the deliberative process.”

Others disagreed, saying that what appears to be the approach’s “deep neutrality” may turn off would-be supporters. There was also concern that some may view the approach as not taking seriously enough the political, ethnic, racial, economic, and other differences that tend to divide people, especially during discussions between traditionally disenfranchised and privileged constituencies. Moreover, if people are expected to “take action together,” this implies a sense of efficacy or power that some groups of people do not have or to which they lack access.

Still others argued that citizen-centered work shouldn’t be synonymous with civility or consensus, stressing that deliberation implies ultimately making decisions. The emphasis is on the process through which communities get to those decisions, especially whether it’s done collectively with all people’s input or whether some are left out or not valued. As Peter Levine, one of the participants, noted: “People’s discussions and work should be open-ended, but when we ask why citizens have been sidelined and what to do about it, their answers reflect their political view. That’s fine; there are many valid flavors of civic renewal. Nothing could be more useful than a competition or debate among political parties and candidates who vied to put ‘citizens back at the center.’” Will Friedman, another participant, added that “this work should not be viewed as a replacement for partisanship but as a complement to it. It’s about having voices in the mix that may all be partisan but there are more of them and from a broader swath of groups.”

What do you think?

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