A positive political alternative to the rise of demagogic populism will require a vibrant vision of democratic society and the empowerment of individuals to work through these differences. Universities should not be just observers, but engaged participants.

In the inflamed and divided public culture of the United States, we need a different understanding of populism than today’s ideological anti-corporate progressivism and anti-government conservatism. The alternative is populist citizen politics, a politics of popular empowerment and democratic change across partisan divides. Citizen politics aims to repair civic life as well as democratize concentrated power, both corporate and technocratic. Higher education will play a crucial role guiding such populism as it recovers its relational and civic soul. There is a rich tradition of civic and relational practices on which to build. It is a mistake to underrate the civic and relational revitalization in and around colleges and universities—this leads to undue fatalism and hopelessness.

Populisms left and right: The Manichean mindset

In 2016, populism was a ubiquitous trope for describing the US election. “Trump and Sanders: Different Candidates with a Populist Streak,” reported Chuck Todd on NBC. Most commentators used populism to describe the inflammatory rhetoric of the people against various elites. This approach is paralleled in academic literature. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell express prevalent views in defining populism as an ideology that “pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice.”

Right-wing populism—stoked by Republican politicians who target universities as elite institutions, far removed from the lives and concerns of everyday citizens—sparks fear among educators. However, such populism has parallels on the left as well. It manifested itself when students protested conservative speaker Charles Murray at Middlebury College —and, in the process, injured a professor trying to protect him. This incident illustrates a Manichean formula of effecting change that students have learned from my generation of activists.

The formula was developed in 1974 by the environmental group Citizens for a Better Environment, and used for what was termed the “canvass”. The canvass involves paid staff going door to door on an issue, raising money, and collecting signatures. Over the past four decades many canvass operations have developed, including ones run by environment and consumer groups as well as the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) network that exists on many college campuses. I defended the canvass method in Citizen Action and the New American Populism, a 1986 book written with Steve Max and Heather Booth, founder of the Midwest Academy training centre which became the central hub for spreading the method. I remember the urgency we felt in the face of massive mobilization by corporate interests to roll back environmental, consumer, affirmative action, progressive tax, and other legislation in the early 1970s. We saw the canvass as a way to fight back.

The canvass had successes on environmental, consumer, and other issues, even during the Reagan presidency. The scale was vast, reaching at least 12 million households a year in the mid-eighties. By 2001, when I developed a broader analysis of the canvass in “A Tale of Two Playgrounds,” a paper for the American Political Science Association, I became concerned about an unintended consequence of the canvass: its Manichean formula polarizes civic life, objectifies the enemy, and erodes citizenship. It frames politics as warfare. However, it continues to spread through robocalls, internet mobilizations, cable TV and talk radio, documentaries in the vein of Michael Moore, and Karl Rove’s “axis of evil” framework after 9-11. The formula is used by both right and left.

The Manichean model is also widespread in academic discourse. Gary Simpson, a theologian at Luther Seminary, shows the Manichean model in the transformation of his mentor, Carl Braaten. In Simpson’s vivid account, Braaten’s early writings were “a dialectically serious and critical, yet careful, generous, reverential and flourishing discovery [embodying] a poise that respects…particularity of real embedded humans…finite, fallible, and fragile.” In the political and cultural wars of the 1980s and 1990s, Braaten’s work took on a very different tone that “reduce[d] the state of affairs to stark binary opposites—good versus evil, angels vanquishing demons.” The Manichean model was accompanied by apocalyptic and totalistic thinking.“Crucial distinctions…dissipate under the white heat of apocalyptic fire and Manichean purism. If you oppose me on one point you opposed me on all points, all the way down.”

Braaten became a conservative academic, railing against the “antinomian…neopagan gnostic culture” that he saw as growing from the new left and its progeny. However, examples abound on the left as well. Student protests and Manichean stances have sparked calls for defense of free speech, including a statement co-authored by Robert George, Professor of Jurisprudence and a well-known conservative scholar, and Cornel West, a progressive African-American Harvard professor. They challenged epistemic enclosure—the tendency of people to live in bubble cultures of similar beliefs. “It is all too common these days for people to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities,” their statement reads. “Sometimes this is done by questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent…or by disrupting their presentations; or by demanding that they be excluded from campuses or…disinvited.”

We need a different understanding of politics that brings back culture and the profound complexity of the person

Yet for those who feel the urgent need for change, calls for free speech are not sufficient. We need a different understanding of politics that brings back culture and the profound complexity of the person.

Civic populism and higher education

Populist citizen politics builds on movements in the United States—with parallels in Northern Europe, Russia, South Africa, and elsewhere—in which populism is not mainly a rhetorical invocation of people against elites, but rather civic organizing which builds popular power. Laura Grattan, author of Populism’s Power, observes that advocates of such populism “downplay the logic of oppositional identification and instead elaborate…regaining popular control over the institutions of civil society, political economy, and governance.” Such populism is different than “a politics of resistance.” It not only exposes “the abuses and failures of established democratic orders,” but it also emphasizes agency, “developing the capacities of grassroots actors, often from divergent backgrounds.” Grattan emphasizes a combination of grassroots organizing and radical public imagination and critique, pointing to Occupy Wall Street as an example of the latter, which fed into the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Luke Bretherton, writing about populism as popular empowerment, emphasizes its political nature. “Orientations and sentiments in political populism are put in the service of forging a political space not limiting, subverting or closing it down.” He points to broad-based community organizing like the Industrial Areas Foundation, which mix people across partisan divisions.

Populist citizen politics has aspects of both transformative vision and cross-partisan understanding. In my view, it reflects the distinctive tradition of civic action associated with American commonwealth history, not only through popularly elected governments, but also as a society that believes in public goods like libraries and schools, community centres and parks, bridges and roads, and the relational civic cultures that sustain them. Such citizen politics were cross-partisan, not ideological. It inspired Jane Addams, John Dewey, Alain Locke, and others’ view of democracy as a way of life.

Many strands of higher education have been associated with this populist view of democracy and citizen politics, from historically black colleges and universities, to liberal arts schools like Augsburg College (the Sabo Center’s new home), to today’s tribal colleges. Scott Peters, a historian of land grant colleges (institutions built on land provided by the federal government and mandated to focus on teaching practical agriculture, science, and engineering), has described the subterranean populist tradition in which scholars, graduates and students are involved in the life of communities through public work that builds civic agency. They are citizen professionals, invested and active in their communities.

Liberty Hyde Bailey, Dean of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University and Chair of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission, argued that every aspect of higher education must be infused with a spirit of public work. Specialists needed to see themselves as part of “a great public work,” grounded in respect for the farmers and rural communities’ capacity to be agents of change. Bailey saw the crucial focus of this “extension work” as increasing capacity for self-directed civic action. “The re-direction of any civilization must rest primarily on the people who comprise it, rather than be imposed from persons in other conditions of life.”

Civic populism lost

Sharp partisanship has eroded civic populism. Ron Johnson, David Manley, and Kelvyn Jones have described growing ideological polarization from 1992 to 2012 with people increasingly living in like-minded communities. Meanwhile, within local communities, mediating institutions that once brought people together across partisan and other divides have radically eroded. Grant Stevensen is an organizer for ISAIAH, a broad-based community organization. He observes that, “There used to be mediating institutions like union locals, neighborhood schools, PTAs, or congregations where people interacted with a lot of diversity. Now we’ve lost them. People’s public identities are thin.”

Social fragmentation has also been growing. In 2006, a study published in the American Sociological Review reported radical erosion of social ties. “There really is less of a safety net of close friends and confidants,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke sociologist involved in the study. “We’re not saying people are completely isolated. They may have 600 friends on Facebook.com and email 25 people a day. But they are not discussing matters that are personally important.”

In the last decade, these trends have dramatically accelerated, spurred by the digital revolution. Sue Halpern, writing in the New York Review of Books, describes the replacement of the relational with the informational. “The real bias inherent in algorithms is that they are, by nature, reductive…the infiltration of algorithms into everyday life has brought us to a place where metrics tend to rule. This is true for education, medicine, finance, retailing, employment and the creative arts…in each case idiosyncrasy, experimentation, innovation, and thoughtfulness—the very stuff that makes us human—is lost.” This is the path toward a “McDonaldized” world of manufactured identities and flattened experiences.

How do we bring back the relational as the foundation of politics, education, and civic life?

Civic populism redux

Populist citizen politics have been sharply eroded, but it is a mistake not to see stirrings of its revival. Examples abound in Peter Levine’s We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, Luke Bretherton’s Resurrecting Democracy, Doris Sommers’ The Work of Art in the World, and my edited collection, Democracy’s Education. David Mathews’ Ecology of Democracy, widely spread through the Kettering Foundation and its networks, is a manifesto for the revitalization of relational, self-organizing civic life as the “wetlands” upon which democracy necessarily depends. Kettering has made a major contribution to the civic populist project by showing the connections between relational politics and deliberative practices. In our own networks, the movement toward “citizen professionalism” led by William Doherty and his new “Citizen Therapists for Democracy” movement is a powerful and highly effective challenge to the secession of professionals from relational civic life over many decades. On an international level, Pope Francis’ climate encyclical, Laudato Si’, is a brilliant critique of the technocratic paradigm that replaces the relational with information systems.

In higher education, citizen efforts that seek to repair and build relationships across partisan and other divides are illuminated by the 500-plus page report of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), which attacks them. Four years in the making, Making Citizens: How Universities Teach Civics charges that a left-wing conspiracy, “the New Civics,” seeks to turn college students into left-wing radicals. Public Achievement, the youth civic education initiative I founded to counter the Manichean politics of the door-to-door canvass and to reintroduce today’s young people to the cross-partisan politics I experienced in the civil rights movement, is at the centre of their narrative.

“The ideas of Saul Alinsky have entered into higher education,” says Making Citizens. “The most serious such transfer occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, via Harry Boyte’s Public Achievement movement.” Public Achievement, it proposes, is smaller than service-learning and other forms of community involvement, “but with a harder political edge. Service-learning generally works to forward progressive political ends. Public Achievement works toward these ends with more focus and organization, via the Alinskyite method of community organizing. The Alinskyite tactical model of Public Achievement is what makes the New Civics formidable.” Public Achievement, it concludes, is “camouflaged Alinskyism” that “relies on the Alinskyite emphasis on power, which reduces politics to the use of force to defeat hostile opponents”.

The NAS report sees the New Civics having huge impact. “The New Civics revolution has been staggeringly successful in the last 30 years… at the 419 institutions that responded to the [2014 Campus Compact] survey, nearly 100 per cent had institutional offices coordinating ‘curricular and/or co-curricular engagement’—and 57 per cent had more than one office. Thirty-nine percent of graduate and undergraduate students, 1,382,145 in total, ‘served an average of 3.5 hours each week through both curricular and co-curricular mechanisms.’”

What of the charges that the New Civics is a left-wing plot? Higher education has a progressive inclination, reflected in some, though not most, of its civic efforts. However, the NAS argument is radically mistaken in confusing tendencies with a Manichean mindset, which reproduces the binary thinking it decries. One way to show the NAS report’s reductionism is to describe the evolution of my own thinking.

During the launch of the report, Stanley Kurtz (a former reporter for the National Review) expresses the conviction that when I left the Democratic Socialists of America after years of involvement with socialist organizations, it was not a matter of conviction but of rhetorical strategy. In fact, my movement away from socialism was a result of my embracing the civic populist tradition described in my book CommonWealth: A Return to Citizen Politics that launched our work at the University of Minnesota.

Against the dominant paradigm of left-wing intellectuals, preoccupied with Werner Sombart’s 1906 question, “Why is there no socialism in America?”, I argued that the absence of socialism is not a deficiency but a strength. America has an alternative tradition of politics based on civic autonomy and “building the commonwealth.” Civic life has been sustained by the work of diverse citizens who create and care for goods of common use including libraries, parks, local government, bridges, and other public infrastructure, as well as by mediating structures that contribute to this work including families, congregations, schools and colleges, voluntary associations, locally rooted businesses, and labour groups. Such civic life depends on education in civic skills, best learned through experiential education where individuals work for the public good.

It is not only a caricature to propose that my aim is “to create a thoroughly administered state” and turn America’s young people into “left-wing radicals.” In fact, it is also a charge that turns my motivation—and the general gestalt of the civic engagement movement in higher education—upside down. The movement is encouraging because it presents an alternative to left-wing statist technocratic tendencies that are all too widespread throughout higher education.

Building a positive political alternative to the highly polarized populisms of left and right will require a vibrant vision of democratic society. This approach requires ongoing public participation, not just during elections, and it requires a different understanding of politics in which all citizens are agents and architects of democracy.

Building a positive political alternative to the highly polarized populisms of left and right will require a vibrant vision of democratic society

To revitalize this vision, we need a movement that awakens the democratic spirit throughout higher education and beyond. We need to reprioritize our institutions as participants in society, not observers studying it.

Harry C. Boyte is a Senior Scholar at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College.

Many thanks to Marie-Louise Ström, Dudley Cocke, Laura Grattan, and Luke Bretherton for feedback and sources on this essay.