What Presidential Campaigns Show About Civic Fiber

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Old-style civic engagement!

The end of my current story in the magazine, on “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together,” explores the contrast between what I’m describing as healthy civic society at the city-by-city level, and the bitter dysfunction of modern national politics. We’ve been reminded of the latter once more by the reaction to Antonin Scalia’s death, and the tone of the GOP debate last night.

How can that gap possibly be bridged? Well, I tried in the article. One theme: because people know that national politics is hamstrung, they have found ways to ignore or work around it. And soon I’ll be writing more about some of the presentations at a very useful “Mayor’s Conference” in Redlands, California, that I mentioned here.

For now, I offer another explanation — a long note from a reader that I’m quoting in near-entirety, because I think it touches on some interesting themes.

This reader grew up in what was then an Eastern Bloc country, came with his parents to Brooklyn as a child, and now lives and works in California. He ties the civic “we’re in this together” themes we’re talking with to the ups and downs of some of the presidential campaigns. Over to him:

I wanted to let you know how much I believe [that what we have been describing] is a truth about the country. Because as I was reading the article, I was thinking about my friends and family and I couldn't stop thinking of people who were doing the kind of work you're highlighting.

From my friend who left a major city to go to the southwest and has become heavily involved in all manner of theatre arts, community building, tutoring children and adults with speech disorders. To my mother-in law who grew up in a town in Illinois and worked to organize its sister city events, food festivals, girl scout troops and more while being a public administrator despite her national politics being different to my own. Thank you for writing about a country doing its civic work together.

I know one focus of your article so far is how people operate outside of national politics, what life looks like for ordinary people who have to live in places instead of speculate about them. However, in the context of national politics, I've actually been thinking about the framing of campaigns and speeches.

***

I think one thing that is lost now in discussions of the 2008 campaign is how much of the then Senator from Illinois' focus, in speeches, was on the audience. That is, 'this is the moment we've been waiting for', 'yes, we can' and 'I can't do it alone.' The prominent theme of sustained civic responsibility appeared also again in 2012 in 'you didn't build that' which was a fractured point but meant to address community bonds, that we do not all fail or succeed all on our own. That we have the capacity to foster each other's success, that we can be culprits in each other's failure and especially in the material conditions of the vulnerable, that our individual success does not automatically translate to a success in our moral obligation to others in a society.

Looking at 2016, I've read more than a few speeches. I think as people search for why, for example, a Jewish Socialist from Vermont is successful, I don't think it boils down to a message of hope or a promise of material returns.

I think it boils down to being a campaign that as it has developed, is in its structure not framed around a candidate, but around civic engagement. That is, from the "#votetogether", the use of "we" in place of "I" or "me", the "not me, us" or "not him, us" and the calls for "political revolution."

When you look at the populism of the Republican side as currently represented by Trump, it is very much "I", in the sense of 'our country needs a truly great leader.' Beyond that, it's populism is framed much more like that of an army than a civic society.

The 2010 and 2012 campaigns had a lot of "we're going to take this country back" which is not the same thing as working "together." It's very much 'be a member of my army.' Whereas, with the Sanders campaign, when the candidate describes material conditions, it is very much almost like it doesn't have to be him there saying it. What he asks, what he emphasizes, where power is centered in the language of the campaign, is with supporters. So they're not asked to find a solution in "Bernie Sanders" they're asked to find a solution in themselves.

To the extent people are being asked to hope, they are being asked to hope for themselves. I think that appeals to people and lends also to a personal nature of a primary in terms of insults or hurt, because people then are not defending candidates, but themselves.

This is framed differently in the Clinton campaign. The sense of civic responsibility and duty, the societal frame, is still there. The sense of obligation to each other. But the weight of power in the language of the campaign is in a different place. During the concession speech in New Hampshire, Senator Clinton had the following exchange:

“What is the best way to change people’s lives so we can all grow together?” she said. “Who is the best change-maker?”

“You are!” people in the audience shouted.

I think, more than anything, the current divide in the framing of the Democratic campaigns and something people do not appreciate in the nature of the pitch. The Clinton campaign, in its core framing, is about the competence of Secretary Clinton, about the record of Secretary Clinton, about the political capacity of Secretary Clinton as being the best possible person, the strongest candidate, to deliver outcomes in the current political climate.

In the Obama 2008 campaign and in the Sanders campaign, the "you are" would be said by the candidate to the audience. That's the piece of the message they share. That's how they address the core of power, responsibility and leadership, by leaving it not with the candidate, but with the people supporting them, letting them just not the candidate's fitness, but their own. I have many, many friends who are supporters of Secretary Clinton and the friends that are supporters of Senator Sanders would still vote happily for Secretary Clinton.

What I've found though is in my friends that support Secretary Clinton, they often are disappointed by the metrics of competence given to the Sanders campaign, and they focus on Sanders the candidate, the ways in which they are lacking and they wonder why other people can't see it, why people assume he'll be able to maneuver around an obstructionist congress. And I think a big thing they miss is the extent to which the Sanders campaign is not framed the same way as the Clinton campaign, not framed as Senator Sanders achieving these things or giving these things to people, but people delivering these results for themselves. It's framed so the question is not 'do you believe in Bernie' but much like the Obama campaign, 'do you believe in us?'

So it's not the candidate, not how they measure up, but how the individuals, these members of the public that share the same concern, how they square up and whether they believe they can participate in the civic experiment of collective action, of democracy, of these changes that are happening in the lives of people all around the country who are building something for themselves and for each other.

I think the biggest thing the Democratic Party will have to reconcile, as it pursues not only the general election, but frankly, the idea of sustained engagement, regardless of the nominee, is these two messages and whether they can be made to co-exist. Everyone in the party ostensibly agrees about our obligation to one another, our desire to build a civic society together. What's happening in this primary is that two things that are not in opposition to each other, leadership and the power and capacity of the public, are artificially placed against each other because of the framing of two respective campaigns in competition. But the Democratic Party cannot do without either, without either the frame of leadership or the frame of public action and engagement….

I also read the wonderful poems and prose Deborah Fallows shared from the high schoolers in Mississippi. Those kids are wonderful and reminded me of my own great experiences and that of my friends in public school programs with teachers who cared deeply for us and had more ambitions for us than we knew to have for ourselves.

Thinking back on the note I sent and the work you're doing, it did make me consider the extent to which President Carter had work to reconcile the two elements of leadership and broad civic engagement. The stories in the malaise speech feel in some ways like before pictures to the stories of recoveries you're writing about now. This is the sort of work it feels like President Carter was speaking to and envisioning, the sort of engine operating outside of and beyond the nightmares that tend to be conjured up in our national politic.