A Copernican Revolution in Politics

By Harry Boyte (Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg University)

Eli Kramer is by no means alone in the tendency toward hopelessness he expressed in the first blog: “I wake up most mornings with dread.” Today people of every group feel hopeless about redressing our mounting problems and reversing civic unravelling, and many, from diverse backgrounds, also feel devalued and victimized.

Politicians and parties are not going to solve this problem. We need a Copernican Revolution that relocates politics among the people while developing people’s capacities for citizenship and action across differences. Such citizen politics, centered on citizens’ needs, values, aspirations, and capacities, holds potential to transform the logic that gives primacy to efficient technological systems. Copernicus, it is worth recalling, was a Polish mathematician and astronomer whose 16th century model of the cosmos, shifting from the notion that the heavens revolved around the earth to the idea that the earth revolved around the sun, revolutionized humans’ sense of their place in the universe.

Human devaluation in a technocratic age

Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’  brilliantly names the problem of technocracy. He combines embrace of climate science with a trenchant critique of technocracy that articulates the limits of scientific and technological modes of thought. “The basic problem goes even deeper” than concentrated economic power, he argues. “It is the way that humanity has taken up . . . an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm [that] exalts the concept of a subject, who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object.” He calls this the technocratic paradigm, in which authority for knowledge- creation, decision-making and problem-solving are ceded to a class of scientifically credentialed experts, outside a common civic life.

The technocratic paradigm is visible across the sweep of modern society including elections and citizen action, which it reshapes in Manichean terms.  Formal politics is powered by the Manichean formula in which experts identify an enemy and define an issue in reductionist, good-versus-evil terms. It is efficient because hatred and anger are relatively uncomplicated emotions to manipulate cheaply and rapidly. For years I defended the canvass but when I began teaching at the Humphrey Institute in 1987, I discovered most of my students had canvassed and were cynical and disillusioned about politics. I also became aware of a larger problem: the Manichean formula objectifies “the enemy,” radically erodes common citizenship, and communicates that politics is warfare.

The formula has spread across the spectrum, and is dramatically accelerated by the digital revolution. Donald Trump’s tweets find parallel on the left in a handbook and website called “Heroes Narrative,” used by progressive groups around the country, which describes how to frame any issue as a struggle of heroes against villains.

Citizen politics of public work

Citizen-centered politics and public work constitute an alternative. Citizen politics is not state-centered, nor is it ideological.  It draws on conservative and progressive values. It needs to be infused with nonviolence, woven into the fabric of everyday life, and understood as “public love” even for one’s enemies. Public love recognizes people’s aspiration, as Martin Luther King put it, “for belonging to the best in the human family.” Public love teaches a possibility respect for the potential of others including enemies, for co-creative work that builds the common world.

In her book, Newer Ideals of Peace, Jane Addams argued for “forming new centers of spiritual energy” where people could overcome ideological, cultural and other hatreds, learn from each other and work together – teaching citizen politics. This was her goal for Hull House, John Dewey’s model for schools as civic centers.

Citizen politics is expressed through the concept of public work. One example, taken from the forthcoming book on public work, Pedagogy of the Empowered, is transforming special education teacher programs through a civic education initiative called Public Achievement.

In Public Achievement, teams of young people work on issues of their choice in real settings. Projects are undertaken in nonviolent ways and make a public contribution. Teams are coached by adults, often college students, who help them develop achievable goals, learn to navigate local environments, develop political skills, and treat others with respect. Projects range widely, from campaigns against bullying and racism to building playgrounds, championing healthy life styles, and making curriculum changes.

The Special Education pre-service teacher program at Augsburg adopted Public Achievement as an answer to the critique of special education as a technocratic approach to “fix” special needs children. Dissenting from the medical or technocratic model, faculty at Augsburg wanted a more empowering learning environment for both students and pre-service teachers. Their results can be seen here.

Over three years the results were dramatic. “Problem students,” mostly low-income and minority, became “problem solvers” on issues like school bullying, health lifestyles, animal cruelty, and supporting terminally ill children. They got recognition in the school, in the larger community, and across the state. The process also transformed the teachers, Michael Ricci and Alissa Blood into “citizen teachers.”

All preservice special education teachers at Augsburg now coach in Public Achievement as part of their preparation. Interviews show striking increase in their understanding of students’ intelligence and talents and a much wider pedagogical repertory that gives students far more room for co-creative activity.

Such public work points toward what I call “civic science” in which scientifically trained professionals see themselves as citizens, and science as civic. It intimates a democratic awakening.