This post highlights a new initiative exploring the decline of public engagement and ways that we might improve the scope, diversity and impact of organizing and mobilization of the public. Lead faculty Marshall Ganz and Archon Fung first introduced students to their new initiative, The Gettysburg Project, in 2013. This post captures that introductory discussion for an occasional series on the blog exploring the frontiers of research on democratic governance. The series highlights the work of the Ash Center’s faculty and Democracy Fellows whose research illuminates aspects of democratic governance, with a focus on innovations in public participation and on urgent substantive policy or social problems related to democratic governance.
By Xolani Zitha
Harvard Kennedy School faculty Archon Fung and Marshall Ganz have shared so many conversations over the years on the problems of American democracy, and specifically on failed efforts to improve the state of public engagement, that they decided together to do something about it.
Some months later, Fung and Ganz — along with co-organizers Anna Burger, Hahrie Hahn, and several others — have launched a unique initiative named The Gettysburg Project. The effort aims to both influence, and to pull inspiration from, the world of research and the world of practice. It will bring together scholars and practitioners with a wide range of interests to develop new understandings of consequential civic engagement in the United States.
At a meeting hosted by the Hauser Institute for Non Profit Organizations in April 2013, Professors Fung and Ganz first shared The Gettysburg Project with students. Below is a recap of that discussion, which progressed from the project’s background through its theoretical framework to its core activities.
Identifying and Acting Upon a Common Purpose
Professor Fung began the conversation explaining that the essence of The Gettysburg Project is a celebration of the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in particular the last line of the address—“government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the face of this earth.”
And the Project’s first proposition is that democracy in the United States is in grave danger. Professor Ganz characterized the most salient challenge to democracy in the United States as the lack of opportunity for ‘equality of voice.’ This political inequality manifests itself in many ways, not the least of which is unequal voting participation. Ganz observed that this idea of equality of voice has been articulated by many, including Harvard political scientist Sydney Verba, who noted that liberal democracy is based on the deal that unequal economic resources be balanced by equality of individual political voice and participation.
Yet when we think of the common purposes articulated in the US Constitution, i.e. “forming a more perfect union,” what often comes to mind are establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, and providing for the common defense. Thus Ganz posed the question, how does equality of voice translate into the capacity to achieve the primary functions of democratic government as spelled out in the Constitution?
Ganz went on to say that Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the knowledge of ‘how to combine’ trumps all other forms of knowledge. In his observations on the emerging democracy of the United States, de Tocqueville was concerned with the problem of radical individualism. He saw a solution in multiple stripes of civic associations, the point of which was not about having many competing groups but rather many ways in which individuals could come into relation with other individuals. Through the process of coming together, individuals learn to move beyond their narrow self interest. They move toward an enlightened self interest and a broader understanding of common interests and common purpose.
In addition to a critical role in articulating a common purpose, and thus making real the aspirations articulated in the Constitution, at the same time civic associations also develop our capacity to act on behalf of those interests. Through civic associations, or what de Tocqueville described as combination or coming together, equality of voice can translate into the power or the capacity to achieve common purpose.
Yet according to Ganz the mechanisms through which people come together and discern common purpose, then translate that purpose into collective action in the public domain, are dysfunctional and not working. Civic associations have become seriously crippled.
The Unresponsiveness of Public Institutions
Ganz argued that our public institutions are meanwhile too often opposed to preferences expressed by the public. For example, when Congress will not vote for issues that have overwhelming public support such as background checks for firearms licensing. Similarly, the debate over the cause of radical and growing inequality of wealth asks whether inequality is a manifestation of specific policy choices or the failure of public institutions.
This lack of responsiveness is a symptom of a deeper problem that economist Albert Hirschman has written about. Any political system will ultimately run down, and the challenge becomes correcting the deterioration. Hirschman found that voice mechanisms are one solution, in which those affected by the dysfunction of the system express their dissatisfaction in ways that will result in the system correcting itself. Through the process of competitive elections and public deliberation, democracy becomes a self-correcting mechanism through which ‘voice’ can work.
Archon Fung referred to Martin Gilens’ compelling research on the plutocratic nature of democratic government at present. On issues in which there are class differences in preferences, policymakers are responsive only to the top 10% of the population
If voice turns out not to work, then the alternative for citizens is to exit the system. Where there are competing institutions, individuals can choose to leave. There is a “tipping point” when everyone deserts an institution if no corrective action is taken. In the context of entrepreneurial capitalism in which firms compete, and the most efficient succeed, exit is an available strategy.
But in democracy, is exit an option? The Gettysburg Project is premised on a belief that it is an option with the ‘knowledge of how to combine.’ But a second premise is that the mechanisms for inputting an effective voice and something meaningful coming out the other end of the policy process are broken. Further, there are two strategies to exit in a political system. First, people can stop voting when they realize that voting does not make a difference. In only six states did it make a difference whether or not you voted in the 2012 presidential election.
The other exit is to seek private solutions for public problems such as contracting with private sector firms or non-profits. The result of this is that it weakens our capacity for public action, resting on the belief that privatization brings market mechanisms to solve public problems. There is some evidence to the contrary.
Building Organizational Capacity to Return to Equality of Voice
The focus of The Gettysburg Project is how to bring ‘voice’ back into the system in a meaningful way. But is the problem with individuals? Some would say that people don’t have enough civic virtue and are discouraged from participation, so they resort to an individualistic political culture. Or is the problem is with institutions? The electoral system itself is biased, while the role of money in politics makes the system dysfunctional.
There are a lot of people working on issues at the individual level covering civic education and culture, focusing on getting individuals to exercise more voice. There is a lot of other work on the structural side focusing on campaign finance reform, better voting machines, or getting rid of the Electoral College. In between the individual and the institution is the organizational level, at which people come together to exercise collective action in the de Tocqueville sense.
The Gettysburg Project assumes that none of these things will happen unless associations get together, especially the kinds of organizations that engage and mobilize broad sections of the American population in public life. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the organizations that did the job of integrating people are not able to anymore because the approaches that worked then are not working any more. Identifying the new structures that will replace labor unions and congregations will represent a solid step forward for American democracy.
Fung observed that The Gettysburg Project will also seek to build the capacity and strength of existing organizations that engage and mobilize people in public life. The Project will explore how much of the challenge has to do with internal organizational functioning, with how much organizations do or do not cooperate with each other, with the ways in which organizations try to influence public policy or electoral politics, and even with the effect of the Internet. There is an internal, horizontal, and external dimension to understanding the challenges of voice and public participation.
The Project’s intention is to bring together a group of 20-30 leaders of organizations with a successful track record in mobilizing people and activity. Individual participants are senior enough to have the capacity to change, the willingness and curiosity to figure things out, and many more years still left in their careers. They represent a variety of settings and contexts, allowing for a rich understanding of the nature of this problem from an organizational point of view.
An early meeting at the Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park, New York brought together leaders from labor unions, community organizations, Dreamers, and others to test the idea. Surprisingly all organizations felt that they were in some way stuck in a rut in this area. And these leaders did not know about each other, even though they worked in the same field. Professors Ganz and Fung next hosted the first formal convening of The Gettysburg Project in March 2014. Check back on the blog for future updates on the key themes and discussion points that come up throughout the project.
Xolani Zitha is a current mid-career MPA student and Ford Foundation Mason Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and research assistant with the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Prior, Zitha served as director of the Office of the Speaker of the House of Assembly at the Parliament of Zimbabwe and as director of one of Zimbabwe’s largest coalitions of human rights NGOs.