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The Commonwealth of Freedom

Saturday, November 1, 1997

Americans are estranged from their government;
a lost tradition of community-building offers a way back.

Government was once the instrument of a free citizenry. "We the People created government," Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, "not the other way around." As president, he regularly used the words of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution  to show that a just government is rooted in the citizenry. "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people," as Lincoln put it, was grounded in their communities and mindful of their common sense. The genius of American democracy was respect for the authority and energy of ordinary citizens.

Today, by contrast, government strikes many Americans as some alien force, acting upon--or even against--the people. Since the 1960s, conservatives have criticized liberal public policy for reflecting the prejudices of a "new class" of elitist professionals, centered in and around government, that views ordinary citizens with condescension. By this account, the "new class" promotes the ideal of the state as a "Great Community" governed by experts, and it uses the language of policy analysis and social science to devalue face-to-face relationships.

"Community is not a nation," Michael Joyce  of the Bradley Foundation has written. "[I]t is not a class, a gender, or an occupation. It is a group you know, in a place you know." Conservatives like Joyce contend that the impersonal dynamics of bureaucracies and large organizations can never replace the human dignity and moral wisdom provided by family, church, neighborhood, and voluntary association. Their brand of conservatism offers an alternative vision of community and citizenship that balances freedom with individual responsibility.

At the same time, the spread of market values and an aggressive consumer culture threatens to overwhelm the public goods, habits, and traditions that create the foundation for society. Robert Nisbet, the dean of modern conservative wisdom, argued that the marketplace celebrates an acquisitive individualism that erodes the authority of the church, the family, and the neighborhood. It corrupts civic character, public honor, accountability, and respect for others. Capitalism alone produces a "sand heap of disconnected particles of humanity," he said.

Over a generation, the conservative critique has exposed the flaws of "Big Government." But it misses the rest of the Preamble to the Constitution--the idea that our government was created to undertake public tasks that benefit not only small groups or particular communities but the whole people. The work that citizens once performed toward these ends created a scaffolding, a "commonwealth," that tied everything together. In the commonwealth, citizenship was best understood as "public work" in government, community settings, or business that created things of lasting civic value.

It was this public work that generated "E Pluribus Unum"--one from many, a civic consciousness beyond ethnic, parochial, or regional loyalties. As people created the commonwealth, they became the commonwealth. Through their work, ordinary citizens gained a sense of ownership in public things as well as private things. They developed civic character, public honor, and seriousness of purpose.

The idea of a commonwealth constructed upon the work of citizens seems to have gone the way of "government of the people." But its revival will be vital to reinvigorating citizenship in the next century.

The Commonwealth Tradition

Formed from the old English words "common" and "weal," the word "commonwealth" originally meant "the common well-being." It traces its lineage to both political and social traditions.

Commonwealth early became identified with the concept of the public, the whole body of the people or the state, and thus the classical republican tradition of politics, especially the idea of a government in which "the whole people" had voice and interest. By the 17th century, commonwealth in Great Britain conveyed the idea of government of and by free citizens rather than the Crown. When the American colonies rebelled against Britain, the colonists used the language and traditions of the commonwealth to promote their ideals of republican government. John Adams urged every state to declare itself a commonwealth; Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky did so officially.

The idea of commonwealth is also tied to the social histories of American immigrants, for whom it meant the "commons" (such as roads, pasture lands, waterways, public buildings, and public services) that all were helping to create and maintain. Many middle-class peasants and artisans left England and other nations for America partly to resist the spreading practice of "engrossing," in which the gentry seized common lands by force or purchase. Early New England settlements typically guaranteed each family a "house lot" of one to 10 acres and shared pasture lands, woodland, and meadow. Separate land was set aside for the church and meeting house, often adjoining the commons.

In the 20th century and well into the 1940s, the idea of commonwealth suggested visions of government, citizenry, and business different from that of conventional politics.

Government. A forgotten aspect of the Progressive Era reflected the commonwealth view of government as a catalyst of citizen effort. The Country Life Commission established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, for instance, proposed a nationwide system of county agents that embodied this view. For the first decades of this "cooperative extension" system, agents conceived of themselves as "leavens" for community action--not substitutes for communities’ efforts. Liberty Bailey, the dean of agriculture at Cornell University and the chairman of the commission, stressed the need to educate farmers to solve their own problems. Both excessive individualism and overreliance on experts undermined democracy, in Bailey’s view. "The farmer is not only a producer of commodities," he argued. "He is a citizen, a member of the commonwealth . . . [and should] concern himself not alone with technical farming, but also with all the affairs that make up an agricultural community," from roads and rural architecture to schools.

Citizenship. The commonwealth also regarded citizens as civic producers and contributors--in contrast to today’s habit of defining various groups by their deficiencies: "culturally deprived," "resident aliens," "welfare cheats," "at-risk youth," and the like. Work for the commonwealth meant that those on the margins--whether racial minorities or new immigrants, poor people or the disabled--were seen as contributors rather than as "problems" or objects of pity and solicitude. Walter Hines Page, the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain during World War I and the author of Rebuilding the Old Commonwealths, wrote that the mark of the commonwealth is the perspective that "the very virtue of a democracy is that, by the right training of all its children, it has the power constantly to reinforce itself from the rear." He meant that democracy needs to be fed continually with new energies, incorporating the talents of those at the margins.

Business. Finally, the commonwealth stressed the civic dimensions of owning property. "The true conservative, the true man of property, is he who insists that property is the servant and not the master of the commonwealth," Teddy Roosevelt declared in 1907 in his famous New Nationalism speech. As creators of wealth, business owners fulfilled various civic obligations, from traditions of philanthropy to involvement in the life of local communities. Business leaders thought that such civic duties served both the whole community and their long-range self-interest.

Today, the practices and spirit of the commonwealth have all but disappeared from conventional politics. As the commonwealth erodes, the people also lose the sense of authority that they derive from engagement in public work. Consequently the citizenry expresses a pervasive sense of powerlessness. But examples of America’s commonwealth tradition have begun to re-appear. The story of Burnsville, Minnesota, is one such example.

A Commonwealth Renewed

"Today, people ask what government can do for them, rather than what they can produce or contribute," says Mayor Elizabeth Kautz. A businesswoman of mixed Polynesian and Dutch ancestry, Kautz was first elected mayor of Burnsville, Minnesota (a suburb of the Twin Cities), in 1994, and re-elected in 1996. She ran for office, she says, because she disliked the "scarcity mentality" of modern politics that assumed that when one group gained, another group lost. She believes neither that government is "the answer" nor that it should just "get out of the way."

The traditional view of government there had been simple: "The only way to get things done for the community as a whole was government," says Kautz. "There wasn’t any broad sense of how we could accomplish things beyond taxes. Since people didn’t like taxes, not much got done."

As a candidate for office, Kautz ran her 1994 election campaign on a slogan that confounded her opponent: "Government doesn’t have to be bad!" Kautz advocated returning to a concept of government as the people’s instrument. "All of us together need to create a citizenry that is enabled and empowered to do the work of the public," she explains. "Government can help. It can be a catalyst. It can work with people. But in an era of limited resources and great challenges, I can’t pretend to fix things anymore, and neither can anybody in government."

The first initiative based on a government–citizen partnership was a citywide strategic-planning process that Kautz had helped to organize before she was elected as mayor. City government participated but did not dominate. Volunteers from business, religious organizations, schools, and civic groups were trained to run focus groups, in which 700 participants helped set priorities for the whole city. Six themes emerged: safety, youth, neighborhoods, economic development, environment, and transportation.

Many such planning efforts end up as dusty reports on a shelf. But Burnsville drew up concrete, specific action plans, based on new partnerships among churches, schools, and businesses. City agencies were reorganized to correspond to the six areas of concern. City employees were obligated to report back to the community on how they were meeting their goals.

A number of initiatives resulted. For instance, when a group of teenage skateboarders started causing trouble by skating downtown and inside school buildings, Kautz asked them what would change their behavior. If you get us a skateboard park, Kautz was told, we’ll stop skating where we’re not supposed to. Kautz told them, "I’m not going to ‘get’ anything for you--that’s not how I see my job. I will work with you to open some doors. But you’re going to have to organize the community yourselves."

Community leaders told the teenagers that they must not only generate initial support for the park but also develop a plan to cover ongoing maintenance and insurance costs. The city couldn’t pay all the expenses for the park. "If you believe that kids are just hanging out, waiting to destroy things, then that’s what they are going to do," says Kautz. "We want to create an environment that calls out the best in these kids. Then it will happen."

Starting in 1995, the skateboarders negotiated agreements with neighborhoods, city agencies, businesses, and insurance companies. They also raised funds by soliciting local businesses holding benefits with live bands. After a year, the city council--initially opposed to the idea of a skateboard park--voted unanimously to support their plan. By the summer of 1997, the park was under construction.

While city government continues to emphasize "quality service," government workers no longer think of citizens as "customers." Greg Konat, the city manager, explains, "Now we serve much more as the catalyst, participating with others in building the community. We help call meetings together in the neighborhoods or with business or with schools. Government has a role. We can provide certain expertise. But most of the answers have to come from within the community."

Konat says the fundamental mission of city workers is changing. "Now we say, ‘This is what we can bring to a problem. What can you bring?’ " City employees have begun to see themselves as citizens working with other citizens. "In the past," says Konat, "when a neighborhood wasn’t satisfied with snowplowing, what we typically did was send a bureaucratic letter [to citizens] in response to complaints. We’ve changed that. Instead, the snowplow driver and the truck go to the neighborhood meeting. . . . The neighborhood resident sees the driver is a real person trying to do a job. He didn’t mean to tear up the yard. The driver sees these are real people, not just whiners. If he knocks down their mailboxes, they have reason to be concerned."

The planning project led to the idea of developing a city core--a "Heart of the City"--as both a physical space and a symbol of a strong community where people feel connected to each other and have a sense of ownership. "There’s a lot of dreaming and thinking outside the box," says Mike Foss, a minister at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. "Ten years ago, this wouldn’t have happened here or in other communities. But the time is right. There is a deep discontent; people are seeking connections." In Burnsville, this need for connection combined with strong civic leadership has generated fundamental civic renewal. The result is a 1990s version of the commonwealth that recalls the oldest and most powerful tradition of American democracy.

Principles of Commonwealth Politics

A commonwealth approach to politics, citizenship, and democracy has these features:

1. Government is a catalyst. The commonwealth is not government-centered; it depends on citizens who see themselves as civic producers, and on a local government whose primary function is to catalyze community-building and larger public tasks. This requires a government whose structures are dictated by the designated tasks of the citizenry.

2. Citizens are civic producers. In a commonwealth, citizens are responsible for creating and sustaining the basic things of common life through their labor and other kinds of contribution.

Citizen authority comes from viewing civic effort as "public work"--not simply "helping out." Today, the challenge is for people to reclaim ownership in civic things, from local parks to school curricula. This can take many forms, but it means conceiving of citizenship as more than voting or volunteering. Public work is any work (paid or unpaid) that creates public things of benefit to the community.

In Burnsville, for instance, understandings of volunteerism are slowly changing. Shari Prest, a school-board member who is part of Kautz’s core leadership team, says, "We used to use volunteers in schools: ‘Go get a cup of coffee, or Xerox this report.’ But we’ve learned to see parent volunteers in a different light--as partners in educating youth," says Prest. "Educators have to trust people to offer their gifts, to understand how much parents have to contribute." Like educators, parents, too, must reconceive their role. "People are getting the message that schools can’t educate kids for parents," explains Prest. "Schools can be partners in providing an education. But education is the task of all citizens."

3. The commonwealth values and creates public things. Public things are not necessarily government-owned or run. They are like the old "commons"--in that they are things accessible to and used by a broad mix of people. Thus they can be distinguished from private holdings accessible only to a particular segment of the population. Historically, the legal approaches of Republicans such as Lincoln and Roosevelt made distinctions of this kind. Railroads, for instance, were considered public business even though they were privately owned. This meant they had certain rights such as eminent domain that stemmed from the public nature of their work. They also incurred public obligations and were subject to public scrutiny and accountability in matters such as health and safety. These distinctions are difficult to understand in the present, when government is no longer seen as the people’s creation and instrument.

In America, the vitality and maintenance of public things, whether roads or schools or public health, depends upon citizens’ investment and involvement. In Burnsville, a growing appreciation for common things is evident. The community is building a parkway and commissioning public art. Citizens are involved in designing the uses of publicly owned buildings. In all of these projects, private businesses play important roles.

4. The commonwealth puts experts "on tap," not "on top." It calls for different patterns of professional practice that emphasize civic identity and the vital contributions of amateurs. Expert knowledge is valued, but it doesn’t supersede the wisdom of ordinary people. This approach calls for a reorganization of professional systems and training, as well as attitudes and identities. In Burnsville, for instance, city employees have reorganized their agencies to respond to citizen priorities. In the city’s social-service agencies, professionals have recently begun to ask how they can contribute to their clients’ long-range self-sufficiency instead of continuing their dependency.

5. The commonwealth values free markets, private ownership, and the contributions of business. It balances individual self-interest and community well-being by generating visible patterns of interaction between community and business. When the community as a whole is healthy, businesses thrive. Through sustained public work, communities come to value and support business entrepreneurship and innovation, while business leaders recognize the many ways that communities are indispensable to their flourishing. In Burnsville, business leaders are involved in every phase of civic renewal and community work.

6. The commonwealth taps diverse resources. It shifts from an assumption of scarcity--"we can’t do anything about this because there’s not enough money"--to recognize and expect the multiple resources that are now overlooked. It creates new opportunities for groups and people now "on the margins" to claim authority based on what they contribute. Democracy itself depends on recognition of this point: that everyone can be engaged in labors that contribute to and shape the whole, as well as looking out for their specific interests.

7. The commonwealth creates a framework for larger tasks that reach beyond local communities. The nation is a single republic, not a confederation of local communities. Our most difficult challenges require a common effort that reaches beyond and across community lines. The problems are misdiagnosed when the debate is simply about federal versus local control; the real issue is reclaiming citizen authority for the commonwealth.

Government of the People

The many examples of widespread citizen engagement on public tasks in the New Deal furnish the central reason for the continued popularity of that era across party lines. People felt they helped to create the New Deal--it wasn’t something outside or beyond them. Indeed, Ronald Reagan often spoke positively of his experiences in the Works Progress Administration. Many New Deal programs--from the Civilian Conservation Corps to public work arts projects that involved the citizenry in every aspect of artistic creation--had the flavor of "government of the people" that has disappeared in our time. If we are to revitalize citizenship, we need to move beyond the polarization of conservative and liberal ideologies. The commonwealth tradition and philosophy offers an integrating framework for such a task.

The great flaw in the philosophy of the "national community" as articulated by modern liberals was the view that "progress" displaces local cultures and amateur energies. The liberal hope was that the national government would become the expression of civic identity itself. What this overlooked was the imperative that democratic government is the creation of the people, constantly renewed by the people.

The powerful conservative critique of national community, however, has neglected the dimensions of freedom that emanate from public life, not simply private life. The commonwealth embodies this more expansive understanding of freedom. When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence  about unalienable rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he did not mean private happiness alone. He had in mind the pleasure of visibility, public honor, and the sense of contribution that comes from productive participation in public life. The commonwealth liberates our talents for public creation. It brings us back to the wellspring and the genius of our democracy: that citizens are the authors of our common destiny. The nation is ours to govern, to create, to sustain, and to renew.