The Civic Imagination

Forthcoming, December 2012, from Paradigm Publishers

Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Elizabeth Bennett, Alissa Cordner, Peter Klein, and Stephanie Savell

American democracy is clearly in disarray. From the time of de Toqueville, scholarly discourse argued that the distinctive features of US democracy – a rich associational life, pluralism, its civic culture, its town hall meetings, not forgetting those “habits of the heat” that animated civic commitments – were to be a model for the rest of the world. But at some point in the recent past, the tenor of the discussion shifted. Today, it appears that explaining Americans’ apathy, disengagement, and alienation has become the order of the day. Americans hate politics, distrust the government, are driven by individualism, and foster division in their engagement. And what is more, this malaise is very much felt in other industrialized democracies as well – though the register of the discussion is different, the ills of European democracies share family resemblances with those afflicting the United States.

And yet, people continue to participate in civic life, discuss politics, and work to effect change in their neighborhoods and cities. Residents attend neighborhood meetings and participate in clean-ups and block parties. They engage in community forums, testify at public hearings, and meet with the Mayor and their local elected officials. In short, people are actively working to make their city a better, stronger, more engaged place to live and work. How do these civically engaged people think about politics, about society, and about their neighbors, and what forms of engagement, political pressure, and organizing do they pursue? Unlike contemporary civil society exposés of American apathy, we find today’s civic imagination—the ways in which people envision a better political, social, and civic environment and work towards achieving that future—to be anything but stagnant. In discussing the fate of American democracy, this perspective cannot be ignored.

The Civic Imagination is a book that engages with this discussion by providing both a rich empirical description of civic life in contemporary America and a theoretical discussion about the future of democracy and public life. It is a product of a unique research methodology in which five researchers from three social science disciplines carried out simultaneous participant observation with seven city-based civic organizations in one mid-sized US town over a year. The book follows these civic organizations’ strategic meetings, recruitment events, interactions with city and state level government, and explanations of what it means to make the city a “better” place to live.

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