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John Gardner's writings


THE AMERICAN EXPERIMENT
Council for Excellence in Government
April 1, 1998


The Long Story

Think of humankind's search for social forms that honor liberty, justice and the worth and dignity of every person as a long, long story. It must have begun in fumbling, inarticulate ways tens of thousands of years ago. As Americans we have particular interest in the part of the story that began some two and a half centuries ago in the British colonies on the eastern coast of North America.

In the phrase "We, the people... " our Constitution expressed the revolutionary idea that "the people" could set up "governments of their own, under their own authority." It doesn't sound revolutionary today, but it astonished 18th Century Europeans. In the years from 1776 through 1791 most of the fundamental principles of our society were expressed. The great phrases echo in our minds--the consent of the governed... equality... the blessings of liberty... the establishment of justice...

Those are only some of the extraordinary objectives laid out in the morning of the Republic. Those who fashioned the phrases were fully conscious that their efforts were the latest chapter in a story that reached back to the world of antiquity; and most of them were well aware of the writings of such later thinkers as Locke and Montesquieu.


Difficulties Ahead

They knew they were setting high goals. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison candidly admitted that it was "a political experiment," that it depended "on the capacity of mankind for self-government." Thomas Jefferson also referred to it as "an experiment." And Alexander Hamilton said, "It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country by their conduct and example to decide... whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force."

But one doubts that even the most far-sighted spokesmen for the American Experiment could have envisioned the difficulties that lay ahead. After Jefferson's brave declaration that "all men are created equal" it took 87 years and a bloody civil war to free the slaves, and another 57 years before "We, the People," gave women the vote.

We need not list all the hard-won victories. Lincoln contributed unforgettably. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton sparked the 19th Century battle for women's rights. Samuel Gompers, an immigrant, stabilized the labor movement. Andrew Carnegie, born in Scotland the son of a poor Scots weaver, became one of America's industrial pioneers and wrote an important chapter in America's philanthropic tradition. In the 1930's and 1940's Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues crafted the legal victories that laid the ground for the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school desegregation, and then Martin Luther King, Jr. transformed the race issue from a legal battle to a popular movement. Betty Friedan touched off the mid-20th Century struggle for women's rights. La Donna Harris, Ada Deer, John Echohawk and others put the rights of Native Americans on the agenda. Cesar Chavez gave voice and power to the Hispanic farm workers of California.

There were (and are) many others, but those make the case. Men and women of many races and cultural origins have laid shaping hands on the American Experiment--and are still doing so. Many of those who have worked on the Experiment in the past half-century think of themselves as dissidents or critics. It doesn't occur to them that they are working on the same quilt, that they have joined the large and diverse group that is still writing the long story.


The Disconnection

Surveying the national scene today, one sees much that should put the American people in a good mood: the economy is healthy, unemployment is low and the Cold War has ended. But they are not in a good mood. One remembers the cartoon of the worried-looking little girl tagging after her parents at Disneyland and asking "Are we having fun yet?" For Americans generally the answer is "Not really." They are worried about the schools, about violent crime, about political corruption, about the growing gap between rich and poor, and most of all about the unraveling of the social fabric. There is a disconnection between the people and their leaders. Citizens do not trust their government. And a variety of polls indicate that the distrust extends to corporations and the media. People do not feel that they have much control over their lives, and the sense of impotence grows like a great life-endangering tumor.

We are treading the edge of a precipice here. Civilizations die of disenchantment. If enough people doubt their society, the whole venture falls apart. We must never let anger, fashionable cynicism or political partisanship blur our vision on that point. We must not despair of the Republic.


Disintegration of Community

The unraveling of the social fabric that we see today is legitimate cause for worry. A society, with its thriving institutions and great ventures, its power structure, its enormous capacity to reward and punish, may seem like a huge, unshakable edifice. But it is built on intangibles--a web of mutual obligations; shared beliefs, religious and secular; laws and customs; agreed-upon processes of governing; caring, trust and responsibility. Weaken those beyond a certain point and the great edifice--to quote Prospero in The Tempest--"melts into air, into thin air."

The intangible bonds of society hold within bounds the savagery of which humans are capable, ensure order, and make possible the accomplishment of shared purpose. When the web of community unravels, fearful things happen. Children gunning down children in the school yard. The daily news offers countless grim examples.

Some observers, perceiving the element of moral disintegration in the unraveling, leap to the conclusion that the teaching of moral values is the only necessary ingredient for recovery. But moral values are not created by people who give lectures on moral values. Moral values are inseparable from family and community, and the necessary ingredient for recovery is the re-building of community. Values are the fruit of the tree. If the apple trees are gone, don't expect apples. That is the prime reason for re-building community--not to re-create a cozy and nostalgic neighborliness but to provide the mutual obligations, social controls, trust and responsibility that are generated in family and community.

We are beginning to see that in our glorification of the unrestrained self, we forgot that the achievement of our shared goals (establish justice, promote the general welfare, secure the blessings of liberty, etc.) depends on some measure of social cohesion. What we need is a reasonable balance between the claims of individuality and the claims of community.


Rebuilding Community

The time-honored reaction to social disintegration is handwringing and despair. But the more one reads of history and anthropology the more one stands in awe of the human gift for generating and regenerating value systems, moral orders, institutions and societies. We have an uncelebrated capacity to counter disintegration with new integrations.

We must strive to preserve the family. The most common roots of a sense of community are in family life, when parents instill in children a sense of responsibility--for other individuals and for the group. The future vitality of one's community depends on the sense of responsibility of its citizens. If they don't care, all the experts in the world, and all the money in the world won't help. Experts and money may patch up this or that specific problem. But they will be building on sand.

We must continue the work of community building in school, congregation, neighborhood, workplace. It's not just that we shall be building communities. We shall be developing citizens who know out of their own intimate experience the disciplines and satisfactions of community. They will understand teamwork, the observance of shared values, collaborative problem-solving and the building of trust. In currently fashionable terms, we shall be building social capital.

This is not the place to explore in depth the ingredients of community. But one aspect is crucial: the requirement that we bring into being a wholeness that incorporates diversity. In a practical setting, this requires measures that enable diverse groups to know one another. It requires techniques of conflict resolution, coalition building and collaborative problem solving. It requires institutions that transcend group differences. The achievement of wholeness that incorporates diversity is the transcendent task for our generation, at home and worldwide. In this as in so many other things, our perspective must be global. But we cannot play a responsible role in the world if our homeland is riven in mind and spirit.

This is not an exercise in nostalgia. We can't look back to the old comfortable communities. We must--with respect for our tradition and a keen sense of present realities--build new communities for the tumultuous world ahead. But no matter what technology brings, we shall find ourselves returning to family, school, church, workplace and neighborhood--not because they are familiar and traditional, but because they are the natural face-to-face settings where people can learn the lessons of responsibility, trust, caring and mutual obligation.


Citizen Involvement

Americans have reason for negative attitudes today. But the sad, hard truth is that at this juncture the American people themselves are part of the problem. Cynicism, alienation and disaffection will not move us forward. We have major tasks ahead. Our rate of violent crime is several times greater than other advanced industrial societies, and we fall behind most of them in providing for child care, parental leave, child immunization and access to medical care. A powerful thrust of energy will be needed to deal with these and other domestic problems, to say nothing of menacing international problems. Citizens--"We the people"--will have to have the confidence and commitment to provide that energy.

The loss of civic faith is an obstacle. One might imagine that the solution would be for government to make itself worthy of our faith. But the plain truth is that the government (and other powerful institutions) will not become worthy of trust until citizens take positive action to hold them to account. Citizen involvement comes first.

It is not a liberal or conservative issue. It is not Democrats vs. Republicans. It is a question of whether we are going to settle into a permanent state of alienated self-absorption or show the vigor and purpose that becomes us. We do not want it said that after a couple of great centuries we let the American Experiment disintegrate.

A fortunate by-product of citizen involvement is that when citizens become involved their morale improves. One cannot emphasize too strongly that a prime ingredient in the citizen's negative mood is a sense of disconnection. Anything that repairs the connection will help alter the mood. I recently encountered a friend of mine, a corporate CEO, wearing a hard hat and working with a neighborhood group on a Habitat for Humanity project. He said to me, "I can't solve the world's problems, but I can help build these houses. It's a great satisfaction."


The Good News

The good news is that there are grounds for hope, despite the negative mood reflected in the polls. Extraordinary things are happening at the grassroots in city after city across the nation--so extraordinary that I believe we are about to write a whole new chapter in the tumultuous American story. In fact the chapter is already being written.

In virtually every field of domestic problem-solving--job training, family preservation, community-oriented policing, affordable housing, urban design, education, transportation, environment, economic development--there is a wave of innovation such as we have not seen for decades. New solutions to old problems, new ways of thinking about our urban dilemmas--they are all out there.

The cities and their metropolitan areas have a long way to go. But the heartening aspect is the sheer spirit and determination of the problem-solvers who are driving the wave of innovation. Just that they exist is a beacon of hope for the rest of the nation. Don't pray for a burst of renewal. It is out there. We may not see it because the media do not always do justice to constructive grassroots problem-solvers. One of our many chores is to remedy that. It's essential that we spotlight them, talk about their victories and disseminate the lessons they have learned.


Dispersing Initiatives and Responsibility

The likelihood of citizen involvement will be considerably enhanced by the recent movement toward local initiative. Thirty years ago, in a speech in Grand Rapids I emphasized the importance of the local level: "We must provide increased opportunities for people to participate..., we must restore a sense of community; and we must foster a sense of responsibility... all three aims depend on governmental arrangements that disperse power and initiative."

Today that is a very fashionable sentiment under the label of devolution. In the early 1970's, when we found that we were meeting formidable economic competition from Japan and West Germany, little more than 25 years after those nations had suffered total military defeat, United States' corporations undertook a re-examination of their own structure and practices. One of the principles that emerged was the necessity, in large-scale systems, of dispersing initiative and responsibility downward and outward. Too many centrally-generated solutions--one-size-fits-all--rigidify the system and result in a loss of motivation and creativity at the periphery.

As applied to government, the concept of devolution does not mean the dismantling of Washington, as some extreme conservatives imply. The federal government must continue to play an important funding role. but federal agencies must foster the decision-making capacities and creativity of lower governmental levels. The American governmental system won't function at its best unless all levels--federal, state and local--are strong and vital, each performing functions appropriate to its level.

We must end the indiscriminate trashing of government. Carefully targeted criticism is immensely important, but mindless trashing has made able civil servants--who constitute the majority--feel like members of a battered profession. If we want to make government better, that is not the way to do it. Rather we must target our efforts. We must insist, for example, that government make itself worthy of respect by eliminating the many ways in which moneyed interests coerce legislators. In a land where the Founders committed themselves to the consent of the governed, the fact that money can buy political outcomes is an obscenity. The simple rule is, "Hold power accountable." We can no longer tolerate any government--federal, state or local--that has created such an impenetrable web of power, money and special interest that it is no longer controllable by the electorate.


Knitting Together

In most cities, there is a striving toward new patterns of collaboration--new partnerships--among government agencies (at all levels) and the private sector, profit and nonprofit. Everyone recognizes that municipal government working alone cannot save the city. The most deteriorated parts of the city cannot save themselves. Collaboration is crucial.

But it is made more difficult by the existence of diverse segments of the population who don't know one another (and often don't want to). Race creates such divisions. The growing gap between rich and poor poses grave difficulties. We have already noted the rift between affluent suburbs and deteriorating central cities. And there is resentment by many Americans of what they consider to be an emerging professional/executive/academic elite that always appears to be close to the levers of power.

In the face of such fragmentation, community building begins with open communication across boundaries. There must be candid and continued discussion in which resentments are pulled to the surface and each group comes to understand the assumptions and concerns of others.

One thing the cities are learning is that revitalizing a city requires leaders who can work cooperatively across boundaries; leaders who can work in networks of responsibility with all who share common goals; leaders who know how to listen to the voices of participants.

One of the most dependable ways to build community is to engage people in a common task. When individuals invest time and effort in the community it strengthens their ties to it. That is one of the many justifications for an ethic of voluntary community service.

A shared task that a number of American communities have already tested is one in which all segments of the populace come together to decide what they want the future of their community to be, and what are the priority tasks in getting there. Surprisingly, despite their internal diversity, most communities that have undertaken the exercise finally agree on a few important goals and priorities. They do not agree on everything, but they are not supposed to.


Conflict Resolution

Very closely linked to collaboration is conflict resolution. The resolving of conflict has been a concern of diplomats and lawyers for centuries, but has taken new forms that have spread with astonishing rapidity in the last several decades. The purpose is not to abolish conflict, which is a normal part of human interaction, but to ensure a healthy outcome.

This is profoundly serious business. We must confront the awesome capacity of humans to be at one another's throats. We shall have to tackle hatred and fanaticism in all their guises--racism, religious bigotry, political paranoia, and so on. Not an easy task, looking at the performance of the species worldwide, looking at Bosnia, Rwanda and Oklahoma City, looking at the bloody scroll of history.

The techniques of conflict resolution and collaborative problem-solving should be taught in every institution and every community. And there is much that can be done outside of formal conflict resolution processes to diminish the likelihood of conflict. A community that has created a network of healthy relationships that cut across ethnic lines, economic levels and religious differences has gone a long way toward making collaboration and conflict resolution possible. People from different ethnic, economic and social groups tend to see each other in categories in stereotyped terms. With intelligently planned and continued interaction, categories and stereotypes fade and they begin to see one another as human beings. Each begins to understand that the other has different priorities, different notions of how the world works. Having achieved that, they can begin to talk seriously.


Shared Values

The long-term task is to move toward some modest base of shared values. We do not want unanimity and our degree of agreement may be limited, but we must make the effort. Civilization is a drama lived in the minds of a people. It is a shared vision, shared norms, expectations and values. In today's climate, many Americans are so put off by the zealots in our national conversation that they are reluctant even to talk about values. But every successful society we know anything about has created a framework of law, custom and beliefs to channel behavior toward purposes deemed to be acceptable. The media have an understandable impulse to focus on our disagreements. But if we care about the American Experiment we had better search out and celebrate the values we share.

In seeking answers, we cannot draw uncritically from the past, nor can we reject the past. We must reject what was unworthy, build on the truths that are still vital in our tradition, face present challenges, however uncomfortable, and honor our profound obligation to the future.


Commitments Beyond the Self

To make further progress toward those goals will require a commitment to the common good that has not been fashionable lately. Over the course of the 20th Century, perfect freedom for the individual became for many the ideal toward which to strive--the totally "liberated" self, not caught in a web of old-fashioned commitments, free to soar. Commitments beyond the self may involve hardship and self-sacrifice, but those who accept such commitments are spared the contemporary fate of rootlessness, hollowness and faithlessness. And they escape the ailment of the age: the tyranny of the imperious, imprisoning self. When we find meaning in the struggle, we are capable of heroic effort and endurance. Commitments not only discipline, they energize.

One can precipitate a lively debate by specifying the values toward which Americans aspire. Short of attempting a definitive list, it is possible to suggest the kind of items that might be included. Justice, freedom and equality would of course be on everyone's list. Equally certain to be endorsed by most Americans would be personal integrity, the release of human possibilities, security of person, a sustainable environment and the values of community (mutual support, caring, responsibility and citizenship).

Religious communities can and must contribute importantly to a more vibrant, unified and creative society. They can draw motivation from deep and ancient wells of belief. But those of us who care about the role of religion in our personal lives and in our national life must face a hard reality. Throughout the history of various religions there have occurred episodes of fanaticism, hatred, zealotry and violence. In order to give the help they can give in healing our society, religions must exorcise their own demons. Each religious person must exorcise the demons within. If we can heal ourselves, we can take on the great task of helping to heal the society.


Values in Action

There is no possibility that moral, ethical or spiritual values can be preserved from one generation to the next if the only preservatives are words, monuments, rituals and sacred texts. The pastors of an earlier day sometimes complained that people sowed wild oats all week and then came to church on Sunday and prayed for a crop failure. Values live or die in the market place, the law offices, the family living quarters. The moral framework survives only when living men and women re-create the values for their own time--by living the faith, by caring, by doing. It is the universal ministry. It is true of religion; it is true of democracy; it is true of personal ethical codes. When ideals are torn loose from the earnest effort to approximate them, the words swirl endlessly and no one is enriched, no one bettered, no one saved.

It isn't enough to talk about respect for human dignity. What does it imply for employment and housing policy? It isn't enough to talk about the release of human possibilities. What does it imply for action in education and health? If these values are paramount, how should we comport ourselves? How should our institutions be designed? How should our government behave? What changes are called for in the real world? What can we do to help bring those changes about?

What must be done to make the key values an animating reality in our society today? We come back to the centrality of citizen involvement. Despite the promising wave of citizen activity mentioned earlier there is still--among all too many Americans--a fatal reluctance to lend themselves to any worthy common purpose. Appallingly low voter turnout is only one of the symptoms.

In World War I, I watched my grandmother knitting socks for soldiers, while my mother served as a volunteer nurse at the County Hospital. Neither of them saw themselves as exceptionally patriotic. Just about everyone was helping "the war effort." The same spirit was evident in World War II. A remarkably high percentage of the populace was contributing in some way--and enjoying it.

The Great Depression was a different sort of emergency, but again, there was an undeniable spirit in the populace. There was much hardship, and widespread misery but, somehow, beneath it all there was a hardy conviction that "We're going to see this thing through!"

Every local disaster--flood, hurricane, earthquake--evokes some of the same spirit. People want to help. They feel closer to one another. Sometimes one sees it in organizations, e.g., the Peace Corps in its early days.

What one sees in all of these instances is a heightened commitment to shared purposes. No one imagines that we could achieve in peacetime the morale and motivation produced by enemy attack. But must we reconcile ourselves to the depths of demoralization one observes today? In a healthy free society most people must be involved in some way.


What Must We Do?
First, citizens must inform themselves and engage in deliberation on the issues. Through public discussion, individuals from all segments of the community come to learn not only the substance of the issues but one another's beliefs, assumptions and preconceptions. All segments of the community must believe that their voice will be heard and listened to with respect. Citizens at every level must freely contribute.

In the past several years the most publicized form of citizen involvement has been community volunteering--citizens at work in one or another area of social service.

Advocacy is equally important. Voting is the most basic form, and low voter turnout is distressing. But advocacy extends far beyond the voting booth. Our national parks, the pure food and drug laws and the vote for women are testimony that successful citizen advocacy is well-rooted in our history. Government needs the goading and support that citizens can supply. Tough-minded politicians know that citizens can make a difference. More and more citizen groups such as Common Cause have learned to organize for advocacy. Before we leave the subject of citizen engagement, we must remind ourselves that citizens also contribute in many ways that do not involve "civic affairs." All those who set standards for themselves, contribute to the well-being of their family, rear their children responsibly and accept individual responsibility are building the common future.

A great many of our cities have enough potential leadership talent to run a small nation, but the modern compulsion to specialize keeps most potential leaders in their well-upholstered niches in the professions, the corporate executive ranks and the universities. Who gave them permission to stand apart? Race and class distinctions keep other potential leaders segregated in the minority and working class neighborhoods. We must help potential leaders at all social levels to know and understand one another, and must persuade many to play roles of public leadership.

We owe a great deal to those of our forebears who climbed out of the trenches of specialization to public leadership. We forget that we were founded by a printer named Franklin, a plantation owner named Washington, a lawyer named Jefferson, a banker named Morris--to mention only a few. None of them had advanced degrees in statecraft. They trained themselves in order to create a new nation.


When the Spirit Awakens

Citizen engagement will not solve everything, but it is immensely important. Most of us are not Utopian. We do not dream of a perfect world. But we cannot abandon our efforts to make it less imperfect.

It is the fate of humans to face risks they cannot fully understand much less control, to live in a world of complexities that frustrate purpose, and tragedies that undermine morale. And if there is any grandeur in the human struggle, it is in the capacity of considerable numbers of the species to fight on--buoyed by faith and hope--to surmount the setbacks, to envision gains beyond the losses and victories beyond the defeats, to pursue dreams in a world of bleak realities. That is not soft-headed idealism. In the most hardheaded terms, that is the human task. In any generation, many have turned their backs on that task. Those who did not turn their backs went on to build civilizations. For them, neither optimism nor pessimism are appropriate words. They had courage; they had vitality; they had staying power.

So those who have not succumbed to the contemporary disaffection and alienation must speak the word of life to their fellow Americans. When the American spirit awakens it transforms worlds. But it does not awaken without a challenge. Citizens need to understand that this moment in history does in fact present a challenge that demands the best that is in them.

We can best gird ourselves for the path ahead by re-igniting some of the seminal, explosive ideas of the past: the ideas I've already listed and others--not least the old, great, American idea of getting people off other people's backs--an idea we are still working on after all these years. The American Experiment is still in the laboratory. And there could be no nobler task for our generation than to move that great effort along.

Will Americans respond? I direct your attention to a trait shared by a great many citizens of this land. There is in them something waiting to be awakened, wanting to be awakened. Most Americans welcome the voice that lifts them out of themselves. They want to be better people. They want to help make this a better country.

When most of us were growing up the future beckoned. When my mother was a little girl living in a sod house on the plains of Nebraska, the future beckoned. When I was boy in California during World War I, it beckoned. For American everywhere, the future was the repository of expectations and dreams--not just for ourselves but for humankind. Our minds were alive with possibility and hope. Let it happen again.

We are capable of so much that is not now asked of us. The courage and spirit are there, poorly hidden beneath self-interest and self-indulgence, left somnolent by the moral indifference of modern life, waiting to be called forth when the moment comes. Clearly, the moment has come.




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