Common Wealth: The Language of Populism and the Practice of Democracy

Dissertation, The Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities (1988)

There is a crisis in conventional views of "politics-as-spectacle," a distant terrain on which others act, analyze and make decisions. In 1988, Jesse Jackson, especially, reintroduced into the mainstream different ideas of politics, suggesting an ongoing conversation about the "common ground" conveying older populist themes of citizen participation and public life as an arena of diversity, struggle, accountability and power. But "populism" itself remains a puzzle: how is it that populist-sounding appeals can have such radically different political outcomes? ;Common Wealth, drawing on political and social theory, recent social and intellectual historiography, and ethnographic research of large-scale, successful citizen organizations, argues the Jackson's campaign represented one of several strands of a reemerging "commonwealth politics," a distinctive, indigenous American democratic language of politics. Today, the tradition and language of commonwealth simultaneously resolves the puzzle of populism and also points beyond populism, even in its democratic expressions, toward new approaches for democratic change in technological society. ;Against a recent political assault on the very idea of communal and public goods, the effort to reassert the importance of commonwealth furnishes a powerful language for talking about those things in which most citizens feel some stake and interest. Moreover, the populist sense of voluntary, civic agency and popular responsibility for the commonwealth counters the state-centered language of technocratic liberalism and the privatizing thrust of neo-conservative politics, alike, within which most debate has remained imprisoned. The concepts of commonwealth revive the central populist idea of "the people in politics" as independent agency of democracy. And they entail the notion of occasions around which widely differing groups can build ongoing public relationships on the basis of a collaborative, relational understanding of power
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