Ben Barber and 'Strong Democracy,' Remembered

KF vice president and program director John Dedrick honored Benjamin Barber at a roundtable session on Thursday, August 31, 2017, at the American Political Science Association's annual meeting. The session gathered students and associates of Barber to speak about his legacy to us and to the struggle for democracy. Barber was a longtime colleague of the Kettering Foundation and one of the most prominent public intellectuals espousing the ideas of citizen-centered, or "strong democracy," particularly in a time of rising "tribalism." He passed away in April due to pancreatic cancer.

I would like to express my appreciation to the APSA, Lisa Disch, and Rick Battistoni for organizing this round table and inviting me to participate. It’s an honor and a privilege to be here with each of you, remembering our teacher and friend Benjamin Barber.

I’d like to talk about Barber as a “public intellectual” and his influence on the theory and practice of citizen-centered or “strong” democracy.

Barber had a profoundly intuitive sense of our dependence on communities and our obligations to them. He believed that substantive liberty depends ultimately on the democratic functioning of community. Whatever our individual occupations, community must be our shared concern if we are to be free.

Barber “walked the talk,” and until his very last days he was taking calls from the mayors whom he had organized as a Global Parliament of Mayors that might bring the unique capacities of cities to bear on tackling profound moral and human problems, such as climate change.

Barber was a public intellectual. This was his vocation as well as a kind of craft, or a form of democratic art, to which he devoted a lifetime of hard and tireless work.

The term public intellectual is sometimes used in a casual way to mean an academician or other professional who popularizes or translates research for lay people in the press, open lectures, broadcast or digital media. This is important work with clear public benefit.

But there is more to being a public intellectual. As I understand it, the work of public intellectuals is not primarily to popularize or translate scholarship into lay terms; it is rather the art of advancing dialogues and deliberations that help to set the terms by which people become a public through their collective actions. This work is reciprocal and it is quintessentially democratic. I like Noëlle McAfee and Jim Veninga’s concept of public intellectuals as “standing with the public.”

Barber had an uncanny grasp of the major trends and large questions that confront democracy. It was one of his gifts. He was always at least one step ahead of most of us. At the same time, he was always with people in their communities, theorizing in concert with them. It was a necessary dialectic for Barber.

I would even hypothesize that it was the sustained engagement with communities that gave shape to Barber’s insights and somehow provided him the ability to see farther down the road than many of us.

The critique of the elitism of certain elements of the counterculture in his first book, Superman and Common Men, anticipated the culture wars.

The democratic reframing of “globalization” in Jihad vs. McWorld anticipated the dynamics of the political crises of our times.  

If Mayors Ruled the World and Cool Cities anticipate a crisis of democratic legitimacy for nation-states in a world that is globalized and warming.

But Barber did not just offer diagnoses; he also suggested remedies.

He argued that cities may be the only units of government capable of developing a democratic response to these problems. So he began to experiment with allied efforts to establish Interdependence Day and the Global Parliament of Mayors. Somehow, in Barber’s company, no project seemed too large.

Parenthetically, I think it’s important to note that Barber was consistently supportive of roles that economic markets and norms play in democracy when they are checked by democratic institutions. While he was a vocal critic of “unbridled capitalism” he was not anti-capitalist. In fact, he could be a pretty shrewd businessman.

Finally, I’ll mention Barber’s framing of a fresh understanding of democracy and the role of citizens in it, which he described in Strong Democracy.  In the early 1980s, a new President said to the nation, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to the problem; it is the problem.”  It was a time when the nation was still healing from the turbulent 1970s. Unemployment, environmental problems, and inadequately performing schools were among a host of challenges that seemed to defy expert solutions.  This, roughly, was the context in which he wrote Strong Democracy.

Barber’s scholarly contributions to making the case for strong democracy are well known and foundational among democratic theorists, and they do not need to be rehearsed here.

But why does Strong Democracy matter from a practitioner’s perspective?

First, Strong Democracy offers an alternative frame for understanding the possibilities of democratic politics. The radical shift Barber proposes is one that moves citizens from being primarily bearers of rights, consumers, and clients, who are on the sidelines to a kind of politics that puts people at the very center as actors and agents.

Significant elements of this emergent citizen-centered paradigm are now shared widely by people working on questions of civic renewal, public work, collaborative governance, public dialogue, conflict resolution, and deliberative democracy.

Second, Strong Democracy provides an entrée for a revival of pragmatism in democratic politics. Placing citizens at the center of politics is not merely instrumental; it is an absolute requirement if we are to deal constructively with moral conflicts in a world without agreed-upon moral foundations.

Third, Strong Democracy identifies specific civic skills required for robust citizen participation. For example, Barber’s discussion of “strong democratic talk” has become part of the norms driving much public engagement work. Facilitators emphasizing the importance of “listening” as much as “talking” build on Barber’s work.

Fourth, Strong Democracy outlines a number of proposals for institutional innovations, such as teledemocracy-style town meetings. Barber invited practitioners to experiment and try out new ways of organizing for public voice and action. 

Finally, it is Barber’s book. So Strong Democracy makes the case for the centrality of community to our lives and the importance of participation in the full range of the community’s institutions—including its government and schools. In a sense, Barber’s focus on community is a gentle reminder of what we already know from experience but seem to have forgotten in a world focused on macro systems and micro phenomena: that democratic politics is rooted in places where people live, work, worship, mourn, and celebrate together.