Civic Agency and the Cult of the Expert


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In Civic Agency and the Cult of the Expert, Harry Boyte provides a buffet of ideas to make a coherent case for a democracy in which citizens can be truly sovereign by becoming the agents of their own destiny.

Boyte writes, “In the face of multiplying global crises, from economic collapse to global warming, many signs of a politics that develops civic agency—self-organizing, collective citizen efforts to solve problems and create public things in open settings without tight prior scripts—are also appearing. A civic agency approach is built through what we call public work, based on a sense of the citizen as a cocreator of a democratic way of life and a view that emphasizes politics’ productive as well as participatory and distributive aspects. Such an approach is an alternative to conventional ideological politics, on the one hand, and community service and volunteerism, on the other.” But he also warns, “We are also caught in a corrosive knowledge war that presents a fierce obstacle to such civic politics.”

In this Kettering Foundation paper, Boyte traces this history of various trends that threaten the development of civic agency: technocracy, specialism, and a consumer-view of the citizen, among others. He also draws on his experience in the Obama campaign to explain how even organizations that have benefited from grassroots civic agency have a tendency to relapse into the habit of simply mobilizing the troops to push predetermined issue agendas. But he also identifies signs of a new civic movement already impacting the fields of development, public health, resource management, climate change, and education reform. He concludes by presenting a modular, visual comparison of three frameworks for civic engagement: distributive justice, communitarian, and civic agency.

Harry C. Boyte is founder and codirector of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship based at Augsburg College and a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.

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Theory and Practice

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