Arlene Goldbard: The Culture of Politics

February 21st, 2008

Email This Page Email This Page Filed under: — Lynne Elizabeth @ 9:41 am

Festival of Democracy!!What does it mean that curriculum in far too many schools provides fewer operating instructions for democracy than for driving? If students need Driver’s Ed, shouldn’t they get Democracy Ed, too?

Maybe that neglect in childhood helps to account for the inadequate ways adults tend to frame democracy. We usually cover electoral politics either as horse racing (who’s got the money, who’s out front in the polls, and what are the odds?) or inside baseball (behind-the-scenes analysis of John Edwards’ haircut, Hilary Clinton’s tears, or the personal habits of Rudy Giuliani’s spouse). But from a community cultural development perspective, elections are expressions of culture, a culture which has long been in crisis. Insiders and diehards aside, until now, every recent election has led droves of potential voters to overdose on cynicism and give up. Today, we’re seeing a hint of how it could be different in a remarkable upturn in democratic participation, with unprecedented numbers registering to vote and casting their ballots in the presidential primaries.

What leads to engagement in democracy? From all I have seen, people want to participate when they see themselves making a difference, when their social imaginations are robust. For instance, we see Barack Obama inspiring this sense of possibility in young voters, who’ve been much more active than in the last national election. Many of them express their hopes through YouTube videos, music video remixes—the digital lingua franca of the young. Right now, this creativity is understood as a byproduct of election-year fervor. But what about future elections, when individual candidates may not resonate so strongly with youth? To activate our political culture with deep and lasting impact, we need the type of social creativity and training in social imagination that community artists can bring.

In my book New Creative Community, I explore core principles animating the work of artists and organizers who understand culture as the ground for community development. We advocate:

  • examining cultural values to reveal and address oppressive messages;
  • valuing live, active social experience over passive, isolated experience;
  • expanding social dialogue to support the active participation of all communities; promoting and respecting self-determination;
  • expanding liberty for all, without impinging on others’ rights; and
  • promoting equality of opportunity while helping to redress inequalities.

What if electoral politics were based on these culturally democratic principles? How might they change?

There would be much more face-to-face interaction and dialogue instead of canned events. (In the last presidential election, for instance, many of George Bush’s campaign appearances were purged of divergent opinion, with only hardcore supporters allowed in). Because no single individual can engage meaningfully with millions, this responsibility would be decentralized, with many different people and organizations taking part in a national conversation.

For instance, there could be hundreds of examples of “legislative theater,” devised by Brazilian theater maker and theoretician Augusto Boal. When Boal was elected to the municipal legislature of Rio de Janeiro in 1992, he adapted his forum theater model to the task of eliciting and acting on public opinion. Theater workers went where people had been organizing for change to perform short plays on important issues, enacting a conflict or struggle and one possible response. After the first enactment, the piece is replayed, with the audience—the citizenry—becoming “spect-actors,” stopping the action to replace a key character and act out an alternative strategy. Legislative theater generated ideas for improvements to civil society and new policies to address Rio’s problems. Boal brought policy experts into the mix to help craft proposals for legislative action, and quite a few were adopted.

Children might have meaningful democratic experiences (instead of being fed empty pieties about our system’s superiority). I recently heard about a community facing what we call “redevelopment,” which often means bulldozers followed by housing projects, the powers-that-be looking the other way as sites of public memory and the fabric of local culture are destroyed. Under such circumstances, it can be almost impossible to get a straight answer from policymakers. In this community, though, a community artist worked with local kids—11 and 12 year-olds—to understand the complicated policy issues and human questions at stake. When a public meeting was called, the kids were the ones posing questions to officials and developers, while their parents sat in the audience. Responding to clear-eyed and sophisticated questions from pre-adolescents, spokespeople couldn’t produce the empty jargon-filled answers we so often hear in public meetings. Imagine candidates faced with such questioning from future voters, instead of predictable queries generated by people so embedded in commercial media culture they can barely form a free thought.

Candidates committed to the values of community cultural development might become better listeners, actually inviting voters to express what’s important to us. Since the Web has become so important to campaigning, a candidate who valued pluralism, participation and equity might ask voters to create short videos—digital stories—portraying their aspirations and concerns. Taking heart from the fact that candidates actually listened to them, community groups might work with artists to make their stories artful and compelling. Using the talents of committed community artists, the aggregate of all stories contributed over the life of a campaign could be woven into a compelling sound-and-image tapestry of citizens’ priorities, told their own way.

With a community cultural development perspective, each campaign season could be a festival of democracy. Performers in countless communities could make themselves available for the great conversation that should underpin democracy, performing community-created plays on whatever local people find most important, with candidates and policy-makers urged to attend and respond.

If the culture of politics were shaped by these values, electoral democracy would be based on two goals, instead of the narrow goal of accumulating dollars and votes. Each campaign would aim to animate democracy, helping activate voters; and that would be in aid of the second goal, approving worthy candidates and initiatives. Different questions would guide the process:

Who participates? Whose voices do and don’t count?
What do we need to talk about more, better, more deeply?
Where are the hurt places and hidden potentials in the body politic?
What are the most important things we can do now to repair and develop strong democracy?

Today we have weak democracy, with policy-makers largely free to ignore public opinion, and many people feeling so distant, confused or disgusted by the culture of politics as practiced by high office-holders that large numbers have declined to participate in recent elections. The irony is that those who want to discourage democratic participation may be powerful, but they are vastly outnumbered by ordinary people who believe in the basic fairness that is the foundation of strong democracy and want to take pride in our society. Many of those people have been activated by the current election; it is thrilling to watch the electorate expanding, enlarging democracy. But the old culture of politics still exerts a powerful pull. Whomever is elected, more is needed to keep things from returning to business-as-usual in November. The antidote to alienation is the direct experience of democracy, of real cultural citizenship. It may seem far-fetched to imagine community artists and their neighbors leading the way, but this much we know: when you engage people’s creativity, their hearts, minds and spirits come into focus, and they want to get involved. Isn’t this what the culture of politics needs?


Suggested links about Augusto Boal:

“We All Are Theater: An Interview with Augusto Boal”
by Douglas L. Paterson and Mark Weinberg

Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed


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