Civic Populism: The People’s Politics of Geno Baroni

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A rebirth of civic environmentalism and civic science has the potential to revitalize democratic practices and promote scientific values to mobilize existing knowledge across sectors to address challenges such as climate change.

I am honored today, October 24, 2030, to be chosen as storyteller by the Smithsonian Institution’s Council of American Peoples at the opening of the Geno Baroni Center for Democracy, a satellite institution of the Smithsonian in Acosta, Pennsylvania. Geno Baroni was born here 100 years ago, on October 24, 1930, as the son of Italian immigrants. Guido, his father, worked in the Somerset coal mine here in Acosta. Josephine, his mother, survived Geno’s early death at the age of 53 in 1984.

Geno Baroni battled the cancer mesothelioma. In his last years, Monsignor Baroni organized cancer patients as he had organized others for more than two decades. “People who are organized,” he said, “will be able to move from powerlessness to power because power is the ability to act.”

The Baroni Center has been established by the Smithsonian’s Council of American Peoples to recognize his commitment to “people’s politics,” what can be called civic populism. Baroni’s brand of politics honored the diversity of peoples and cultures on this continent and what they contribute to the work of a more democratic, inclusive, and just society. In the vein of his funeral, which drew political and civic leaders from across the political spectrum, many candidates from various parties are citing the legacy of Monsignor Baroni in their campaigns this fall. Indeed, we are witnessing a rebirth of people’s politics.

We are now in the midst of a large process of building and rebuilding a democratic society through such politics. We don’t know where it will lead—as the first African American federal judge William Hastie was fond of saying, “Democracy is a journey, not a destination.” But we do know that people’s politics has generated substantial changes in the tone and direction of politics in the past 15 years. People’s politics, understood as a civic populist politics, has created a much more egalitarian and inclusive ethos in our nation’s public life than once seemed imaginable.

Sometimes also called “recommunalizing the world,” civic populist politics has brought images and stories, memories and markers, in a word, culture, back into public spaces of all kinds: from schools to government agencies and businesses—spaces once stripped of distinguishing characteristics that anchored them in particular locations. It has begun to reground professional identities and practices—and educational processes that shape them—in the civic fiber of places. It has created democratizing alliances, institutional transformations, and innovations in myriad settings, none more important than the wide adoption of civic environmental approaches to address climate change and mitigate its effects.

In the process, civic populist politics has been a school for democracy, teaching, and cultivating capacities for productive citizenship to millions of people. Civic populist politics is helping to reverse what the sociologist Max Weber saw as the irreversible disenchantment of the world through the spread of instrumental rationality. Weber also called the process the “polar night of icy darkness.”

A mere 15 years ago, in 2015, politics seemed most certainly headed toward that polar night, full of bitter polarizations and poisonous recriminations based on monocultures of epistemic enclosure and purification. The ever-worsening polarizing politics of the early 21st century led Americans on all sides of the political spectrum to deny, suppress, and forget that those different from themselves were also human beings of immense complexity, with potential for democratic and generous action as well as mean-spirited and antidemocratic action. So, too, whole swaths of the social landscape were portrayed in monochromatic terms as good or evil—conservative Christians, liberals, Muslims, government bureaucrats, white working class, black teenagers…the list is endless. Most people despaired of ever seeing the society change, convinced that its institutions and structures had an insidious life of their own, beyond reform. In those years, political leaders and trend-setters alike scorned places like Acosta and figures like Monsignor Baroni as hopelessly out of date, relics of a past best forgotten.

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Service Employees International Union
Door to door canvassing, popularized in the 1970s, inadvertently contributed to the polarization of American politics by spreading a “good vs. evil” dialogue.

Ironically, the effort to purify political positions and polarize the society was widespread among environmentalists who championed ecological diversity. In the 1970s, environmental groups pioneered in a new technology of polarization called “the canvass,” in which activists went door to door to raise money and solicit support for issues. While its motivation was easy to understand—environmentalists, like other progressives, were searching for ways to meet the challenge of large scale efforts to roll back environmental protections and other policies affected by 1960s social movements—it produced unanticipated civic damage on a large scale and resulted in activist monocultures. The canvass approach became ever more widespread from the 1970s onwards, using advanced communications techniques based on a formula: find a target or enemy to demonize, develop a script that defines the issue in good-versus-evil terms and shuts down critical thought, and convey the idea that those who champion the victims will come to the rescue. This formula spread rapidly across the political spectrum, turning electoral and issue campaigns into battles of good versus evil. The Manichean dynamic also reflected the erosion of civic spaces where people of diverse views and interests had previously interacted in open-ended ways on public problems. As early as the 1920s, for instance, YMCAs began to trade in their identity as a movement of citizens served by civic-minded “secretaries” for a new identity—institutions comprised of huge buildings and scientifically trained exercise professionals who provide “programs” for paying members. More generally, schools, colleges, businesses, congregations, and government agencies lost civic roots. What were once anchoring institutions through which people developed a sense of agency in the world turned into service providers for customers and clients.

An important countertrend called “civic environmentalism,” an alternative to polarizing politics, was gaining some momentum in the 1990s. In civic environmentalism, groups with different interests and views develop plans for collaborative public work. Some government policy-makers recognized a need to shift from top–down regulation to setting broad goals on air quality and other environmental questions, providing resources for communities to work out strategies themselves. As the sociologist Carmen Sirianni discovered through interviews with the Environmental Protection Agency, a large number of leaders in the agency were enthusiastic about the potential of civic environmentalism to address challenges of all kinds, from dumping of hazardous wastes in low-income communities to the challenges of climate change. Leading conservatives like William Schambra were also championing civic environmentalism. But civic environmentalism lost significant ground inside government in both the Bush and Obama years, mirroring conflicts in the society as technocratic policy-making came to dominate.

Civil society took up the baton and organized around climate issues, but this was as polarizing as ever, with huge numbers of citizens “in the middle” unmotivated to work for change. Disruption, the promotional film for the New York People’s Climate March of 2014, provided a dramatic example of the problem. The film claimed the legacy of the civil rights movement March on Washington in 1963: “All the big social movements in history have had people in the streets,” said one leader. But Disruption, seeking to polarize people against conservatives and fossil fuel industries, bore little resemblance to the inclusive message of the March on Washington.

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The New York People’s Climate March in September of 2014 only served to further polarize people against conservative politics.

The 1963 March was based on the strategy of Bayard Rustin, March organizer, who believed that the task was precisely not to polarize but rather to “win over the middle.” A third of the nation was behind the goals of the movement. A third was opposed. Most Americans, focused elsewhere, had to be convinced. Martin Luther King’s brilliant “I Have a Dream” speech embodied this strategy, coupling his challenge to Americans to make real the promise of democracy with an inclusive dream and a call to discipline anger. If it had followed the approach of the March on Washington, the narrative of Disruption would have made visible business owners, Pentagon officials, Evangelical Christians, civic leaders in Middle America organizing sandbag lines to protect their towns from flooding, as well as poor people, racial minorities, and progressive climate change activists. Many outside progressive ranks joined the march in New York, but not in Disruption.1

The march’s message, belying the diversity of participants, reflected not only the good-versus-evil style of polarizing politics but also was associated with a default positivism that settled in across society, detaching progressive professional cultures from civic life. A sign in the Denver airport in 2013 illustrated the point, trumpeting the message that Colorado State University, not far away, wanted to communicate to the world: “Local problems, university solutions.” This message was operationalized in hundreds of millions of dollars each year spent on translational science by the National Institutes of Health, based on translating scientific discoveries into “evidence-based solutions” to be uniformly applied in vastly different contexts.

Triumphalist science produced the cult of the expert, championing the authority of scientific knowledge as the only valid form of knowledge. In this view, outside experts bring solutions to the masses who are seen as ignorant, passive, and needy. If the masses fail to listen, the remedy is to turn up the volume. Much climate science in the early 21st century illustrated this pattern. Thus, an editorial in Nature, a leading scientific journal, called for scientists to get into the fray. “Where political leadership on climate change is lacking scientists must be prepared to stick their heads above the parapet.” The editorial observed that greenhouse gases were continuing to rise and “climate change contrarians [were] multiplying in numbers.” Their solution: “Climate scientists must be ever more energetic in taking their message to citizens.” Scientists “taking their message to citizens” assumes that the scientists have the answer—and are different than citizens.

But there were stirrings of people’s politics of the kind that had been championed earlier by Geno Baroni. About the time of the Climate March, a group of public intellectuals, scientists, and community organizers with support from the National Science Foundation organized a conference on “civic science,” aimed at reconceptualizing the relationship between science and society. In civic science, science is understood as a knowledge resource for action in the world, a source of empowerment, not a description of the state of the world from the outside. Scientists come to understand themselves as citizens, with useful knowledge, but not all the answers, and develop skills of collaborative work. Civic science, revitalizing the democratic practices and values of science like cooperation, open inquiry, and commitment to the commonwealth of knowledge, began to attract support from leading scientists and also from STEM teachers, tribal colleges, cooperative extension systems and many others who suffered from “expert knows best” approaches.

Civic science, like other strands of civic populism, drew on rich histories of practice and philosophy of the popular movements of the New Deal. Geno Baroni’s family had been active in such movements, leaders in union organizing and other efforts to create a “Catholic New Deal” in the 1930s. Baroni absorbed their spirit and values. He was passionately concerned with bridging the racial gap between blacks and white ethnics. He understood power. He had deep respect for the democratic potentials of the multitude of American cultures.

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The 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington strove for inclusivity, embracing diversity and the political middle ground. These ideals are the basis of civic populism.

Baroni became a Catholic priest in 1956, served in white ethnic working class parishes, then transferred to an inner city African American parish in Washington. He was Catholic coordinator for the 1963 March on Washington, and led the Catholic delegation to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. In the late sixties, Baroni argued for a third way in politics, which he called the new populism. New populism differed from universalist liberalism focused on rights and redistribution and contemptuous of white ethnics whom liberals saw as bastions of bigotry. It also differed from neo-conservatism with its Burkean, defensive perspective. This is how Baroni described his vision:

The organizer has to believe that ordinary people can build bridges across racial and ethnic lines. The organizer has to get ordinary people in touch with their roots, their heritage, their best. The organizer has to give ordinary people hope.

Baroni was a key architect of the Campaign for Human Development in the Catholic Church, for decades the most important funder of organizing work that empowers the poor. He founded the National Center of Urban Ethnic Affairs, which worked with hundreds of ethnic and community groups.

He also understood that government can be an empowering partner with communities and lay citizens—neither the enemy nor the solution. Baroni was the force behind policies like the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, which required banks to make public their lending practices, a tremendous resource for grassroots organizing. An architect of Jimmy Carter’s “ethnic campaign” strategy in the 1976 presidential race, Baroni was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he changed government programs into resources for citizen self-help and empowerment. Baroni lay the groundwork for the civic environmental approaches in the Clinton years.

Believing that democratic organizing could be practiced anywhere—and needs to be practiced everywhere—he took heat from community organizers who saw “big institutions” like government or higher education as targets, not as sites for democratic change. For three decades after his death, there was growth in broad-based community organizing, mainly in religious congregations. But democratic organizing in settings like professions, higher education, and government was rare.

Just when it seemed Baroni’s civic populism was on the verge of extinction in mainstream politics, it resurfaced in 2015 and 2016. A group of tenured and adjunct faculty organized by the Service Employees International Union picked up the mantle of college presidents who had been calling for the revitalization of higher education’s democratic narrative. Successfully waging a campaign to dismantle the “national rankings,” whose variables in US News and World Report put a premium on exclusivity and detachment from communities, the movement revived the idea that colleges are “part of” places, not simply “partners with” places. A national conversation on “the changing world of work” and how colleges can be a resource for communities reinforced this movement, educating the public about the multiple roles and contributions higher education can play in society—forgotten in the “race to the top” focus on education as a ticket to individual success.

In 2016, both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates touted civic environmentalism as the way forward on climate change and other environmental challenges, building on cross-partisan, practical, collaborative climate change initiatives in many cities. In 2018, the “People’s Alliance for a Cooperative Commonwealth” had its founding convention as a cross-partisan civic populist movement aimed not only at electoral changes but at democratic transformations in the social and economic life of the nation. As we all know, the People’s Alliance has had enormous impact.

Geno Baroni embodied the democratic genius of America. He is an ancestor of the People’s Alliance. We celebrate his legacy—and the fact that people have brought his people’s politics back on a grand scale.

Reference

  1. Boyte, HC. Democracy and the People’s Climate March. Huffington Post [online] (September 10, 2014). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/harry-boyte/democracy-and-the-peoples_b_57....