Growing up in San Antonio in the 1940s and 1950s, in many ways I experienced Texas at its worst. Racial segregation. Poverty-wage economy. Children drowning when neighborhoods flooded. Fortunately I also had some experience of Texas at its best. By that I mean that I was surrounded by adults and institutions that cared about me, and took responsibility for my successes and my failures. They were organized to educate me, to care for me, to prepare me for adulthood, and to hold me accountable for my actions. And at the end of the day, these institutions also created the opportunity to address the weaknesses and limitations of Texas through the practice of politics.
When I look at Texas today I see some improvements over the last 50 years. More equal opportunities for both ethnic minorities and women. A more fairly funded public education system. Improved infrastructure in both urban and rural areas. Some attention to the importance of living wages.
Unfortunately I also see a dramatic decline in the kinds of institutions that protect children and their families from the impacts of the market, the consumer culture, and the larger society. And because these are the same institutions that provide the foundation for a democratic society, I also see a decline in our capacity to engage one another in a deliberative manner about issues that concern our children and our families.
I am particularly troubled by the fact that people who are progressives and moderates have allowed mean-spirited policies and rhetoric to hijack the language of faith and community. I see a polarized electorate that engages in the language of abuse or contradiction rather than in deliberative argument. I see very little opportunity for negotiation or compromise.
We cannot continue to ignore our institutions and our role as citizens in a democratic society. Mobilizing voters every two years or every four years is important, but it is by no means sufficient to create the kind of Texas that cares for children, for families, and for the future.
The practice of genuine democratic politics—public decision-making about families, neighborhoods, communities, and the Common Good—is becoming a lost art in Texas. Instead of engaging in conversation, debate, or argument, most of us engage in “station identification,” in which we basically identify ourselves and our pre-determined positions and then (at best) pause appropriately while someone else speaks and we think about what we are going to say next. Or we avoid conversation completely, especially if we know it has the potential to expose tension and conflict, which political discussions often do. As a result, the real conversations of engagement—of listening, and particularly of listening to the other person as an other, as someone with a different perspective, a different point of view, a different story or history—rarely take place anymore.
And it is only through these kinds of conversations that people develop the capacity to think long-term, to consider something outside their own experience, to reconsider their own experience, and to develop a larger vision of their neighborhood, their state, or their society. Unfortunately people don’t develop the capacity to have deliberative conversations on their own. These are skills that must be cultivated and taught, and historically these skills were developed inside institutions.
Alexis de Tocqueville, an early observer of American political life, was the first to understand the important role of institutions in American politics. He was also the first to link them to the kind of culture requisite for the functioning and survival of democracy. The lessons he learned in New England are no less applicable to Texas.
In studying American politics, de Tocqueville developed a concern for what he called the Augustinian Soul in American life. Part of what he meant was our inclination to retreat and become self-absorbed and narcissistic. However, he also saw a natural antidote for this narcissism and self-absorption: the face-to-face contact and engagement and conflict and negotiation that went on in local politics.
De Tocqueville was impressed that while people took a strong interest in national political elections, the politics that really mattered were not those of the nation, but the politics of the state, the township, and the school board. What he saw in these local politics was the capacity to engage in direct deliberations around schools, around townships, and around all the issues important to the community. Through these various associations people with differences would come together to bargain, negotiate, and even engage in reciprocal activities such as raising barns and homes and building schools and roads. This face-to-face political engagement, according to de Tocqueville, was the antidote to our tendency for self-absorption.
The other part of the Augustinian Soul that concerned de Tocqueville was our capacity to overreach, to make larger claims on life than were appropriate. De Tocqueville thought that our enterprising culture, though valuable and important in terms of providing opportunity, had the potential for greed and thus to produce large amounts of inequality. This inequality, in turn, would create concentrations of wealth and power that undermine the political process. But again, de Tocqueville thought he saw the antidote. He believed America’s intermediate institutions curbed this inclination by connecting us and helping us understand the social nature of our existence and development, thereby enlarging our vision of self-interest and our vision of life. He believed these institutions would challenge us to think beyond that which is immediate and narrowly individual.
The deterioration of the institutions that cultivate these capacities and care for the Common Good has been well-documented, not just in Texas but around the nation. We are at a point in the life of our state—and our society—that we must look beyond candidates and elections to build alliances between people who are concerned about families, work, and schools.
Meaningful democratic engagement requires stronger relationships and institutions—in some cases entirely new networks of relationships and institutions. Saul Alinsky, founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation, reminded us more than 50 years ago that believing in democracy requires the belief that with the right information and the capacity to understand and engage in argument around that information, at least 51 percent of the people will make the right decision. While making the right information available is critical, as citizens we must commit to much more. Most important, it is incumbent upon us as citizens concerned about the future of Texas to recommit to revitalizing the civic culture that justifiably impressed de Tocqueville. It is our obligation as citizens to build the institutions through which we can develop the capacity to engage one another in the kind of relationships and debates that are requisite for the functioning of a democratic society.
Ernesto Cortes, Jr. is the Executive Director of the Southwest Region of the Industrial Areas Foundation. He has been awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant for his work in community organizing.