Peter Levine asks this question in tracing the evaporation of the active citizenship theme from the campaign to the White House.

Service and transparency are not nearly “edgy” enough; there is no fight in them. People are angry – from the Tea Partiers to MoveOn. When citizens try to solve serious social problems, they identify enemies. They do not just hold hands and serve together; they strike back at those whom they perceive as threats. “Active citizenship” reduced to non-controversial “service” or downloading government data completely loses touch with the legitimate anger of the American people.

The White House chose to make health care its major focus and included no aspects of civic engagement in the deliberations about the bill, in its advocacy for the legislation, or in the design of the statute. There could have been real public discussions, instead of sham “Town Meetings” that were really speeches by politicians with time for Q&A. Progressive volunteers could have been encouraged to conduct face-to-face dialogues in their communities and to form relationships with one another (instead of merely finding themselves on the receiving end of an email list). The legislation could have included health co-ops as an experiment in engaging citizens in policy.

As Levine notes to close out his piece, the climate legislation, currently “stuck in the Senate,” makes for a good starter kit for this new, authentic political dialogue, in which the grassroots is mobilized and the American people are asked to participate. It’s audacious in that it could shift the debate away from special interests (or at least make their involvement more transparent), and it could restore more faith in our government. An addendum might be asking C-SPAN to cover these dialogues across America and any administrative meetings in Washington. Obama has already admitted he messed up by not involving C-SPAN in health care discussions.

UPDATE: Harry Boyte, in “The Necessity of Politics” (Journal of Public Affairs 7 [2004]: 75-85), also addresses this notion that service is hardly the be-all, end-all of engaged citizenship.  Boyte concludes that service is not enough and that a healthy American politics relies on exchanges that focus on the self just as much as the “other-directedness” of service.

Community service sometimes provides a starting point for political involvement.  Yet service is inextricably tied to other-directedness.  The service giver, in focusing on the needs of those being served, adopts a stance of selflessness and denies her own interests.  But interests are the elemental particles of politics.

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