Trygve Thronveit, University of
College of Education and Human Development
Reclaim democracy by restoring citizens
to center of public life
A Civic Caucus
Review of Minnesota’s Public
Interview March 24, 2017
Steve Anderson, Janis Clay
(executive director), Paul Gilje, Randy Johnson, Ted Kolderie, Dan
Loritz, Paul Ostrow (chair), Dana Schroeder (associate director),
Trygve Throntveit, T. Williams. By phone: Dave Broden.
Through a very long process,
citizens--who were once central to the project and processes of
self-government in the United States--have been marginalized,
according to Trygve Throntveit of the University of Minnesota's
College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). He says citizens
are no longer co-constructors of public life. Instead, they've been
relegated to the role of consumers. And institutions of higher
education have been complicit in this shift from a civic to a
In response to this crisis in civic life,
Throntveit and three other faculty members from the U of M and
Augsburg College have organized the Minnesota Civic Studies
Initiative (MNCSI), housed in the CEHD. Over two years, MNCSI is
convening a diverse group of widely connected people to
conversations aimed at reclaiming democracy as the work of
Throntveit describes the young field of
Civic Studies and its focus on ethics, facts and strategies. He
notes that MNCSI and the Civic Caucus have overlapping concerns:
turning to the community sector for action and recognizing the need
for a cultural shift.
Throntveit discusses the differences
between organizing and mobilizing and says he's not sure how
technology can help develop relationships like those that would
happen if people were conversing around a table. He describes the
Minneapolis Residency Program, in which CEHD is a partner. The
program helps highly skilled educational assistants and
paraprofessionals in Minneapolis schools who want to become
elementary teachers keep their jobs while they undergo teacher
He urges academics to get out into the
community and participate as citizens. Over the next five years, he
says MNCSI hopes to see some sort of long-term institutional
commitment from the U of M to the project's open-ended, ongoing
Trygve Throntveit is
development officer for the University of Minnesota's College of
Education and Human Development (CEHD). He is also a Dean's Fellow
for Civic Studies and, as of 2017, editor of The Good Society: A
Journal of Civic Studies. He is one of the organizers of the
Minnesota Civic Studies Initiative, hosted by the CEHD. The
Initiative is a group of diverse people convening to work on
reclaiming democracy as the work of citizens.
Throntveit has published several articles
and book chapters on the history of U.S. politics, foreign policy,
and social thought and has authored two books: William James and
the Quest for an Ethical Republic (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and
Power without Victory: Woodrow Wilson and the American
Internationalist Experiment (University of Chicago Press,
available June 2017).
He received his bachelor's degree in
history and literature from Harvard College and his master's and
Ph.D. (2008) in history from Harvard University. He taught for
several years at Harvard and did a postdoctoral fellowship at
Dartmouth College's John Sloan Dickey Center for International
Understanding before moving back to the Twin Cities.
Throntveit grew up in Saint Paul and is a
1997 graduate of Saint Paul Central High School.
About the Minnesota Civic Studies
MNCSI, founded in late 2016, is funded by
a grant from Chicago's Spencer Foundation and is hosted by the
University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development
(CEHD). Organizers of the Initiative are Clayton R. Cook, Tania
Mitchell and Trygve Throntveit of CEHD and Harry C. Boyte of
Augsburg College. For the next two years, MNCSI will convene a
small, but widely connected, group of culturally, ideologically and
professionally diverse Minnesotans with the goal of reclaiming
democracy as the work of citizens.
MNCSI was conceived as a local and
practical response to a national moral and political
crisis. Americans of diverse political, social, and cultural
perspectives agree that our public life is dysfunctional and fear
that our major political institutions--from government bodies to
political parties to the media--are inadequate to the task of
improving it. MNCSI's organizers view these problems as consequences
of a decades-long development by which citizens, once central to the
project and processes of self-government in the United States, have
September 2015, the Civic Caucus has been undertaking a review of
the quality of Minnesota's past,
present and future public-policy process for anticipating, defining
and resolving major community problems. On Nov. 27, 2016, the Caucus
issued its report based on that review, Looking Back,
Thinking Ahead: Strengthening Minnesota's Public-Policy Process.The
Civic Caucus interviewed Minnesota Civic Studies Initiative (MNCSI)
co-organizer Trygve Throntveit to learn how MNCSI hopes to reclaim
democracy as the work of citizens and how its work might intersect
with that of the Civic Caucus.
The Minnesota Civic Studies Initiative (MNCSI), hosted by the
University of Minnesota, is convening a select group of
strategically positioned citizens for a two-year series of
conversations about civic renewal.
MNCSI co-organizer Tryg Throntveit from
the U of M's College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) said
that his and his colleagues' intention was to bring together a
culturally, ideologically and professionally diverse group of around
15 to 20 widely connected people to build personal and working
relationships. The aim of the conversations is to explore and model
ways to restore citizens to the center of public life through
discrete public projects they select and pursue together.
The focus of the conversations, he said,
is what role they and other citizens, as well as the U of M and
other institutions, can play in reclaiming democracy as the work of
citizens. Throntveit interviewed all of the people in the group to
see if they were capable of having civil conversations and would
welcome different opinions. Members of the group have, at various
of the Minnesota Department of Health, who is
very active in issues facing the Minnesota Somali community;
vice chancellor for academic and student
affairs, Minnesota State (formerly MnSCU);
, former chair of the Metropolitan Council and
former member of the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents;
, Ramsey County commissioner;
, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in North
, city attorney for Saint Paul;
, CEO, Metropolitan Economic Development
, program officer, Thrivent Financial
Mary Anne Kowalski and Kris Kowalski-Christiansen
and CEO of Kowalski Markets;
, former director of the Pohlad Foundation;
, pastor of St. Peter Claver Parish in
Saint Paul and Incarnation Parish in Minneapolis;
, director of civic and political
engagement, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change;
, executive director, PFund Foundation;
, founder of the Center of the American
, director of Waite House, part of
Pillsbury United Communities;
, former mayor of Saint Paul;
, consultant and former executive director,
Minnesota Business Partnership;
, former executive director of Jewish
MNCSI's co-organizers felt public life was
facing a crisis, even before the 2016 election. "There was
dysfunction in our political culture and our institutions seemed
inadequate to address it," Throntveit said. "We view the problems as
consequences of a very long process by which citizens, who were once
central to the processes of self-government in the United States,
have been marginalized. They're not co-constructors of public life.
They're relegated to the role of consumers."
"Institutions of higher education have
been complicit in this shift from a civic to a consumer politics,"
he continued. "Most have embraced the role of factories producing
ideal workers or of launch pads for students' personal economic
advancement and abandoned the task of equipping students and
cooperating with the broader public to sustain conditions of genuine
Civic Studies is a young, robust,
nationwide field of research and practice. "It provides a
vocabulary to free our deliberations and our imaginations from the
stale conceptions that are perpetuated by prevalent political
speech," Throntveit said.
Civic Studies is focused on three related
Ethics: What is right and
Facts: What is actually
Strategies: What would
work or be worth experimenting with?
"Civic Studies seeks to engage not just
scholars from multiple disciplines, but any thoughtful citizens
committed to catalyzing civic renewal," he said. It's
interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary, or beyond academic
"The process we envision for our
deliberations is sort of a freestyle or off-road
Minnesota Process," he said, referring to
the public-policy process recommended in the Civic Caucus report.
"The forms and habits are similar, but the course and
finish line are mysterious."
Within this broad civic studies framework,
Throntveit said, MNCSI organizers hope participants in the
conversation will strive to achieve three major goals: 1) new
relationships revealing unlikely allies in causes to which the
participants are already devoting time and resources, or wish to be;
2) concrete strategies for catalyzing civic renewal among
Minnesota's education, business, public service, faith and other
communities; and 3) specific recommendations for how an
institution such as the University of Minnesota can become an
ongoing catalyst for the kind of civic politics the participants
will be practicing.
"It's a field, but really it's an
aspiration to engage in sustained, interdisciplinary and
trans-disciplinary inquiry into what is a good society," Throntveit
said. "Civic Studies is trying to theorize and describe the basic
habits of discourse, of thinking and of ways of interacting that
will empower communities to be collaborative co-creators of their
life together. Participants accept their conflicts of interest and
values, but recognize that they must do some sort of work together."
MNCSI and the Civic Caucus have
overlapping concerns. Throntveit said the most obvious overlap
is the turn to the community sector for action, as discussed in the
Civic Caucus's November 2016 report,
He said from MNCSI's perspective, there
are two main reasons--one negative, one positive--to turn to the
The negative reason to turn to
citizens is that formal political institutions, at least at the
state and national levels, are in gridlock.
The positive reason is what MNCSI
considers the purpose and promise of self-government. Like the Civic
Caucus report, MNCSI's organizers emphasize that creative policy and
creative solutions to common problems emerge from an organic, plural
and serendipitous process of hard work, discussion, mutual
interrogation and tolerant deliberation. Those don't emerge from
trying to apply pre-existing, ideological formulas or negotiating
trade-offs among them.
Throntveit said another overlapping
concern for MNCSI and the Civic Caucus is the need for a cultural
shift. Part of the work of making that shift will include diagnosing
and understanding the previous, unwelcome cultural shift to a
consumer politics. "Part of it will include new techniques of
engagement to close the gap between citizens and their government
and between citizens and other citizens," he said. "The work of the
Civic Caucus is one effort at coming up with a new way or a revised
way or a rehabilitated way of doing that."
He said it will take a concerted effort by
individuals, communities and institutions to get people in rooms and
in relationships and let a new culture emerge.
MNCSI and the Civic Caucus might differ
slightly in emphasis. Throntveit said MNSCI is cautious about
foundations or universities assigning specific tasks to citizens.
"Ideally," he said, "foundations and universities would both
identify and address specific policy issues--do public policy as
traditionally understood--and facilitate the more open-ended,
rigorous, yet also serendipitous, activity of citizens getting
together to discuss, define and redefine the problems and concerns
they brought to the encounter initially."
The balance has often been skewed toward
institutions assigning tasks to citizens, he said. MNCSI was
conceived as a means of fostering the activity of citizens getting
together to do that work themselves.
"We don't need to have a false dichotomy
between public policy in more formal settings--rigorous, empirical
analysis of various public problems and the careful proposal of
solutions--and another form of public analysis, which is more
citizen-focused and serendipitous," Throntveit said.
MNCSI is taking an "organizing" approach
to counteract recent populist, "mobilizing" responses to the
frustration that is widespread among Americans. Throntveit made
that remark in response to an interviewer's comment that we can't
reach out to get more people to participate in public life without
confronting the growth of an often angry, divisive populism in
recent years. "Organizing begins with creating relationships among
people, rather than mobilizing like-minded groups against other
groups," Throntveit said.
There is room in our politics for
mobilizing, he said, but our political culture is too heavily
weighted toward mobilizing against others, rather than
organizing with others. Organizing groups are often
underfunded, swamped with work, and promoting complex messages and,
thus, don't get the publicity that the mobilizing approach gets.
What's the role of technology in the
process of developing relationships as we would if we were engaging
with people around a table? An interviewer asked that question,
pointing especially to the tendency of younger citizens to rely
heavily on technology. Throntveit said he hasn't figured out yet the
role of technology in this process. He tends to think we need to
find ways to utilize it without being irrationally devoted to it.
Young people do communicate remotely, but they also desire to be
involved in face-to-face activities, he said.
He said the overrepresentation of young
people in mobilizing actions, as opposed to voting, shows they want
to get together to do something. He suggests that organizers use
technology for recruitment and for letting people know where things
are going on, but not simulcast these events or otherwise obviate
the need to be there in person. Unless technology evolves to where
people can engage remotely in the full sense--so they can read each
other's body language and so, if someone says something thoughtless,
she or he can't turn off the screen and escape--we need to be
careful about relying on it. So far, social media has proven a
better mobilizing than organizing tool.
Is there a role for an institutional
citizen? An interviewer asked that question and Throntveit said
there must be a role for institutional citizens. Indeed, MNCSI was
founded because its organizers felt that institutions of higher
education have largely abdicated their civic function. Instead, they
market themselves as producing the workers employers need.
The interviewer commented that at times in
the past, corporations have defined their corporate social
responsibilities in conversation with the local communities that
were critical to their business. Perhaps due to the multinational or
global character of most big business today, corporate institutions
are now defining their responsibilities without input from citizens.
Will MNCSI have an impact on teacher
training? An interviewer asked that question and Throntveit
responded that CEHD itself is working hard with schools, community
partners and families to better prepare teachers for the types of
situations they'll confront. The college is also working to create
broader and more resilient support networks for new teachers. That
work long predates MNCSI, although it was one reason that the
organizers felt CEHD was a good home for the initiative.
That said, teacher training might well be
an issue that MNCSI's participants choose to address. Throntveit
said the National Association of Scholars, which he described as a
conservative group, issued a report in 2016 in which it said
colleges of education shouldn't be involved in what the group sees
as "radical, progressive politics." The association defined radical,
progressive politics as a set of activities that included
service-learning programs, crafting of culturally sensitive
curricula, and advocacy of improved and better-funded human services
both within and outside of school buildings.
"But," he said, "there's no other way to
prepare teachers to address any of the problems besetting our
schools and our communities than to make them aware of just how many
services and needs schools are asked to provide and meet--and just
how few resources they receive in proportion to the challenge."
The Minneapolis Residency Program is one
example of CEHD trying to be creative in working with school
districts and the community. Under the program, Throntveit said,
Minneapolis schools are asked to identify educational assistants and
paraprofessionals who are highly skilled and want to be elementary
school teachers, but who can't afford to quit their jobs and get a
CEHD, partnering with the Minneapolis
Public Schools and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, created a
structure where the people who are identified by schools keep their
jobs and get teacher training at the same time. The
teachers-in-training, who must have a bachelor's degree before
starting the program, commit to coming back to the Minneapolis
school district to teach.
In 2017-2018, the program will include a
yearlong co-teaching experience in-between intensive summers of
University of Minnesota coursework. Program candidates will each
earn a stipend, will be eligible for benefits during the residency
and will pay a reduced U of M fee for the licensure program.
What are the mechanisms and processes by
which the more involved citizens MNSCI envisions might influence
people in office? An interviewer asked that question after
commenting that he sees two ways in which citizens can become
effective with respect to government:
Run for office; or
Try to influence people who are
already in office by (a) trying to set an agenda and priorities for
them and maybe working out specific proposals; and (b) coming into
the decision-making process and trying to influence it, which
includes lobbying and special interests.
Throntveit responded that we need people
to run for office and to influence people in office, especially if
they commit sustained resources and time to set an agenda for a
policymaker. "In an ideal world, there might even be a role for
lobbying," he said.
But, he said, there's a third way: to have
citizens participate in broad, informed and sustained discussion of
their public life, which, in turn, should inform and broaden the
perspectives of elected officeholders. "We need to have citizens see
their role as informing policymakers, rather than demanding that
what is in their personal interest be embodied in policy and served
by every decision," Throntveit said. "Of course, we also need
officeholders who will pay attention to such discussions and media
that will cover them."
In the past, a number of U of M faculty
members brought themselves into the community as citizens who
happened to be part of the University. An interviewer made that
comment and gave the examples of Esther Wattenberg, Jan Hively,
Frank Boddy, John Adams, Charlie Backstrom, John Brandl and others.
He asked whether there should be pressure for current faculty
members to do the same. "It was enormously helpful to the
community," the interviewer said.
In response, Throntveit said that part of
the problem is a lack of thought leadership coming out of American
universities on public problems. To be fair, that reflects many
decades of academic experts being ignored by policymakers, business
interests and citizens who close their ears to information
suggesting a need for difficult decisions or sacrifices.
Nevertheless, Throntveit agreed that communities needed more from
the academy. "Universities have accepted their role as factories of
ideal workers, rather than nurturers of democratic citizens," he
said. "A balance between what I see as a university's ideal economic
and social roles can't be achieved unless academics get out into the
community and participate as citizens."
Throntveit recommended the website
which tries to digest and communicate publicly relevant academic
expertise and foster connections between experts and policymakers.
Why is MNCSI housed in the CEHD rather
than in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the U of M? An
interviewer asked that question and Throntveit said the reason is
that it grew out of the work of CEHD faculty members who were
interested in getting out of the University and engaging with
citizens. "We got Dean Jean Quam, who has long worked to cultivate
an ethos both civic and entrepreneurial in CEHD, to agree that we
could spend some of our time that way," he said.
He noted that he and others applied for
research funding for the project from the University, but were
denied. "It was stiff competition from very talented people across
the University," he admitted. "Still, I think another disadvantage
was that we're not doing something that falls under the traditional
definition of research. Our goal is to treat the work of analyzing,
redefining and taking control of public life by citizens as a form
of research, married to practice."
He said if the MNCSI organizers had wanted
to make their group more University-faculty weighted, they would
have asked for Humphrey School, Law School, Public Health and other
faculty to be involved. But the group wanted to be mostly non-U of M
faculty; they wanted to avoid appearing like a group of experts
looking for high-profile endorsements of their latest theory.
What is the vision for what MNCSI will
look like in five years? An interviewer asked that question and
Throntveit responded that the answer largely depended on the
conversation group's concerns, passions and ability to identify
common projects. A personal interest of his is the thorny problem of
how to narrow the achievement gap in the Twin Cities. But he sees
his role, and that of his colleagues, as gleaning from the group
some guidance as to what an institution of higher education like the
University of Minnesota could and should be doing to catalyze civic
renewal on an ongoing basis.
"I wouldn't say the U of M is heavily on
the side of Civic Studies now," he said, in response to a question
about how MNCSI had gotten the U of M "on board" with the program.
"It's mostly unknown beyond CEHD," Throntveit said. "But that is one
of our goals for five years from now. We hope to see some sort of
long-term institutional commitment to our open-ended, ongoing work."
The Civic Caucus should be both bold and
humble in suggesting ways for foundations to do what its report is
asking them to do. Throntveit gave that response to a question
about how the Civic Caucus should approach the foundation community.
In its report, the Civic Caucus looked to that community both to
prioritize a list of issues Minnesota must address and to call for
proposals from organizations who would approach those problems using
the Minnesota Process outlined in the report.
He said the Civic Caucus should seek
audiences with foundation executives to argue that they should fund
a few groups interested in this type of more open-ended work. "Too
many foundations place too much emphasis on outputs," he said. "If
you can't quantify it, they won't fund it. These are things that
can't always be quantified. That is not to say that foundations are
doing the 'wrong' things, but merely to acknowledge that they could
do more and different things. If the Civic Caucus could communicate
that message without either disparaging the work that foundations
are doing or prescribing such work in a dogmatic way, it would do a
huge service to the community."
There doesn't seem to be a lot of interest
in civic engagement from the collective corporate community. An
interviewer made that comment and added that it would be in
corporations' enlightened self-interest to support programs like
that of MNCSI and the Civic Caucus. "To pursue the Civic Caucus
agenda on civic engagement, we need broad participation from every
segment of the community, especially from high-profile segments,"
the interviewer said. "Corporations are in a position to elevate the
profile of this and to get serious discussion from across the
community." Throntveit agreed.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay (executive director), Pat Davies, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje, Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz, Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,