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On politics and informed citizens

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Paul C. PribbenowThe creation of the Sabo Center for Citizenship and Learning a few years ago allowed us a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the life and work of our distinguished alumnus, Martin Olav Sabo ’59, whose life-long commitment to public service is an inspiration to all of us. As we live out our mission and vision here at Augsburg, we, of course, are deeply engaged in helping our students to understand the electoral political process, which Congressman Sabo so ably served. In addition, our students are closely involved in local political and advocacy efforts, in public service internships, in get-out-the-vote campaigns, and in helping our many new U.S. neighbors to participate in U.S. electoral politics.

At the same time, we also are deeply committed to the ideas and practices of a broader public claim—a claim that calls on all citizens to “get political”— to follow the call of our Augsburg colleague, Harry Boyte, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, who suggests that “Despite its bad reputation, politics is the way people in any setting deal with differences to get something done. Politics means creating alliances, negotiating, engaging people around self interests, using levers of change in a strategic way. Politics is how diverse groups of people build a future together … Politics is from the Greek root, politikos, ‘of the citizen.'” As Boyte reminds us, “For over two thousand years politics meant not parties or vertical relations with the state but rather horizontal engagement among citizens.” In other words, politics and getting political is the authentic and important work of citizenship, claimed by all of us as our birthright and moral obligation.

One of my heroines in U.S. history is the great social reformer, Jane Addams, who lived and worked at Hull-House in Chicago for almost 50 years, helping her immigrant neighbors to practice citizenship—not because of a political system but because democracy is a social ethic, a way of living together in community, neighborhood, country, some of us think even, the world. She described democracy as a “mixed and thronged road” on which we all are travelers together, navigating our lives together. Surely, Miss Addams illustrated in her own life and work the ways in which mature citizenship—genuine politics—is meeting the needs of our neighbors, building stronger and healthier neighborhoods, finding common purpose and then the will to make it real, and learning to be what political philosopher and ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain has called “chastened patriots,” those who love a cause or community or country but love it in ways that make it stronger, more responsible, and more faithful to common purpose. This is politics as common, public work.

The great Illinois senator, Adlai Stevenson, who ran for president against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, was once said to have responded at a whistle stop to a supporter who shouted out, “All thoughtful Americans are with you, Adlai,” with this great line, “That won’t be enough.” For those of us committed to the public and civic roles of higher education, we know that one of our great challenges is to educate more informed and thoughtful citizens—work that is a central claim of Augsburg’s mission—and to challenge our students to help others become the same as they reclaim a sense that politics is not simply about who is in power and who is not, not simply about ideology and partisanship, not simply about winners and losers, but instead that politics is the work we all are called to do to ensure that our common purposes will be realized.

Please enjoy the many stories in this issue of Augsburg Now that illustrate Augsburg’s commitment to educating informed citizens—a commitment that has implications for our work on campus, in our neighborhood, and around the world.

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