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David D. Chrislip

In the early years of the 21st century political leadership in the United States is in danger of becoming an oxymoron. Neither the bravado of the charismatic hero nor the bombast of the partisan political leader can carry the day. Both are out of tune with the times. Whether deemed "successful" or not, current leadership practices do not match the challenges of a democratic society. When elected leaders win the zero-sum political game, the consequences are devastating. When no one wins, there is gridlock or stalemate. Rather than leading, political leaders too often divide citizens, erode civil society, and undermine trust in the democratic ideal.

Despite the "battleground" nature of much of American politics, in some places, citizens and local governments negotiate their way through competing interests and obligations in ways that offer hope. They create public processes that complement and work in parallel with the formal institutions of governance to cut across the divisiveness of interest group politics. These efforts complement and work in parallel with the formal institutions of governance. They actively inform and invite public officials to participate if they so desire. They do not oppose them. Sometimes they are partly sponsored or initiated by public officials. More often citizens with diverse perspectives and interests start them when they want to achieve more constructive and long lasting solutions to public concerns. These initiatives are pragmatic, heuristic responses to real problems in communities energized by frustration with existing divisiveness not by communitarian optimism.

Three places, Sitka, Alaska, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Missoula, Montana have used collaborative approaches to help find the common ground that supports future growth and development without destroying quality of life and civility.

  • The New Civic Leadership (pdf)