Book note: Harry Boyte’s “Citizen Solution,” democracy at its driest


Harry C. Boyte’s The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference is not light reading by any means. Better suited for a morning in the library than a lazy afternoon in the garden or on the couch, it is written intelligently enough: the problem is, it’s dry. As sand. Fortunately, Boyte makes a world of sense, so it is well worth slogging through this vast, cerebral landscape to get to the point he’s bringing home.

The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference, by Harry C. Boyte. Published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press (2008). $15.95.

Boyte has the right pedigree to advance the premise that social change can come from the proletariat instead of the political system. After all, if anyone’s qualified to sound off on the social and political reality in America, it’s a veteran of the trenches whose track record lists having worked for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a field secretary with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He’s written a number of books, including Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America (co-authored with Sara M. Evans) and Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life. Boyte’s writing has appeared in over 70 publications including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Christian Science Monitor; his political commentary has appeared on the CBS news and National Public Radio. He’ll just never be accused of bombarding readers with an excess of personality.

“King obviously knew about populism’s interracial history”, Boyte writes in The Citizen Solution. “He assigned me to organize poor whites. He also told me that he believed the next stage of the movement would need to address issues of economic injustice and poverty across racial lines. Soon after…I decided that my life work would be helping organize a democratic movement bringing together blacks and whites, people whose talents have been undervalued all their lives, in order to build a better society. I believe we are on the threshold of such a movement in Minnesota, in the nation, and in fact around the world.” One thing’s for certain, Boyte believes in taking on a big challenge. Further, he states, “The emerging civic moment changes the way we see citizens, professionals, government, and democracy itself. It teaches respect for the talents and intelligence of all men and women. It involves a renewed appreciation for place. All are necessary if we are to build civic agency, that is, the capacity to work with people of different political parties, faiths, races, incomes, ages, and cultures.”

Quite an undertaking—which, albeit in lecture-seminar style, Boyte the learned and accomplished authority maps out in extensive detail. Enjoy the book. With a cup of coffee.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.