America Must Face Its Civic Crisis

9 minute read
Throntveit is a historian and civic theorist based in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, where he serves as Director of Strategic Partnership for the Minnesota Humanities Center and Founding Director of the Institute for Public Life and Work. Boyte is a democracy theorist, was founder and director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, and is Senior Scholar at the Institute for Public Life and Work. As a young man he was a field secretary for Martin Luther King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Our nation is in civic crisis. On one hand, Americans report historically low levels of trust in institutions and offices of government. On the other, they exaggerate the power of such institutions and offices, demanding that the U.S. president end the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, for instance, or work harder to stop inflation. As the 2024 election approaches, some lament the travesty of a democracy reduced to a choice between bad and worse; others view the prospect of their chosen candidates’ losing as they might the prospect of a foreign invasion or zombie apocalypse.

Americans are losing hope: specifically, that distinctive, civic hope that their own choices and actions can meaningfully and positively shape their communities’ futures. In the face of such hopelessness, we recall the words attributed to the late Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter: “In a democracy, the highest office is the office of citizen.”

The outcomes of the 2024 elections are hardly irrelevant to such fears; they have rarely mattered more. But whatever returns in November, the return of civic hope—and with it, the future of our democracy—depends on the return of the citizen: the conceptual and practical restoration of everyday Americans to the center of self-government.

Why is such a restoration important, and what would it look like?

The last 40 years of American politics illustrates the problem. Thanks to intellectuals and politicians of many stripes, the concept of democracy has shrunk in popular discourse to a form of consumption. Vote the right way—choose the right menu—and you can finally focus on you! So long as you do your part to grow the overall economy, we’ll all have resources to live our lives as we want to live them—to tend to our own backyards, so to speak. As for the government? It’s one big vending machine. Its key performance measure is customer satisfaction. Insert preference, receive outcome. Not satisfied? We welcome your input! (But please don’t shake, topple, or burn the machine in the process.)

For decades, Americans bought into this consumer view of citizenship. Beginning around the 1980s, the time and energy Americans invested in neighborhood organizations, communal gatherings, civic institutions, and community recreation began to decline drastically; in political scientist Robert Putnam’s figure, Alexis de Tocqueville’s nation of problem solvers and joiners had taken to “bowling alone”.

Meanwhile, cultural commitments of rewarding hard work and cultivating concern for the common good were twisted into an ethos of “meritocracy,” prizing individual achievement and distinction at the expense of collective problem solving and group success. Spearheading this trend was higher education, which rebranded itself as a corporate jobs pipeline rather than a civic and moral growth experience—a private instead of a public good. Our colleges and universities now justify every academic or other student program as a step on the path to personal success.

Finally, Americans’ vocational lives have lost the relational and reciprocal valences that energized culture-changing movements like the American Revolution and the Civil Rights struggle, for instance, and have shrunk, like democracy itself, into mere service delivery What percentage of shop owners, barkeeps, librarians, salon workers, or members of congress feel they have the capacity or even the right to create public space for their neighbors to speak frankly, listen generously, and work patiently across deep differences, in pursuit of shared goals?

Read More: How We Can Repair Our Democracy and Build a More Perfect Union

In short, the promise of political consumerism has proven false. Sub-contracting the collaborative and messy work of democracy to a small class of officers and officeholders encourages political laziness and selfishness, eroding citizens’ capacity to understand or accept any outcomes but those they seek to pay for with their votes. There is no opportunity to build trust across differences. Everyone feels screwed or fears getting screwed. And as politicians pander to the most demanding of their citizen-clients, those feelings and fears are reinforced by toxic political language, further eroding the people’s capacity to trust, respect, and solve problems with one another.

Growing polarization fuels the rise of a political class with more incentive to destroy opponents than to build common goods. Politics is no longer a space for civic inquiry, argument, and creativity, but a place where civic hope goes to die.

But it’s not dead yet. In the spirit of our history’s best political traditions, everyday Americans are demonstrating how a little civic hope can ignite a chain reaction of efforts to restore civic power—the kind of power that humanizes rather than corrupts, because it grows when shared.

One example is a growing backlash against polarization and renewed commitment to civic agency: the notion that only a citizenry equipped and habituated to living, learning, and working across differences towards more equitable goals can prevent tyranny and meaningfully govern themselves.

Braver Angels, for instance, emerged in the wake of the 2016 election to combat the toxic polarization that was tearing apart families and communities and has since spurred political intimidation and violence. Clearly, the need was real, and the approach appealing: Through BA, tens of thousands of Americans have participated in workshops that teach them how to maintain their principles while loving their differently-principled neighbors and seeking common ground for collaborative work to improve their communities.

Of course, cynics will read “workshop” as “talking-shop,” and remind us that talk is cheap. Well, what about the ways we earn our livings? Amid an ultra-polarizing 2018 election cycle, the Harvard Business Review found that 9 of 10 Americans surveyed were willing to earn less money to do work with a “collective, shared purpose” transcending individual gain. That same year, research reported in the Stanford Social Innovation Review found that millennials were especially eager to build the civic capacity of communities through their work. Half a decade later, experts see those values continuing to shape employment trends:  Indeed, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that, in the decade between 2022 and 2032, employment growth in “community and social service occupations” will outpace growth in all but three of the other 21 major occupational groups it tracks.

To be sure, certain classically “civic” professions, such as teaching, struggle to attract the numbers our communities need. But there is more to the story. Across the country, in a time when schools are often seen as centers of polarization over curriculum, communities and their school districts are revising curricula to give students a complex but practical civic education, fit for the work of critically constructive patriotism: work rooted in care for one’s fellow citizens and commitment to a better shared future rather than hatred of enemies or reverence for a mythological past.

Nor should we buy the hype that our colleges have all become sinkholes of political groupthink. With encouragement and assistance from organizations such as the Lumina Foundation and Teagle Foundation, a growing number of higher-education institutions are embracing a duty to help students mine the best moral and intellectual resources of our nation’s past in order to address the largest social and political challenges of the present. In the best of these initiatives, students learn the civically liberating as well as humbling lesson that there has never been a single narrative of the American past, present, or future, nor a consensus on the roles that diverse actors can, should, or must play in the American story. More, they learn that for many involved in our most storied culture-changing movements—from Independence to the Black freedom struggle—“citizenship” was not a fixed or exclusive status but a dynamic aspiration propelling millions to the work of building a more perfect union. In short, they learn that the work of defining and realizing democracy is their own.

But not solely their own. Like any complex society, we require a government that empowers certain citizens to act on our behalf. Recently, influential voices within as well as outside of government have demanded that we stop treating citizen and official as mutually exclusive roles. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns of 2020, for example, more than 100 contributors from the government and independent sectors published the Thriving Together Springboard, a plan for recovery from COVID and future challenges. The effort resonated with thousands of health and civic innovators across the country as well as scores of agencies across the federal government. By late 2022, nearly 50 federal agencies had crafted a landmark plan for Equitable Long-Term Recovery and Resilience (ELTRR).

Both the Springboard and ELTRR promote a pluralistic vision of “all people and places thriving together”; both view the capacity to expand “belonging” and build “civic muscle” as a vital condition of community health and well-being and a source of resilience when people face adversity and division. Finally, both emphasize that the knowledge, wisdom, creativity, and effort of community members are not just morally but practically necessary ingredients in any effective policy.

As the Springboard and ELTRR demonstrate, the “return of the citizen” need not mean the rejection of government. Democracy needs a government responsive to citizens and citizens engaged with government. But government and self-government are not synonymous. We need to study, support, elevate, and disseminate all the ways that citizens are hopefully and skillfully taking on the daily challenges of living in our democracy, and making the most of its opportunities.

Some will argue that Frankfurter’s office of citizen has never been filled or effective. If so, all the more reason for its rightful occupants to claim it. It is the nature of democracy to be ever in process. “Democracy,” as William James wrote in 1897, reflecting on the US Civil War amid the upheavals of the Gilded Age, “is still upon its trial. The civic genius of the people is its only bulwark.” Or as Walt Whitman put it a generation earlier, “We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawakened. It is a great word, whose history remains unwritten.”

It is we, the people, who must write it.

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