Tuesday, December 12, 2006

 

Bringing the public back into politics

The chief problem, from the third perspective in the issue book on restoring American democracy, is neither the erosion of the nation’s moral foundation, nor its neglect of civic habits and skills. It is, rather, a serious flaw in a nation dedicated to government by the people. At a time when the country seems to be run by an oligarchy of insiders, there is a growing sense that politics is something they do—not something that involves us, and not something we the people can control.

Consequently, most Americans no longer see a role in politics for themselves. We are political consumers, not active citizens. Growing distrust of politics and politicians, and a widespread sense that the country is going in the wrong direction are symptoms of what has gone wrong. In a nation where the people are supposed to be sovereign, citizens have lost control of the government. As John W. Gardner remarks, “a prime ingredient in the citizen’s negative mood is a sense of disconnection. ‘We the people’ feel a long way from the centers of decision. It doesn’t seem like our venture any more.”

As this approach sees it, Americans did not retreat from civic life. They were shut out by elected officials more interested in poll numbers and lobbyists’ positions than in the genuine, complex thinking of citizens. There are few remaining occasions for most Americans to do what only citizens can do, which is to make judgments about what direction we should be headed and help set priorities for public action. As advocates of this perspective see it, until we fix the political system so citizens once again have a central place in it, none of the other efforts to bring the public back into the public square is likely to make a difference.

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