Radical Centrism Papers: Remaking Citizenship I
“Ask not what your country can do for you… Ask what YOU can do for your country!” So John F Kennedy inspired us almost 60 years ago in his electrifying inaugural address. But since the idealism he unleashed with that statement, it seems we’ve been just been doing a lot of forgetting. Politicians, presidents, political parties, preachers and pundits have sort of been just letting us off the hook. Right?
The weakening of our democratic republic and debasement of our civic values seems to continue unabated. Not only has it led to the current meltdown at the White House, it has exposed our country to unprecedented interference in our elections by a foreign enemy expertly exploiting the faultlines in our politics and government. How did it come to this?
It would be a comforting cop-out to blame Trump, or the press, or the Republican Party, but frankly those factors are largely the result —not the cause — of a more important factor: the incremental weakening of active, informed citizenship in the U.S. We have blithely taken the stability of our democracy — and its ability to continue functioning for us in our absence — for granted. We have allowed it to become distorted and unrepresentative with shameful percentages of voter turnout — one of the lowest participation rates for the world’s supposed “greatest democracy.” In addition, the favorite stance (another cop-out) of our citizens is cynicism and distrust of politics, government, politicians and our current favorite epithet, “a rigged system.” This prejudiced — and almost universally accepted — defamation of our birthright as Americans has played its own part in the thoughtless tossing away of the rights and privileges of citizenship that made us a beacon of hope for people around the world.
So maybe it’s time to “un-skew” our perspective and see our democracy, however flawed, for the miracle it is. Maybe we should let go of the puerile notion that democracy must somehow be perfect or “we won’t play.” By nature democratic governments are messy and uncertain, venal and self-serving at times, because they do represent all of us… and all aspects (good and bad) of each of us! They can enshrine a hateful consensus, or provide a path to bring out best selves. Compromise in a democratic system is not always ‘selling out,’ as so many prefer to imagine, but finding a way to a politically stable consensus for policies that can last beyond the next election. Free speech enables idealists, cynical manipulators, politically interested parties alike to distort truth — or tell it. It is impossible for normal citizens to be perfect judges of truth in their immediate circumstances because they are constantly being “fed” their facts by unreliable sources. That is why the work of being a citizen in a democracy is never done, and utterly depends on other, equally engaged citizens seeking actionable truth, to help clarify and define our common reality.
So the first thing we can do for our country, now, is to enthusiastically, respectfully, and joyfully engage in the miracle of the democratic process!!!
There is some good news on that front. Discouraging as it has been to live through the current era, the obviousness of the threat has apparently triggered a renewed engagement in the job of being a citizen in the United States. Hordes of new voters in 2016 and 2018 are speaking about the interests of “the people” on all sides of the political spectrum! People are protesting! People are suing in the courts! People like me are blogging and engaging in the search for truth! People are running for office! People are learning to defeat big money by making their own small donations in staggering numbers! We’re not talking about the power elites, we’re talking about everyday people. Can we hope this moment of crisis and division will galvanize a truer and more honest/realistic love of our country and the beginning of a more representative democratic conversation in the U.S.? Might it spur a sense of participation in the “great experiment” of our founders that unites us in common enterprise of forming “a more perfect union,” rather than divides us by political category?
To encourage this nascent transformation, we should consider specific policies that make our obligations to our country and other citizens a much larger and more explicit part of our lives. Radical Centrism suggests four areas for your consideration — policy changes derived from all sides of the political spectrum.
- US History and Civics. As part of the Federal Government’s support of schools, perhaps it should sponsor three years or more of history (American and other), civics, debates, and government studies for middle- and high-schoolers. We need future citizens to be better prepared to assume their role and responsibility in our government. They need to know how our political system works and understand its access points from voting to publicly expressing an opinion, to helping someone get elected, to lobbying elected officials, to running an initiative, to becoming a candidate, to legislating. At the secondary level, such classes should deal in the messy realities not patriotic fantasies; original sources, not pre-digested myths; ongoing unresolved cultural and political debates, not combining every point of view into a single mealy-mouthed summary that actually says less than nothing about our country’s history or current moment.
- Citizenship at the Micro Level: As a professional neighborhood planner/ politician, I have so often been shocked — and stoked! — to see how quickly everyday people from different perspectives roll up their sleeves to identify critical problems, debate outcomes, and reach consensus. They — literally — are donating their time and have little of it for name-calling, political labels and empty rhetoric. Instead they solve problems. Seeing this dynamic play out, almost universally, at the micro level, is it too much to suggest that integration of national policy debates with face-to-face conversations, social gatherings, neighborhood and town meetings could break through our information silos and winner-take-all politics? We, the people, are the leadership if only we will seize it! We can have non-partisan discussions about key issues of the day — in a respectful and inclusive atmosphere — and recruit our media, social media, business and government to help facilitate.
- Melting Pot, not Polyglot. Drawn to a narrative that supports minority populations and seeks to preserve their identity in the larger culture, have empathetic thinkers stretched the diversity model too far to insure a coherent national culture? Based on the miracle of American immigration made possible by rapid integration by immigrants themselves into full “American” status, it’s at least a conversation we should have. The ‘melting pot’ model of the New Deal was part of a radical openness to new ideas and new influences on our country’s identity. It seems important to me in what has made our country a country of immigrants, and creating not only an outpouring of innovation, hard work, and entrepreneurialism, but also a common civic conversation and politics that differs markedly from the “polyglot” countries — which become stratified and “separatist.” Other unique aspects of the norming of our society worth mentioning are the age-cohort conformity at the youngest age as well as common-education-based or military shared experiences. These, too, create a sense of shared purpose and opportunity across races and cultures. The caveat to this policy is that social norming by language and education should not be taken to authorize the forced deprival of culture richness, extension of systemic racism, or suppression of religious beliefs.
- Service to Country Expected Universally: The most controversial suggestion I would add is a return to the concept of mandatory service; in this case universal service. So, starting in late adolescence/early adulthood, we advocate a universal draft for 2 years service to country. While the specific timing of an individual’s service might vary, it would be mandatory for every citizen. That service could come in the military. But it could also come in near volunteer work forces to repair infrastructure, enhance education, serve in the Peace Corps or Americorps, provide services to veterans, the elderly, the disabled, etc. and other fields. Because of the wide variety of options for service, no one would need to be excluded for health, conscience, even limited incapacity. Ideally, this shared, norming experience would excel at providing training, new opportunity, and a way to experience the wider world of places and ideas in a meritocratic system of reward and advancement. Or, as in every democracy, it might fall a bit, or substantially, short of that ideal…
Mandatory universal service is at the heart of this concept of citizenship, so I will expand in my next post on how such a program could be structured, and its advantages for re-building citizenship as well as our commitment to a robust middle class. I hope you will share your ideas below as well. So far, there has not been a swarm of adherents signing up to be members of the “Radical Centrism Party,” I invented a few months ago. So for now, I alone am dictating these platform suggestions — and am prepared to take the heat for it! Please… bring the heat!
By the way, I have taken to collecting news articles in special curated magazines on the Flipboard program. These are facts and opinions that interest me and which provide some of the statistical rationale (and narrative logic) for the concerns that interest me. It’s fun, and I hope you find it informative to supplement your reading.
Metadada ‘Pocalypse Review is a catch-all magazine and media repository for articles I am writing or have written or support/disagree with my trains of thought.
OK, It’s the Trump Show is my surrender to Trump, Trump Trump all the time. A collection of articles specifically about our current President.
Radical Centrism Review is my search to recover a dynamic center to our politics
Culture: Wars and Pieces is relating books, movies, music and art to the current state of our social and political structure.
Let me know what you think!