If you operate from the moral premise that government is bad, or “is the problem,” then you will work to defund it, you delay and obstruct, you sign a pledge to “shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." This impulse is rooted in Reagan era rhetoric and portrays the government as a group of elites who “plan our lives for us better than we can plan our lives for ourselves,” much as a communist country might do.
The call to action is admirable: pay attention, take charge, and get involved. But portraying all government as lousy government is irresponsible and sets up an intractable position. The better way to look at this is not good government vs. bad government, but by assessing the effectiveness of government. Effectiveness is a conversation; good vs. bad kills diplomacy and takes us back to the drawing board of bridging divides. We should be discussing ways to create opportunities while improving wellbeing, not fighting over gerrymandered districts and the electoral college.
Thomas Paine, in Common Sense, defines government as a necessary evil: an evil that must be allowed for a greater good to result. Governments are the recognition of our human tendencies to be corrupted by power: the same recognition behind the separation of powers; and Democracy is the worst form of government, except all others.
Thomas Friedman, in his book, Thank You For Being Late, makes a case for “applied hope.” In a healthy conversation, there is good faith, an exchange of ideas, and compromise. The end of all wars is either diplomatic or autocratic; and since we strive to sustain a government of, by, and for the people, we will vote for diplomatic.
We have more common ground than we think, and we have a demonstrable track record of working together, across our divides, to move our way forward to a more perfect democracy. The easy problems get solved, the tough ones take work. If we are emotionally triggered, or morally intransigent, we can’t show up to do the job. Those that marginalize us - that build up and then push our triggers - demean us. Cast off the shysters, propagandists, and gossip mongers and show up to do the work of community building.
We, the voters, established the government and empowered our institutions to act on our behalf. Institutions are empowered authorized with decision-making authority; it is the Institution’s responsibility to adapt: they hold the locus of control. But institutions can’t do this alone. We are the government: we decide how the government works, so it’s up to us to articulate the requirements and protocols. This is the gap we need to address: the ever-evolving need to synchronize citizen needs and institutional performance.
When asked why the government doesn’t innovate, Michael Bloomberg argues that we have not given the government the authority:
"The public," Bloomberg says, "insists, and arguably has a right to insist, that it knows where its money's going. [They] have a very high expectation of results…. That is not the way innovation works. Innovation--the essence of innovation--is you don't know what you're going to build, what it's going to be called, how much it's going to cost. You cannot use public monies unless you can answer virtually every one of those questions, which is why government tends not to innovate. The public wants that accountability in advance, that justification in advance. But that's not going to work for certain things. What's Next for Michael Bloomberg.
Power in a democracy rests with the people. When we allow ourselves to be marginalized, to become emotionally compromised, we give up that power. Anyone (hucksters, con-men, autocrats) or any organization (propaganda machines, conspiracy theorists, gossip rags) that attempt to usurp our power is working against us. It is our responsibility to assert our authority, ignore the trolls, educate the uninformed, and work constructively to express the public will.
We live in an age of immediacy; we’re all working long and hard, so we default to trusting the system to work it out. In the 18th Century, only landed white males, enabled by social structures (patriarchy, slavery, etc.), had time and energy for the “higher pursuits” of education and civic service. The Leather Apron club, or Junto Benjamin Franklin’s progenitor of many service clubs, spawned lending libraries, fire departments, and the volunteer militia. In today’s world, where everyone is an earner, leisure time is at a premium and typically reserved for recreation and recovery. As a result, civic participation as a normal way of life is fading - replaced by organizational affiliations and donations to the cause. Service clubs and organizations are dying off, and attendance at religious services is declining. This is not from a growing spiritual bankruptcy but is a failure of leadership along with parishioner availability and priority. This broader experience, community connectedness, and rewards of service are outsourced while we attend to GDP.
Arthur Brooks, in The Conservative Heart, argues that there are four pillars to a happy life: faith, family, community, and meaningful work. Service is a localized, community activity, the spawning ground of ideas and solutions, and a key to lifelong happiness. We all need to make time to be active citizens, staying informed and refining our positions in the company of a trusted community.
All Politics is local. The architecture of change moves from individual to community, to local, state and then national. There are a few promising projects which local leaders should consider.
- The Participatory Budgeting project works with government organizations and citizens to decide together how to spend public money.
- Community Rights works with communities to pass locally enforceable laws protecting people and nature from destructive corporate practices.
- Warm Cookies of the Revolution, led by Evan Weissman, has been running the world’s first civic Health Club in Denver running delightful programs since 2012.
Doing the Work
Why is our public dialogue perceived to be rancorous and polarized? This perception is based on a limited range of experience. With only news media and insubstantial social media, we have no forum for more profound understanding to develop. We have a distinct lack of public venues and healthy conversations: a community participation gap. Remember that the anger we perceive is a secondary emotion: the primary emotions underlying anger are usually fear, pain, and shame. Community groups mitigate those feelings by providing forums to air and explore our ideas feelings before they deepen and take hold. There is only one way to get through these: spend the time and do the work.
There is a growing field of specialists in the broader field of Dialogue and Deliberation focusing broadly on the skills of facilitation and mediation. These specialists are working with government agencies and community groups to implement processes and structures to enable healthy, constructive dialogue. The National Coalition for Dialog and Deliberation (NCDD) is a membership network of over 700 individuals and organizations helping communities of all sorts have more productive conversations on what matters most.
The Public Square Academy, a member of the NCDD network, is developing to provide an alternative to declining service clubs and aggregate innovative community-building programs under one brand. We are interested in working with subject matter experts to build education programs and communities around the following topics:
- Economic and Opportunity Development
- Dialogue and Deliberation
- Citizen Oversight (Leadership and Analytics)
- Community Empowerment and Development
Being an effective citizen takes more than eternal vigilance; it takes a personal commitment to engagement and support. Given economic freedom of choice, we all want to live in a peaceful, beautiful place, with abundance and access to a vibrant community. We would all want time to raise our families, participate in school outings, support our parents, grandchildren, and grandparents, and to be civically engaged. Make time for community and become civically engaged.
This article is part three of a six-part series that surveys topic areas of civic and consumer education. We assess the needs and opportunities for adult civic and consumer education, then present a few ideas for individuals looking to enhance their knowledge. If you are interested in participating in a program with The Public Square Academy, you can view our courses here. If you are a subject matter expert in a relevant area and interested in designing a program, please contact us to discuss program development opportunities.