Democracy In America

Reclaiming Democracy In America

I think it safe to say that we as a people are in a rut. Most Americans don’t vote, and an even greater number have never heard of a town hall meeting or been down to city hall to do more than pay a parking fine. The news coverage we get from mainstream media is abysmal, and many people are too busy working 60-80 hours a week to put food on the table and a roof over their heads to worry about stops signs on main street, war in Iraq, or ponder civil action or civil disobedience.

America was not always like this. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans were politically engaged because they were civically engaged. In Athens, citizens went to the agora, Roman citizens discussed civitas at the baths. In Tocqueville’s America, ordinary people — and he marveled at the equality of conditions that existed even among different economic classes — discussed local and national politics at their workplaces, general stores, barber shops, granges, etc. Today we have safety razors and megastores, and there is no longer a need to go to town centers or know community leaders, much less have community leaders. In fact, we have allowed our cities and towns to sprawl such that the civic centers of America have been gutted and nearly destroyed in the last fifty years. Buying from a small local store is an inarguably different experience from buying from Wal-mart, and it is even a revolutionary political act. C.S. Lewis termed the spreading out of civic life and the requisite internalization of social life the Great Divorce. Instead of public squares and a sense of civic duty or even commonality, we think of the privacy of the marketplace. This is dead wrong. The marketplace has always been and should always be public. It is where we meet to exchange ideas and talk to one another about our children, God, politics, sports, and the weather.

We can’t turn back time one hundred years to small town America where each and every citizen is a stakeholder and an active participant in democracy, nor would we want to. The reason men went to the barber every day was because to shave at home carried the risk of diseases such as tetanus-lockjaw from a razor nick. Women and Native Americans couldn’t vote, sweatshops abounded, and Jim Crow was king. But we can recapture the sense of American optimism that began with our nation’s birth and led us into the Twentieth Century. Old fashioned values such as liberty, patriotism, and participatory democracy, and not in the way that George Bush means. We can exchange ideas as Americans and rebuild democracy as an action, not an abstract idea.

When Tocqueville spoke of patriots, he did not do so in terms of terrorists vs. loyalists or liberal equals traitor. The question was not whether the president should be assassinated or impeached. He wrote:

There is a patriotism which mainly springs from the disinterested, undefinable, and unpondered feeling a that ties a man’s heart to the place where he was born…There is also another sort of patriotism more rational than that; less generous, perhaps less ardent, but more creative and more lasting, it is engendered by enlightenment, grows by the aid of laws and the exercise of rights, and in the end becomes, in a sense, mingled with personal interest. A man understands the influence which his country’s well-being has on his own; he knows the law allows him to contribute to the production of this well-being, and he takes an interest in his country’s prosperity, first as a thing useful to him and then as something he has created…

Both kinds of patriotism are lacking in America at the moment, and Tocqueville says that want leaves people amid confusion and misery. Rational patriotism can be reclaimed and reinvigorated by reinvesting ourselves intellectually and emotionally in the civic process as a whole.

I live in San Francisco, and it’s easy for me to not shop at big box stores because we don’t have as many as most towns. I have to leave the city to go to Target, and I don’t know where the nearest Wal-Mart is. That also means I can’t look down on people who shop at the big box stores that are in their communities. Just as I wouldn’t drive twenty miles to go to a Wal-Mart, they probably wouldn’t drive twenty miles to come to my beloved neighborhood stores. Additionally, I’m single, so paying a few dollars more to a support a local business isn’t taking money away from my kids and family. While this seems like a digression, the personal is political, and we need to look at how larger issues, like monolithic corporations that pay low wages, crush unions, destroy local business, destroy the local tax base, etc., etc. effect ordinary Americans who don’t go to protests, don’t read The Nation, but are decent human beings who want to live in the world as best they can.

I have always been interested in politics, and have never understood why or how people could ignore the world around them. Then again, it’s shocking to many people I know that I’ve never seen American Idol or A Different World. I used to look down on people who were not politically involved, and I didn’t think it mattered that most people don’t vote since most people are so ill informed, but that misses the point.

Critical discourse, which Tocqueville identified as both essential and unique to Democracy In America, has been replaced by a punditocracy that skews heavily to the right. It is actually the lack of thought and information that goes into and comes out of the media that disturbs me much more than the conservative slant. As Benjamin Barber points out in Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age:

Without talk, there can be no democracy…The objective is not yet to exercise power or make policy: it is to create the conditions for the exercise of power — to instill civic competence.

The fact that political campaigns are mired in fundraising and personal attacks exacerbates everyone’s disgust and disinterest. Currently this site has things I’ve written or copied or linked to. Soon I should have other contributors and more features. Eventually I’d like to use Democracy In America to build a movement for renewed and better democracy in America.

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