Being a citizen in America today feels a bit like being the student at the bottom of the class. We are continually reminded of how we are falling down on the job. Not enough of us vote. Not enough of us go to meetings, write letters, join clubs and other organizations. Too many of us don’t participate. Too many of us have forsaken the public for the private. The result of our neglect is that our social capital, our civic capacity, the sustaining fibers of our democracy, are fraying. We are letting the rest of the class, the rest of the school, down.

Stretching back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is an awareness of the connection between how we act in our everyday lives and America’s institutions and overall character as a democratic society and culture. Tocqueville’s specific observations about our national character–as joiners and belongers, for example–remain a reference point to this day. But his underlying interest was in exploring how America’s democratic ethos affected a wide spectrum of American life–from religion to the arts, from war to relations between the sexes.

The current rap about our defects as citizens reaffirms the existence of a connection between what citizens do in their everyday lives and the vigor of American democracy. But now causation seems to be running in the opposite direction: The focus is less on how our democracy affects us and more on how what we do affects it.

At the most basic level, even our most prominent political institutions–up to and including the Constitution, the Congress, the Presidency and the courts–could not continue without the buy-in of “We the People.” There’s an Emperor’s New Clothes dynamic here: Our political institutions retain their legitimacy only so long as we accord it to them.

Going a step farther, the viability of democratic institutions requires that citizens go beyond simply acknowledging the legitimacy of those institutions: It requires that they act as citizens. If citizens don’t vote, if they don’t learn and practice the skills of citizens, if they don’t tune in and participate as members of the public, then the formalities of a democracy don’t count for much. Citizens are what sustains a democracy.

Enter Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg’s recent book, Downsizing Democracy. At a superficial level, its message is just one voice in the chorus: Citizens have given way to consumers; the collective American public has devolved into an aggregation of private individuals. But listen more closely, and you’ll hear the authors singing a different song. Instead of pointing the finger at citizens, Downsizing Democracy makes the case for the quite different proposition that over time citizens have been demobilized, privatized and ultimately marginalized by fundamental changes in how our institutions of government operate.

Crenson and Ginsberg offer blunt criticisms of a range of actions and interactions that they view as problematic. They contend that the push for “service learning” as civic education reflects the idea that people should simply provide services themselves rather than work collectively to induce government to provide them as a public good. The authors delineate a connection between the mobilization of community service “volunteers” and the demobilization of citizens for political purposes. They lament the call for litigated justice in the form of reparations for slavery as “[disaggregating] a morally coherent demand into 20 million private claims, as though the historical crimes of a nation against a race could be redeemed by cash indemnities.” They condemn privatization of public services both for diminishing accountability and for substituting profit for the public interest as the primary goal.

But Crenson and Ginsberg reject the view that these changes result from deficiencies in the populace. They point instead to a shift in how government relates to its citizens–from taking responsibility for meeting the public’s expectations to “managing” the public so as to control its expectations in the first place. If this emphasis wasn’t clear before, it became so late this past summer when the Bush Administration openly mounted a public relations campaign aimed at selling to the American public the need for America to wage war against Iraq.

How did this shift come about? Crenson and Ginsberg document how in several key areas–administration, finances and military strength–our government has changed: It has shifted from needing the active support of citizens to being able to get what it needs without much citizen initiative or action at all. Unlike in earlier days of the Republic, government programs today are administered by civil service “experts”; citizen-employees selected through political patronage but with strong ties to their fellow citizens are passé. Taxes are automatically withheld rather than needing to be paid by affirmative taxpayer action. The military is well-paid, well-trained and all-volunteer; citizen-soldiers are no longer needed or, precluding war, wanted.

These and other reforms may have made government more efficient and more effective; they have also made it less democratic. Administration, money and armies were traditionally ways for citizens to gain power and concessions from government. Military service, for example, has historically been tied to more consideration for those who fight. As recently as the Vietnam era, a constitutional amendment extended the vote to 18-year-olds as a result of their being included in the military draft.

Downsizing Democracy also details how major innovations in process over the past century have reduced the need for political elites to mobilize citizens in order to achieve their own ends. The proliferation of administrative agencies has provided direct access to government for those with the wherewithal to act as bureaucratic stakeholders. The opening up of the courts to public-interest litigation has allowed those who can bring suit to enact policy judicially with fewer resources and less political support than would be required to enact policy legislatively. The massive transfer of governmental functions to private contractors has led to a “shadow government” in which private firms have privileged access to power.

Some of these innovations are associated with the political left, others with the right. But the overriding effect, according to Crenson and Ginsberg, is the virtual disfranchisement of those Americans who can’t afford postmaterialist politics. Moreover, both major parties focus on activating their tried-and-true bases rather than on grassroots mobilization of the tuned-out mass of citizens (who might not vote as desired anyway).

So, Downsizing Democracy‘s rap on today’s citizens isn’t that we’re bad dancers; it’s that nobody’s asking us to dance. Historically, either the government or political elites did the asking. But now it seems that they just want to dance with each other.

Downsizing Democracy‘s message is a welcome corrective to what has been a stampede in recent years toward blaming citizens. Witness Robert Putnam’s discussion of democracy in Bowling Alone, in which he cites the famous Pogo line, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” How we act is affected by how our government treats us, the processes for influencing decision-making that are available to us and the societal structures that provide us with more or less time, resources, incentive and opportunity to venture into the public sphere. And this does call for some soul-searching about whether government actions that seem justified–as legal, expedient, cheap, in our “national interest” or simply familiar and traditional–may all the same be antidemocratic and therefore unwise.

But I don’t think this lets citizens off the hook. Reading this book, I found myself wondering whether the portrayal of political elites and mobilized masses was really that accurate in a country with a substantial (though arguably besieged) middle class. Are we all either political elites with vast amounts of resources and access or demobilized masses with little of either? Aren’t most of us somewhere in the middle–with some resources and some access? Many middle-class citizens who can’t muster what it takes to participate in a specialized federal rule-making or to intervene in a complicated litigation can muster what it takes to make a difference in their church, their workplace or their child’s school.

So why don’t they? Why don’t we?

In my own community of Arlington, Virginia, where for several years I’ve been working on a local civic-organizing initiative to strengthen the civic dimension of the lives of the people who live and work here, I see several answers to this question. One is that a significant number of citizens–especially those toward the upper end of the socioeconomic scale–have learned to work the system to get what they need. As Crenson and Ginsberg observe, “The American upper middle class practices what we have called personal democracy with great effect.” This is true but less clear-cut than may first appear: When you’ve had to fight to get your own kids into honors classes, you may not be inclined to fight for other kids as well. Another answer is that many citizens have grown accustomed to being wallflowers; they have learned to be helpless. Yet another is that people are too busy with their “real lives”–earning a living, taking care of their kids, helping out their neighbors.

But I think the most powerful answer is that most of us don’t think of our civic role as being relevant to our “real lives,” and we don’t think of what we do in our “real lives” as being political. We think of the civic/political role as something separate–voting in an election, going to a meeting, volunteering at the local homeless shelter. And all too often, it’s an election in which other people have framed the issues and chosen the candidates. It’s a meeting called by other people to further their agenda. It’s volunteering organized by other people to provide services that they’ve decided should be provided. So it’s not all that surprising that citizens would think of enhancing this dimension of their lives as something extra, as an add-on, as burdensome “outreach.”

A different way to think of democracy is as a set of principles about how people should live and work together–principles that can help guide our everyday lives and transform our everyday institutions. In this view, democracy is about bringing our democratic ethos into our workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, faith communities and homes, and recognizing what we do there as political and important to the whole. When we do this, our civic role informs all of our other roles, and we monitor what we do by holding ourselves and each other to democratic standards–asking such questions as:

“Are we treating everyone with equal respect?”

“Who’s not here who should be?”

“Has everyone had a say in setting the agenda?”

“Does everyone have a fair role in the decision?”

“Is everyone taking responsibility for and contributing to moving forward?”

This way of thinking about democracy leads to what Peg Michels, co-founder of the Civic Organizing Foundation (the national group with which my local initiative is affiliated), calls “inreach.” Inreach is acknowledging a civic role in our daily lives and the institutions with which we interact. Inreach brings to our daily politics the awareness that every institution is part of a larger civic infrastructure needed to support democracy. Inreach is about beginning to ask the democracy-based questions on a recurring basis, finding others who share democratic values and ultimately working together to transform the institutions within which we live our lives. Inreach, in other words, is about organizing, and it can lead to civic schools, civic businesses, civic churches–even civic governments.

This everyday democracy is accessible to many, many more people than the formal democracy that we’re used to thinking about. It leads to people integrating their civic, political selves with the other parts of their lives. And it’s a kind of democracy that frees people to take the initiative, to say “let’s dance,” and to start dancing.

All well and good, but how exactly does this grassroots, bottom-up democracy fit with the structural, top-down democracy that Crenson and Ginsberg are discussing? There’s one hint in Downsizing Democracy. In describing two approaches followed by community action agencies given grants under the Johnson Administration, Crenson and Ginsberg note that one group of agencies took as their mission the organizing of poor people to increase their political power. Another group focused on service delivery aimed at individuals. The commitment to organizing and political mobilization in the first group led to “an extensive array of changes in local institutions that served the poor–from public schools to social service agencies. They were, for example, more likely to hire minority personnel, more likely to offer services beneficial to poor people.” The goal of providing services in the second group, however, was associated with “almost no evidence of institutional change.”

There’s a lot more public money spent today to provide services to people than to help those same people organize themselves to work to transform the institutions that they serve and that serve them into more responsive, more integrated and ultimately more democratic entities. There is a lot more money being spent on outreach than on inreach.

The formal democracy that Downsizing Democracy describes and the everyday democracy that Tocqueville chronicled and that civic organizing is about are bound to each other in a mutual relationship. Each affects the other; the relationship is complex and multilayered, and both are animated by a permeating democratic ethos–or weakened by its absence. Crenson and Ginsberg have taken an important step in identifying and describing that relationship, and their work calls us to pay attention to whether institutional processes today support or undermine everyday democracy.

It is also important that we recognize the specificity of their analysis, which focuses primarily on process-related institutional structures, and extend our critical eye further. Many seemingly non-process related government actions, for instance, are not normally examined through a democracy lens. To give but one concrete example, government actions and policies have helped to create an American housing market that is highly segregated by race and stratified by income. Through development and transportation subsidies, banking practices, local taxation and funding policies, and a marked deference to local jurisdictional boundaries, government has nudged people in the direction of setting themselves apart rather than mixing themselves in. Though not often discussed in these terms, such policies operate to narrow people’s everyday democratic experiences.

There are also antidemocratic government practices that are so deeply ingrained that we hardly think of them at all. One example is our practice of politically gerrymandering single-member, winner-take-all legislative districts–which arguably leave many voters casting pointless votes in elections that were effectively decided by districting, or having little chance of aggregating their votes with others of like mind to elect someone they feel to be their candidate of choice. Another is our constitutional structure itself, with the Electoral College and representation in the Senate being perhaps the most obvious antidemocratic features. As Robert Dahl observed recently in How Democratic Is the American Constitution?, “Public discussion that penetrates beyond the Constitution as a national icon is virtually nonexistent…. The Constitution as a whole is rarely tested against democratic standards.”

Another worthwhile avenue of investigation would be the relationship between two centuries of excluding some groups from political power and the character of our democratic experience today. Downsizing Democracy describes how one of the causes of the creation of interest groups during the Progressive Era was the political parties’ ignoring the issues of three marginalized groups–farmers, women and blacks. Similarly, the civil rights movement led the way toward judicial policy-making, because legislative avenues were not open to African-Americans. Antidemocratic innovations may be interwoven with inadequate political access for the full range of citizens. In this regard, as in others, we should view Crenson and Ginsberg’s work as exploratory rather than comprehensive.

A last reflection: My experiences as a citizen in my own community’s institutions have given me a much different understanding of issues of democracy than I would have gained from even the most comprehensive theoretical or sociological study alone. I offer the suggestion that a “reflective practitioner” approach may be particularly useful for grappling with the intellectual, theoretical and legal issues that arise in structuring–and practicing–our democracy.