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.