In his autobiography, famed “founding father” Benjamin Franklin enumerated thirteen virtues which he believed led to a morally more perfect life if systematically mastered: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, humility. Franklin’s virtues are considered a classic expression of the so-called “Protestant ethic,” a disciplined lifestyle and set of cultivated habits which sociologist Max Weber argued nurtured capitalism.
Just as capitalism requires a certain kind of ethic or code of conduct to thrive, so does democracy. This is all the more so when democracies like the United States are now facing simultaneously increasing political polarization and disengagement. If democracy, as popularly defined, means government of, for, and by the people, then the people’s disposition toward participation in government proves critical to democracy.
A meaningful democratic ethic cannot simply mean belief in representative government and individual rights since neither of these alone urge participation. Rights to participation are not imperatives to participation, and representative government at its worst entails the abdication of government to a ruling minority. A willingness to pay attention and vote once every one to four years when an election rolls around would be a step forward for many citizens, but hardly a democratic ethic to be proud of. A meaningful democratic ethic is not a periodic act, but an ongoing lifestyle, a set of everyday actions and attitudes that allow democracy to flourish the more citizens practice them.
With a new academic year upon us, with its ritual reflection on how we can become better persons, I propose the following three elements toward a democratic ethic:
A Public Disposition
First and arguably foremost, democracy demands citizens disposed to engage with each other to pursue public goods and tackle public problems, from local green space and neighborhood safety to global warming and disease. This disposition to engage in public life with neighbors, strangers and even foreigners as fellow citizens (whether of a locality, a nation, or the world) must be as strong if not stronger than the temptation to withdraw from public life into what political scholar Alexis de Tocqueville called our “small, private circles” of family and friends.
Friends and family are far more likely than neighbors and strangers to be of like mind, and being among the like-minded is far more comfortable. Yet engaging those different from us in ongoing, constructive ways is much more important and potentially rewarding in a world marked at once by interdependence, division, and threat. Building meaningful, ongoing relationships with those different is difficult, and this is why the world needs citizens with a public disposition, that is, an inclination to work with neighbors, strangers and foreigners to address common issues.
A Sociological Imagination
Perhaps one of the most effective ways to nurture engaged citizenship is to develop citizens’ “sociological imagination,” a term sociologist C. Wright Mills coined to refer to the ability of individuals to see the connections between their private troubles to public problems. The connections are countless and profound, including personal debt and the vast credit economy, obesity and food industry practice, family strife and family policy, teen delinquency and the modern segregation of youth from adults, alcoholism and unemployment rates, to name just a few. The better able citizens are to grasp these connections between private troubles and public problems, the more inclined they may be to come together to address public problems.
Passion for an ideal – whether that ideal be conservative, moderate, liberal, or radical – moves citizens to engage more than does the dispassionate reason some political scholars advocate. But citizens also need ambivalence to temper their self-righteous passion. Ambivalence entails a number of virtuous dispositions, such as the dispositions to recognize the limits of our ideals and the strengths of competing ideals, to question rather than demonize or deify, and to consider the consequences of the means we pursue to achieve our ideals. Passion and ambivalence can and do often conflict, and so being ambivalently passionate is an ongoing, self-critical balancing act
The above three elements toward a democratic ethic need not be learned in school. Arguably much of what we know and believe we do not learn in school. To the extent that citizens learn any democratic virtues, as well civic skills (effective public speaking, media outreach, meeting facilitation, volunteer recruitment, fundraising, etc.) and the workings of democracy, most learn these things through practice, not in political science classes.
Accordingly, it behooves governments, local to international, to promote the practice of democracy among their citizens just as energetically as companies market their products to these same citizens (but without the cynical manipulation business marketing too often entails). As sociologist Herbert Gans once said, if citizens will not come to democracy, then democracy must come to them. Democracy comes to citizens not only when governments make it easier to vote, but when governments encourage more substantial citizen involvement in the decisions that affect their lives. There is no lack of ideas for broadening and deepening citizen engagement – from policy juries, to deliberative polling, to televised town hall meetings, to publicly financed elections – but there has been a lack of political will, especially when so many view government as an impediment to, rather than a tool for citizens’ development
Perhaps the best point of departure for advancing the role of government in nurturing a democratic ethic is this one: representative and direct democracy are not mutually exclusive as widely supposed; representative democracies need direct democracy to best function. For our representatives to be accountable and responsive to citizens, citizens need to be continually, not episodically, engaged in the public decisions that affect their lives, regarding everything from local zoning to global security. Practice nurtures vigilance. Otherwise, we get what we have: representatives who bend more to the engaged and well-heeled minority than to the less engaged majority.