Monday, January 03, 2005

The Democratic Virtues

Paul Lachilier, a young Wisconsin grad student who challenged the Massachusetts Speaker of the State House for his seat in 2002 as a Green Party candidate says some important things in a recent editorial which appeared in the Albuquerue Journal while I was there over holidays.

He proposes that there are Democratic virtues of the citizenry which keep democracy strong and it is grassroots political organization and involvement which excercises and inculcates those virtures.

"In his autobiography, founding father Benjamin Franklin enumerated 13 virtues he believed led to a morally more perfect life, if systematically mastered. They are temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility.

Franklin’s virtues are considered a classic expression of the so-called Protestant ethic, a disciplined lifestyle and set of cultivated habits that sociologist Max Weber said nurtured capitalism.

To my knowledge, remarkably, no corollary personal ethic has so succinctly been proposed to nurture democracy. Yet if democracy, as popularly defined, means government of, for and by the people, then the disposition of the people toward their government is critical to democracy.

That democratic disposition, or civic ethic, does not simply mean belief in representative government and individual rights. Nor is it simply a willingness to pay attention and vote once every when an election rolls around. The civic ethic is an ongoing lifestyle, a set of everyday actions and attitudes that allow democracy to flourish the more citizens practice them.

With a new year upon us, with its ritual reflection on how we can become better persons, here are three components of a civic ethic ever more needed in an ever more dangerous world:

A democratic disposition

First and arguably foremost, democracy demands citizens disposed to engage with each other to pursue common good, from a local dog park to world peace. This engagement ethic must be as strong if not stronger than the tempting disposition to withdraw from public life into what political scholar Alexis de Tocqueville called our “small, private circles” of family and friends.

Furthermore, in a country and a world often deeply divided, engaging those different from us in ongoing ways is far more important than engaging the like-minded. Engaging those like us may be more comfortable and easy, but engaging those different from us can be all the more rewarding and politically significant when such engagement succeeds in bridging social divides.

Yet precisely because such bridging engagement is difficult, it develops less easily and thus needs patient nurturing.

A sociological imagination

Perhaps one of the most effective way to nurture the engagement ethic is to develop citizens’ sociological imagination, a term sociologist C. Wright Mills coined to refer to the ability of individuals to connect 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, work-family pressures and employment policy, teen delinquency and the modern segregation of youth from adults, alcoholism and unemployment rates, to name just a few. The more inclined we are to grasp these connections, the more inclined we may be to engage with public issues.

Ambivalent passion

Passion for an ideal – whether that ideal be conservative, moderate or liberal – likewise 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 disposition to recognize the limits of our ideals and the strengths of competing ideals, the disposition to question rather than demonize or deify and the disposition 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.

These civic virtues need not be learned in school. Indeed, much of what we know and believe we do not learn in school. To the extent that citizens learn any civic virtues, as well civic skills (effective public speaking, media outreach, meeting facilitation, volunteer recruitment, fundraising, etc.) and the workings of democracy, they learn them through practice, not in political science classes.

Accordingly, it behooves governments, local to national, 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 engagement in the decisions that affect their lives.

There is no lack of ideas for broadening citizen engagement - from policy juries to televised democracy in many forms to fully 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 opening discussion about the role of government in nurturing citizens’ civic ethic is this one: Representative democracies need direct democracy to best function.

For our representatives to be accountable and responsive to citizens, citizens need to be continually 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 respond more to the engaged and well-heeled minority than to the less-engaged majority.


Paul gives DFA activists much to consider. The need to engage those different from ourselves and learn to work effectively with them. Not making the perfect the enemy of the good, as Dr. Dean has so often quoted. Being able to truly empathize with those you wish to win to your side. There are fancy words for all of these, but the simplest and best are humility, empathy, and tolerance. These are virtues we will need heaps of to make it through the next four years with our national character intact.

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