Democracy’s Medicine: A Citizen’s Habits of the Heart

The political finger-pointing with a divided legislative and executive branches has become painful to watch.

President Obama publicly assured the free world the United States is not Islamophobic, the executive branch hurried through immigration orders which were then taken dramatically out of proportion by his opponents. So out of proportion, in fact, that the choice negotiating strategy of the 2010s in Congress — the forced linking of only somewhat-related policy issues — came back out in style over funding the Department of Homeland Security.

American government has ceased to function, in part, because it has become controlled by opposing social forces that paralyze it. The government needs more consensus in its social institutions. The increasing inequality discussed previously in this blog is interdependent with fragmentation between race, class, nationality, sexuality and age.

How does fragmentation affect democracy? Traditional political science explanations focus on gerrymandering and demographic shifts, though I want to focus here on individual agency. When a social system begins to fail and fragment, individuals begin to peel off and become “free agents” as the benefits of going rogue exceed the social costs of independence.

An example is Lyndon Johnson’s upbringing. Robert Caro beautifully narrates Johnson’s early childhood in the impoverished Texas Hill Country. Johnson almost went to prison, as he freely admitted, because his ambition chafed against the limited opportunities for social and economic gain in the almost Puritanical society without electricity, newspapers, radios or paved highways.

Today, how many Lyndon Johnsons are in prison because of behavioral changes brought on by social isolation and lack of opportunity? The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks hate groups who are these kinds of social “free agents.” A divided democracy, from the extreme example of hate groups, to simple unwillingness to bring everyone under the nation’s tent, is a sick democracy.

Policy can be a medicine, from allocating resources to urban planning to how the state mediates between public and private interests. Yet the internal attributes of citizens play a role as well. This understanding can be broadly classified as constructivism. Essentially, our experiences as citizens and how we develop values from them matters.

  • Self-Consciousness: The core of a rational education is self-awareness. The great Enlightenment philosophers all worked from the basis of human nature to explain their political theories, and as citizens we must know even most basically how our actions have consequences for power, social relationships and values such as equality. How do our political choices affect others?
  • Win-Win Attitudes: With a well-adjusted social and political identity, citizens are more likely to appreciate the views and attributes of others. The powerful will know how to listen, and the oppressed know how to protest, refreshing a democratic society together. The habit of the heart this requires is one of abundance and creativity.
  • Theories of Change: Social reformers of all stripes have such beliefs about how to create and rejuvenate democracy. Without self-awareness and creativity, however, such motivation would be impossible. An organization actively using theories of change in its work today to inspire is Reading Partners. An example of an individual is Dallas District Attorney Susan Hawk.

Citizens in the developed, democratic world should consider the medicine of citizenship and the creative, collaborative public service that it can unleash.

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