Do you find yourself agreeing with any of the following? [All bold text had been added for emphasis.]
[T]here is a widespread public reaction against the political system. This reaction is more than the familiar attacks on individual politicians, incumbents, big government, party politics, and corruption. It is a reaction against a political system that is perceived as so autonomous that the public is no longer able to control and direct it. People talk as though our political system had been taken over by alien beings.
Americans take great pride in having the world’s oldest continuous democracy. They are proud of their political heritage – the extension of suffrage, the battles to protect individual rights, the ability to speak their minds. They identify with the values of a democratic order – freedom and justice. Despite this heritage, many Americans do not believe they are living in a democracy now! They don’t believe that “We, the people” actually rule. They don’t believe that the average citizen even influences, much less rules. Americans … describe the present political system as impervious to public direction, a system run by a professional political class and controlled by money, not votes. What is more, people do not believe this system is able to solve the pressing problems they face. Instead, they turn to voluntary activities, which they call “public” activities, to distinguish them from political activities. Many people do not want to be associated in any way with “politics.” Politics is like leprosy; people don’t want to be around it….[T]he legitimacy of our political institutions is more at issue than our leaders imagine.
Would you believe that this comes from a report called Citizens and Politics… from 1991?
Yeah, I had the same reaction. Why do such observations have resonance with what’s going on in America and much of the world today? I first read about the report a few years ago in a collection of essays titled On Democracy by Bill Moyers. The journalist excerpted:
Americans are both frustrated and downright angry. They argue that politics have been taken away from them—that they have been pushed out of the political process. This feeling of impotence is revealed for instance in a fervent belief that individual citizens can no longer have their voice heard on important public issues. That many, if not most public issues are talked about by experts in ways that neither connect with the concerns of citizens nor make any sense to them. It is revealed also in citizens’ belief that they have been squeezed out of politics by a system dangerously spiraling out of control, a system made up of lobbyists, political action committees, special interest organizations, and the media . .. They sense that we risk losing something precious to the meaning of the American experience … that the very meaning of the public good is disappearing in a sea of self-seeking.
What has changed in twenty years? And if nothing about public participation in the political process has changed for the better, well, why?
What’s great about the report is that it features the voices of real, ordinary people—“The Public”—instead of the millionaire talking heads, career politicians, or self-proclaimed experts that appear on Sunday morning shows. Not only does the Citizens and Politics report overturn the myth that “Americans don’t care,” that “Americans are apathetic,” it also clearly identifies the culprits, in language that should strike familiar:
[Americans] have a clear sense of their civic responsibilities. They worry about passing their cynicism on to their children. Yet they care so deeply that their frustration runs to anger and cynicism. They feel as though they have been locked out of their own homes—and they react the way people do when they have been evicted from their own property. … People know exactly who dislodged them from their rightful place in American democracy. They point their fingers at politicians, at powerful lobbyists, and… at people in the media. They see these three groups as a political class, the rulers of an oligarchy that has replaced democracy. Like political scientists, citizens know that the political system is now designed to respond to interest groups rather than individual citizens.
Alienation. Oligarchy. Special interests. A ruling political class of elites. Sounds like the Beltway culture to me.
Reflecting on conversations I’d had in recent years with friends and colleagues about politics, I recalled my puzzlement at hearing only about “electoral” solutions—which politician to vote for, the Democratic one or the Republican one? My friends seemed resigned to the “politics of lesser evilism.” These limited choices seemed self-defeating to me. Why weren’t more of my contemporaries mentioning what Americans in the report of 1991 stated so unequivocally: we gotta get the public back into politics!
[Americans] want to restore the integrity, vitality, and scope of the public dialogue. People understand that the fundamental changes they want cannot occur until we change the basic conditions of political practice beginning with the way the public joins in the discussion of major policy issues.
Why is the public dialogue so pivotal? The public dialogue is the natural home for democratic politics. That is the “home” people feel forced out of and want back. People depend on the dialogue to provide opportunities for the public to hold counsel with itself and give public definition to the public’s interest. The most alarming finding of the study is an erosion of the political system’s legitimacy. Reviving the political parties or increasing voter participation only get[s] at the surface of the erosion. The only way to get at the base of the problem is through greater public definition of its own interests. That means the public has to be invested in deliberations over the difficult choices that are involved in delineating the public’s interests. That definition is necessary to give direction to government. And public direction makes for public legitimacy.
An education in civics awaited me as I began to think and learn about ways that the public could reclaim power, become engaged in politics, and realize policies that addressed the needs of the People.
(Check out the Citizens in Politics report for yourself. Click here for the pdf (Adobe Acrobat file).)