Here is the third installment of the extended conversation with Scott Payne on democracy and citizenship.
Now, you know that I am strongly in favour of the idea you have expressed that we need to close the gap between citizens and their government as a means of revitalizing our democracy. And I am also strongly in favour of most of the reforms you champion. But I think a one-sided approach to this issue that only focuses on reforming government is doomed to failure.
I mean, look, the way that government works, particularly in terms of our electoral system, is something that I wholly agree is in need of reform. But I think that we need to spend some time examining what we take ourselves to mean when we talk about citizenship itself.
In our interview on the revitalisation of democracy, you said two things that really stuck with me. First, you said that, “[c]itizens need not and increasingly do not wait for government leadership to get engaged.” I think that this is true. And let me take it one step further by saying that citizens must not wait for political leaders to get engaged. I’ll say more about this as I move ahead.
Secondly, earlier on in the interview, you mentioned, “I have written elsewhere that we ask relatively little of our citizens.” And you went on to talk about the importance of citizens taking responsibility, especially as regards institutions like our criminal justice system and our health care system.
This idea has really settled into my mind; that we don’t expect much of our citizens. I can’t shake the feeling that, as you suggest, we have come to a very impoverished notion of citizenship. And I think this is as true in terms of how we think of ourselves and define ourselves as citizens as it is in terms of how we fulfill certain roles with regards to our citizenship. Saying that, “we ask relatively little of our citizens,” to me, means much more when we formulate that statement to say, “as citizens, we ask relatively little of ourselves.”
You’ve noted that citizen engagement is key. But even in acknowledging that fact, I think we have a tendency to look at citizenship in terms of what the state/government ought to expect of its citizens. And so the approach we then articulate to citizenship is how government and our political process ought best to engage citizens. I fear this generates a very passive and rigid vision for citizens in regards to their citizenship. Certainly in calling for engagement we are looking for greater participation. But our conception of participation seems to rest on a preconceived notion about the role of the citizen based on an already existing set of institutions and process that dictate their means of participation to the citizen. And let’s be clear, part of what is animating our discussion is an acknowledgement of the degree to which those institutions are failing us. So I’m wary about that one-way line of determination.
When I suggest that citizens must not wait for political leaders to get engaged, what I mean to say is that there is work that we as citizens need to do in self-determining our own fates and identities. This is an effort that needs to be spearheaded by citizens and needs for citizens to take it on in a full-fledged fashion and on their own terms, without the necessity of government prompting.
Thinkers from Alexis de Tocqueville, to Gabriel Almond and Sindney Verba, to Charles Murray have sketched out the necessary role that civil society, apart from the apparatus of the state, plays in underwriting the success of democracy. And I would offer that acting as a hub to the spokes of their thought is a robust notion of what it means for one to be a citizen in a particular instantiation of a democratic republic.
In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam convincingly chronicled the deterioration of the social capital that civil society uses as one of its primary tools. There is, I think, evidence to suggest that our means of cultivating and utilizing social capital have failed to keep pace with the changes we have experienced in our modern lives and that re-evaluating both of our understanding of our very notions and embodied practice of citizenship is key plank in terms of redressing this trend.
By saying that I’m, not looking for ways of going back to the “good old days,” when citizenship really meant something and our social and community networks were at their height. This is wishful thinking insofar as there is no “going back” and a persistence in that illusion will only result in an avoidance of the challenges that lay in front of us.
Escapism is not the answer. Indeed if a going back was what was needed, then a re-evaluation of our understanding of citizenship would be wholly unnecessary. The answers would already be available to us.
And so, to tie all of this back to the discussion we’re having, I think that what we’re running up against is as much about apathy as it is about distrust. People are prone to knee-jerk and unhelpful levels of distrust because they are weighed down by a sense of apathy.
Citizens feel incapable of effecting the decisions that impact their lives and therefore feel disconnected from those decisions, yes. But, that fecklessness itself is underwritten by a poverty in how we see and live the very role of citizens. And the poverty of that role has increasingly been utilized by our political leaders towards their own short sighted ends.
At the end of the day, we have to grapple with the fact that reckoning with this issue of revitalising democracy needs to find part of its location in citizens themselves. The answers cannot just be handed down by government. We as citizens have to work together to figure them out for ourselves. And we have to do so on our own terms because we want to see value in doing so, not because we’ve been told we need to do so.
We need actual buy-in from our fellow citizens, which means that we need to ground our efforts in practical activities of citizenship. What I’m suggesting is an intellectual exercise, at least in part. But it is not simply a thought experiment with regards to our citizenship. It is both a re-evaluation of our citizenship and then a following re-application of that role; in ways that might be unexpected or potentially even unwanted by political leaders and government.
But above all, our vision of citizenship must have value and meaning for citizens themselves. And creating that vision in a country as diverse as Canada is, contrary our previous acknowledgment, asking quite a bit of ourselves.
Ultimately, a reformed and revitalised government needs to be met by an equally reformed and revitalised citizenry if we are to realize anything sustainable in closing the gap between each and actually renew our democracy.
Holy smoke Scott. Yes, I have written elsewhere about our “bargain basement citizenship” and you’re absolutely right that the ideas of civic duty and citizenship are at least as important as any discussion of government reform. I think the evidence on “social capital” is mixed. that is, I’m not sure we are really bowling alone, but the evidence is pretty clear that it matters, that participation with others in relationships of trust is key to our well-being, is the basis for defining public goods and is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for political engagement. Nothing works unless most of us most of the time take responsibility for ourselves, for our families, for one another, our community, our country and beyond.
But, as you suggest, we can only scratch the surface here. These questions get at our notions about human nature, morality and democracy, too big for a blog. Not long ago, Roger Cohen wrote that in this first decade of the 20th century, democracy has lost its lustre, perhaps in part because of attempts to impose it on others militarily, perhaps because it was oversold. I am inclined to think that the democracy problem is more that we have taken it for granted for too long, treating it as little more than or virtually synonymous with free market liberalism. Even the notion of freedom so central to democracy has often been reduced to a notion of economic freedom and, more precisely, freedom from government.
Little wonder that we have seen an erosion of public space and, perhaps with it, public mindedness. I agree with Putnam and Sandel and the many others arguing that it is past time that we start experimenting again with ways to instill democratic values, including a broader notion of freedom but also civic duty, political participation and democratic discourse, essential to preserving that freedom. How we do this in a way that makes sense today, however, is quite another thing.
As a starting point, one has to believe that this is in fact possible, that we are indeed capable of more than the selfish pursuit of our interests, that we cannot be reduced to the “selfish gene” or even to supposedly irrational animal impulses. Interests certainly matter and no doubt so does biology, and we can learn a lot from the behavioural economists who are exploring how to incent and “nudge” us to behave in the interests of the community and the longer term. We need to be realistic about our frailties. At the same time, we ought to reject any approach that reduces us to interests and instincts. Here I am with philosopher Mary Midgley who makes a persuasive case that sociability, loyalty and altruism are every bit as human as the excessive individualism that dominates discourse today.
In that context, then, I continue to believe that education, formal and informal, is key to the health of our democracy. What happens in the schools is important and speaking personally I can say that our kids did not get much about civics, civic duty and citizenship when they were in school. This was admittedly a long time ago now and hopefully things will be better for our granddaughter. The devaluing of the arts and humanities in colleges and universities is also worrisome. Of course colleges and universities are increasingly crucial to the economy but they are also a place where active citizenship is formed. And our arts, heritage and amateur sports institutions are also key to linking us to our traditions and one another and, at their best, help redefine our shared citizenship in changing times. Sadly these institutions are usually badly neglected in periods of austerity, and in the current environment are often dangerously and depressingly dismissed as elitist.
In Canada, we have paid particular attention to linking people who might not otherwise find common cause, across our two languages, diverse traditions, and regional and social fault lines. One could argue that our particular brand of pluralistic citizenship is extremely suited to the times. It is a comparative advantage. But it cannot be taken for granted. At various times in the past distinctly Canadian non-governmental initiatives arose to promote civic duty and common citizenship. Katimavik was one such effort, Exchanges Canada another. Cadet programs and the Governor General’s Leadership initiatives and CUSO were all part of this spirit. Immigrant welcoming and settlement programs too are part of this fabric. So we would do well to ask how this patchwork is doing today, has it kept pace with new demands, does it help bridge our diversity. All “newcomers”, immigrants and refugees of course but our kids too, have to be provided with a firm understanding of their rights and their civic duty, of the prerequisites for making our diversity work, rule of law, peaceful resolution of conflict, respect for the rights and dignity of others. How are we doing?
Opportunities for engagement
Also key are our opportunities to engage with others, develop common understandings and the trust necessary to cooperate for common purpose. It is out of such interaction that we develop a sense of the public good and develop the innovative means for its pursuit. Here many worry about the erosion of public space, the depletion of “social capital”, the privatisation of our everyday lives as we retreat into individual and family based entertainment and consumption. Bo Rothstein, among others, has pretty persuasively demonstrated that societies with high levels of social trust also have high levels of well-being. Here we stand to learn a lot from concrete experiments in the U.K. in getting people involved in solving community problems.
Perhaps the most important and effective “schools for citizenship” here in Canada have been voluntary organizations. As I mentioned to you, a couple of decades back, we used to provide predictable, stable core funding to many of these organizations which allowed them to engage in advocacy for those too often excluded and also allowed them to nurture a strong sense of active citizenship. Yes they partnered with government but as pretty autonomous players, as it should be. Now these organizations are too often an extension of government, their funding dependent on the provision of defined services and their democratic role much diminished. Revitalising an autonomous voluntary sector would go some distance to revaluing active citizenship. Greater autonomy in the sector is also essential for true partnering with government.
We also ought not to underestimate the potential of social networks to foster civic engagement. It is too easy to dismiss these virtual communities as transitory, what some have called “click engagement”. We don’t know enough yet about their potential for turning these clicks into positive and sustained action. And we are only beginning to understand the role and uses of open systems.
But I am increasingly convinced that more important than all of this, in fact underlying all of this, is the issue of equality. Richard Wilkinson, an expert on the social determinants of health, is coming to Canada later this year to talk about The Spirit Level, his most recent work with co-author Kate Picket in which he compiles extensive and impressive comparative data that show that societies that are more equal are more successful as measured against almost all important criteria. Too much inequality damages everybody and inhibits the development of relationships of trust. The authors are not just talking about helping the poor here; they are arguing that the data show that virtually everybody benefits, everybody is better off in societies that are more equal. The book is of course not without controversy and I will be blogging more on it soon but it has become the rage now in Europe and has apparently been embraced in the U.K. by both the Prime Minister and the new leader of the Labour Opposition. The work has managed to put the issue of equality back in play after years of neglect. It encourages us to ask just how much inequality are we willing to tolerate. And it forces us to confront the costs to health and well-being of too much.
So even on these questions government has a role, not to own the issue but to create the environment in which citizenship might flourish, through policies that reduce inequality and through political leadership, maybe a different kind of leadership that inspires engagement and creates avenues for it, that values and seeks to bridge our diversity, that tries to link our private troubles to the big public issues. I might add, however, none of this will happen if we don’t at the same time strengthen our public institutions, not least our parliament and public service, and make voting count for more than it has. Full circle.