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Becoming Civil Again

While a record number of citizens participated in the 2020 election, and voting is a key component of any form of representative government, it’s important to understand that the mere act of voting does not satisfy our responsibilities as citizens empowered to protect our republic. When it comes to keeping the system healthy, placing a sign in your yard, a bumper sticker on your car, or using social media to post support for one candidate or attacks on another doesn’t suffice. Many systems we see as failed and unfree have elections. Bringing elections to post-war Iraq didn’t end the violence, division and chaos. Elections are a necessary, but hardly sufficient variable in developing or maintaining a successful system of representative government.

At an individual level, participating in an election also doesn’t satisfy our responsibilities as citizens because the act of voting itself is largely an expressive signal of support for one “team” or another. We are acting as Democrats or Republicans and not necessarily as Americans. As Anthony Downs argued long ago, your individual vote plays essentially no tangible role in the outcome of an election. People decide to vote because the satisfaction they receive from participating outweighs the costs of voting—the time spent researching candidates and actually going to vote. An inexpensive symbolic act like voting is particularly insignificant in a system such as ours in which voting in the vast majority of states will not tip the balance of the Electoral College. What’s more, voting by mail has lowered the actual “costs” that a voter pays to participate. The problem with viewing democracy and the health of the republic merely through the lens of an election is that we are blind to the problems that run much deeper.

Voting is an individual decision made in the privacy of a voting booth. By contrast, citizenship is the action of an individual engaging with their fellow citizens in the maintenance of a healthy social order, solving political problems, discussing major events, and building towards consensus on both the values that support the social order and the policies that we will pursue when governments are formed. We will always disagree—Publius understood that factions are inevitable. What doesn’t have to be inevitable are factions destroying self-government. We must meet together and be able to talk even if we hold different positions. We do that in groups and as communities, not alone with a ballot.

Tocqueville’s keen observations about the United States, limited as they were by the regional bias of his travels, show us the extent to which democracy in the early stages of our history was not merely the simple act of voting and holding elections. Studying America with an eye to understanding the early 19th century, Tocqueville observed the actual practice of democracy in early America through town meetings, political discourse, and community based governance. He was particularly struck by what we would today call “civil society” in the U.S. He was impressed by the role that “associations” played in maintaining a sense of community and solving social problems.

Tocqueville was one of the first observers of America who saw that civic associations played a number of important roles in the early republic. Civic associations played a functional role by handling things the government shouldn’t. So charitable organizations rather than the government took the lead in providing assistance to the poor in 19th century America. Today churches and other groups still provide a large percentage of aid and assistance to those in need. And in their activities, these associations taught Americans behaviors necessary for the new republic’s survival. By bringing people together in groups to solve social problems, civic associations both moderated desires and conveyed a broader sense of self interest rightly understood while also modeling a way of life to maintain a broader sense of responsibility to the community not merely one’s self. Citizens cannot simply pursue their own interests in a self-governing system. That establishment and reinforcement of “self-interest rightly understood” helps develop citizenship—not merely solves collective actions problems. People work together to solve common problems, but they also learn how to be citizens through such organizations.

In her recent book Civic Gifts, the sociologist Elisabeth Clemens shows just how right Tocqueville’s analysis was. She argues that while conventional American history has focused on the role that the state has played in handling crises as diverse as the Revolutionary War, the Spanish Flu and the Great Depression, those actions happened against a backdrop of significant voluntary and charitable activity. She notes that while FDR is famous for the expansion of federal power through his New Deal, he was instrumental in working with Carl Byoir to forming what eventually became known as the March of Dimes—a charity to fight polio. Civil society has also allowed the American public to maintain relatively higher levels of community and philanthropy while simultaneously supporting their government and maintaining individual liberty.

Today we are surrounded by an America with two distinct challenges to the bulwarks that Tocqueville and Clemens identify as critical to the survival of the republic. The first major challenge is that public discourse is broken. A large and significant group of voters have withdrawn or been effectively excluded from the public exchange that has been crucial to the functioning of representative governance since the Athenian democracy and the town meetings that Tocqueville observed. Our public discourse does not include a broad enough range of public opinion to reflect broadly held values. What should be a key component of any functioning representative form of government is polluted by intolerance and calls to reject any arguments for one side. We now see claims from both sides that the other is engaging in seditious activity—either by illegally rioting at the Capitol or stealing an election. Calling the other side traitors to the republic makes public discourse exceedingly difficult. It becomes all too simple to reject your opponents’ positions as treason. One of the foundational freedoms necessary to maintain liberty is that of opinion. As the American Founders, J.S. Mill, and countless others have argued, without an arena that accepts a wide range of publicly accepted views we cannot call ourselves free. And right now one part of the electorate believes they are not free to express themselves.

Polling errors in the 2020 general election reflect this starkly. Supporters of President Trump were either lying to pollsters or simply not part of the samples of most major polls. It’s been obvious for quite some time that many people quietly support the president and simply do not feel comfortable discussing that support publicly or believe that the system is biased against their views. Belittling their choices and berating them as racists will not solve the fundamental problem here. Whether or not one supports the President, bets on elections, or simply cares about the health and openness of public exchange and the liberal model of free expression, we cannot expect a representative form of government to survive if so many people do not believe their right to free expression will be respected. Conversely, if so many others cavalierly paint the views of their opponents as beyond what is respectable we cannot have any public discourse.

We learn to scream on-line; we learn toleration and patience when we discuss face to face and work with individuals who have a diverse set of backgrounds and views. We must return to our clubs and churches. We need to relearn how to be social and civilized again.

This brings us to the second real danger we face today—alienation from our friends, neighbors and fellow citizens. This obviously damages our personal relationships, but it adversely affects our ability to participate in exactly the types of civil associations so necessary and fundamental to the survival of our political and social institutions. Social media began to expose the growing distance and accepted uncivil hostility between individuals of different beliefs. We live in comfortable echo chambers where our priors are merely confirmed and never challenged. There is no exchange and updating. Instead of moderating public views through debate, a fundamental part of any democratic system, we are marginalizing and stigmatizing our enemies. That’s no way to heal divisions.

But our Covid policies have thrown gasoline on the fire. Isolation has bred misanthropy and undermined a sense of community. Quarantines and lockdowns have encouraged vitriol in place of discussion and listening. Separated by physical space we can describe our opponents as faceless, nameless individuals in groups, not as individuals. Even when we do encounter people outside of our homes and bubbles we see them almost dehumanized wearing masks and warily maintaining distance. While this is wise for public health, it’s deadly for rebuilding community. Nazis, the Soviets, and other assorted totalitarians used to dehumanize their enemies and ascribe characteristics to classes not individuals with opposing views. We are veering into extremely dangerous territory.

And this isolation is even more damaging to civil society. Consider the recent attacks on religious organizations in the US both through limits on their practices and condemning the behaviors of their members. Church services are often characterized as super spreader events and highly dangerous. But setting aside the comfort individuals draw from practicing their faith, it’s important to remember how critical churches are in helping the poor through charitable acts. Churches often serve as the bulwark of civil society, kinship, and community activities throughout the nation. By singling out the functioning of organized religion, we may prevent the spread of the virus, but at what cost to the society and individuals who worship in them?

Unless we bridge our physical divide and return to the practice of real politics, face to face, in conversation and accommodation, we risk allowing politicians to become demagogues and many politicians, even the ones you support, are inches away from becoming one. As civil society withers, the temptation for politicians to step into that void and take on more responsibility and power becomes more likely. If we demonize those with different viewpoints we allow for politicians to use that division to galvanize power. Liberty and responsibility will suffer until we can physically see our fellow citizens as people, hear their viewpoints and relearn the practice of being Americans.

Finally we must try to reconstruct the organizations that were core components to the civil society that have always made America the country and polity so special. While I have always thought Robert Putman’s Bowling Alone was overstated, his main point about the decline of in-person association now seems more relevant when we see the wasteland that is political discourse on social media. We learn to scream on-line; we learn toleration and patience when we discuss face to face and work with individuals who have a diverse set of backgrounds and views. We must return to our clubs and churches. We need to relearn how to be social and civilized again.

Now that this election is over, we must leave our isolation and rebuild the social and political fabric that has been destroyed. We cannot allow demagogues to isolate and separate us. We must respect all citizens and accept our fellow Americans and their views. We don’t have to agree, but we must stop demonizing and degrading, either through actions or words. Voting is part of our job, but building ties, neighborhoods, communities, organizations, businesses and society is a much more important task with which we are charged. It’s fundamental to any representative government. We quickly need to get our world reopened as a way to repair the fractures, disarm the demagogues, and join back together again.

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