For much of America’s history, there has been relatively little debate about a few basics needed to hold together a highly diverse, continental republic conceived in liberty. Citizens needed to be free but virtuous. Most governmental power had to be exercised by state and local authorities. Most governmental decisions needed to be made through the democratic process. Much of public life had to take part in close-to-home voluntary associations, including faith-based organizations.
Obviously, within this framework, there has been a great deal of disagreement—about tax rates, zoning rules, education priorities, and so much more. No one would have seriously thought that Americans would find consensus on every major policy matter. But our formal governing arrangements and informal norms enabled us to live with such differences by channeling debate into institutions of deliberation and compromise and allowing individuals and communities to build and protect a variety of ways of life.
Destabilizing the Foundation
I, Citizen, by political scientist and state-level policy advocate Tony Woodlief, is at its strongest when it describes the events that have destabilized this framework and jeopardized the right and capacity of citizens to govern themselves. Woodlief argues that when power is decentralized, the American people can discuss, debate, forge compromises, engage in public service, and hold government accountable. But when power is consolidated in Washington, the “imperial city,” we become bystanders, and we’re viewed as mere voters instead of self-governing citizens. Those in power—the political class—then rule for their own benefit and keep citizens at bay by fostering political animus.
As Woodlief describes, our governing framework has been weakened by a collection of trends and decisions. The movement—advanced by Woodrow Wilson, other political scientists, and some party leaders—to make the two political parties distinct from one another (as in parliamentary systems) with clear, often ideological, agendas, produced greater political conflict. Parties increasingly advanced agendas outside of the mainstream and had fewer moderate, compromise-oriented leaders. The eventual nationalization of the parties elevated ideologues concerned about polarizing topics above results-oriented public officials focused on practical, close-to-home solutions. The growth of “informal party organizations,” like single-issue advocacy organizations, gave even more power to those with radical views.
At the same time, mainstream media outlets increasingly focused on bad-news stories, giving people the sense that dire problems were all around—and making them more amenable to dramatic policy interventions. Partisan media outlets, though generally unable to radicalize moderates, were able to push the most conservative and most progressive citizens even farther away from one another on the political spectrum. Social media services feed us a steady diet of news from Washington (where political fights are the nastiest) and stories that make our political opponents seem dangerous. Local media, which can keep us focused on real-life issues and help build community solidarity, has largely disappeared in recent years.
Instead of working out our differences through democratic deliberation, we were taught the uncompromising language of rights—the right to abortion, guns, low taxes, a living wage, clean water. This reinforced the view that issues were a simple matter of right and wrong, not topics to be discussed with tradeoffs to be made. Simultaneously, Congress stopped being a place of debate, negotiation, and solutions, turning into a stage for the most dramatic political theatre. Filling the void is a gigantic, unaccountable federal administrative state that wields enormous power, often creating policy that fails to balance competing interests.
The upshot of all of this is, first, the relocation of power to distant, opaque institutions, and second, the disproportionate influence of the small percentage of America’s most ideological actors. They aim to convince the rest of us that the world is coming apart and that only their preferred solutions can save the day. Interestingly, the most polarized people have become remarkably malleable in their policy views; that is, instead of faithfully standing by a consistent, coherent set of positions, they support what their leaders say. This isn’t principles-based problem-solving; it’s tribalism. Such polarized Americans are most interested, it seems, in being a loyal part of a team and working to defeat their opponents.
Woodlief finds this state of affairs to be especially worrisome because he believes that most Americans are non-ideological, have views that don’t always fit neatly into either party’s agenda, and simply want practical solutions to real-life problems. “Most Americans care more about consensus and peace than getting every one of our favored policies implemented. Americans don’t want a civil war. They want to work together, to get along, and to reach consensus.” Moreover, while they disagree on many particulars, they share basic views on immigration, racial discrimination, support for the disadvantaged, and more. When they see the public square polluted by radical views and uncivil behavior, they simply opt out; our system loses the participation of countless potential leaders and the trust of most Americans.
Woodlief, I believe, offers a compelling explanation for one of the great curiosities of our time: Why our day-to-day lives can seem pretty good while we sense that things are terribly wrong in America.
Throughout much of the book, the author comes across as a politically moderate populist. Woodlief is more focused on battling those who hold concentrated power and use it for ill than on advancing a particular policy agenda. This is unusual and, honestly, a welcome reprieve; the last few years have seen no shortage of new, bold, certain—and often half-baked—policy agendas. Woodlief gives every indication that his ultimate goal is for the American people to have more power. He believes not only in Americans’ right to self-govern but also their ability to do it well.
Yet I, Citizen suffers from a common shortcoming of populism: It can be overheated in its rhetoric about the “political class” and “elites.” Unfortunately, the book at times exhibits some of the very same behaviors it criticizes in others, namely caricaturing and villainizing an amorphous opponent and then veering into intemperate language that undermines public discourse. For instance, the book says the “political class has worked so hard to undermine American democracy”; accuses them of “selfish rule”; calls them “our overseers”; argues they “don’t want We The People to rule, because they don’t trust our judgment and they despise our beliefs”; calls them “superspreaders of a disease now killing our body politic”; says they “long ago abandoned any pretense of fidelity to truth, the Constitution, and we citizens who are the beneficiaries and guardians of that Constitution”; and on and on.
I generally believe over-the-top political language should be avoided. It might be cathartic and make for good copy, but it furthers polarization and inhibits compromise. It makes people less willing and able to deliberate together. It also causes citizens to believe conditions are worse than they actually are, which can lead to radical policies and civil strife. Indeed, populist movements across the ages typically produce—or at least channel—sound and fury while achieving little of substance policy-wise. They can amount to more posture than program. For today’s popular frustration to have a meaningful influence on the work of government, leaders must recognize that the language used to get things accomplished politically is typically quite different than the language used to fire up a crowd.
I make this point in the spirit of encouragement. I might be America’s most receptive audience for the book’s basic premise. Over the last number of years, I’ve written repeatedly about the dangers of the governing-adjacent Commentary Industrial Complex, the need for Americans to engage in public service, and the goodness and abilities of quiet public servants across the nation. I largely agree with I, Citizen that some people “engage in polarization as profession and sport” and “capitaliz(e) on this doom and gloom.” Indeed, there are industries—cable news, talk-radio, opinion journalism, lobbying, direct-mail producers, political advocacy—that financially benefit from a riled-up population.
Though I, Citizen takes part in the populist convention of condemning a class of elites, it also—to its credit—breaks with populism’s solutions-lite tradition by clearly articulating a compelling vision for redistributing power. Woodlief wants a stronger Congress and respect for the 10th Amendment. He believes in democracy, deliberation, accommodation, and compromise. He doesn’t want to force consensus, but he does want dissenters to understand themselves as members of a loyal opposition—with responsibilities to the larger governing system. He wants more local media, more participation in community groups, more engagement with state-policy organizations, and more work to develop young people into better citizens.
There is little in his recommendations with which I would even quibble. Federalism is front and center (“freedom can only be reclaimed by the states”) as are love of neighbors, membership in voluntary associations, and a Tocquevillian commitment to local service. I’m on board. Were we to follow his guidance, I believe America would be a healthier, happier, more flourishing place. In fact, while reading I, Citizen, I often thought that the author was subtly advocating a return to what had long been called “civic virtue.” That is, Woodlief believes in the obligations of a citizen—to put aside personal gain, to work toward the common good, to treat others with respect. He believes in the power of public participation, local solidarity, and democratic decision-making. He is committed to government of, by, and for the people. I couldn’t agree more.