Democracy Is for Amateurs: Why We Need More Citizen Citizens

America can't afford to leave its government in the hands of professionals.

quakermeeting

This year I'll wrap up a decade as a trustee of the Seattle Public Library. Our board of five citizens has unusual authority. Appointed by the mayor, we are an independent operating body. The city council gives us a line in the budget, but how we spend those funds, on what programs, in what allocations across which neighborhoods, with what kinds of popular input, and under what policies -- all such decisions rest in the hands of our citizen board.

There's something very American about such a volunteer body. We celebrate the "citizen scientist" or "citizen diplomat" or "citizen soldier" on the idea that while the job -- scientist, diplomat, soldier -- requires professional expertise, amateurs who care can also step in and contribute. Indeed, this is something of a golden age for amateurs. With big data and social media amplifying their wisdom, crowds of amateurs are remaking astronomy, finance, biochemistry and other fields.

But not so much the field called democracy. The work of democratic life -- solving shared problems, shaping plans, pushing for change, making grievances heard -- has become ever more professionalized over the last generation. Money has gained outsize and self-compounding power in elections. A welter of lobbyists, regulators, consultants, bankrollers, wonks-for-hire, and "smart-ALECs" has crowded amateurs out of the daily work of self-government at every level. Bodies like the library board are the exception.

What we need today are more citizen citizens. Both the left and the right are coming to see this. It is the thread that connects the anti-elite 99 percent movement with the anti-elite Tea Party. It also animates an emerging web of civic-minded techies who want to "hack" citizenship and government.

Why is government in America so hack-worthy now? There is a giant literature on how interest groups have captured our politics, with touchstones texts by Mancur Olson, Jonathan Rauch, and Francis Fukuyama. The message of these studies is depressingly simple: democratic institutions tend toward what Rauch calls "demosclerosis" -- encrustation by a million little constituencies who clog the arteries of government and make it impossible for the state to move or adapt.

This tendency operates in an accelerating feedback loop. When self-government is dominated by professionals representing various interests, a vicious cycle of citizen detachment ensues. Regular people come to treat civic problems as something outside themselves, something done to them, rather than something they have a hand in making and could have a hand in unmaking. They anticipate that engagement is futile, and their prediction fulfills itself.

So how do we replace this vicious cycle with a virtuous one? What does it take to revive a spirit of citizenship as something undertaken by amateurs and volunteers with a stake in their own lives? There are four forces to activate, and they cut across the usual left-right lines.

First, we have to develop what filmmaker Annie Leonard calls our "citizen muscle." As Americans we have hugely overdeveloped consumer muscles and atrophied citizen muscles. When we are consumers first, our elected leaders sell us exactly what we want: lower taxes, more spending, special rules for every subgroup.

Having a citizen muscle means thinking about the future and not just immediate gratification. It means asking what helps the community thrive, not just oneself. It means observing social change like a naturalist, and responding to it like a gardener. It means learning and teaching a curriculum of power -- in schools, and in settings for all ages -- so that we can practice power, even as amateurs.

Presented by

Eric Liu is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of A Chinaman's Chance, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy, and the creator of Citizen University. He was a speechwriter and deputy domestic-policy adviser for President Bill Clinton.

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