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.
Second, we need to radically refocus on the local. When the evolutionary biologist
David Sloan Wilson launched the Binghamton
Neighborhood Project, he broke down that city's many paralyzing problems into
human-scale chunks of action -- turning an empty lot into a park, say, or organizing
faith communities -- and then linked up the people active in each chunk. Localism gives citizens autonomy to solve problems; networked localism enables them to spread and scale those solutions.
Third, think in terms of challenges rather than orders. One of the best ways to tap collective smarts is to set great goals and let diverse solutions emerge -- to be big on the what and small on the how. This is a lesson ecologist Rafe Sagarin emphasizes in his work: challenge grants like the X Prize motivate people to participate and innovate far more than top-down directives do. How can government behave more this way?