We've Abandoned Democratic Citizenship

We’re failing at democracy because we forgot this foundational idea over which we once obsessed, that democracy requires republican virtue and citizenship to survive.

There are many reasons America is plunging into failure, each reinforcing the others to create a perfect storm of national disintegration.

You hear about many of them perpetually on social media and cable news, but among the most powerful, and perhaps the most dangerous of them, is one that’s rarely mentioned.

It’s the abandonment of what the Enlightenment thinkers who created modern democracy called republican virtue, which we usually call democratic citizenship.

America always understood from its beginning that a democratic republic’s greatest weakness is also its great strength. Its people are the government. While a republic with dedicated citizens will prosper and thrive, one with complacent citizens unwilling to carry the burden of citizenship will decay and collapse.

The reason is, no matter how brilliantly conceived, every governing system has a flaw. People run it. You can’t just type up a code of laws, or set some high-minded ideals, or put out a statement of values, and expect them to work in the real world how you imagined it on paper because institutions don’t run themselves. They’re run by people, who inevitably act like people do.

The people who administer your system will make countless choices as they put its ideals into practice. They’ll choose how to enforce the laws and policies you carefully drew up. They’ll decide how to interpret and balance the values you proclaimed. They’ll choose which of your noble ideals to honor, and which to compromise, and which even to ignore. Flawed and sometimes outright broken people will apply whatever grand notions you imagined to the real world of imperfect humanity. All while coping with their ordinary vices and desires, like ensuring they maintain their jobs and status, that their children and family members thrive, that they don’t look stupid or wrong, and that they’ll continue to enjoy access to the comforts they crave.

In a monarchy, those people are kings and aristocrats. In a dictatorship, they’re generals and oligarchs. In a republic, they’re us.

Officially, of course, it’s elected officials making those decisions, backed by political parties and activists. Those officials face pressure from the wealthy, from corporations, and from influential figures in the media. Yet ultimately, it’s us the politicians have to please. It’s our votes their actions and inactions are calculated to win. It’s our collective whims their political parties flatter, just as it’s from our communities the activists who press them hail. The only reason politicians spend so much time chasing money from the wealthy is because they have to finance elaborate efforts to capture a few moments of our attention to win our votes. In fact, the rich and powerful can only buy influence if we lack the interest and attention to police what they attempt to do.

It’s easy to blame villains for the flaws in a democracy, and such villains do exit. However, the only reason villains are ever in a position to damage a democracy is because its citizens were careless wielding their awesome democratic power.

As Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu recognized long ago, a republic’s success will turn on the character of its citizens. A monarchy can get by with plodding subjects as long as it produces an effective ruling class. A republic needs citizens invested in the duties of democracy. The citizens of a republic have to pay attention to public issues, defying their natural human laziness and complacency. They can’t abuse their democratic power to loot the state, or to enact policies solely for their own benefit, or to gleefully batter people they dislike with public power. They have to compromise, act magnanimously when they win, and graciously when they don’t. They have to administer the state on behalf of everybody, seeing opponents not as enemies but national siblings with whom they squabble and disagree.

That’s why America’s Founders obsessed so much over how difficult republics are to maintain. They sought to design institutions that would hold up under the constant assault of human flaws, but they knew those wouldn’t be enough. Citizens would also have to live up to their republican duties generation after generation, long after only the Founding generation’s words on paper remained. As James Madison, the Constitution’s chief author, said when trying to win its approval in Virginia, “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.” That’s what Benjamin Franklin famously meant when he answered that their new government was “a republic, if you can keep it.”

Any serious reader of history knows American politics fixated on this idea for generations after our Founding. For the first century or so, we constantly reminded ourselves that republics were fragile and precarious. We incessantly worried about demagogues and tyrants. We fretted about democratic majorities acting like vicious mobs, abusing their power to cram through agendas over sobbing minorities. We were terrified citizens might start thinking more like subjects, destroying democracy from inside through carelessness, selfishness, ignorance, or momentary passion. We were gripped with fear we might lose our democracy. Then, after two centuries and a half of successes, we starting thinking republics were inevitable. We got complacent.

We’re failing at democracy because we forgot this foundational idea over which we once obsessed, that democracy requires republican virtue and citizenship to survive. We started to think it was a birthright natural to American soil and not something prior generations labored and sacrificed to sustain. While we like to imagine there’s some group of powerful external villains breaking our country, the truth is the people breaking America is us. It’s us disrespecting our democracy, arrogantly failing to honor the duties citizenship entails.

We take for granted that Americans won’t bother learning details of the difficult issues of governing, as if that were completely outrageous to expect. We presume no one really understands the positions they demand officials enact, knowing whether they’re hyperbolized wedges cooked up in a consultant’s lab, or fevered cries from media charlatans, or utopian dreams of activists divorced from real world facts. Except there’s nothing so difficult in the basic issues of American government that it requires an elite education to understand. No one thinks it strange when ordinary Americans routinely memorize complex sports statistics and strategies, or know the deepest lore of the Marvel Universe, or understand how to take apart a car. Like most things in life, it just takes a little time, interest, and attention. If that’s truly an impossible demand, a democracy of self-governing citizens was never realistic at all.

Worse, we also no longer value the self-restraint democracy requires. That we must make compromises with opponents. That we must listen and understand ideas we oppose. That we must respect norms that stop us from doing things we want to do, that specifically exist to stop us from viciously overpowering the other side. Too many of us believe democracy is about defeating “enemies” within our own country and then ramming through whatever policies we like over their despondent howls. Instead of viewing our elections as about selecting competent officials to debate and resolve our problems, we act as if it’s a glorious battle between good and evil with us always cast as good.

The problem is, in a multicultural democracy with hundreds of millions of different people you’re not supposed to always get your way. In fact, if you’re always getting all your priorities enacted in a democracy it means something has seriously gone wrong. Real democracy means hashing out tough compromises over impossible issues navigating hundreds of millions of conflicting needs, wants, and values. It works because everyone knows they’ll get some of what they want, nothing they can’t accept, and eventually get their own turn to rule. Democracy was never about reaching perfect results that someone loves, but a consensus everyone can live with. If some group is getting everything they want in a democracy while their opponents are getting nothing, that’s the very majority tyranny America’s Founders feared.

What a lot of Americans want isn’t the heavy responsibility of self-governing a republic as equal citizens. They want to elect a king from their tribe who will stomp their enemies and fix their problems.

They don’t want to rule themselves. They want to choose who gets to rule them. That’s not the citizens of a republic. That’s the subjects of a monarch we chose.

You can’t sustain a democracy with people who think it’s a disaster if their opponents get to rule. Once people start to think the consequences are too great to ever lose an election, they can’t dare to give up power. There’s no norm or guardrail they won’t break. There’s no lie they won’t tell, dirty trick they won’t employ, or outrageous action they won’t try. Once people convince themselves it’s too dangerous to ever give up power, they’re just playing at democracy. They’re biding time before it all inevitably crumbles into dust.

That’s the road we’re traveling and we have to quickly change our course. We’re increasingly convinced our neighbors aren’t just different but evil, and should never get representation or power. We blithely accept anti-democratic tropes like “elections have consequences,” or “I have a pen and a phone” that rejoice in imposing the majority’s tyranny. We think democracy means winning enough votes to seize the reins of power, instead of self-governing on everyone’s behalf. We’re playing a mutual game of democratic destruction.

While we’re yelling and denouncing each other, America faces an increasing array of urgent problems more severe than at any other time in our lives. The world is changing, our prosperity and security is slipping, and new problems are piling up at the Capitol steps. We have to rethink almost every institution, law, and structure in our country to conform to the reality of this new world, instead of the mid-twentieth-century assumptions around which we built them. Yet we’re leaving our problems festering, unaddressed, and unresolved because our toxic political culture makes it impossible to act.

There’s no longer space in politics to explore, to think, or to experiment. There’s no path to debate or compromise. There’s no way to build consensus or national majorities. Even if a few good officials wanted to start work on new ideas, they couldn’t because we won’t let them. Thus our politics degenerates from a debate over government into anger, resentment, and symbolic gestures that look like politics but don’t accomplish anything. At the most difficult time for our country in our lives, America’s national debate is about making us feel right and humiliating enemies instead of fixing problems to make things better. We’re sliding into this national decay not because we’re polarized. It’s because we’re paralyzed.

Everyone pretends there’s some law we can pass, or candidate we can elect, or technology we can control, or reform we can implement, that will make this dangerous cycle stop. There isn’t because what’s ultimately driving it is us. We’ve allowed this failure in our national character to settle in, one we continue to feed and encourage. The only way to break free is collectively to stop, to wake each other up from this terrible spell of madness. We need to recommit to democratic citizenship as a people, and then make sure we never forget its duties again.

America’s Founders were right. It does take a certain type of virtue to sustain a democratic republic. Next time your political passions cause you to react rather than engage, step back. When you want to tear things down, think again about building new things up. Instead of looking to crush your enemies, engage them as opponents. Don’t wait for others to fix things like the subject of a king, but stand up and take responsibility like a citizen.

America is still a democracy. No one’s coming to solve our problems but us.