Politics & Policy

The Vanishing American Citizen

The civic and psychic muscles of self-government atrophy if they aren’t regularly exercised — and the American electorate is seriously out of shape.

The United States was built to be governed locally. Americans are supposed to meet with their neighbors face-to-face to hammer out their differences and collectively decide how they want to be governed. To work, this process requires certain skills of those who participate in it. Local government is therefore a kind of school of citizenship that every citizen is expected to attend. The civic and psychic muscles of self-government that are taught and honed in town halls and city councils — the muscles that allow for compromise — atrophy if they are not regularly exercised in the context of citizenship, which is to say, the context of compromise. And in terms of classically republican virtue, the United States of America is seriously out of shape.

One of the crucial skills of citizenship is the ability to find intersecting points of agreement with people who see the world differently than you, and to use those areas of common ground to craft policy that can command the support of a majority. Early in the Republic, most adults (with the shameful exceptions of Native and African Americans) were well-trained in this practice by the exigencies of life in local communities. But for reasons outlined admirably by Tim Carney in his book Alienated America, Americans have lost interest in that process of civic engagement. The increasing geographic self-segregation of conservatives and progressives into hermetically sealed communities suggests that we want to spend most of our time living exclusively with people who already agree with us and scoffing derisively at strangers who don’t.

As a result, Americans have pretty much abdicated the responsibilities of citizenship, outsourcing them to Washington, D.C. It can be said with only a little exaggeration that Capitol Hill is now the only town hall left in America. What makes this sordid state of affairs even worse is that, having contracted our own civic duties out to politicians, we then punish them when they undertake these duties, because doing so involves compromise with the other political tribe. The biggest problem besetting American politics today is not the politician you happen to dislike the most but the overwhelming civic laziness of the average American citizen. Like spoiled children, we believe that we should be able to have everything our own way without having to make any concessions to our neighbors. We are consequently more than ready to listen to demagogues who tell us that we can have it all our own way if we just hand them the reins of power and let them get on with delivering us from the Christian commandment to love our enemies.

The aforementioned muscles of citizenship and self-government have so wasted away in the American body-politic that many cannot even bear to see them exercised by elected representatives. It may come as a shock to many on the right to learn this, but according to the best traditions of our own national identity, participation in politics, especially at the local level, has a moralizing effect on the participants. In fact, no less a figure than Alexis de Tocqueville himself thought so. As Larry Siedentop noted in his 1994 book on the great Frenchman:

What took Tocqueville beyond the confines of Restoration liberalism were his reflections on the New England Township and the opportunities it offered for participation within a nation-state. The American township enabled Tocqueville to ‘save’ part of [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau’s defence of participation and its moralizing effects, while disregarding those aspects which ignored the differences between ancient and modern society, between the polis and the nation-state, between public virtue and private rights.

Participation in public life teaches valuable lessons about the need to prioritize goals, to sublimate one’s personal desires to a shared vision of the greater good, and to deal with one’s opponents in a civil and productive manner. The fact that many Republicans (and Democrats) are horrified that Senator McConnell and Joe Biden seem to like each other just goes to show how rotten American civic life has become.

One sad byproduct of this state of affairs has been the growing phenomenon of Republican politicians being “primaried.” This usually happens to Republicans who have accomplished something during their time in office and/or annoyed the president. The worst thing you can do if you’re an incumbent trying to win reelection in 2020 is to rack up tangible legislative accomplishments, because most of the time accomplishing something means working with the enemy. Once this happens, a primary challenger with no accomplishments to speak of and a greater willingness to publicly bend the knee to Trump can pitch their ideological purity to the lazy non-citizens of America and stand a good chance of winning.

Primary challenges undertaken in the name of ideological purity aren’t exclusively a feature of the right, of course. Many Democratic primaries during the 2018 election cycle were won by far-left candidates who defeated more moderate incumbents using the same playbook, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose upset of Joe Crowley in New York City made her an instant media sensation. The reason that this isn’t discussed more often — the exception that proves the rule being the attention paid to Ocasio-Cortez and her “squad” — is that the more radical Democratic candidates were largely on the losing side in the general election. The Democrats took back the House two years ago largely thanks to more moderate candidates who were not altogether averse to the idea of building coalitions and working for consensus in the corridors of power.

For Republicans, on the other hand, the threat of being primaried was ever-present even before Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the party, and has only become more pronounced since. The president is determined to transform the GOP from a party of citizens into a party of courtiers whose unifying principle is personal loyalty to himself. As a result, many Republican primaries have become little more than competitions for his affections and the endorsement that comes with them. The very virtues that make conservative candidates effective legislators also make them less and less electable.

And that’s a shame, because career politicians are actually among the few Americans left in 2020 who have consciously developed the skills and virtues necessary for responsible citizenship. If we take Tocqueville’s description of this country in Democracy in America to be a normative one, then the truth is that all Americans should be lifelong part-time politicians of a sort in their local communities, and the most talented and selfless citizens in these little platoons should then be elevated by their neighbors to the national stage. This is a far cry from how our system actually works at the moment. There are undoubtedly moral hazards involved in the prolonged participation of some people in the affairs of state, but how are we to recognize and combat them if we never try to navigate them ourselves as citizens? It is a longstanding conservative conviction that if you want to change the world, you should start by changing yourself. In that spirit, I would ask the reader to consider the proposition that the problem with American government is not long-established politicians, but voters’ complacency, because the number of men and women in Teddy Roosevelt’s arena appears to be decreasing by the day.


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