Our Civic Health: Discovering the Art & Science of Working Together

Park Bridge Meeting in King County, Washington

There’s a chorus asking us to think about our civic health. A relatively quiet (i.e., hardly noticeable) effort in Arizona added the citizenship test to graduation requirements. Then there was San Bernardino. And, in President Obama’s State of the Union speech, he asked American citizens to join him in creating a “better politics.”

The question that rose above the usual position taking in San Bernardino sounded like one we all expected so it was easy to miss. It wasn’t whether or not HE was crazy but whether or not WE are. The implication is that it’s possible for us to fail at democracy. Something President Obama even worked into his last State of the Union address. He summoned the power of the first three words of the Constitution to remind us that the American people will “rise and fall together.”

Addressing the question of our civic health might be difficult than adding another test to our graduation requirements. If we think hard about our shared purpose in working through such a question, however, we might engage ourselves and other citizens in the work that determines whether our political community grows stronger or shrinks away.

Understanding the Question

Writing for Politico Magazine, Jonathan Zimmerman asked if the tragedy in San Bernardino was proof of our failure in civic education. An American citizen who completed his entire education in the states took the lives of fellow citizens in the apparent support of a radical foreign ideology. Zimmerman wrote that schools were once “our central mechanism for making Americans… for socializing the young into the norms, traditions and beliefs of the nation.” He then pointed to today’s culprits for compromising on that work by naming shifts in public opinion after Vietnam and Watergate and listing a series of movements to promote “more marketable vocational skills” instead.

Electric Brain by Michael Cohglan

Another version of Zimmerman’s question might be, “is our civic mind well?” The question is one of our collective health. The American people as a whole are the patient of interest.

Writing in 1789, James Madison also described the American people as a patient suffering different maladies and searching for a remedy. The future of the United States relied on finding the right course of treatment. Madison asked his fellow citizens to make distinctions between good advice and bad.

Such a patient, and in such a situation is America at this moment. She has been sensible of her malady. She has obtained a regular and unanimous advice from men of her own deliberate choice. And she is warned by others against following this advice, under pain of the most fatal consequences.
— James Madison, Federalist No. 38

The doctor’s perspective is one that requires careful examination of ailments, thorough testing of potential cures and a careful understanding of how all these actions influence other outcomes. When the question of our civic health arises through tragic events, the direction and distance we go looking for answers reveal how little or much we understand of the question and the context that made it possible.

Knowing We are Not Well

It isn’t difficult to feel disfranchised when we experience daily life in our communities as fixed propositions. We’re convinced that anyone paying attention knows city officials have their minds made up. The meetings on the city’s calendar run more like a final mechanism to show public support for the city’s plan and less like opportunities for civic engagement for communities to define and address their priorities.

Banksy by Rocor

Banksy by Rocor

This is a paradigm of managed care. Elected officials and professional bureaucrats tell us what the problems are and then oversee the prescriptions they have provided. Citizens follow their orders.

This, however, isn’t just about how we choose to govern ourselves. This disposition toward managed care runs parallel to how we approach problem-solving generally. We don’t discover answers and the stories that made them possible. We Google what we need to know.

We don’t puzzle over questions. We fill in the blanks and move onto the next. Finding the answer is the end of the story instead of the beginning. In looking for answers, we travel the shortest distance possible.

On this model, the citizen’s role is defined by the answer to a single question, “did you vote?”. The answer is either yes or no. It leads to either “sanctioned” complaining about decision-makers or shaming of non-voters. If, however, we imagine citizens to be civic discoverers, the patient collaborating with physicians to look for both old and new answers, we unlock a list of much more interesting questions. Problem-seeking and puzzle-solving challenge the apathy, hopelessness and cynicism that too often pass for political discussion.

What are the signs of our illness? How do we know these signs point to serious trouble ahead? Can we evaluate these symptoms with past experiences or address them with other known approaches? Is there in fact something fundamental at stake and, if so, how do we chart our course forward?

We look beyond search results to discover answers once understood in our past or newly understood to be possible in our future.

In contrast, the most shallow version of political life surrounds us in arguments via Facebook threads and the resilience of past ideas that haunt current campaigns. For example, some part of the American public has yet to question Donald Trump’s nativist policies. These are ideas understood to be fundamentally un-American by the majority and held to be incompatible with democratic government since the end of World War II. These ideas still appear to be winning primary votes because there’s an opportunity embedded in the affliction of the American people.

We don’t just disagree, we mistrust one another. It’s fear and loathing shaping our political life. Writing on Policy and Politics for Vox, Ezra Klien summarizes recent Pew polling data

This, then, is the last 30 years of American party politics in a sentence: we like the party we belong to a bit less, but we hate the other party much more.

Dislike Parties JPEG

According to the data, there’s more of us thinking less of the rest of us and we’re even willing to say that we see the other party “as a threat to the nation’s well-being.”These troubling assessments add up to a system malfunction and makes it necessary to question of our civic health. These bad attitudes are no longer an anomaly when they influence our ability to cooperate and live well together.

This is a modern round of an old sickness… American political life dominated by ideas of enemies and rivals.

How Citizens Work to Promote Wellness

Two writers from our past can help breathe new life into our ideas about our civic health. At first, it requires a small bit of imagination. Alexis de Tocqueville and Thomas Kuhn thought of our civic life as a science, and a necessary one.

In the 1840’s, Alexis de Tocqueville declared that democratic societies depend on the “science of association” and that this “mother science” makes progress possible in all other sciences. More than a hundred years later, Thomas Kuhn analyzed how science itself made innovation possible. The relationship between science, civics and the art of innovation becomes more real and less imagined as we consider this work.

Writing in 1962, Kuhn observed that political and scientific change start with the “sense of malfunction.” He understood that reports of this failure would only come from a segment of the community who would then have to interrogate it to see if it could actually be resolved by current commitments, if it required the further articulation of those commitments or if it in fact pointed to something new. This work to better understand a malfunction and to communicate its consequences beyond that initial segment of the community is the work of citizens. With long lists of questions and no certainty about their answers, citizens engage in this work as citizen scientists or civic discoverers.

Kuhn’s “extraordinary science” provokes the practitioners who suspect the malfunction to “push the rules” harder than ever in an effort to understand the problem more precisely and to give structure to its interrogation. Overlaying this discussion of science onto our understanding of civics, we turn to civic discoverers to identify these difficulties, “magnifying the breakdown… making it more striking and perhaps also more suggestive than it had been.” This work culminates in generating alternatives that will possibly “disclose the road to a new paradigm.” A disposition toward civic discovery on this model marks a path toward innovation through the citizen’s work. To engage in public life, community members participate in accumulating anomalies to both identify potential malfunctions and to communicate what they see to others.

Civic education, when it works, aims to build an understanding of our current commitments. But, on Kuhn’s model, knowing them is not enough. Citizens also have to recognize the anomalies that occur to challenge those commitments and then use those same commitments to test the accumulated anomalies and to share their results.

The three branches of American government, for example, appear in most evaluations of civic education. The citizenship asks respondents to name one branch of government and then which branch makes federal law. But Kuhn’s model also requires looking at how a citizen would distinguish good lawmaking from bad. The anomalies that might grab our attention include the current filibuster and the accumulated efforts to either defund or understaff policies and agencies established by previous lawmakers. Listing the three branches of government proves very little if the person listing them has no capacity for evaluating the work of each branch and how well they serve to support the shared work of democratic government.

Passing the test proves they knew the first and only answer to a series of questions. It does nothing to prepare citizens for stepping into the role of asking the questions and evaluating diverse answers.

Alexis de Tocqueville described these small ideas about what people in democratic society could do in the mid-1800’s. He recognized it in the arguments of his contemporaries who suggested, “as citizens become weaker and more incapable, it is necessary to render government more skillful and more active.” Once again, the citizen’s role was imagined to be little more than following orders. Or memorizing correct answers.

Tocqueville believed they were wrong. According to him, the solution to this problem resided in the people rather than the government. He saw an American model of democracy that turned to associations to enroll the people in participating in their own government. Associations in the United States made it possible for a democratic people, inclined toward isolation and independence, to benefit from a strength that occurred naturally in aristocracies where “sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed” through the “reciprocal action” of powerful men and their ideas. The American capacity to form associations, what Tocqueville called an “infinite art,” represented power and possibilities.

The alternative was to “fall into impotence,” and Tocqueville imagined that this outcome could have tragic consequences. He warned us that people who “lost the power of doing great things in isolation, without acquiring the ability to produce them in common, would soon return to barbarism.” If we have lost the capacity to work together, Tocqueville suggests we already know the answer to these questions about our civic health.

Civic Discoverers…

With these models of the citizen’s role, managed care or well-programmed test takers is not only a sad state of affairs. It’s dangerous.

Tocqueville’s democratic citizen needs to counter isolation and impotence with a willingness to work with other citizens through an “innumerable multitude of small undertakings.” Civic discoverers look for these shared goals and work to enroll fellow citizens in shared efforts. Kuhn’s community participates in the inquiry of what works, what doesn’t and seeks to understand both cases. Civic discoverers look beyond the first question to understand how it came to be and to predict what might come next.

Collaborative inquiry is essential to improving our civic condition as well as our civic education. Approaching civics as a science and discovery as a civic skill, we might even discover how to work together again.

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