The future of America depends upon sound citizenship. Unfortunately, we are in a bad situation right now. The top doesn’t honor its citizen trust very well, and large elements of the population don’t buy into our citizen ethic well.
The political elite of the nation is really not very tied to citizenship as a standard of accountability. And too many Americans have pulled away from their responsibilities as taxpayers and voters. Both hurt the prospects for our democracy.
Yet, just as The Public Square feels the leadership of the country is failing, we must try and grasp the pressures on the people that are diluting our democratic citizen ethic today.
Tearing at the fabric of our citizenship is the loss of our roots. Among them are the family, parenting and job structure. Beyond this, a once rigorous education system has gone too soft. We’ve also have seen the believed ethics of church and community crumble badly in our time.
The pride and sweep of American history and our national story, once revered and part of every citizen’s heart, is also now too debunked. And finally, the lure of consumerism as the source of all future abundance has taken its cumulative toll on the American spirit.
So where are we? The dilution of the citizen model over the last 50 years is partly due to the increased pace and complexity of society. Our ability easily to find, discover, educate, and buy into a demonstratively cohesive sense of expected citizenship has become harder.
Four factors work against having a constantly unified citizenry. One is the changing job economy. A second is the force of technology. A third is government. A fourth is globalization.
First, the job market badly splinters our citizen world. Most Americans have two adults working, at times doing two, sometimes three – even four – jobs. Regardless of social makeup, family stability takes a hit. The cost of living for people puts added pressure on making ends meet.
With children themselves very tightly scheduled. – in school, after school with homework, on the sports field, and with community service – there is no family down time any more. The commuting distances for parents meanwhile are much steadily longer, and traffic congestion steadily higher. This erodes life’s very day-to-day balances for people.
In addition, technology shatters the citizen fabric today. The computer screen has replaced America’s front porch. The cell phone cuts into conversation between people – in the home, at restaurants, in elevators, everywhere now. The Internet amounts meanwhile to a mere extension of one’s will. Unlike books and movies, it curtails engagement with other people, traditions, and thought.
Because the daily newspaper also is a thing of the past, there are no common workforce moments shared every morning. Many Americans want to be connected, but not negotiate with the world any more. And so technology expands information, but hurts communication. Our devices find people for us, but in the end also isolates people.
Then, third, there’s government. Increasingly our democracy is an administrative state. By administering things – many having little point – government is marginalizing people and communities. The regulatory energy is spun around interest groups. This guarantees the status quo, mostly in very unattractive coagulated forms. They often breed despair.
The state can no longer function for dynamic purposes it seems. And so, in the name of blessing us, government becomes too often injurious. At best government acts like a rigged cartel for society’s stewards, with no fiscal discipline to obey or penalties for abusers.
Finally, we live in a world that is pulling people into new umbrellas. These include organized computer spheres such as “cloud communities.” Or Facebook “netizens,” corralled as part of a billion people circling the globe and “liking” one another. Yet another form are our newer, borderless commercial zones and trade alliances transcending nationality.
Unlike the state-centric tradition, these alliances are digital. They are not geographic. They are horizontal, not so much vertical. To date, however, most people see these new ties to citizenship as ones of “connectivity” more than “sovereignty.”
Unless people remain secure in the values they hold dear, this could change.
Everyone must have anchors still, and it is our citizenship that provides them. Democracy needs character, and character built on integrity is still the most positive force in life.
It helps to understand how job market incoherence, community loss through technology isolation, the sapping of citizen vitality by government, and competing global allegiances are sabotaging influences that drain our citizen ethic. But a flourishing democracy must find a way to counter their effects.
Democracy has a deficit from both a leadership depletion, and a weakened citizen model. The question is how we refresh our democratic order. The Public Square will turn next to those aspirations, and how they might inspire and unify us.