Below are the first paragraphs of a new article by me in the centennial issue of the National Civic Review.* They are also the first paragraphs of a book that is just about complete. I argue that certain types of citizen participation are the only plausible solutions to our deepest and most intractable problems, at this particular stage in our political history. In the book, I then present political strategies for renewing civic engagement against the powerful forces that would rather hold it down.
We Americans are in a bad mood about our nation and our public life. By two to one, we think that we are heading in the “wrong direction” rather than the “right track.” Unemployment, bankruptcies, bailouts, and other repercussions of the Great Recession are surely on our minds, but our pessimistic mood started well before that. A majority of Americans said they were satisfied with the nation’s course briefly at the conclusion of the First Gulf War and shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At all other times during the last 20 years, most Americans have been dissatisfied.
Perhaps this is because we face an accumulation of profound problems. They have been called “wicked problems” because better policies alone could not fix them (although our bad policies surely make matters worse). Our problems interlock, so that each one can be seen as a symptom of another. They are entangled with cultural norms and personal behavior as well as conflicting rights and limited resources. Any of the purported solutions could do more damage than good. How to define and diagnose our problems is fundamentally controversial, inseparable from our diverse religious and philosophical commitments. Advancing some of our interests and values would set other Americans back. For those who identify with particular interests and ideologies, watching our opponents express themselves in public can be deeply frustrating. For those who feel little stake in national debates, the bitter controversy itself is alienating.
I do not claim that our condition is worse than it usually is. On the contrary, we are richer, safer, and more respectful of rights than we were half a century ago—and far more so than when Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office. A consistent theme in American politics is the Jeremiad, a lament that we have suddenly lost our way and face imminent destruction. James Fallows notes that “only six years after the Arbella brought John Winthrop to Massachusetts, a Congregationalist minister was lamenting the lost golden age of the colony, asking parishioners, ‘Are all [God’s] kindnesses forgotten? all your promises forgotten?” After four centuries of such Jeremiads, we should doubt that our current problems are unprecedented. The end is not nigh.
But I do claim that the obligation to address our problems falls on us—American citizens—more profoundly than in the past. Our political institutions are inadequate to address our accumulated problems; and the prevailing ideologies offer no plausible solutions.
*Peter Levine, “The Public and Our Problems,” National Civic Review, Volume 100, Issue 1, pages 42–50, Spring 2011