the case for active citizenship when government fails us

In Stockton, CA, columnist Mike Fitzgerald argues that his city needs civic literacy to address its dire economic and political condition:

For two decades, Stockton’s leaders overpaid public employees, subsidized sprawl and racked up staggering debt.

Few objected.

When the crisis hit, a reform council hired a competent city manager. Over the ensuing three years, leaders halted past excesses and put in place fiscal reforms.

But, dismayingly, many citizens seemed unable to distinguish between the reform council and the hacks of the past. They voted almost all reformers out of office.

A surreal procession of angry citizens came before the council to denounce it.

“There are reasons to be angry,” Levine said. “But a successful citizen needs to be able to make distinctions. To figure out who in charge is bad and who is good. And it’s very disempowering if you’re so distrustful that you can’t identify an ally.”

Inability to discern friend from foe explains the blanket anger. It’s a primal scream, as opposed to literate civic discourse.

Angry, unwitting citizens are part of an incompetence loop. They fail to recognize good service; they pelt all councils with hostility; which repels good leaders; which leaves Bozos; who govern poorly; thus further disaffecting the masses.

For some causes of civic illiteracy, such as poverty, there are no easy solutions. A couple obvious remedies are to strengthen literacy programs and civics classes.

Meanwhile, in the University of Florida’s student newspaper, The Alligator, I challenge students to get more involved in civic reform:

… We face profound problems the government isn’t addressing — persistent unemployment, climate change, violence and mass incarceration and the slow desertion of our great industrial cities, to name just a few.

Although we should expect more from the government and our political leaders, they cannot solve these problems on their own. People can solve even the most difficult problems if they are organized and active. That is not a wish — it is a finding of extensive research. But where are we going to get more active and responsible citizens?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.