time for civil courage

Post-War Germany teaches the ideal of Zivilcourage, civil courage. The acid test is whether you would stand up to a tyrant rather than standing by as he takes over. Even when a literal tyranny is not imminent, civil courage means holding sacred ground.

It’s what we need today. And that means, please, no jokes about moving to Canada. No thoughts about giving up on the nation you belong to, even if its majority and its institutions anger you. No opting out. You may have suffered grievous injustices at the hands of the United States: many have. In that case, you owe no gratitude or service to the republic. But you have more leverage over the US government than the billions who live beyond our borders and yet face the consequences of our policies. You owe it to them to stand up: here, now.

It may seem that the large, official institutions of the United States are remote and unresponsive to our actions, yours and mine. But the fundamental premise of my whole career is that our formal institutions reflect the ways that we talk and work together in everyday life. My first job out of graduate school was at Common Cause, helping to lobby Congress for institutional reform. But while I worked there (1991-3), the organization’s membership rolls were in steep and prolonged decline. Common Cause evolved from a grassroots movement for good government (solely dependent on 250,000 members in local and state chapters) into a nonprofit organization that employs talented experts and relies heavily on grants and large gifts. As such, it has lost political influence. I began to think that we can’t have decent political institutions without a base of active, responsible, organized citizens. Robert Putnam’s 1995 “Bowling Alone” article struck a chord for that reason, and everything I’ve worked on since then has been in the service of civic renewal.

This means that you are showing civil courage if you are working to strengthen the associations and networks that connect us as fellow citizens. This theory is also a source of optimism. Despite some deterioration, we have a far better civil society than Italy had in 1922, or Germany in 1932. For just that reason, actual tyranny is highly unlikely here. (Radical Paul Ryanesque neoliberalism is much more of a threat.) But our associations and networks are only as robust as we make them.

By the way, the networks and associations that we build must include Trump voters. This is not a matter of showing empathy to them or trying to achieve reconciliation. Instead, a cold, hard look at the situation tells me that Trump voters are unrepresented by accountable organizations, and that makes them dangerous. If they had organizations, I’d be on the opposite side from them on most issues, but we could negotiate. Absent a functioning civil society, they have opted for a celebrity who will give them nothing, even as he harms others.

Speaking of cold, hard analysis: we should be critical, but avoid anger. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and it’s fine to apportion responsibility if that helps to improve the situation. We can critically assess Clinton and her campaign, the Democratic establishment and its ideology, consultants and pollsters, the media, the FBI, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, white voters, old voters, rural voters, men, and anyone else you like. But not in anger, because anger clouds judgment and promotes error. The situation is complex; nothing but a clear-headed, subtle, multifaceted analysis will suffice.

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.
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