This blog, and the first book it’s inspired, came out of a desire to “do something” about a set of political conditions that caused me concern. One of the problems that struck me is the way our lifestyle seems to be undermining our public engagement, not just in politics but in every other area. The final chapter of the book walks through a series of practical suggestions aimed at making the kind of casual political involvement so critical to our system more practical in a digital world. This excerpt is the introduction to that chapter:
Leaving the office early tonight means extra work tomorrow, but it’s the only way to get home in time for your son’s soccer game. Your daughter’s game starts half an hour later, so your spouse will be covering that one. After the game comes dinner, maybe around 7:30. You’ll have to get it at the corner pizza joint—no time to cook.
Home by about 8, then baths, homework, clarinet practice, and so on. Once the kids are in bed, you’ve got a few emails to respond to, about matters that came up after you left the office.
Sitting in bed, spouses catch each other up on family matters. The kids’ grades, weekend plans, news from work, the call from Grandma or Aunt so-and-so. Maybe you can squeeze in a half-hour episode from the DVR. Then the lights go out, and soon it’s time to start all over again.
Where in this scenario is there room to attend a caucus?
Crazy politics is symptomatic of a complex social problem. Our system is built on the assumption that citizens are knitted together in a dense network of participatory institutions. Relatively few of those institutions are overtly political, but all of them foster an atmosphere of accountability and oversight that keeps our interests connected.
These networks maintain the feedback loops that dampen political stupidity. Very few people may be directly involved in politics in ways that require a physical presence, but that complex network of social institutions is supposed to ensure that those few people are sound, representative, and accountable. That isn’t happening now.
As we’ve grown richer and freer, we’ve left behind many of the ties that once bound us together in communities. Greater individualism is fueling an expansion of wealth while tearing down many of the institutions that gave rise to that wealth.
In evaluating how we might restore some sanity to our political system, we must confront some bad news: For a representative democracy to thrive there is no substitute for engagement. Time and attention come at a cost. The energy we devote to collective participation in community institutions must come from somewhere.
The good news is that we can leverage the same technological advancements that have sped up our lives in order to build new sorts of communities to supplement our personal engagement. Technology cannot replace the inherently humanizing value of face-to-face interactions. To the extent that we leverage its potential, we must always be aware of the fresh problems and distortions it creates. But, despite its limitations, we must start using these new tools more aggressively, and in a more purposeful manner, to re-create some of the institutional checks and balances that once rose from local communities.
Making these new virtual communities effective starts with an understanding of the older functions we need to supplement. Responsible citizenship involves so much more than reading the newspaper and voting. A complex political environment lurks beneath the headlines, as evidenced by the seemingly unimportant races hiding at the bottom of my Election Day ballot…
I’m gonna go OT here with this.
I think it’s fair to say both Dems and GOP’S should vehemently oppose this, basically an attempt at destroying judicial independence, and absolutely fundamental piece of the American political system.
The other part of the article, about “rampant voter fraud” seems like it’s going to be the next GOP attack point, especially if they start finding elections harder and harder to win as the rest of the country leaves them behind due to the social policies.
Rob, there’s so much that’s wrong in KS that we are just beginning to find out the nasty little details. You can’t give the state legislature a pass – they drafted and passed this piece of crap legislation…Brownback’s approval is hardly necessary. As for Kobach’s expanded prosecutorial powers, the crimes may not ever exist but they will find them even if they have to perpetrate them. I believe it was Fly that commented that the voters of KS put these people into office, not once, but twice. The people to pity are the children who can’t vote.
Surely Justice is watching and waiting. The arrogant misuse of state authority, greed and ego will ultimately trip these people up but not until they have destroyed the state.
As I have said before, “is this how the GOP rules”?
The GOP has already figured out their base will buy anything they say. They know they’re in a decline and nothing is too extreme to thwart their efforts – voter suppression is an art form for the GOP.
Even as a single person, your story of how do you find time resonates. Also politics is not a game well-suited to us introverts. I volunteered for a Congressional campaign a few years back. It was a very good education for me, but I will never enjoy approaching total strangers and trying to sell them on my candidate. That’s just not in my skill set.
Also a big YAY for the clarinetist in the house, and I hope s/he has got to that happy place where it is fun to play!
Lifer wrote: “our lifestyle seems to be undermining our public engagement.”
I would say that our fixation on the very technology that you mention is greatly to blame for our current lack of public engagement, and also for our lack of private interaction. If we are more likely to stare at our devices than to converse face-to-face with the person across the dinner table, how likely are we to actively engage in the political process with a group of people?
True, Tutta, there is a lot to criticize about technology overuse. Given the reality of limited time all of us experience, for whatever reason, technology is an aide. It will never replace personal interaction – in either quality or substance. I watch our children who lead successful professional and personal lives struggle with exactly the scenario Lifer presents in his post. It’s all they can do to meet the work/family obligations that must be tended much less find time for political involvement. But they do have opinions in that area that they take with them into the voting booth. I am sorry that their lives are so fast-paced – every minute accounted for. That is a modern cultural condition that I think is even more harmful than hyper-technology even though they try so hard to do it all well.
Public engagement in the political arena is not for everyone. It’s why Lifer may be more valuable to the process as a writer than as a candidate – at this point in his life. We each have specific talents. You probably “rise to the occasion” on issues you feel strongly about and thus attend a meeting or two but may elect not to engage. That was never an issue for me ( being one of six children helped me avoid shyness). I always enjoyed the process but it’s not for everyone. Lifer’s point is there are many ways to be involved (this blog is one – and important) and different points in one’s life where we choose to do so.
If it’s an issue that directly impacts you personally, your work, or your family, most make the personal commitment. Ex. Our children attended public schools and their school district was drawn in such a way as to essentially kill the vibrant high school within it. The zoning was purely political – lots of envy as well as interest in some of the football talent coming up (!!). I got involved because it was impacting honors class opportunities for our children due to dwindling enrollment. That was a fight I willingly took on – and, ultimately won – not because I was so powerful or smart – but because the issue was real personal and it had a direct bearing on our childrens’ educational futures. Many other children were also being affected and we worked within the political process to bring about change. (There is nothing like righteous indignation and messing with one’s children to rally the troops.) That effort did lead to other political activity but the impetus was family. It taught me a lot about the importance of getting involved and where I could be most effective.
You probably have experienced similar situations but are very selective with your efforts. We all bring different personalities and skill sets to life. I’m sure I couldn’t come close to your achievements in other areas or that of many others who post here.
Using technology to become better informed is a necessity for all generations. It saves time. Reading widely (if one has “time”) helps one make better choices through better understanding of the issues and candidates/public servants positions/actions. Being aware of the beliefs and opinions of other well informed, committed individuals who espouse different views is important to keep one from the “FOX/MSNBC” tunnel view. (GOPlifer.com) Teaching our children and grandchildren the basic tenets of Democracy gives them a “head start”. Responsible involvement is a great teacher. As Lifer notes in his book, there is no substitute for direct, active involvement, as the flawed TP certainly has proven. Participation at the local political level is a terrific instructor on how government works, or not. Since national candidates so often spring from local political offices, this offers a great opportunity to learn and impact change, at the same time influence who some of the future larger scale political players will be. At the very least, you better understand the process.
My local political involvement over many years taught me lessons that will forever temper my personal expectations and appreciation for the difficulty and opportunities of political engagement. It doesn’t require that one seek elected office; rather, it can be through your PTA, community organization, non-profit, Chamber, Men’s and Women’s Groups, local political parties. This is where the individual has the best opportunity to learn how the process works and to work within the process to effect change.
But, all of this does take time – the commodity that many lack. Pick and choose wisely.
It’s not just a question of time, Mime, but you also have to be a people person in order to interact within community organizations. Some of us are just not “people people.” Also, I dislike discussions about politics, since they usually end acrimoniously. Personally, I will have to settle for “reading widely” and just injecting the occasional observation from time to time.
Thank you, and good night! 🙂