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…