Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Pulling the Lever

This morning's Inside Higher Education features an essay by two political scientists discussing the relative merits of political "engagement" efforts as contrasted to the more mundane course offerings in American government. The faculty - rightly, it seems to me - note that longstanding political engagement will not occur without a fundamental knowledge about, and commitment to, the basic principles of constitutional democracy. The authors point to two reports by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute that reveal the woeful levels of civic knowledge among today's college students. In an age of information, there is too little actual knowledge of how things work.

I agree in large measure with these authors, but as is often the case with too many of my colleagues in political science, they tend to see the prize - the proof positive - of civic engagement to be voters in the voting booth. Our culture as a whole tends to measure political engagement in and through voting participation - in no small part, I suspect, because it is actually something that you can measure. But I also think it reflects our emaciated conception of citizenship, which, in liberal political theory, tends to be reduced to registering of, and collection of, individual preferences as a guide for representatives to do the work of governing on our behalves. Citizenship is preference collection.

With such a view of citizenship, there can be little wonder that so few citizens actually bother to vote. If voting is the collection of preferences, I have very little motivation to bother to go out into sometimes nasty weather or wait in a line to add my miniscule preference to the large collection. Rational choice theory tells us that it makes no sense for individuals to vote, since we know our single vote has almost 0% chance to swing an election. We also know that opinion polls probably do a better job of registering our preferences, so we have little motivation to go to the polls. A course in American government - even a very well crafted course - is likely to do little to change this basic fact.

If we really care about promoting citizenship, we need to widen and deepen our understanding of what citizenship is. For this, I must put in a plug for political theory, the field which I teach (and, incidentally, a field that has now been removed as a course of study at The Pennsylvania State University, a move I fear is the wave of the future as our love of "science" only marches on). Political theory is the field, in the first instance, that showed behavioral science in the 1960s and 70s the absurdity of its commitment to "value-neutral" science, an untenable position the authors of this article admit it has abandoned in its forthright admission that it seeks to support constitutional democracy and to foster citizenship. But more importantly, political theory - all too rarely, but still often enough - is the field of study that aims at expanding our emaciated contemporary understanding of citizenship. As I have been harping for the past few posts, citizenship involves a dedication to common weal, to the good of the whole. At times, and often, citizenship demands sacrifices of us, the willingness to forego what we might regard as our preference for the sake of the good of the community or the nation. Good citizenship is exemplified in the sacrifice of soldiers for those they defend and protect; it is also exemplified in those who speak out against corruption, who are willing to stand up to the powerful. Good citizenship is exemplified in our willingness to deliberate even with those with whom we might initially disagree (and why, in my view, efforts to promote "political engagement" or "activism" are simply a group version of the liberal presumption that politics is about registering preferences. Engagement and activism rarely result in deliberation with those with whom one disagrees. Engagement or activism minimizes the importance of speech in favor of the visible or the chant). Good citizenship is exemplified in our willingness to govern our basest appetites, and it is at its best an habituation in how to achieve such hard-won self-control. Thus, good citizenship contributes alike to good "household management" (oikos-nomos, or economics) and to the health of families. Citizenship - as Aristotle argued - is "ruling and being ruled in turn," a much harder discipline and standard than that simple phrase immediately suggests. Pulling a lever is only a punctuation mark on citizenship; it ought rightly to be seen as the conclusion of our deliberations, not the sole manifestation and measure of citizenship.

Today is Election Day in Virginia. I will walk to our local school with my children and bring them with me into the election booth, as I do every year. I will show them how to register a vote, and I will answer questions about why I am voting for one candidate over another, or why I am voting for or against a referendum. But above all, I try to convey the broader context and definition of citizenship as a lived activity that takes place in a sustained way outside the voting booth. Like an iceberg, we miss the entirety of the challenge and the glory of citizenship if we concentrate solely on the most visible but arguably less important part.

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