Civic Engagement and Political Disillusionment

Last Tuesday, I attended a talk hosted by the University Lecture series featuring Eric Liu.  Liu’s talk, which was titled “The True Meaning of Patriotism,” offered a progressive definition of patriotism and citizenship. He argued that since the 1960s the American Left has largely abandoned the concept of patriotism and allowed the Right seized it as part of its ideological lexicon.  Because the notion of patriotism has largely gone uncontested in the public arena, the idea has become impoverished, reduced to a jingoistic affirmation of American military and economic power.

However, Liu asserted that patriotism is a far richer concept than this.  Instead, patriotism, at bottom, is about putting country above self.  It is about public service and civic engagement—or as he put it “showing up” to one’s public obligations of being politically informed and part of the democratic process.

Underpinning Liu’s definition of patriotism is a commitment to the philosophical tradition of civic republicanism. As we all learn in our high school civics classes, the United States is not a democracy but a republic.  However, Republicanism (the classical political theory as opposed to the current political party) stands in contrast not only to Democracy as a form of government, but also Liberalism (classic philosophical liberalism as opposed to the current political ideology).  Where Liberalism is largely about rights and non-interference, Republicanism is rooted in civic obligations and engagement.  According to Republicanism, self-governance requires moral virtue and public spiritedness. Although Liberal and Republican thought can be seen throughout American history, the latter was more prevalent at the Founding than it is today.

Part of what Liu’s talk was about was reinvigorating our Republican tradition.  At one point during his lecture, Liu argued that the notion of “Rugged Individualism,” a very Liberal concept, was a “myth.”  According to Liu, self-governance cannot work if we think of our Nation merely as a conglomeration of egoistic individuals who use government only as a means of advancing and protecting our own interests. Rather, being part of a Republic requires some sacrifice, putting country above self.  It requires sacrificing some time and mental energy to being an effective citizen—keeping informed about social issues and engaging others about them.

There can be no doubt that our politics suffers when it focuses solely on individual rights to the exclusion of the common good.  However, where I was disappointed with Liu’s lecture is that he did not address what he considered to be the major barriers to civic engagement. Instead, Liu echoed Gandhi asserting essentially that the solution to our civic deficit problem was to “be the change you want to see in the world.”  This strikes me as a good first step but insufficient the face of systemic obstacles.

Hyper-partisanship, gerrymandered congressional districts, a broken campaign finance system, and parallel media universes (on the Left: MSNBC and liberal media outlets, and Fox News and conservative talk radio on the Right) all combine to prevent citizens from being engaged in their government.  As a result, to quote Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”  Until we can empower the silent majority of reasonable people to enter the political fray—something that is understandably considered to be unsavory and pointless, we are destined to be politically disillusioned.

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