If you care about the health of our country but fear the political system is dysfunctional and mired in hyperpolarization, don’t despair — get involved and participate.
The spirit of participation that so impresses the observant Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited the U.S. in the 1830s was reflected in the many voluntary associations he saw in this country. This inclination to participate with others produced in people certain attitudes and practices that Tocqueville called “habits of the heart.”
These habits (skills that allow us to adjust, compromise and correct our course so that we can work through our problems within a framework of common interest, concern and commitment; to share scarce resources and make decisions about them when disagreement exists; to make collective action even when visions differ) made a special kind of democracy possible.
But one wonders what that perceptive Frenchman would say if he returned to America today. Of course, the 24 states and 13 million inhabitants of 1831 have swelled to 50 and over 300 million; scientific advances have stretched beyond his foresight; the United States is no longer an infant among nations but the most powerful nation on earth. But what would be his assessment of how “we the people,” assembled in community, are doing these days? Are American citizens still practicing “habits of the heart?”
These and other questions are the subject of David Mathews’ new book The Ecology of Democracy: Finding Ways to Have a Stronger Hand in Shaping Our Future. Mathews is a former president of the University of Alabama and served as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Ford Administration. He currently serves as the president of a research organization, the Kettering Foundation.
Mathews uses Ecology of Democracy to remind the reader that while the work of democracy is hard, motivated citizens who do more than vote are vital to our political way of life. In today’s cynical environment the work of democracy is often left to elected officials and political institutions, but in reality this work is, or should be, practiced by everybody.
This requires that people plan together for their future and to make hard choices for their communities. This work is a shared effort of citizens to meet common needs and solve common problems. The basic challenge is to answer the question “what type of community, or nation, do we want to live in?”
Only when every citizen brings his or her perspective, experience, and concerns to the public decision-making process will we have an answer. This is not always easy; it is in reality very difficult, and at times, messy, but then again, this is what democracy is all about.
The Ecology of Democracy is a book for people who care deeply about their communities and their country. It is also for governmental and nongovernmental organizations, as well as educational institutions that are trying to engage citizens.
“The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens,” suggested Tocqueville, and I think he would be well pleased with this book.