Citizenship and Its Discontents

By Wilson Carey McWilliams for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

This lecture by Wilson Carey McWilliams was delivered at St. John’s College in New Mexico on April 1, 1995. It is heretofore unpublished. While a number of its specific political references are now dated, the underlying analysis remains prescient and sound.

A substantial number of McWilliams’s writings have been gathered in two edited volumes that have been released in the last month or two: Redeeming Democracy in America and The Democratic Soul. Edited by FPR authors Patrick J. Deneen and Susan J. McWilliams, the books gather together of some of the best and most thoughtful reflections on the philosophic and political sources of the destruction of locality and citizenship in America, and the efforts that might be exerted on their behalf.


–Posted by Patrick J. Deneen


Citizenship and Its Discontents
St. John’s College, New Mexico
April 1, 1995

I cherish Tocqueville’s argument that democratic politics–citizenship within free institutions–has the best chance of moderating the twin dangers of mass democracy, the doctrine of individualism and the psychological force he called “tyranny of the majority.” And I love to rehearse Tocqueville’s comments on political activity in America: Politics, he wrote, is “almost the only pleasure an American knows.” Even women, he observed, “frequently attend public meetings and listen to political harangues.” Without politics, an American would feel “robbed of one half of his existence” and “his wretchedness would be unbearable.” (DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, New York: Knopf, 1980, I:250; see also I:258-265 and II:98-111).

We need to make some allowances for Tocqueville’s hyperbole: he was talking about some Americans, and those, probably, only some of the time. Still, we are bound to recognize that Tocqueville is writing about a long-vanished time; no one would even try to pass off Tocqueville’s comments as a description of Americans today. My wife and I have decent civic credentials in our small New Jersey town. Nancy served nine years on the School Board and is now a member of the Library Committee; I am an elder of my church, a trustee of the historical society, and for some years I have been municipal chair of the Democratic Party. (And I am proud to report that, although Democrats in Flemington are traditionally the minority, we elected the mayor and a majority of the council in l994). But cases like ours are clearly exceptional. Relatively few Americans even vote–about 39% of the electorate, a little more than usual, made it to the polls in 1994–and not many of us belong to any civic association at all. So what happened to American citizenship?

It is now common to observe, as Tocqueville taught us, that the attraction and educative power of citizenship is greater in small and stable communities. In such places, our fellow citizens are likely to be relatively predictable, even if we find their conduct or values predictably loathsome, so they foster a kind of trust, the comfort of familiarity. Small towns and cities are characterized by a politics of membership, face-to-face associations that possess what Tocqueville called the “power of meeting,” the capacity to lessen the tension between body and mind, self-interest and the public good (DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, I:192). In civic groups and assemblies, we are more apt to be recognized, to have a voice (which includes choosing to be silent), and to have some effect in shaping outcomes. Small communities, in other words, are the natural homes of civic dignity, places where–as Lyndon Johnson used to say about his home–people know when you’re sick and care when you die (see DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA,II:115-116).

But even in such small constituencies, citizenship is an irksome discipline. Citizenship is constraint, a de-liberation, and hence at odds with radical doctrines of individual freedom. Among other things, citizenship demands civility, and hence is “unauthentic,” attentive to the sensibilities of hearers at least as much as to those of the self.Moreover, Aristotle was right to compare politics to exercise, since the pains are up front and certain while the gains are ordinarily prospective and contingent (Aristotle, POLITICS, 1288b10). This is especially true in democracies. Democratic deliberation requires listening to many voices, so that politics is dead slow. It treats all voices as equally entitled to a hearing, and necessarily requires us to listen to fools. (Even listening to the wrong-headed, in my experience, is easier than enduring people who can’t follow the parliamentary situation; the third or fourth repetition of the question, “What are we voting on now?,” has to rank as a near-justification for assault, if not homicide.) But to make matters worse, democratic politics involves matters that are technical and complicated and make us feel like fools. A debate about the volume of effluent that can be carried by various diameters and kinds of sewer pipe stupefies me pretty quickly, particularly since the question is further complicated by the durability of different pipes and their probable rates of repair. And democratic politics, in addition to subjecting us to fools and making us feel foolish, exposes us to the risk of defeat.(In fact, even victories require compromise, the set-backs and surrenders, not always petty, needed to put together a majority.) Losing is always painful, and the more you allow yourself to care about politics, the more it hurts: I won’t get over Adlai Stevenson’s defeat in 1952 until the next life, if then.

Tocqueville explained the willingness to undergo all these pains by reference to still greater constraints. In the first place, Americans in his day had few diversions to rival politics; even religion, the chief contender, was ordinarily a very political Protestantism. Second, Tocqueville argued that Americans were pushed into politics by necessity–by the risk of being ruled by worse or dangerous people, or the threat of being left out of political decisions touching some vital interest or concern. It was only afterward that citizenship became a choice, experience having revealed the special pleasures of civic dignity, political friendship and a measure of self-government (DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, II:105).

Today, by contrast, American society proliferates amusements, from television, gambling and year-round sports to rock concerts and academic conferences. We swim in a rich stew of delights, and compared to them, politics is a drag. Moreover, local governments and institutions only rarely have the power to compel participation. Here and there, a zoning ordinance will send citizens scurrying to local meetings; proposing year-round schools reliably increases attendance at school board meetings; there is almost always someone to protest any curriculum that includes Catcher in the Rye. Our newly Democratic town council even created a stirring when it discovered that the previous council had neglected to provide the police with guns that could be counted on to fire. But for the most part, the issues that touch and move people are very largely beyond local control. No one needs to be told that our economic and social life increasingly is shaped by national and international developments. Celebrants of the Internet are apt to tell us (a bit prematurely) that it means the demise of the local. And more and more Americans suspect that their problems may not be subject to government at all, and certainly not to local regimes.

The comparative impotence of local governments is not merely a matter of economics or technology. It is a question of law, especially in a time when constitutional norms are more strictly applied to localities. The Commerce Clause will not let localities prevent businesses from moving out or, with a few exceptions, keep them from moving in. In our area, a broad coalition–for obvious reasons, featuring local businessmen–is fighting plans to build a Walmart, but while it can hope to harass the developers by appealing to zoning laws, traffic regulations or environmental codes, it will lose in the end if Walmart persists. (Vermont has laws that, so far, exclude Walmart, but even if such rules pass federal scrutiny, we are talking about state rather than local authority.) City councils could not end the baseball strike, even though for many cities– Cleveland is an obvious example–major interests were involved; the provincial government of Ontario helped, as did the civic virtue of Peter Angelos in Baltimore, but in the end, a solution depended on the federal courts and Judge Sotomayor.

Local politics, in other words, is constrained by and dependent on larger regimes, and nowhere more clearly than in matters of finance. Our town council must wait for New Jersey’s legislature to pass the state budget before it can tell how much local property taxes will have to be raised. (And yes,the revenue loss resulting from Governor Whitman’s cuts in the state income tax, a significant benefit only to upper income New Jerseyans is passed more or less directly on to property taxes.) But Governor Whitman and the state legislature, in their turn, must wait to get a fair idea of how much the state will lose in the new federal budget before deciding how much pain to hand on to local governments. Block grants, a cynosure in the present Congress, will not change this. They will give states discretion over whatever Congress appropriates, but will leave the states dependent on federal monies–and anxiously so, given Congress’s commitment to budget-cutting, since federal funding will be more or less ad hoc.

It does not help that Americans are so mobile. If a locality has the power to hurt us or our interests, it is startlingly easy to move somewhere else. Changing local life through democratic politics is time-consuming and chancy; moving out is simple and apparently effective. In Albert Hirschman’s terms, the Constitution and the laws privilege “exit” as opposed to “voice,” and they place no value at all on local loyalties.(Albert Hirschman, EXIT,VOICE AND LOYALTY, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970, especially pp.86ff. Loyalty was the moral basis of the old political machines, enabling them to survive occasional defeats by reformers, but that virtue also marked the conflict between the machines and the American regime.)

Our emotional and social bonds to place are growing ever more superficial. We learn, early on, that any commitment to people or community exposes us to loss. Families break up, friends move away, jobs relocate, communities change and each successive loss makes us more hesitant and self-protective, more inclined to stay free-floating, ready to go with the flow.

And locality’s positive ability to attract participation is weakened by the same forces than lessen its power to constrain. Ancient cities, even fairly small ones,drew citizens into public life by the promise of honor, and that motive is still indispensable in local politics. In a small town like mine, public office costs more than it pays, and any power is minuscule. But in addition to the opportunity to be of service, it does offer public recognition and a democratic title, and those benefits were sufficient to enable our local party to persuade a distinguished cardiologist to run for mayor (solving, at the same time, the problem of our campaign fund.) The media, however, make national culture ever more salient in our lives, dwarfing the local and making its honors, in every field of life, seem trivial and insignificant. We can still win honor in local politics, but local politics itself seems increasingly undignified.

Nevertheless, local governments and organizations have an honorable role as parts of a larger whole. We need to learn to see them as essentially representative bodies, bridges between the local politics in which citizenship is possible and the larger centers of power.

Now, discontent with representation has been a feature of contemporary politics, and with reason. More and more Americans encounter public life only through the media, in a mass politics in which citizens are mostly silent and sometimes strident, but always essentially voiceless. Here and there, the media let some people express indignation, but even the best of the “talk shows” are less than deliberative. Their broader publics are anonymous and transient, and–elite controlled–they can be held accountable only by a refusal to listen, and then only if substantial numbers more or less spontaneously join in the negation. Yet for their part, the media know they have no organic relation to our lives. We can change channels whenever we are bored or offended, leaving the media desperate to appeal to the private desires and fears of an audience reached almost exclusively in private places.

More adequate representation, and better citizenship, must begin by strengthening the “art of associating together,” and it would be a good starting point to demand that schools teach Roberts’ Rules of Order, that great, now-neglected republican technology. We need to shore up the local bases of representation,especially the political party organizations, which have been shattered by the unholy alliance of reform politics and mass society(DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, II:110, I:192.)

What is sometimes called the “revival” of party these days, and especially Mr. Gingrich’s step in the direction of accountability, rests on the control of money by national parties and PACs. It presumes massification rather than trying to counter it–Gingrich seems to be pursuing decentralized government through centralized politics, a prescription of doubtful efficacy–and not surprisingly the new partisanship has not dented the estrangement between the parties and the voters. In my view, by contrast, we need to do whatever we can–in party politics and more generally– to strengthen speech at the expense of money. For example, we would be wise to consider doing away with the direct primary except in local elections. In state and federal elections, primaries tend to equal mass politics and the
rule of money; state conventions offer citizens a more articulate voice. Any danger of “boss rule” could be avoided by local primaries, elections in which the media are less determinative.

That proposal, however, is probably utopian, and more modestly, I would be happy to settle for federal laws forbidding paid political advertising on television. Such a rule would leave plenty of room for the right to donate and spend money (activities, or so the Supreme Court tells us, included within the“freedom of speech”),but it would direct campaign spending into more local media and more local forms of electioneering–buttons, bumper stickers, or door-to-door canvassing–in ways that help build parties and touch citizens.

As large numbers of voters have been telling us, moreover, we need to attend to our representation in legislatures. At the beginning of the republic, the Anti-Federalists warned us that, under the Constitution, representatives would tend to become too distant from their constituents, and they were right.(They were concerned that this would lead to excessive distrust of government at least as much as they worried about possible abuses of power. See THE COMPLETE ANTI-FEDERALIST, ed. Herbert Storing, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981, 2:370-371). In some respects, there’s not much we can do about it: smaller districts, for example, would bring us closer to our representatives, but we can’t increase the size of the House of Representatives very much without making it unwieldy. But too often, our state constitutions have pursued legislative efficiency and expertise at the expense of representation, and a great many state legislatures could be increased in size without losing anything of importance. California’s legislature, like New Jersey’s, has only forty members in the Senate and eighty in the Assembly: a State Senator, in California, represents more people than a federal Representative. That legislature, I think, could easily be two and a half times as large, and even the federal House would still be workable if it were increased by 50%.

Term limits, of course, continue to be the subject of much debate, even though the election of 1994 pretty much exploded the case for their necessity. The great risk of term limits is that less experienced legislators would be even more at the mercy of legislative staffs, lobbyists and bureaucrats, a danger–as the states that have adopted term limits will discover–more serious than any ill term limits might cure. The Anti-Federalists were wiser on this point than our contemporaries: they advocated rotation in office, an idea which accepts that legislators should periodically go back to their constituencies, but also leaves open the possibility of their return to office later on. That sort of proposal would be well worth considering, although at the federal level it would certainly require an amendment to the Constitution.

For citizenship, in any case, government is indispensable to any solution, and only incidentally a part of the problem. The school of citizenship is small, personal and local, and in that sphere, “getting government out of the way” does not “empower” citizens: it leaves them nakedly exposed to forces that are titanic, impersonal and international. Citizens need stronger governments to give localities power as well as responsibility and to reduce the extent to which “getting involved” is an exercise in frustration. In fact, government is the target of so much resentment because it is relatively responsive: citizens can vote against school budgets and elected officials, but not against technological change. Our anger at government is a mark of its humanity, just as democratic citizenship, to the extent that we can preserve and revitalize it, gives as voices against the grey silences of the time.

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