Batesville, AR. “Civic muscle.” When I first heard the term, I was intrigued. A wry smile may have crossed my face. You know the expression: the one that simultaneously communicates admiration and envy, like, “I love that term; wish I had come up with it myself.” And, it was obvious, was it not, what reality those who deployed this neologism were trying to capture? On a moment’s reflection, I demurred. Was I alone in being both attracted to and perplexed by this new civic descriptor? I decided to conduct a non-scientific experiment. I let the term slip into conversation with several friends. “What’s that?” they asked. To be fair, it is not the case that examples of civic muscle are lacking in the writings of scholars and practitioners. For example, Harry Boyte, Senior Scholar at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship, explains that civic muscle refers to “people’s capacities to shape the world around them.” Boyte laments that our idea of democracy is too often reduced to the periodic opportunity for citizens, conceived narrowly as voters, to pull levers (or hit a touchscreen) for a set of candidates—to choose to retain or rotate in a new slate of elites, who then do all the important public work. By contrast, civic muscle describes a citizen-centered democracy, where citizens themselves, viewed as agents of change and not mere voters, assume much of the responsibility for the quality of our public life.
Nevertheless, I believe that dedicating more time to ruminating on the metaphor could yield dividends. I want to consider not only what civic muscle is but to think about the different ways it operates or is “exercised”; I want to consider how civic muscle bulks up and, equally important, how and why it atrophies. As the nation is gripped by both a public health (Covid 19) and a public morality (systemic racism) pandemic, an important concept like civic muscle should not be relegated to the lexicons of community development specialists and social entrepreneurs alone. If the kind of citizen agency to which the metaphor refers were better understood (or, since a metaphor is intended to be evocative and somewhat open ended, at least some of the characteristics it potentially stands for) would not its usage and impact increase? What follows, then, is an attempt to schematize civic muscle, to “extend” the metaphor by doing what it implicitly invites: exploring the analogy between building physical muscle tissue (hypertrophy) and civic muscle.
A Corporate Phenomenon Oriented Toward the Common Good
As a prelude, we need to emphasize that no matter how much civic muscle increases, no matter what feats of strength it performs, it springs from a communal effort, even if certain individuals, inevitably, play an outsized role. Thanks to 24/7 access gyms, the person who works a late shift can start her workout at 2AM. She may even be the only member exercising, an isolated monad in a cavernous space–her goals tailored to the idiosyncrasies of her own body type and level of ambition. Obviously, whatever we mean by civic muscle will be predicated on something different than a personal fitness program, will transcend, while nonetheless preserving, important aspects of an individual’s aims of improving strength and enhancing appearance. Most notably, civic muscle is a corporate phenomenon and, for that reason, it presupposes a high degree of coordination among a plurality of bodies. In competitive rowing, the speed with which an octuple scull cuts through the water is dependent, not merely on the individual strength of each rower, but on the precision and rhythm of their combined movements. And, whatever individual goals these rowers achieve, they ultimately win or lose as a team. Similarly, civic muscle has a pronounced team orientation, and the primary goal of its use is to promote the common good.
Living in a political culture for which individual liberty is a prized value, it is important, at the outset, not to gloss over but to acknowledge the tension that often exists between individual and group interests. That said, it is possible to successfully negotiate these differences and, in large measure, that is exactly what building civic muscle entails. Consider, first, that when communities mobilize to achieve a communally designated good, the unique identities of individual members and affiliated groups are not dissolved into an undifferentiated heap. When eight rowers step onto a podium to receive their gold medals, it is a testament to their chemistry, to the intermingling of their talents, but their unique appearances and characteristics (one nonplussed, one teary-eyed, another cracking a joke) are not erased. The medley of individual differences represented only enriches the experience of each participant and gives the team (or community) its own, inimitable style.
Second, for some people, the mere mention of the word “civic” or the phrase “common good” conjures up the image of a grim-faced group of Spartans, throwing themselves at a throng of Persian invaders. But let us be frank: there is an element of sacrifice presupposed by any human endeavor worth undertaking and, when it comes to building muscle, it is no less indispensable in the gym than it is in the public square. Finally, building civic muscle is not just about self-sacrifice; there are prodigious rewards. When an individual or a community achieves one of its goals, there is naturally a sense of accomplishment, and that experience, in turn, creates momentum and energy for further action: success incentivizes more exercise in the community, just as it does for the individual body builder. And communities should not hesitate to occasionally “flex” their muscles. When a community solves a seemingly intractable problem, it is wholly appropriate to celebrate, to take a moment to admire itself in the mirror.
Civic Isotonics: Movements and Muscle Mass
Isotonic is the term given to exercises during which muscles move, shorten (concentric contraction) and lengthen (eccentric contraction). A good example would be the muscle movements fostered by a leg extension machine: one sits with knees at a 45-degree angle and then, with a pad resting on the shins, against resistance, lifts both feet so that the legs are straightened (180 degrees)—and then slowly released back to the bent position. If the isotonic process involves muscle movement, the constant shortening and lengthening of tissue, the expected result is increased muscle mass.
In the civic realm, I link isotonic exercise with robust civic mobilization. Social movements, of which there have been dozens in U.S. history, are the premier, if not exclusive, exemplar. Nearly all of them harken back to the Declaration of Independence and attempt, in some fashion, to redeem the promises of equality and human dignity the document proclaims. If we focus on just three of the most influential—movements for women’s suffrage, for labor rights, and for civil rights—even a cursory historical analysis reminds us that these were multigenerational struggles. Most important, each “movement,” singular, is, in reality, comprised of innumerable muscle “movements” and actions, plural. If curls, extensions and presses make-up the bulk of physical isotonic exercises, civic isotonic exercises can take a wide variety of forms– including marches, neighborly conversations, strikes, speeches, letters to the editor and organizational meetings—as long as they are carefully knit together into bundles of muscle strands, straining to effect lasting social change.
Someone may ask: are these social movements not aimed at the betterment of just one group—women, workers, or people of color (or one could name a multitude of other groups, represented by other movements)—belying the common good that civic muscle purports to nurture? At first glance, these movements may seem like mere Madisonian factions, parts whose interests are as likely to be inimical to as to harmonize with the whole. Realistically, given our political system’s commitment to pluralism and the diversity of our country, the exercise and growth of civic muscle will not, in every instance, engage the attention and energy of the entire community. That much is true. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to view the classic social movements referenced above solely through the lens of identity politics or partisanship, a concept about which more will be said later. The maintenance of a social system in which some of our fellow citizens were permanently relegated to a second-class status, subjugated, exploited–unable to vote, unable to receive a decent education, or unable to protect themselves from the depredations of greed—lessened the humanity of every member. Rightly interpreted, removing these obstacles did not just benefit one group: they elevated the humanity of each one of us.
Moreover, civic isotonics is not just a matter of pushing for institutional change; it can also involve mobilizing people to rearrange the built environment, reshaping it to serve the public good. Margaret Kohn warns of the “mauling” of America, by which she means the privatization of public space. For example, commercial developments are increasingly designed to mimic the look of traditional Main Streets but, because they are privately owned, civic activities like canvassing are often prohibited, undermining citizens’ use of ballot initiatives and referenda. Additionally, amenities that used to be public—parks, swimming pools, and other recreational facilities—are now frequently placed behind the fortified walls of CIDs (“common interest” developments). As the physical and social landscape becomes more balkanized, as public goods dwindle or are appropriated by private actors, civic life atrophies. Why? Where public space retreats, there are fewer opportunities for people of different socio-economic classes, races, religions and political ideologies to interact. As a consequence, the community becomes increasingly illegible: a broader understanding of a community’s assets or sympathy for its problems and challenges is forfeited; energy for collective action is sapped. To counter these trends, citizens need to reclaim public space. This might include demanding more inclusive forms of planning (i.e. participatory budgeting) or a better balance between civic and business representation on local planning commissions. Or, consistent with the isotonic motif, it may literally entail lifting metal beams and pressing dirt into more communally beneficial arrangements—assembling a recreation center or building walking and cycling paths. According to the Commonwealth Fund, the U.S. possesses the highest chronic disease burden among OECD countries and has an obesity rate that is two times higher than the OECD average. No doubt this is a complex problem, and individual choices about diet and exercise are a major factor. Nonetheless, research has demonstrated that place-based change, a form of civic isotonics, makes a significant difference. The availability of recreational infrastructure—walking and cycling paths, parks and playgrounds–is strongly correlated with improved health outcomes.
Taking stock so far, civic isotonics is marked by robust mobilization and bold action—but not only that. Isotonic exercise, more than its isometric cousin, is distinguished by increased muscle mass, with visible and measurable change. Specifically, the outcomes of civic isotonics might include an historic change in a particular group’s social status, far-reaching amendments to democratic procedures, and institutional transformation. If we recall the three social movements we highlighted earlier, the increase in civic muscle mass would take the form of a woman’s right to vote, workers’ rights to collective bargain, and the desegregation of public schools and accommodations. These movements, as we know, did not cease to exist when some of their goals were met; unfortunately, there is much work to be done, as the recent upheaval surrounding the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police tragically demonstrates. What we have learned is that civic muscle, in its isotonic mode, refers both to a process and product: conceived as a process of growth, civic muscle describes striation, the layering of strand upon strand of mobilization, social learning and organizational capacity; conceived as the products of that growth process, i.e. the stuff that is “amassed,” civic muscle can be defined as the changes themselves, social and “architectural,” that enhance our collective lives in the present and empower us to extend change into the future.
Civic Isometrics: Stability and Resilience
In isometric exercises, a muscle or group of muscles contracts; however, unlike in isotonic exercises, muscles do not lengthen and joints do not bend or change angles. While the differences between isotonic and isometric are somewhat nuanced—after all, there is “movement” in isometrics (pace muscle contraction) and strength is acquired (though less than with isotonic exercises)—in the event, it is not hard to distinguish these types of exercise. Even to the uninitiated, the difference between a person knocking out a set of twelve squats in one section of the gym and another doing a “wall sit,” or a person grunting on a bench press machine and another planking, are unmistakable: in the second exercise in each of the previously mentioned pairings, the body remains static. Whereas the goal of isotonic exercise is generally to increase speed and strength, the goal of isometrics is to create stability and flexibility.
In order to comprehend what civic isometrics might entail, imagine driving through an unfamiliar community. Initially, the observer is more likely to see evidence of a town’s intense isotonic exercise–a soccer complex buzzing with activity or a shiny new elementary school—both of which assume not only the large-scale assembly of material but also the mobilization and recruitment of supporters to adopt millage increases. What the visitor is less likely to notice is the profound impact of civic isometrics, an amazing network of interconnected planks: two people sitting and talking quietly at a table in the library, one teaching the other English; the houses of worship that open their doors to the homeless when winter temperatures drop to dangerous levels; the flotilla of kayaks retrieving trash from the stream that flows through the city; “meals on wheels”—a small convoy of cars and trucks delivering food to elderly and physically challenged residents; the volunteers cleaning cages and bathing dogs at the local animal shelter; the teenager answering calls at a peer-support, suicide hotline.
That these actions are not immediately visible beneath a staid communal surface in no way detracts from their value. To gain a better appreciation for their indispensability, pretend, for a moment, that these community planks disappeared: feral animals roam the streets, the homeless shiver under bridges, immigrants are shunned and marginalized, the elderly are lonely and food insecure and garbage collects in the streets and waterways. Such a vulnerable community could be likened to a novice yogi whose “tree pose” tips first one direction then another before its human limbs collapse, or to a boat cast adrift, tossed by relentless waves, bobbing mercilessly on the horizon. What is desperately needed in each instance is enhanced core strength. So, the yoga student practices and perfects her asanas, rediscovers her body, aware of every appendage, down to her fingertips and toes. And on the boat what appear to be random bolts of cloth lying jumbled on deck are suddenly stretched by cables until their intricate stitching and aerodynamic shape are revealed as sails that catch the wind and snap to attention. Thus fortified, the yogi strikes a balanced pose; the boat’s stern cuts a steady course through the ocean, and the community gathers itself—supporting here, tucking there, shoring up this group, tending to another—and, with each isometric contraction, gains stability, increases its resilience.
I contend that the majority of civic muscle takes this isometric form. In contrast to major social and physical transformations of the public domain associated with civic isotonics, civic isometric exercise is the yeoman’s work of care, sheltering, sustaining, and preserving. Isotonics may build impressive biceps and quadriceps, a great thing in itself, but in the absence of a solid communal core, body mechanics malfunction. While my examples have intentionally focused on local communities and have placed citizens more than their governments at the center of my analysis, in the midst of a global pandemic, where domestic deaths are now measured in the hundreds of thousands and job losses in the tens of millions, we need to remember that civic isometrics cannot ignore the need for competence and a commitment to the commonweal at multiple scales. The coronavirus has exposed gaping holes in our national and global public health systems. Many politicians thought that dispatching scientists to remote parts of the globe to study and predict what new viruses may cross the species boundary was a waste of money—just like stockpiling PPE—and that the budget of the Centers for Disease Control could be savaged without any consequences. One can only pray the we have the ability to learn our lesson and to gain a deeper appreciation for the hard but satisfying work of civic isometrics, the type of social action and exercise that resilience presupposes.
At this juncture, some readers may be shaking their heads, unconvinced by my attempt to create a civic muscle taxonomy. Skeptics, for example, would likely enumerate their favorite examples of social actions that defy easy categorization, arguing that the project is highly subjective. Of course, how various civic actions are characterized depends on the context and the ends toward which they are oriented. While I do not think the distinctions I have made are entirely specious, I concede that there are limits to analogies—and the physical/civic muscle analogy, especially with my addenda of exercise types, is no exception. It is equally true that communities are extraordinarily complex organisms, and any application of abstract thought—defining, categorizing, describing—will fail to fully capture the inner workings of such a multivariate system. In daily practice, the isotonic and isometric movements of a community are not always easy to untangle, are more akin to a well-choreographed dance: civic isotonics rely heavily on the stabilizing actions of civic isometrics, and civic isometrics, in their signaling function, raise awareness of needs and concerns that can engender more robust, isotonic responses. None of these objections, however, changes the basic fact that civic muscle appears to operate in different modes. Sometimes communities need to dramatically reshape public perceptions, move and arrange building materials into new community resources, significantly alter procedures and institutional practices to better align with democratic values. But more often than not, communities are perpetually adapting, tweaking and tightening—pulling together and integrating all of their human and non-human components—in order to make the community a sustainable and stable place worth inhabiting.
A Civic Diet: Cognitive and Emotional Proteins
Any training regime that seeks to increase strength and muscle mass by exercise alone is doomed to failure. The twin foundation of successfully “muscling up” consists of muscle exertion and diet. When a person lifts weights, for example, this causes micro tears in the muscle. Building muscle occurs through the repair of these tears, as protein strands (or myofibrils) fill in the gaps. Without protein, muscles simply cannot grow. One of the sources of protein for civic muscle, I contend, comes from ingesting ideas, from re-wiring the mind to attend more seriously to civic affairs. Why is this training necessary? We tend to focus more on our individual interests and needs than on our interdependence. Wait, you say, the social biologists have taught us that humans are evolutionarily adapted to cooperate. We are certainly capable of collaboration; that much is true. Nonetheless, we are not always prone to do so, especially if we do not have the tools to do it well and if we lack a philosophical framework that enables us to understand its importance. Not to be too flippant, but generally speaking our eating or going hungry at night does not hinge upon our neighbors’ assistance in taking down a Wooly Mammoth. Quite the opposite: in our high-tech world of instantaneous gratification, most of our needs can be met with little exertion. Even if our self-sufficiency is largely an illusion (after all, we are largely dependent on industrial-scale food production and distribution chains and the maintenance of fiber optics and cloud computing etc.), we cling to it. To shatter that illusion, just a little bit, requires an adequate civic education.
On the most general level, civic education will entail redoubling our efforts to teach people about our constitutional order and about our nation’s history, political and social. Unless one knows the basic dimensions of the field, it is hard to tell when some actor is stepping out of bounds, and without knowledge of the rules of the game, it is difficult to play fair or to play at all. Unless more citizens are historically informed, they will lack the necessary understanding of our long-festering grievances and frustrations and will lack the sensitivity and empathy to address these obstacles to community-wide action. This is the background knowledge that any republic requires to survive. Another aspect of civic education is elaborated by Nathan Tarcov. He observes that John Locke’s political theory—to which both contemporary American liberals and conservatives lay claim–relies upon the intentional cultivation of “generic civic virtues,” tailored to a classically liberal or individual rights-protecting tradition. While the civic republican tradition is better known for its emphasis on virtue, classical liberalism is not morally neutral; it, too, relies on at least a “thin” notion of the good and virtues that support it. According to Tarcov, such a list of virtues would include the development of “human beings who seek mastery not over others but over themselves,” who defend their own rights and those of others—“tolerant human beings who examine their own opinions, refuse to accept the opinions of others on authority, and do not attempt to impose their own opinions by authority on others,” and a host of others. The key point is that the latter are not naturally occurring dispositions and attitudes but are the fruit of a thoughtfully formulated civic curriculum, dispensed not only formally in schools but informally in families and other institutions in civil society.
Beyond this critical store of knowledge and the inculcation of basic civic virtues, there are more specific forms of training that equip people directly for particular kinds of civic action. Many luminaries of the Civil Rights movement, to cite one example, attended the Highlander Folk School, which combined adult education, instruction on the basic rights of citizens and nonviolent tactics, the latter preparing protesters to absorb the blows of attackers in order to expose hate and to depose it. Today, interest groups across the political spectrum offer workshops that teach supporters how to register voters, organize people in their communities and engage in grass roots lobbying. Finally, another “beyond the civics’ book” approach is longer-term or focused experiential learning, the kind offered, for instance, by a national service program like AmeriCorps VISTA.
There are also less obvious but no less relevant forms of cognitive development that develop civic muscle, or at least make it useful, as will be explained below. In particular, I am thinking about local civic literacy. To illustrate its import, consider the fibrous connective tissue we call tendons, whose job is to fasten muscle to bone. Now conjure the image of a body with loads of muscle but no tendons: there would be no way to move the skeletal structure. Local literacy, in my schematic, uniquely supports and forms civic tendons—creates the vital attachments that speak not merely to the mind but also to the heart. Local literacy enhances appreciation for and increases loyalty, not just to people but also to place, supplies the affective component or motive for civic action.
What does this entail? First, it involves learning that is grounded in story and narrative. If one is willing to dig, even a little bit, is not every community a wonder, a fascinating concatenation of human stories? “Without narrative,” remarks Michael Sandel, “there is no continuity between present and past, and therefore no responsibility, and therefore no possibility of acting together to govern ourselves.” A brief sketch of the story of my own town might highlight the arrival of the notorious conquistador, Hernando de Soto, whose army trudged along the banks of the White River. De Soto took note of a Native American settlement, Caligua, just outside the current town limits, before taking a sharp turn to the South. By the time other Europeans began pouring into the area, the original inhabitants had vanished, except for the Osage, who used it as one of their hunting grounds. Contrary to his own doctrine of strict constructionism, Thomas Jefferson negotiated a land deal with the French that guaranteed that our little piece of dirt would be subject to U.S. versus Spanish or French jurisdiction. William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter, lesser-known than Lewis and Clark but also commissioned by Jefferson to map and explore the lands of the new Purchase, did not quite make it this far North, but Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the renowned ethnologist did. The highly educated but hapless adventurer spent much of his time lost in the wilderness, so it is no wonder that he was grateful for the hospitality he received from the people of the small settlement of Poke Bayou, the precursor to today’s Batesville, even if he was appalled by their “primitive living conditions, lack of book learning and ignorance of religion.” A Cherokee Nation detachment, led by John Benge, repaired some wagons here, passing through on one of the many routes of the Trail of Tears. In the Civil War the town was evenly divided and, in its aftermath, during Reconstruction, a Freedman’s School was built–a small gesture of healing and redemption.
Beyond these distinctive markers in the community’s political history, there are, of course, the more titillating headlines: Elvis’s 1955 hip gyrations at the Water Carnival or the deadly feud between physicians Burton and Aiken, whose murderous actions made a mockery of the hypocritic oath; and flirtations with the salacious, like the naked lady sconces that once adorned the local theater. If being the hometown of a NASCAR legend, who cut his teeth on a local dirt track, a bunch of bootleggers, at least one governor and a couple of major leaguers is added to the mix, there should be an historical hand hold for every resident, some way to make an emotional connection (or at least the tether of an idiosyncratic interest) to their community.
And it is not simply the human stories: it is also the ability to read the natural landscape. An important feature of civic literacy is that it exhibits a Thoreauvian-like curiosity, extends its reach even to the arboreal, ornithologic and geologic domains—to the ability of residents to distinguish a chinkapin oak from a post oak, a downy from a pileated woodpecker, sandstone deposits from limestone; in short, it pays heed to all of the life forms and textures that make a mere geographic space a “place.” After all, community, as Jean Bethke Elshtain describes it, begins with the “concrete, the tactile, the relational, the fleshly.”
Avoiding Civic Catabolysis: A Plea for Rest and Recovery
We established earlier that muscle development is predicated on muscle break-down, which, in turn, necessitates resistance. As a barbell is lowered to a person’s chest in a bench press exercise, they are acutely aware of resistance, the weight of the bar due to gravity conspiring to make a skeletal pancake of the person’s rib cage. Even in isometric exercise resistance is generally required. When one sits atop a large medicine ball in the physical therapist’s office, trying to maintain one’s balance while doing alternating leg lifts, the body and ball are, from a physics standpoint, pressing downward on the floor. Props to Newton, we know, according to his Third Law of Motion, that for every force there is an equal and opposite force, meaning that the floor “responds” by sending force back up through the ball and into the base of the spine, providing the resistance that makes the embarrassing PT ball routine possible. Though we have not said much about the resistance necessary to build civic muscle, it has been implied throughout our discussion. I have waited until the end for a more complete vetting of this issue, because sorting positive from negative resistance is one of the crucial tasks in our current political moment.
Resistance, in the civic realm, can be the financial equivalent of a brick wall, a zero balance in a city’s or community-based organization’s coffers: no funds available to support a critical project or to prevent some group from falling further behind. More often, however, civic resistance takes the form of personal differences of opinion–born from and rooted in very different life experiences, subcultures, and political ideologies. And entering the public square, where these differences are given free rein, is not for the faint of heart. Nonetheless, these differences, John Stuart Mill reminds us, can be quite instructive. As adherents of a liberal democracy we embrace, or at least give lip service to, the free expression of ideas (political, scientific and aesthetic) and lifestyles because we know that ideas that once appeared counterintuitive or even heretical, like the heliocentric claim that the earth revolves around the sun, turn out, on further investigation, to be true. When ideas prove to be misguided or even false, we generally tolerate their dissemination, though not without contestation, because they help us to sharpen our own. The public arena, however, does not have to be highly agonistic in order to supply valuable resistance. At their best, citizens approach difference deliberatively, or, as Mill puts it in his Considerations on Representative Government, with a commitment to “weigh interests not [one’s] own; to be guided, in case of conflicting claims, by another rule than [one’s] private partialities; to apply, at every turn, principles and maxims which have for their reason of existence the common good.” And lest I be accused of naiveté, this nexus–of difference (resistance), deliberation and the common good–provides an opportunity to for us to add some complexity to our understanding of the latter, since I have argued it is the goal or end for which civic muscle is exercised.
The common good as I deploy the term is not some airy-fairy entity that just “is”—something to be discovered through Platonic recollection or waiting to be captured by the positivist’s quantitative tools. Instead, it is something that has to be forged in the crucible of real community dialogues and conversations, formal and informal. Piecing it together demands maximum inclusivity and a genuine willingness to hear other perspectives and to critically evaluate one’s own needs and interests. Ontologically, then, the common good is not about Being or presence; it belongs to the category of Becoming, involves a process that requires patience and vulnerability. When communities embrace this kind of positive (though not painless or conflict-free) “resistance,” civic muscle grows, and while “the” common good may not emerge, a good that the community can recognize as its own, will.
Sadly, our current polity is filled with as much negative as positive resistance. Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal have demonstrated that “elite partisanship,” as political scientists call it, has intensified. Poole’s and Rosenthal’s polarization algorithm calculates the distance between the average Democrat and the average Republican in Congress, and it clearly shows that ideological division in both the House and Senate is wider now than it has been at any point in the last century. Thus, a map of our current Congress displays far fewer points in the middle and large clusters on the margins. With the loss of bridge-building moderates, compromise tends to evaporate and gridlock ensues. And partisanship is not just a characteristic of party elites. Alan Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders, using self-reported ideological identification data from the National Election Studies (NES) survey, have been chronicling the rise of “popular partisanship” in the electorate as a whole. This hyper-partisan atmosphere can be toxic for democracy, as James Campbell observes: “Polarized politics may become uncivil politics in which each side demonizes the other…Those at each end of the spectrum enter ideological cocoons in which the like-minded tell each other how wise they are and how dumb or venal those who disagree with them are.” Finally, polarization is correlated with decreased trust in government. Overall, a sports mentality dominates as entrenched camps or teams chant slogans and talking points–each desperate to win an election but neither capable of governing when they are victorious.
Worse yet, we endlessly trigger one another through social media posts. Some malign actors, including Russian troll factories, have developed sophisticated analytics to insure their posts inflict maximum civic damage. And then there are the tweet storms that gather every night, showering the national landscape with acidity and rancor every waking morning. As a consequence, we live on high alert; outrage becomes a permanent condition. The body politic seizes up.
Muscle exertion abetted by resistance is necessary for growth, but muscle rest is equally important, and what is true of corporal muscle is also true of the civic variety. If there is tension after a pointed exchange between people in a civic setting, a healthy community insures that awkwardness is not allowed to linger for long. Time and a little space allow for recovery, as the aggrieved parties repair to their zones of support, recuperate, gain perspective and ultimately surrender again to the strong tide of “neighborliness,” what John Dewey identified as the firm foundation of any democracy. However, the alternative to the healing and recovery of civic muscle is sobering. The heat of constant chaos burns all the excess fat. The pathways for taking in new protein are blocked. And when there is no more fuel left, the body begins to devour itself—catabolysis transpires.
With the onset of civic atrophication or the more extreme metabolic condition of catabolysis, we become slavishly dependent on someone else to do our lifting. Who could possibly want or benefit from such a deplorable situation? Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the most prescient observers of American life, provides a tweet worthy answer: “The despot does not care if you love him, as long as you do not love one another.” The loss of civic muscle, the erasure of the “we” in we the people, leaves only the “I” as in “I alone can fix it,” the fulfillment of every narcissist’s dream.