Defining the Challenge of Civic Renewal
On the eve of the twenty-first century, America is prosperous, secure, and free. With lower levels of unemployment, opportunity is expanding. In recent decades, important social movements have helped protect individual rights and have brought long-suppressed voices into our public dialogue. While racial, ethnic, and class divisions persist, we are a more inclusive and tolerant nation than we were a generation ago.1

This should be a time of hope for Americans. And when we consider our economic circumstances, it is. But when we assess our country's civic and moral condition, we are deeply troubled.

And with good reason:

During the past generation, our families have come under intense pressure, and many have crumbled. Neighborhood and community ties have frayed. Many of our streets and public spaces have become unsafe. Our public schools are mediocre for most students, and catastrophic failures for many. Our character-forming institutions are enfeebled. Much of our popular culture is vulgar, violent, and mindless. Much of our public square is coarse and uncivil. Political participation is at depressed levels last seen in the 1920s. Public trust in our leaders and institutions has plunged.

Summarizing a comprehensive new study, a leading investigator of public attitudes toward government and society concludes that

Worry about the moral health of American society is suppressing satisfaction with the state of the nation, just as discontent with the honesty of elected officials is a leading cause of distrust in government. In the broadest sense, these ethical concerns are now weighing down American attitudes as Vietnam, Watergate, double-digit inflation and unemployment once did.2

Our moral and civic ills are most often discussed in the context of our troubled urban areas. There is no doubt that the civic condition of communities is affected by their economic condition. The breakdown of families, public safety, and neighborhoods is compounded by economic misery and diminished opportunities. The decline in civic and political engagement is especially pronounced among individuals who are sliding down the economic ladder, or who have never taken the first step up that ladder.

But there is trouble in Plano, Texas, and in the Hamptons, too. A free society depends on the standards and behavior of average citizens, and of the most fortunate as well. It is an evasion of responsibility to focus only on the inner city, or to place all the blame on "liberal elites" or "right-wing extremists." Much of what has gone wrong in America we have done -- and are still doing -- to ourselves.

Too many of us have become passive and disengaged. Too many of us lack confidence in our capacity to make basic moral and civic judgments, to join with our neighbors to do the work of community, to make a difference. Never have we had so many opportunities for participation, yet rarely have we felt so powerless. Indeed, according to sociologist Alan Wolfe, an unpleasant feature of contemporary middle-class morality is a "perverse pleasure in powerlessness."3 In a time that cries out for civic action, we are in danger of becoming a nation of spectators.

To be sure, there are many obstacles to effective involvement. But too many of us blame others for civic ills that we have helped cause, and that only we can cure. We fret about the weakness of our families but will not make the personal commitments needed to preserve them. We worry about the consequences of out-of-wedlock births but refuse to condemn them. We deplore the performance of our public schools, but somehow we can't find the time to join parents' associations, attend school board meetings, or even help our children with their homework. We complain about the influence of popular culture on our young people, but as parents we do not try very hard to monitor the programs our children watch and the music they hear. We desert neighborhood associations and then lament the fraying of community. We elect, and then reelect, leaders for whom we profess mistrust. We say we do not have the time for civic life. But in fact we enjoy more leisure than ever before. And too many of us spend too much of it watching television.

Yes, leadership matters. It matters a great deal. But today in our democracy the core issue is not leadership; it is citizenship.

A generation ago we realized that the degradation of our physical environment was the result of countless millions of decisions, by individual citizens as well as large corporations, and that if we really wanted to clean it up we would have to change our habits as well as our laws. The degradation of our civic environment stems from similar causes and requires similar remedies. It is legitimate and honorable for a free people to work as hard to protect its moral ecology as its natural environment. As citizens, we must ask more of ourselves.

We claim no originality for this conclusion. It is an idea as old as America. Citizenship is the basis of self-government, and lasting self-government is a monumental political achievement. In America we do not depend on kings, clerics, or aristocrats, or (for that matter) on technocratic elites or self-appointed leaders to serve as the "vanguard" for the rest of us. We rely on the will of the people -- that is, on ourselves.

Active citizenship is an old idea, but today it must contend with new challenges. Compared with previous generations, Americans today place less value on what we owe others as a matter of moral obligation and common citizenship; less value on personal sacrifice as a moral good; less value on the social importance of respectability and observing the rules; less value on restraint in matters of pleasure and sexuality; and correspondingly greater value on self-expression, self-realization, and personal choice.4

We must ask ourselves some hard questions about this new understanding of individual liberty. Dare we continue to place adult self-gratification above the well-being of our children? Can we relentlessly pursue individual choice at the expense of mutual obligation without corroding vital social bonds? Will we remain secure in the enjoyment of our individual rights if we fail to accept and discharge our responsibilities? Is there a civic invisible hand that will preserve our democratic institutions in the absence of informed and engaged citizens?

Here is our answer:

We believe that economic productivity is important but must not be confused with civic health. Our country's wealth is unprecedented. But great nations do not live by bread alone, and great civilizations are not judged by wealth alone. Our rare good fortune is an opportunity to reach for civic excellence. History will judge us harshly if we squander it.

We believe in life, liberty, equality, and the uncoerced consent of the governed.

We believe that all men and women are entitled to political equality without discrimination based on race, sex, or creed.

We believe that all human beings possess fundamental rights such as freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, and of assembly, and that government's essential purpose is to protect these rights.

We believe that these rights are most effectively protected in a system of ordered liberty that includes representative government based on free competitive elections, an independent judiciary upholding the rule of law, and an executive forceful enough to provide energy without being so powerful as to threaten liberty.

But institutional arrangements are not the whole of the democratic way of life, which rests as well on belief in the power of reason; in free inquiry and learning; in the spiritual capacity of human beings; and in the proposition -- both empirical and moral -- that the human condition can be bettered.

We believe that the essence of democracy is self-government, that self-government begins with the government of the self and moves to the public efforts of citizens whose need for the restraint of law is mitigated by their capacity to restrain themselves.

We believe that democratic citizenship must be grounded in shared civic principles, and that citizens should use them to judge and, when necessary, challenge and change practices inconsistent with these principles.

We believe that the capacity for democratic citizenship must be nurtured in institutions such as families, neighborhoods, schools, faith communities, local governments, and political movements -- and therefore, that our democracy must attend carefully to the health of these institutions.

We believe that democracy requires both individual responsibility and a felt sense of obligation to the common good, that both have weakened dangerously in recent decades and must now be renewed.

We believe that democracy is neither a consumer good nor a spectator sport, but rather the work of free citizens, engaged in shared civic enterprises.5

We believe that building democracy means individuals, voluntary associations, private markets, and the public sector working together -- not locked in battle.

We believe that democracy means not only discussing our differences, but also undertaking concrete projects with our fellow citizens to achieve common goals. The goals can be as focused as cleaning up a neighborhood park, or as broad as defending our country. Whatever their scope, such endeavors offer the best hope for bringing Americans together across lines of race, class, and religion. It is precisely because our armed services have a clear and important mission--real work to do--that they have gone farther than most other institutions toward uniting diverse individuals into teams shaped by high standards and shared purposes.

This idea -- citizens freely working together -- is at the heart of the American conception of civic liberty, through which citizens take responsibility for improving the conditions of their lives. Civic liberty offers citizens the power to act, and it strengthens their conviction that they can make a difference.

This, too, is an old idea. From the beginning, Americans have prided themselves on their ability to join together with their fellow citizens to get things done. They didn't realize how rare a thing it was in the world at large to work together as they did. But visitors from Europe noticed. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that at the time of the French Revolution "there were not ten men in all of France" capable of forming associations as the Americans were wont to do every day, and he noted how these associations served, often inadvertently, as schools for citizenship.

Times have changed since Tocqueville's voyage to our shores, but the essential point remains valid today: Citizenship begins with commitment rather than expertise. Citizens do not need special preparation, advanced education, or bureaucratic permits to get involved. And once we do, empowerment, optimism, and trust are enhanced, the capacity to understand our fellow citizens increases, and the public's work gets done in new and unexpected ways.

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