The citizen and the people

What is at the center of democracy?

Wikipedia – a reasonable proxy for popular opinion – describes democracy as “a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally.”

From that, I would say, the center of democracy is the citizen.

This seems reasonable. I certainly spend a lot of time thinking about what makes good citizens, how to support better citizens, or how to be a good citizen myself.

Disrobing the word “citizen” of its political baggage makes this model even more appealing. “Citizen” does not need to indicate legal status, but simply describes a person who belongs – literally, emotionally, or what have you – to a community.

So having “the citizen” at the center of society sounds like a promising way of having government of the people, by the people, for the people.

But wait. We just went from “the citizen” to the “the people.” Are those the same? Different? Does it matter?

Perhaps.

In her book “Avoiding Politics: How Americans produce apathy in everyday life,” sociologist Nina Eliasoph reflects on her days as a door-to-door survey interviewer, unable to interact with her subjects, required only to “repeat the questions exactly as written in the question booklet until the respondent succumbed to the interview format.”

This arguably “citizen-centered” approach is missing “the people.” As Eliasoph elaborates:

Democracy, for this approach, rest on beliefs and values; add up all the private opinions to get one big “public” opinion; if all individuals carry inside themselves democratic psychological dispositions, like little ships in a bottle, then (presuming citizens have rights like freedom of speech and assembly) we will have democracy.

The approach is individualistic. Resting on each person to have an individual opinion that can neatly be summed and totaled to reflect the whole. But that misses the ideal democracy is – or should be – going for.

“Public life happens between people, in relationships,” says Eliasoph.

Focusing too much on the individual overshadows those relationships. The value of public dialogue, of real debate and idea exchange, gets lost. Public conversations become about me trying to win for my view and you trying to win for yours – or perhaps worse, both of us refusing to open our mouths for fear of raising conflict.

Focusing on the relationships is more of a community organizing model. The individuals are still deeply important, but it’s relationships which allow people to work together, allow people to understand each other, and ultimately allow them to develop solutions together. Of the people, for the people, and by the people.

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