Our communities face seemingly intractable problems. Headlines blare with stories of injustice and corruption. There is no neutral ground in our increasingly polarized world: even the facts have become contested. Citizens seem powerless to bring about real change. Congress certainly can’t get anything done.
Pick a strand from any great issue and it will soon lead to a jumble of civic problems. Our democratic institutions are dysfunctional, our citizens and representatives divided. Democratic legitimacy lies in the engagement of citizens, and yet neither citizens nor institutions are equipped to engage in the hard work of civic life.
It is not uncommon for activist to turn to democratic engagement when seeking to tackle a great civic challenge. Protests, boycotts, teach-ins – they are all tools to engage the people in an issue, to show that an issue is of legitimate public concern.
But perhaps this approach is backwards. Perhaps democratic engagement is more than a means for achieving elite attention to an issue. Perhaps it is the ends – our most powerful tool in transforming our stagnant democracy, in revitalizing a government that is truly of all the people, for all the people, and by all the people.
One of the fundamental challenges of political theory is how to best capture “the voice of the people.” Aggregative measures, such as voting, may play an important role but are insufficient to rely on entirely. Balloting is too prone to the conundrums of social choice theory and impersonally lacks a certain democratic essence. A vote without deliberation means nothing.
At minimum, there ought to be the appearance of idea exchange before a vote – speeches by candidates, arguments for or against, town halls or public hearings. But true democratic engagement demands more: ongoing, genuine deliberation among the people.
That may sound like an impractical demand in our busy, detached, modern world. But I’m not convinced its infeasible – and the effort may well be worth it.