The success of the American political system, the founders agreed, rests on a citizenry that is informed, alert and active. The fundamental premise of our system — government based on the consent of the governed — presupposes a citizenry that monitors government, analyzes information about programs, policies and laws, and engages in reasoned critiques of governmental actions.
An alert citizenry, moreover, is critical to the protection of our liberties. An active, energetic and engaged citizenry is crucial to the task of holding government accountable.
Here’s a modest list of five New Year’s resolutions for those citizens who wish to improve the quality of American politics.
1. Stop political labeling. The practice of endorsing or dismissing an idea merely because it is characterized as liberal or conservative is the lazy citizen’s way of avoiding the work of citizenship, which requires analysis of the relative merits of an idea or proposal.
The practice of labeling is simplistic and circular and little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. Labeling, moreover, ignores the fact of changing definitions and shifting criteria.
2. Listen. Nobody has a monopoly on political wisdom. A refusal to listen to competing arguments, an exercise in arrogance, rests on the assumption that we have nothing to learn from our fellow citizens. The tenets of our constitutional democracy reject the concept of human infallibility and reflect the understanding that public policy can be improved through the process of discussion. Listening to an opposing position may lead us to reconsider the merits of our own position and, perhaps, affirm our convictions. It may also force us to recognize the deficiencies in our position and improve upon it, or embrace a different view. Everyone gains when we participate in this educational process.
3. Citizens must be fair to one another. Dialogue requires fair and accurate representations of opposing arguments, particularly in a system that rests on the principle of government by consent of the people. Support for one’s view won through deceit and distortion hardly satisfies the goal of informed consent. “In a Republic of truth,” the learned scholar, Francis Wormuth, wrote, “persuasion is the ultimate authority.” That requires respect for facts and evidence and rejection of distortion, demagoguery and snake oil. Nothing of substance is achieved through the creation of straw-man arguments.
4. Avoid the politics of destruction. Politics is not war, and words are not bullets. It’s wise to remember, after all, that in a democracy, which is fluid and reflective of compromise, today’s opponent may be tomorrow’s ally. We can, and should be, tough on issues but tender toward people.
5. Avoid ideological rigidity. It’s far better to gain something than nothing. Driving off the cliff while flying partisan flags reduces political participation.