Civic starvation

Over several decades, Americans' public life has been showing signs of chronic neglect -- and some Americans are trying to reverse the process

You’ve been leading a double life, whether you realize it or not.


You have your private life – or what’s left of it. And then you have your public life.

Therein lies one of the fundamental problems in modern-day America: Our lives are seriously out of whack.

Our private lives are our families, our work or school, our hobbies and passions – anything we do for ourselves or with those we love. And we have done a great job indulging our private lives and, in many cases, overindulging them.

Our public life, on the other hand, is what we do for strangers – and for the community or country as a whole. It includes volunteerism, participation in altruistic clubs and organizations, and more.

A vital and neglected subset of our public life is our civic life. Voting. Understanding our governmental system. Appreciating its value. Having a working knowledge of current events and the people who shape them. And applying that knowledge in the community and country – such as working for candidates and causes you believe in, or just being knowledgeable enough about them to speak on their behalf intelligently.

The thing is, even as we have fed, indeed overfed, our private lives, we’ve too often neglected our public lives. Our civic life – what we do to contribute to our system of self-governance – has been particularly starved in recent decades.

The signs started showing up in the 1960s, if not before. Whereas the World War II generation joined civic groups and veterans’ groups en masse – most of them with charitable or humanitarian bents – succeeding generations have migrated more toward special-interest organizations that lobby for their own interests and even provide members with retail discounts.

The chronic neglect of our civic life shows in voting patterns, of course, which are abysmal, but also in our Civic I.Q. Have you seen the Internet videos in which ordinary Americans are asked basic questions of civics or current events – and seen how abjectly ignorant many folks are of American history and what’s going on now? Comedians such as Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel have had great fun
exposing that ignorance. But if you worry about the future of this country, it’s not very funny at

In one recent video, groups of college-aged Americans are asked at Fourth-of-July celebrations about the genesis of the holiday. Many are hard-pressed to even cite a reason for the revelry, or the most basic of facts giving rise to it (when we declared independence, who from, etc.).

In another video, people are easily persuaded to sign a petition to do away with the Bill of Rights. The petition was a put-on, just to see what they’d do. But their support for the petition appears quite genuine.

Concerned citizens around the country have begun forming associations to combat the nation’s civic neglect.

One is the Tennessee Center for Self-Governance, formed by a handful of citizens who taught themselves how to negotiate the legislative process at the state capitol and wanted to pass along their insights to others. Begun in 2012 with 71 “students,” the center has taught over 300 already this year. And word about the center has spread so much that it has taught its brand of applied civics in nine states. Soon, the center may drop “Tennessee” from the name and be the hub for a national network of such centers.

Founder Kurt Potter points to Thomas Jefferson’s observation that “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

Today, Potter says, “It’s not that people aren’t exercising their power with a wholesome discretion; it’s that they’re not exercising it period.”

Despite the civic atrophy all around us, Potter is optimistic – calling to mind Samuel Adams’ exhortation that “It does not take a majority to prevail... but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on
setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of

You’re starting to see small billows of smoke today.

But the stark truth is, there’s a reason this is called the “American Experiment”: Self-governance is a remarkably new phenomenon
in human history, and only a fraction of people
in history have been thus privileged to be so

If anything fritters that station away, it will be complacency and ignorance.

And the starving of our civic selves.



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