Today is Constitution Day, aka Citizenship Day -- a federal holiday celebrating the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. It's also a day to reflect on our extraordinary form of government, and reconnect with what it means to be an active citizen, and why it matters
For, in the words of former Congressman Lee Hamilton, "The success of our democracy is determined by the participation of its citizens. (But) America's citizens today are voting less, volunteering less and complaining more. The antidote for this cynicism and apathy is to learn how to become good citizens."
Well, how do we-the-people do that exactly?
For some Americans, such as the angry but loud minority who mobilize under the banner of the Tea Party, they've said goodbye to apathy by first taking to the streets, and now to the ballot box. Regardless of what you think about their political views, you can't say they're apathetic. They are, in fact, the most active citizens in American society. We should all match their level of civic commitment.
But if you're interested less in pushing a narrow ideology, and more concerned with finding ways to build consensus among 70-80% of an informed engaged public so as to enable politicians to enact the kind of truly transformative policies we so desperately need -- but have zero chance of ever getting with the way politics is practiced today -- then there is a better way to make your voice heard -- without yelling and screaming.
And that process starts with citizens participating in face-to-face meetings with fellow citizens in their communities to identify issues they care about, and develop effective ways to act on them. This can be done in a civil non-partisan way, and to great effect. Especially when local community groups link up with like-minded others, and powerfully amplify their well-reasoned voices.
To some, this may sound difficult or even naive, but it is not. Many Americans already do it effectively every day. But they're just a tiny percentage of the American public.
Fortunately, there's a growing number of organizations creating such opportunities. The Coffee Party movement does it by encouraging local Coffee Strategy Meetings, where self-organized citizens come together in a non-partisan way to help each other learn about and act on an issue, and to learn how to become more active citizens in general. In a more structured and professionally facilitated way, this is also the realm of the highly skilled practitioners of Deliberative Democracy whose work, if scaled up, could become something of a magic bullet. And, of course, single issue advocacy groups of all kinds also provide forums for citizens interested in making a difference on a given issue.
If this kind of activity were occurring in every community in America, on a regular basis -- before, during, and after elections -- we would have more than a revitalized American Dream. We would have finally resumed our journey started over 200 years ago toward becoming a truly enlightened society. Finally capable of grappling with the matrix of challenges and crises facing us in a way that was both effective and sustainable.
But our only chance is if all Americans start taking their jobs as citizens more seriously. Much more seriously.
For as Congressman Hamilton also said in an op-ed today, "With freedom comes obligation, with liberty comes duty. If you and I do not fulfill our side of that wager, our democracy is doomed. If we become a nation of spectators, we will surely fail."
But what about the huge majority of people who've grown frustrated by politics, who've tuned out, and become apathetic and disengaged? How do we connect with them, and re-enlist them as full time citizens?
After all, their reasons are many, and deeply felt. Many have tuned out because they're disappointed or disgusted by what passes for political discourse. Others look at government gridlock, and polarization, fanned by sensationalists in the media, and understandably grow cynical and question whether government can ever again do the big things it needs to do. Yet others see the corruption and outsized influence of special interests and therefore feel their one lonely vote doesn't matter, that they can't make a difference, so why bother trying. And most of us are just so damn busy trying to keep our heads above water and take care of our families, that it leaves little time to do the hard work of everyday democracy.
But do it we must, because there are no political white knights coming to save the day. Only serious citizens can do that.
The only interests that apathy serves are those not-so-special interests who fill the power vacuum created by passive citizens, and who then use their exclusive access to influence policy to serve their needs rather than ours. The only way to effectively fight back is to refill the vacuum. With us. The People.
Either citizens become better informed and more actively engaged in democratic politics -- or (fill in the blank with your own nightmare scenario).
The bottom line is that as long as most Americans remain addicted to apathy, the job of every serious citizen must be to help them kick the habit. Because we need all of us in the game, not just the angry ones.
To help get the conversation started, take a look at the video below called "Apathy Is The Enemy" -- featuring some serious inspiration from some very inspiring American icons.
And take a minute out of your busy day today, and consider just how lucky we are to live in country with as much raw potential as America. And then help us all get to work.
And of course -- Happy Citizenship Day! Happy Constitution Day!
Follow Jeffrey Abelson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeffreyabelson