The Cornerstones of Active Citizenship

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Wednesday, October 16, 2002
Ours is a nation that likes to hear itself talk. Turn on the radio or the television at any time of the day and you can find commentary and conversation on any subject you care to explore- relationships, sports, even politics. In fact, we’re drenched in other people’s opinions about politics. But as we get closer to election day in November, I’m reminded again of how much we talk and how little we actually do. Even if, miraculously, voter turnout is a point or two higher than it was four years ago, it will still be far too low. 

There are all sorts of reasons people do not vote, and I don’t mean to pick on them in particular, but there’s a reason I worry about this: Voting is one of the easiest things a citizen of this country can do to participate in American civic life. It is the first of what I consider the four cornerstones of active citizenship. Being an active citizen is different from being an activist. Not all of us have the time or the temperament to become extensively involved in public life; indeed, our system was set up to work without totally involved constituents- that’s what our representatives are for. But our democracy can’t work unless ordinary people take enough of an interest in public life to give it direction and meaning, and the first step to doing this is voting. 

When you vote, of course, you’re registering an opinion on whom you want representing you in Congress, the White House, and at the state and local level. But you’re doing other things as well. You’re signaling something about your philosophy of government or, in elections that focus on a single issue, your opinion on that issue. More fundamentally, you’re confirming your belief that it’s worth voting- that you value a system that offers its citizens the chance to weigh in on the issues of the day. The cynicism and alienation that lead many people to forego turning up at the polls lead the country nowhere, except toward greater cynicism and alienation. 

But our democracy depends on us for more than simply casting our votes. Our representatives also need to hear directly from us, either through letters or in person- the second cornerstone. On any given issue that comes up on Capitol Hill, you can bet they’ll be hearing from lobbyists, interest groups, their colleagues, and party leaders. This is all fine and appropriate- it’s part of how a good politician forms judgments. But in order for our representatives to do their jobs well, they also need to understand their constituents- to be familiar with our daily concerns, to appreciate our opinions, to recognize the subtleties of how we feel on the issues they confront. 

This suggests, though, that we also have an obligation to understand those issues. Which is why the third cornerstone of being an active citizen is to be informed about the problems we face, both as a nation and within our own communities. I’m not suggesting you spend your free time poring over the Congressional Record or watching C-SPAN every spare moment. Reading the newspaper or watching the news regularly helps; so can finding sources of information you trust- in general interest magazines, say, or on the websites of organizations you believe in. And just as parents at a community pool both chat and keep a casual eye on the scene, ready to dive in should something go wrong, so you should keep an eye on news from Congress and be ready to respond if it suddenly troubles you. 

But following the news allows you to do more than simply keep an eye on Congress; it also helps you form the judgments you'll need when you go into the voting booth. Voting is good, but informed voting is better, and that’s impossible unless you have more than a passing acquaintance with the issues and candidates. 

Just doing these three things- voting, keeping in touch with your representatives, and becoming informed about public issues- will get you a long way toward filling the ideal role of a citizen. But there’s one more basic step we can take to give meaning to our democratic ideals: become involved in trying to improve our own communities. It could be volunteering at a soup kitchen, helping build a house with Habitat for Humanity, or lobbying for some change in the laws- the what of it matters less than doing it. Because involvement is the greatest antidote to cynicism I know. Citizens who become engaged in community life no longer feel distant from the centers of power and decision-making; they come to understand their own communities, and to appreciate how they themselves can influence change. Perhaps most important, they gain an appreciation for the hard work of democracy- for how to build a consensus behind a particular course of action in a complex, busy and diverse society. In that sense, they lessen the distance between themselves and their elected representatives, and gain an understanding of civic life that can only make our society- and the ongoing experiment of American democracy- stronger. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)