WITH A FEDERAL ELECTION HEATING UP, the political establishment will come after citizens once more, asking them what they want and promising to give it to them if they would but vote. You’d think that after a time, especially following years of political dysfunction, that this being catered to every four years or so would begin to grate on us somewhat. And perhaps it has and that is part of the reason voter turnout continues to decline.
But politicians know something about us that they would never say and we would never admit: we aren’t just a people of myriad opinions, but of latent prejudices that we quietly live out each day but which we never let fully out into the open. Thus the political order, perhaps even especially in election time, plays to that part of us. ill Clinton, alluded to this tendency in his 1995 State of the Union address:
“If you go back to the beginning of this country, the great strength of America has always been our ability to associate with people who were different from ourselves and to work together to find common ground. And in this day, everybody has a responsibility to do more of that. We simply can’t wait for a tornado, a fire, or a flood to behave like Americans ought to behave in dealing with one another.”
And then Clinton opened up about the prejudice politicians often have for citizens, and it wasn’t pretty: “Most of us in politics haven’t helped very much. For years, we’ve mostly treated citizens like they were consumers or spectators, sort of political couch potatoes who were supposed to watch our political TV ads either promise them something for nothing or play on their fears and frustrations.”
And, so, there it was, how politicians see us. That sad part is that they might, in part at least, be correct. Clinton’s solution to this “silo” form of citizenship was a “New Covenant,” in which citizens get back to the prime task of getting to know one another and working together – something most Americans never got around to.
Recently, Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University, gave a major speech to educators, in which she called up the ghosts of what she called “hibernating bigotry.” She quoted from the book, Taking on Diversity: “We stay away from the interpersonal level where bigotry implicates us all, refusing to acknowledge it. We leave it to our children to carry our baggage on their backs.”
It is easy to spot outright bigotry, and it’s likely our kids see it quicker that we do, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. It’s not about race riots, public violence against women, or the comments by the haters on social media. Most of us rightly avoid such things, even taking stands against them. No, were talking about the “subtle” forms of bigotry. It’s about the distance we place between ourselves and those struggling in the mental health cycle. It’s our quiet avoidance of people from ethnic populations who might make us feel uncomfortable, as we do them. It’s about how we tolerate a growing poverty in our nation, attempting to ameliorate our conscience with the odd donation. It’s the anonymous despair we feel when we increasingly learn of hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women but somehow don’t get around to joining a movement to get the feds to finally deal with it.
But it goes even deeper, this legacy of taking democracy for granted without ever really entering it or truly fighting for it. It’s about how we pull back when we come to understand that the solution to poverty will involve the sacrifice of all citizens, sometimes with taxes, other times by joining together to end homelessness in our communities. And it’s when we become increasingly aware of the impact of climate change but can’t quite manage to alter our lifestyle to play our own part more significantly in healing the planet. I wrestle with all the issues within myself, so I’m presuming many of us face the same battle. Except, in my case at least, it’s not so much a conflict as it is a quiet prejudice of placing myself and my family over truly taking part in healing society and the environment at the same time.
Presidential candidate, John Dewey, put it this was in 1937: “Democracy has to be enacted anew in every generation, in every day and year, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions.”
Are we ready for this? Am I? Because the political order is banking on the fact we aren’t and that we can be played according to our prejudices. Perhaps this is the worst aspect of politics, but it represents the shame of citizenship if we can’t transcend our own limitations and persuade politicians to make the tough choices. If we can, though, then this next election will not only bring about a new life of democracy, but a higher kind of politics in the process.