Renovating Democracy Through an Ethic of Citizenship

Democracy appears to be in crisis. Increased polarization, declining rates of participation, and the rise of authoritarian populism have put our democratic institutions in jeopardy. Are citizens up to the task of meeting these threats? Moreover, what efforts can we, as a society, take to ensure that citizens can effectively overcome the challenges facing democracy today?

Mary Scudder

Credit: Ana Bustelo

Here, I outline steps we can take to cultivate the ethic of citizenship required to combat these issues and reverse the growing dissatisfaction with democratic governments. These strategies are not exhaustive, but rather are intended to provide initial answers to the question of how citizens might better participate in the revitalization of democracy.49 First, civic education programs should be focused as much on the nature and value of democracy as they are on the nuts and bolts of how government works. Second, we should aim to cultivate a greater acceptance of disagreement and conflict in politics. This would mean civically educating people as to the legitimacy of disagreement and difference. Third, we ought to institutionalize expectations of listening between co-citizens, as well as between citizens and their representatives.

First, civic education programs should be aimed at fostering a cultural commitment to democracy. To this end, citizens must be encouraged to take a step back and consider the nature and value of democratic self-rule in the first place. The aim here is to cultivate an understanding among citizens that their own autonomy or freedom depends upon maintaining democratic practices of deliberation and decision-making. Autonomy, or self-rule, is a fundamental ideal of western democracy. But citizens in western democracies, and in the United States in particular, often see autonomy as a private, not a public issue. Without an understanding of the nature of public autonomy, or collective self-rule, citizens struggle to see that democracy is essential to their leading free, self-directed lives. Having a say in the collective decisions we make is as essential to their liberty as having a say in their own private lives.

Importantly, however, the political forum is not the same as the marketplace, and citizens should behave differently in these arenas. Politics involves the exercise of power. Citizens make decisions collectively. And the people living within a given jurisdiction will be confronted with these decisions in the form of law, backed up by coercive force. As such, when forming their opinions on policy issues and deciding how to vote, citizens have an obligation to take others’ perspectives into consideration. The legitimacy of collective decisions depends on all perspectives being included and fairly considered in the decision-making process.

All this is to say that we need to do a better job of civically educating citizens that democratic self-rule is about much more than campaigns and elections, or even majority rule.50 It’s crucial that our civic education programs reflect this more nuanced and substantive take on democratic life. For example, we could reform our student government associations which, in their current form, tend to place undue emphasis on campaigns, elections, and representatives with little attention paid to deliberative processes that include the larger student body. When making decisions that affect an entire school or classroom, even for something as simple as where to go for a field trip, teachers should moderate inclusive discussions, ensuring that all proposals are given a fair hearing. Only then should they hold a vote on the issue. Teachers should help students distinguish between decisions that bear on public autonomy (e.g. where to go on a field trip) and decisions that have implications only for private autonomy (e.g. what book a particular student wants to read for a report). They should also emphasize the possibility of issues carrying significance for both, for example, the decision of which holidays the students will celebrate as a class.

Importantly, democratic self-rule does not require that all citizens get their way, nor does it demand that public deliberation reveal an underlying consensus or general will. Instead, it requires that all citizens be meaningfully included and given equal voice in processes of decision making. This implies that listening to what others have to say is an important responsibility of democratic citizenship. Citizens need to be willing to speak up, listen to each other, and ultimately to form their opinions by taking others’ perspectives and preferences into account.

The second strategy for cultivating the ethic of citizenship needed today involves educating citizens about the legitimacy of political conflict and disagreement.51 Specifically, we ought to educate people in the ethos of an active citizen, helping them recognize that a good democratic life must admit of some controversy and contestation. Civic education initiatives focused on teaching the acceptability of deep disagreement would be in stark contrast to what is typically promoted today. Efforts to prepare citizens for the challenges of democracy amid dissensus are often aimed at promoting civic friendship and greater empathy.

The problem with these empathy-based approaches to democracy is that democratic engagement amid deep disagreement becomes a nearly impossible task. Not only do I have to hear my opponents out and try to understand their perspective, but now I must empathize with them and even come to see them as friends, no matter how offensive or hurtful their arguments. These high (and democratically unnecessary) expectations can deter citizens from listening to those with whom they disagree. Citizens may even be less likely to join in political conversations regarding contested political issues if they believe that these conversations are supposed to produce some resolution or compromise, or empathy for those with whom they deeply disagree.

To be sure, expecting citizens to engage and listen across difference and disagreement is more burdensome than citizenship models that expect citizens to simply express their individual preferences through voting. But it is also arguably more meaningful and even more attractive to citizens. Indeed, research in deliberative democracy shows that citizens’ willingness to deliberate is wider than often assumed.52

Moreover, it is precisely those people less likely to participate in traditional partisan politics who are most interested in participating in other ways, including deliberative town hall forums. In other words, current patterns of citizen engagement do not reflect the variety of ways in which citizens would engage if given more attractive opportunities.

But even if citizens are willing to participate in deliberative encounters with their fellow citizens or representatives, they will not always listen attentively and critically. This highlights the importance of my third strategy for democratic revitalization through an ethic of citizenship, which involves institutionalizing expectations to listen. While we cannot institutionalize listening itself, we can institutionalize the expectation to listen. For this too, we can begin by making changes in the classroom. Whenever student “participation” is evaluated, teachers ought to clearly include listening to one’s fellow students in that assessment. Formalizing the expectation to listen to others is essential to helping students recognize its importance. Of course, clearly stating expectations does not ensure others will necessarily meet them. Still, communicating the expectation of listening, specifically when and to whom someone should listen, is not trivial. We could also communicate these expectations to elected officials, helping them recognize that listening to their constituents and carefully considering their viewpoints and arguments are essential to their role as elected representatives.

These kinds of institutional innovations aimed at bringing citizens together with their fellow citizens and with elected representatives can help create a virtuous cycle of democratic engagement. Citizens are motivated to do the hard work of democracy precisely because they expect their representatives will listen, and their representatives listen because these constituents have taken the time to inform themselves.53

Deliberative democracy research shows that, when given the opportunity to meaningfully participate in politics, citizens rise to the occasion.54 They are able to resist elite manipulation and framing and even overcome polarization to reason effectively. It makes sense, therefore, to begin the process of democratic renewal by improving the conditions and practices of citizenship.

This article was originally published in the Berggruen Institute’s Renewing Democracy in the Digital Age Report

49 Mary Scudder. Beyond Empathy and Inclusion: The Challenge of Listening in Democratic Deliberation. Oxford University Press (forthcoming 2020).
50 John Dewey, The Public and its Problems (Swallow Press, 1954).
51 Teresa Bejan, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).
52 Michael Neblo et al., “Who Wants to Deliberate—And Why?,” American Political Science Review 104, no. 3 (2010): 566-583.
53 Kevin M. Esterling, David Lazer, and Michael Neblo, Politics with the People: Building a Directly Representative Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
54 Simone Chambers, “Human Life Is Group Life: Deliberative Democracy for Realists,” Critical Review 30, no. 1–2 (2018)