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Democracy is for amateurs

Monday, May 14th, 2012

Writing for The Atlantic, former Clinton speechwriter and creator of the Guiding Lights Weekend conference on citizenship Eric Liu argues for the return of the amateur citizen. Unlike other fields in which the rise of the amateur is celebrated, “the work of democratic life,” he notes, “has become ever more professionalized.”

What we need today are more citizen citizens. Both the left and the right are coming to see this. It is the thread that connects the anti-elite 99 percent movement with the anti-elite Tea Party. It also animates an emerging web of civic-minded techies who want to “hack” citizenship and government.

Why is government in America so hack-worthy now? There is a giant literature on how interest groups have captured our politics, with touchstones texts by Mancur OlsonJonathan Rauch, and Francis Fukuyama. The message of these studies is depressingly simple: democratic institutions tend toward what Rauch calls “demosclerosis”–encrustation by a million little constituencies who clog the arteries of government and make it impossible for the state to move or adapt.

This tendency operates in an accelerating feedback loop. When self-government is dominated by professionals representing various interests, a vicious cycle of citizen detachment ensues. Regular people come to treat civic problems as something outside themselves, something done to them, rather than something they have a hand in making and could have a hand in unmaking. They anticipate that engagement is futile, and their prediction fulfills itself.

How do we reverse this trend? Liu has some suggestions:

1. Develop our “citizen muscle”: citizens should think “about the future and not just immediate gratification.”

2. Refocus on the local: “Localism gives citizens autonomy to solve problems; networked localism enables them to spread and scale those solutions.”

3. Think in terms of challenges rather than orders: “One of the best ways to tap collective smarts is to set great goals and let diverse solutions emerge–to be big on the what and small on the how.”

4. “Create platforms where citizens can actively serve.”

At the end of the day, Liu argues that “citizenship […] is too important to be left to professionals. It’s time for us all to be trustees, of our libraries and every other part of public life. It’s time to democratize democracy again.”