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  • The Seven Deadly Citizens:Moving From Civic Stereotypes to Well-Rounded Citizenship
  • Matt Leighninger (bio)

American democracy seems to be going through a painful transition process. The symptoms of this shift include declining voter turnout, increasing mistrust of government, and contentious public meetings. Decisions over land use and the siting of public facilities are increasingly mired in lawsuits and "not in my backyard" arguments. Scandals involving the police, and other conflicts between residents and public employees, have become more common and more destructive.

These are not the death throes of democracy; our political system has been through many transitions, and it will continue to evolve as new crises and new conditions arise. The signs of the current shift can now be seen at the local level, where many community leaders are reaching out to citizens, trying to involve them in specific aspects of the political process. Civic experts at foundations and universities are encouraging these efforts by presenting visions of a revitalized American democracy, in which citizens and government have a more constructive relationship than they do today.

Many of these visions and initiatives fail because they do not provide holistic, realistic roles for citizens to play. They rely on one motivation for people to participate — one of seven limited definitions of citizenship — rather than providing different incentives which will appeal to different kinds of people. So citizen involvement efforts often falter because they are conducted on a piecemeal basis, and visions of a revitalized democracy seem utopian because they are based on far-fetched notions of what people are willing to do.

The most successful civic engagement efforts seem to be the ones which embrace a more well-rounded sense of citizenship. When community leaders put themselves in the shoes of the people they are trying to recruit, and recognize the variety of skills and motivations citizens bring to public life, they begin to realize the dangers of the seven civic stereotypes. Some of these leaders have pioneered a new set of strategies and principles, a more inclusive approach which is sometimes known as "democratic organizing." These projects suggest that the next wave of democratic reforms will be built around the day-to-day interests, concerns, and talents of ordinary citizens, rather than the immediate needs of political professionals or the far-off dreams of political observers.

Truth and Fiction in the Seven Civic Stereotypes

There is some truth to each of these narrow definitions of citizenship, but none of them is sufficient for motivating and sustaining broad-based citizen involvement. By trial and error, successful local organizers have learned to avoid stereotyping citizens as:

The Patriotic Voter

Enormous amounts of money and effort are spent every year registering Americans to vote. Incredible quantities of political capital are marshaled in support of campaign finance reform, greater use of initiatives and referenda, and other changes to our electoral system. Advocates of election reform assume that raising the number of voters, and reducing the role of money in the political process, will produce better candidates, more satisfied citizens, and — once the election is over — higher-quality political leadership.

Voting is clearly an essential public duty, our ultimate safeguard against tyranny. If electoral reform will improve the quality of our leadership, even to a small extent, then it is worth pursuing. But despite all these efforts, voter turnout continues its inexorable one-step-forward, two-steps-back decline. Turnout is particularly low among young people, who are the primary targets of most campaigns to promote voting.1 It may be that all the pro-voting messages ("Your Vote Counts!") have backfired; implying that voting can cure all of our dissatisfactions with politics may leave citizens more cynical than before.

And while the role of money in campaigns, and the way candidates raise money may disillusion citizens, perhaps the most important reason for falling turnout is that voting can be a solitary, disempowering activity. Faced with daunting issues and sound-bite candidates, citizens need that critical sense of being part of something larger than themselves, part of a community that is capable of solving its problems. By itself, voting seldom provides the feeling of unity and capacity that makes our electoral choices meaningful...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-9731
Print ISSN
1089-0017
Pages
pp. 33-38
Launched on MUSE
2005-01-06
Open Access
No
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