2020 offered us a crash course in how our federal government works, or at least how it is supposed to work. Certainly we all were introduced to parts of the Constitution and the electoral process that we never thought about. Certifying an election. Curing mail- in ballots. Drop boxes, signature verification, and witness signatures. Not only did we learn a lot about elections, we also now know more about the three ways to remove a president from office (four, counting electing someone else)—impeachment, the 25th amendment, and the 14th amendment.
It is my earnest hope as a 53-year member of the League of Women Voters that the events of 2020 inspired us all to becoming better citizens—more aware and more involved. Democracy dies in darkness. It is more threatened by the indifference of the majority than the violent anger of one minority or another. Since it’s still early in the new year, let me invite you to practice five essential civic virtues that are part of the privilege and responsibility of being an American citizen.
1. Pragmatism is my favorite civic virtue, probably because I spent 15 years teaching in a public policy program. According to Aristotle, virtues lie at the golden mean between their opposites and their extremes. The opposite of pragmatism is absolutism, while the extreme is anything goes, a political form of indifference or apathy. The best is often the enemy of the good. Or the good enough. Beware of candidates who stand for absolutes. Barry Goldwater learned that in 1964 when he declared that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. He carried five states. Sometimes the best we can do is to move policy a bit farther in the right direction.
2. Pragmatism and its twin sister, compromise, are one form of acceptance and respect, which is the second civic virtue. But acceptance and respect goes beyond pragmatism to being sure that everyone is heard before a compromise is made. All lives matter, but especially the ones that haven’t seemed to matter in the past. In the 19th century and into the 20th black and women’s lives didn’t matter enough. More recently, we have included LGBTQ people, native Americans and immigrants. We are also called to include those who feel left behind by a society of rapid change and concentration of wealth, and those on both ends of the political spectrum who feel suppressed and unheard, who feel that their free speech and freedom of religion rights are being trampled. Listening, not just to those with whom we agree but those who see the world differently, is an essential practice in both private and public life.
2. The third civic virtue is honesty, integrity, transparency—whatever you call it, truthfulness is a critical civic virtue for maintaining or restoring trust in our society and our government. Faith or trust in institutions crumbles when there is no honesty, no disclosure, or worse, spread of misinformation, a culture of falsehood. It is the responsibility of public officials to practice honesty in all forms, and it is the responsibility of citizens to seek it out, test its plausibility, and demand honesty and transparency. That includes supporting a free press and listening to a variety of media voices, not just the ones on your side of the political fence.
3. Fairness, justice, and equality are a package civic virtue that pervades every public issue, every program, every institution to provide equal access to the common goods of life. Justice, fairness, and equality are not just equal treatment under law, but equal opportunity, equal respect, and equal access to the good things of life. Equality in access to opportunities and employment, to health care and housing. Justice in equal treatment for equal offenses and appropriately unequal treatment for lesser and greater offenses. Fairness in the distribution of resources among competing groups and interests.
5. Responsibility or diligence (or civic engagement) means committing to do your share of the work of public pace in ways that use your gifts to make your city, state, or nation a better place. I am so proud of my oldest daughter and my youngest granddaughter who took four hours of online training and then worked a 12 hour day as poll workers in the November election. Sammi, who just turned 16 two days before the election, served at the polls along with seven of her classmates. They give me hope for the next generation.
Responsibility means voting, listening to candidates, following legislation, letting officials from president and members of Congress down to city councils and school boards what your concerns are and why they should vote in a particular way. It means paying attention and engaging with fellow citizens to try to make a better, more nurturing, more sustainable world for ourselves and generations to come.
It’s still January. Not to late to make a New Year’s resolution. If is five is too many, start with #5 — civic engagement– and let it lead you to the other four in how you assert your citizenship as a duty, a right, and a privilege.