Being a Good Citizen

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.

Trust Part 2

This past week was an encouraging one for restoring and affirming trust in our governing institutions.  I worked at the polls with people of different political persuasions, but there was no partisanship.  I did discover that one of the other team members supported Biden and another supported Trump, but it did not enter into their work of enabling voters to participate in the process.  We were a team working on a task.

The same has been true in states around the country, especially including Georgia. In that state, the electoral infrastructure is entirely under Republican control, but the vote counting was carried out with diligence, caution, and integrity, even though the outcome was not for their preferred candidate. The threatened intimidation of voters at the polls and violence in the streets if President Trump was not re-elected did not materialize. The nation is remarkably calm in the aftermath of the election.

Now that it is clear that Joe Biden is going to be our new president, it is time to put the rhetoric and divisiveness behind us and learn to trust each other again.  Whichever side you were on, reach out to someone who voted differently.  Commit to being engaged in politics, looking for candidates who will tread a centrist path, avoiding the extremes of both parties.

Authoritarian governments are built on suspicion, distrust, division, nonnegotiable positions.  Democratic governments are built on trust, mutual respect, and compromise.  Democracy prioritizes good process over “good” outcomes.  Goodness of  process means impartiality, fairness, transparency, and integrity.  Goodness of outcomes is in the eye of the beholder.

If you believe in democracy, if you are willing to trust the good intentions of your fellow citizens, find a way to help make it work.

In God We Trust–Who Else?

Faith is a virtue, but it is also word with multiple meanings.  Belief, trust, and loyalty are the most common ones.  Saint Paul’s use of the Greek word pistis is often translated as allegiance or loyalty, while the Latin version (credo) has come to mean belief (as in creeds).  These meanings are  not mutually exclusive.  However, to the extent that people interpret the term belief in a religious context as a set of statements about reality that they are asked to accept as factual truths, trust may be a more useful translation of faith as one of the core attitudinal virtues.

Loyalty is more a behavior than an attitude and is somewhat neutral as a potential virtue, because one can be loyal to something that is harmful or destructive. Our nation is currently deeply divided by mutual mistrust in politics, in part fostered and nurtured by individual and groups in furtherance of their own agenda.  In particular, they cultivate loyalty to their own group and distrust of everyone else—which supports the assertion that loyalty is not always a virtue. For our civic purposes, trust rather than belief or loyalty is the most useful interpretation of the virtue called faith.

Trust lies somewhere between gullibility or naiveté  as its extreme and paranoia or simply distrust as its opposite. Trust is not blind.  Trust Allah but tie up your camel is an old Arab proverb. Former Soviet Leader Michael Gorbachev urged that both sides trust but verify. Doubt lies somewhere between trust and disbelief, and serves the useful purpose of calling us to ground trust in factual knowledge and demonstrated behavior by those people and institutions we have invited into positions of power and authority.

 Trust begins by listening to your gut, your instincts, but it does not end there.  There is also that all-important verify part when it comes to practicing trust in ocmmunity.  Whom do you trust to listen and respectfully disagree, opening your mind to other ways of thinking?  What sources of information are credible? Just like active hope, cautious trust is an invaluable attitudinal virtue to cultivate and exercise for every aspect of our lives, not just governance. Democratic process is just “trust but verify” on a larger scale.  Knowing that there will be another election plays a key role in holding elected officials accountable to the public trust.

Trust lies somewhere between gullibility or naiveté as its extreme and paranoia or simply distrust as its opposite. Trust is not blind. Trust Allah but tie up your camel is an old Arab proverb. Former Soviet Leader Michael Gorbachev urged that both sides trust but verify. Doubt lies somewhere between trust and disbelief, and serves the purpose of calling us to ground trust in factual knowledge and demonstrated behavior by those people and institutions we have invited into positions of power and authority.

Trust is an important element of a nation’s social capital as described by Stiglitz et.al. in Measuring What Counts.  Social capital has been described as the glue that holds a society together—a shared history, sometimes a shared ancestry, holidays and celebrations, customs and usually language. Trust is a form of social capital that makes it possible to enter into agreements without spelling out all the details or constantly running to the courts to enforce them.  I recall a contract to build an addition on our home many decades ago.  The contract read, “build upstairs addition, $10,000.”  When he would tell me to go pick out light fixtures, or carpeting, I would say, “Do I pay for them?” He said  “No, it’s in the contract!” Contracts are less likely to be spelled out in detail in a small town where everyone knows everyone else.  I was a relative newcomer and had to learn the local customs, which were grounded in trust that was in turn grounded in networks of kinship and neighborhoods.

 Trust is not just an attitudinal virtue when it comes to civil society; it is also an asset that builds slowly but dissipates quickly. Inequality and diversity both can undermine trust in civic institutions., Inequality creates fear and resentment toward those who use money to gain power over others. Diversity encourages the creation of silos of people with a common heritage, and fosters distrust.

Trust begins by listening to your gut, your instincts, but it does not end there.  That’s the verify part.  Whom do you trust to listen and respectfully disagree, opening your mind to other ways of thinking?  What sources of information are credible? Just like active hope, cautious trust is an invaluable attitudinal virtue to cultivate and exercise for every aspect of our lives, not just governance. Democratic process is just “trust but verify” on a larger scale.  Knowing that there will be another election plays a key role in holding elected officials accountable to the public trust.

Historically, kings ruled by divine right, tyrants usurped authority and held on to it by force.  Only in modern times did the checks and balances of democratic constitutions provide a good reason to trust authority because no one had absolute power. In the United States, the division of authority among three branches of government and the sharing of power between the federal government and the states both offer constraints on abuse of power. But democracies have succumbed to dictatorship in the past. Our trust as citizens has been frequently undermined and challenged by social media and self-serving politicians who are careless of with the truth and opportunistic in the use of power, whose loyalty to party is placed above loyalty to the Constitution and the public. In a democracy, the survival of self-government or any other form of government depends on the faith, belief, and trust of its citizens in its elected leaders’ willingness and ability to govern in their interest.

Betrayal of that trust to seek to seize and retain power and/or exercise it for personal benefit will undermine authority. One of our biggest challenges as a nation is to affirm a “trust but verify” attitude as a habit of the heart that leads to respect for authority and for our fellow citizens,, civic participation, and willingness to compromise—all essential to the survival of democracy.

Historically, kings ruled by divine right, tyrants usurped authority and held on to it by force.  Only in modern times did the checks and balances of democratic constitutions provide a reason to trust authority because no one had absolute power. In the United States, the division of authority among three branches of government and the sharing of power between the federal government and the states both offer constraints on abuse of power. But democracies have succumbed to dictatorship in the past.

Our trust as citizens has been frequently undermined and challenged by social media and self-serving politicians who are careless of with the truth and opportunistic in the use of power, whose loyalty to party is placed above loyalty to the Constitution and the public. In a democracy, the survival of self-government or any other form of government depends on the faith, belief, and trust of its citizens in its elected leaders’ willingness and ability to govern in their interest.

In what or whom should we trust? Our instincts. Our doubts. And those voices and people an sources that have proved trustworthy in the past,whether they are scientists, public officials, personal friends, news sources, or communities and organizations that are open to other views and different perspectives. Trust is the foundation of democracy. Don’t let distrust take away our most precious possession as a nation.