Many individuals and systems have chosen to disassociate with politics—some even openly speak out against politics. Even politicians say, “Oh, it’s just political” as if the process that defines their work is degrading. When I hear politicians say this, I think, would a teacher say, “Oh, that’s just education” referring to teaching as if it were evil.
At the heart of civic organizing is the belief that this disassociation with the very function that produces democracy is a root cause for our inability to address the complex problems we face today.
The Work of the Citizen
Politics is simply the function by which individuals and groups attempt to influence a course of action. The word ‘politics’ is derived from the Greek word ‘polis’ (governing jurisdiction). The Greeks believed that the role of the citizen was to govern. Politics was the way to carry out that role. In a democracy, individuals who identify with the role and obligation of citizenship should use politics to fulfill their role. The result should be good governance.
Politics are not intrinsically good or bad. How ethical they are has to do with the purpose and the standards of the people doing the politics. When citizens do not see politics as legitimate work, core to effective democracy, politics will inevitably falter at producing good governance. Even so, politics do not go away—human beings are inescapably political.
What People Say About Politics
Before launching the Minnesota Active Citizenship Initiative, we held countless meetings with every social grouping that makes up Minnesota and American society. When asked what comes to mind when you hear the word politics, the response was overwhelmingly negative, with comments like “it sucks” or worse. When asked who does politics, the response was “crooked politicians.” When asked how they would describe themselves, they responded, “innocent victims.”
Despising politics provides an excuse to ignore all things political. As a result, individuals are not accountable to their role in developing the public discernment necessary to address complex public problems and to sustain democracy as a just system of governance. In this vacuum, ideologues, whose only purpose is to win, have high jacked politics.
Those who practice civic organizing believe that a politics that is driven by citizens and focused on common interests is necessary for a just democracy. We do not imagine that this would obliterate particular interests, and harmony is not the goal. It is just the opposite. Different interests that surround complex problems are held in tension with the democratic principles that apply to all. This constructive tension, contained by a common search for the public good, produces a ‘good enough politics.’
We, as citizens, need to let go of our cynicism and step up to our responsibilities to reclaim politics and use it to create the democracy that we desire. Watch for my next post about how citizens use politics to act.
By Peg Michels. Michels is the founder and executive director of Civic Organizing, Inc., a partner in the Minnesota Active Citizenship Initiative.