Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement

By Ben Berger | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT AS
INTRINSIC GOOD
ARENDTAND COMPANY

The basic assumption of the ward system, whether Jefferson knew it or
not, was that no one could be happy without his share in public happi-
ness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public
freedom, and that no one could be called either happy or free without
participating, and having a share, in public power.
—Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

I HAVE SUGGESTED THAT we let civic engagement die a noble death, to be reborn as its constituent parts: political, social, and moral engagement, concepts that are better equipped to clarify and enhance our discourse about making democracy work. From this point forward I will focus primarily on political engagement, reserving moral engagement for a separate book-length treatment. Many democrats, ranging from scholars to pundits to community leaders, praise political engagement uncritically, as if we always need as much as we can get. But since American democracy has generally run short of political attention and energy, the task of eliciting high and widespread political engagement might require extreme measures. Liberal democrats cannot countenance coercion or paternalism without first knowing just how valuable political engagement is. How much do we need, and to what lengths should we go to get it?

Those questions loom large, yet too many political theorists and political scientists overlook them and take political engagement’s worth for granted. Those who bother to justify their advocacy generally take one of two tacks, arguing that we should care about political engagement— and promote it wherever possible—because it is intrinsically valuable for human beings or because it is instrumentally valuable for democratic polities. The intrinsic defense values political engagement as an end in itself, “an essential part of the good life for an individual,” although not

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