Civic Virtues: Rights, Citizenship, and Republican Liberalism

By Richard Johnson Dagger | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Political Participation and the Problem of Apathy

If we want the political order to resemble an assurance game rather than a prisoners' dilemma, we should encourage political participation. That is one of the lessons drawn from the analysis in Chapter 7 of the conditions that foster conditional altruism and active, public-spirited citizenship. The lesson is clear. Participation brings the individual into contact with other members of a group, thus facilitating communication among them and strengthening his or her attachment to the group as a whole. How to put the lesson into practice, however, is not so obvious.

There are two problems here. One is that there are many different ways to expand opportunities for participation. As I pointed out in the previous chapter, small schools provide their students with better chances to participate than large schools. The social networks and the sense of competence that grow out of this kind of participation should spill over into the civic domain, thereby contributing to more political participation. One way to promote participation, then, is to convert large schools into smaller ones. But there are so many other ways to promote participation that determining where and how to start becomes a difficult problem.

The second problem is apathy. Participation may foster solidarity and active, public-spirited citizenship, but how can it do this when many or most people apparently prefer to play the part of the citizen-consumer? How do we inspire political participation among those who see little or no point to it?

In this chapter I shall examine two strategies for increasing participation and reducing apathy. These are not the only strategies worth considering, nor are they necessarily the best. Indeed, I shall argue that it would be a mistake to follow one of them. They do illustrate the variety of ways in which one can try to promote political participation, though, and the differences between them are striking. The first proposal would increase participation by installing a computer-assisted form of direct democracy; the second would preserve representative government, at least at the national level, while compelling citizens (in the legal sense) either to vote or to

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