Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement

Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement

Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement

Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement


Handwringing about political apathy is as old as democracy itself. As early as 425 BC, the playwright Aristophanes ridiculed his fellow Athenians for gossiping in the market instead of voting. In more recent decades, calls for greater civic engagement as a democratic cure-all have met with widespread agreement. But how realistic--or helpful--is it to expect citizens to devote more attention and energy to politics? In Attention Deficit Democracy, Ben Berger provides a surprising new perspective on the problem of civic engagement, challenging idealists who aspire to revolutionize democracies and their citizens, but also taking issue with cynics who think that citizens cannot--and need not--do better.

"Civic engagement" has become an unwieldy and confusing catchall, Berger argues. We should talk instead of political, social, and moral engagement, figuring out which kinds of engagement make democracy work better, and how we might promote them. Focusing on political engagement and taking Alexis de Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt as his guides, Berger identifies ways to achieve the political engagement we want and need without resorting to coercive measures such as compulsory national service or mandatory voting.

By providing a realistic account of the value of political engagement and practical strategies for improving it, while avoiding proposals we can never hope to achieve, Attention Deficit Democracy makes a persuasive case for a public philosophy that much of the public can actually endorse.


Judith Shklar named Montaigne the “hero” of Ordinary Vices because “in spirit he is on every one of its pages, even when his name does not appear.” Alexis de Tocqueville is the hero here. Tocqueville, author of the justly famous Democracy in America, approached democracy as a well-wisher who felt compelled to illustrate its potential excesses and deficiencies, not for the sake of undermining its credibility but for the sake of promoting its success. Tocqueville’s continuing relevance and resonance owe not only to his praise of democratic governance but also to his nuanced view of its limitations. He saw that democracy may require different institutions and practices in different periods and contexts, but that at root it must keep its citizens’ attention and energies focused on collective affairs—not always political, but collective—enough to avoid despotism, anarchy, or gross injustice. Yet while he understood that democracy’s citizens require collective action to protect their freedom from encroachment, he also grasped the pull and validity of self-interest and privatism. He grasped a central paradox of democratic freedom: citizens may freely choose disengagement, in opposition to their own long-term interests, but attempts to coerce their compliance generally fail. Tocqueville’s “new political science” promoted institutions and practices that might instruct and persuade citizens about the importance of collective action. But for democracy to succeed in the long run, citizens must want what they need.

I share Tocqueville’s commitments, and I approach democratic scholarship and theory in a similar manner: as a well-wisher illuminating certain foibles not for the sake of undermining democratic scholarship’s credibility but for the sake of promoting its success. Democratic scholarship has fallen in love with civic engagement, an evocative and appealing term representing community, political participation, social connectedness, trust, and moral virtue that has nonetheless caused more confusion than clarity. I criticize civic engagement (the term, not the goals it represents) and even call for its demise, but only so it can be reborn as the constituent parts—political, social, and moral engagement—that can help us to think and talk more clearly about modern democracy. I unpack “engagement” to reveal its primary components, attention, and energy, which have been recognized as political staples since Aristotle but which have proved fickle and elusive for just as long. Thinking critically about civic engagement leads us to think critically about attention and energy. Thinking critically

Shklar (1984: 1–2).

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