Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Don't Be an 'Idios.'(citizen Participation in Politics)

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Don't Be an 'Idios.'(citizen Participation in Politics)

Article excerpt

September 20, 1994, was "Customer Service Day," not for Wal-Mart or Chevron, but for the 2.2 million employees of the federal government. To spread the gospel of Al Gore's Reinventing Government initiative, top government officials left the confines of their offices and rolled up their sleeves: Roger Johnson, director of the General Services Administration, pumped gas at a filling station for government-owned vehicles; Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt welcomed visitors to Faneuil Hall, a national landmark in Boston; and State Department Undersecretary Richard M. Moose worked the desk at a passport agency. The day reflected the mantra of government reformers: The secret to restoring public faith in government is to imitate business and treat American citizens like customers.

We all want our government to deliver the services we depend on efficiently, whether it's drug approval, air traffic control, or drivers' licenses. President Clinton and Vice President Gore deserve praise for cutting the federal workforce and improving government performance. But making the government work better is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If all we asked of government was efficiency, most any form of government would do, even fascism. (After all, it took Mussolini to get the Italian trains running on time.) In America, we need our government to be more than just a McDonald's writ large. And as American citizens, we need to be treated as more than mere customers who plunk down a portion of their paychecks in exchange for goods and services.

The Founding Fathers rebelled against monarchy because a life subject to another's rule is intolerable. Democracy's promise was laid out for the Founding Fathers by the first democrats, the Greeks, who so valued public life that their word for idiot, idios, meant a private person--one who did not engage in public affairs. For Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots, the pursuit of the happiness democracy can confer was one of the principles upon which the nation was founded. Self-government did not mean just casting a vote every four years; it meant participation in the process of governing. Near the end of his life, Jefferson wrote of the afterlife to his friend John Adams: "May we meet there again, in Congress."

Today, few people share Jefferson's vision of the pleasures of political participation. Over the past 80 years, government has closed the doors to civic involvement. Citizens, in turn, have been all too ready to surrender their role in public life, and all too willing to blame government for its shortcomings. Participation in politics and government is no longer seen as a right and an honor, but as something dirty and corrupting.

The chief challenge for government over the coming decades, then, is to help the public rediscover the pleasures that public life can offer by engaging them at every level of government action. When this happens, the destructive anti-government sentiment will subside, and so will the powerlessness and apprehension many Americans feel when they think about their future.

The model for this kind of government renewal can be found in some reform efforts directed at the two institutions where government is most visible and most directly affects the lives of average citizens: the police department and the public schools.

Let's consider the first. Several police departments across the country now employ community policing, which aims to increase public involvement in one of government's most basic roles, protecting the public. Community policing's principles are based on simple common sense. Built on the traditional model of the beat cop, community policing emphasizes proactive problem solving to prevent crimes rather than investigation after the damage is done. Instead of racing from one call to another, officers take time to familiarize themselves with the neighborhood and attempt to attack the local conditions that breed crime. …

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