Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement

By Ben Berger | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
IS POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT BETTER
THAN SEX?

Therefore, for a democratic polity to exist it is necessary for a participa-
tory society to exist, i.e. a society where all political systems have been
democratized and socialization through participation take place in all
areas … maximum input (participation) is required.

—Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory

The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many free evenings.
—Oscar Wilde1

ONE OF MY PURPOSES has been to upset the commonplace practice of taking political engagement for granted, both its meaning and its value. We must specify clearly what political engagement means before we can decide whether it is inadequately supplied and, if so, why—and what, if anything, might be done to promote it. Toward that end, I argue in chapter 2 that we should understand political engagement as a combination of attention and activity: attention to, and activity in support of, political affairs, which can (but need not) be combined with social or moral engagement. In chapters 3 and 4 I favor Tocqueville’s instrumental defense of political engagement over Arendt’s intrinsic defense of its worth, although neither account satisfies completely. Assessing their relative merits comprises a necessary but insufficient step toward appraising political engagement’s value. Here I review a broader range of arguments regarding the need for high and widespread political engagement, including Tocqueville’s, and find none completely persuasive on its own. Each one represents piecemeal, circumstantial evidence of political engagement’s importance. But the arguments also suggest a better approach for anyone wishing to advocate for increased political engagement, as I will do.

I begin with a foundational but often overlooked question: exactly which benefits does political engagement offer to individuals and com-

1 The quote is widely attributed to Wilde but has not been found in his writings.

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