Self Government as a Personal Virtue

Tuesday, September 1, 2009 (All day)

Every now and then in a democracy, it pays to ask the critical question: What kind of civic discourse do we want? Watching the President and elected representatives getting punked in the last few weeks by scripted, thoughtless screamers raised the question anew for me. Few of us mind passionate exchange or even heated disagreement. As long as debate is fact-based, respectful, and even halfway intelligent, most of us are content. If it means settling for compromises and trade-offs, at least we've had the chance to weigh and balance one hard choice against another. Public debates and the policies that result, after all, are about deliberating and choosing.

When public meetings descend into the realms of nasty, brutish and dumb, democracy is diminished in her stature and grandness. But democracy would not have survived as long as it has if it weren't a robust and resilient form of government. No doubt civil society will survive and thrive despite the attempts by ideologues and screwballs to kick it over to the side track in favor of demagoguery. I suspect those same people who prefer to shut down considered views are the same people who would seat themselves, if only they could, as their community's democracy "czar," an oxymoron if ever there was one. They are the same people who can't seem to get through their heads what the notion of "self government" really means. They miss the point that it's as much about the process of reaching societal and political consensus as it is about the cultivation of a personal virtue, a way of conducting oneself when participating in the affairs of democracy.

So let's celebrate the better angels of the day; those who sought out a town hall to discuss health care and health insurance, did their best to engage with civility and good sense, and who probably learned more about their "town" than they ever imagined they would. Democracy needs a well-informed electorate. The more we know about what and who we're dealing with, the better.