Citizen, Renew Thyself

I tend to think that the most fundamental question in political philosophy is whether we need a state and what sort of thing that is. (In political theory it’s how we got a state and what we should do with it.) Peter Levine recently asked a related question: what should we do when political leaders call for civic renewal?

It’s kind of a confusing question: where do citizen-elected leaders get the authority to ask us to be better citizens? What’s clear is that we frequently ignore such calls: as a candidate in 2007 and 2008, Barack Obama’s calls for citizen action were quickly channeled into the traditional Democratic electoral machine, and today Pope Francis’s calls for the same will have to be channeled through the steering and transmission mechanisms of the Catholic Church. I’d say perhaps we even ought to ignore them, for all the reasons that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” capture. A citizens movement doesn’t have to be leaderless, but the kinds of leaders ensconced at the top of large institutions are not well-suited to be the leaders of civic renewal movements. They can inspire and celebrate such movements, but neither Barack Obama nor Bernie Sanders nor Pope Francis can lead them. Their institutional authority appears to be inimical to the very bottom-up power they’re trying to engender.

Part of the issue here is that I have a strong anti-electoral-politics bias. I worry about the ways that elections serve to blunt citizen action and legitimate state power. I worry about the ways that elections polarize us. I worry about the ways that elections create heroic narratives of individual politicians come to save us. And so I tend to think that civic renewal must de-emphasize the importance of elections and partisanship.

Another issue is money. Peter watched throughout his life as US elections have been swamped by money and he has actively fought against it; I’m a bit younger and it seems that’s always been the case and that the battles were always destined to be losing ones. One can *almost* imagine a civic renewal movement that takes up this problem explicitly and campaigns for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and re-assert some form of campaign finance restrictions… but given the size of the country and the difficulty in amending the constitution, it would (ironically) have to be an extraordinarily well-funded campaign to end well-funded campaigns.

We might instead choose to devote those resources to responding to a specific policy demand, for instance Pope Francis’s call in Laudatio Si’ that we organize and protest for climate change. This is much more exciting for me, in part because of the demand for substantive rather than procedural policy changes, and in part because the focused attention to a political project seems to offer more hope for procedural changes along the way than a procedural project would offer substantive side effects.

In the encyclical itself, Pope Francis mostly calls for dialogue and education, which strikes me as appropriate for his position but inadequate to the need. In public comments he has called for direct, citizen-led action, however, and the encyclical also hints at it as an expression of “social love”:

Love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world. Love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also “macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones”. That is why the Church set before the world the ideal of a “civilization of love”. Social love is the key to authentic development: “In order to make society more human, more worthy of the human person, love in social life – political, economic and cultural – must be given renewed value, becoming the constant and highest norm for all activity”. In this framework, along with the importance of little everyday gestures, social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society. When we feel that God is calling us to intervene with others in these social dynamics, we should realize that this too is part of our spirituality, which is an exercise of charity and, as such, matures and sanctifies us.

I’ve written at length about the difficulties of importing the Christian conception of caritas into the public sphere, so I won’t belabor that point here. But surely this is divine demand for intervention is an important substantive claim: as more and more religious organizations have realized, the global and international role of faith and religious solidarity means that they cannot be satisfied by the politics of nation-states, and the cross-cutting relationships that faith can make a space for are not necessarily anti-political. Even for people of faith, our treasures do not entirely lie in Heaven: we must organize to be efficacious in particular policy arenas and to be effective this organization will have to both deeply rooted in the specifics of the faith and simultaneously ecumenical.

Organizing for a cause, citizens often learn that political contestation and civic engagement is intrinsically rewarding. But it suffers from the same teleological paradox as other such goods: the telos of an engaged citizenry requires that engagement serve as a meaningful means to some other end. As is often the case, it comes back to Hannah Arendt for me: we must wrestle with our fellow citizens in the public sphere on matters of shared concern to live flourishing lives, yet when we engage we must do so for some other, particular reason.

As terrible as the threat of climate change might be, it gives me some hope that it might force us to rediscover the revolutionary treasure that is often lost in amillenial times.

Second Opinions