Monday, February 16, 2009


Lincoln Steffens wisely said, "The misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people." I have spent many a day listening to people bemoan the current state of affairs, whether that be our financial situation, a poor education system, disrespectful youth, or corrupt leaders. I certainly have added my two cents to the growing mound of complaints. But, to what extent are we responsible for both the decline and the necessary improvements? So often, it's simple to shirk our responsibilities, not just because it takes too much effort, but because we manifest an individualistic mentality. It is easy to believe that one person's actions cannot change society - and I am not going to argue with such a statement. But to allow cynicism to paralyze us into inaction will only exacerbate the problems. That is precisely why we must be proactive in organizing ourselves and others to address the problems that affront us. Robert Putnam said, "Americans of [the Progressive] era did not simply bemoan 'the way kids are today,' or long nostalgically for the lost social control of the village. Rather, the Progressives devoted their intellectual, organizational, and financial energies to blazing constructive new paths for youth."

If we're dissatisfied with society, who is to blame really? We live in a democracy, which doesn't function properly when people forfeit their involvement in it. Again, it is easy to rationalize inaction, because it isn't clear how going to a local community meeting can impact national policies. But the grand is composed of minutia. We cannot fairly blame big politicians if we are not fulfilling our civic duties. We can become disillusioned or we can get involved in our communities.

Historian Richard McCormick wrote about the final years of the nineteenth century, but it sounds suspiciously like what we are confronting now: "Amid hard times, many Americans questioned the adequacy of their institutions and wondered whether democracy and economic equality were possible in an industrial society. Answering these questions with hope and hard work, some men and women began to experiment with new methods for solving the problems at hand. Hundreds poured their energies into settlement houses where they lived and worked among the urban poor. From their pulpits a new generation of ministers sought to make Christianity relevant to this world, not only the next, by aligning their churches actively on the side of the disadvantaged. Across the country the movement for municipal reform entered a new phase as businessmen and professionals tried to reach beyond their own ranks and enlist broad support for varied programs of urban improvement. Women's clubs increasingly turned their attention from discussing literature to addressing social problems."

So, as we face our own looming problems with the economy, malfunctioning systems, and a broken people: how will we solve the problems? What will our contribution be? Not, "who is to blame for this mess?" and "what will the politicians do to fix this?" but "what responsibility do we, as members of a democracy, bear in both the creation and resolution of these problems?" This is not to say that government and politicians do not have an important role to play; it is simply to say that we also have a critical role to play. We cannot sit idly by.

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