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Government changes when citizens are engaged

By Peter Levine
Professor, Tufts University
The same government that can intercept any digital communication on the face of the Earth does not seem to be able to process the information that citizens voluntarily provide about their eligibility for health insurance.
The National Security Agency surveillance controversy and the tortured rollout of the Obamacare website are two sides of the same coin. They explain why Americans are so angry about government.
But, as a rule, we get the government we deserve. Political institutions work well when citizens are engaged: following the news, electing good representatives and pitching in ourselves to address serious national problems such as health care and national security. When people are detached, governments generally fail. So where are we going to get more active and responsible citizens?
That’s where you come in; you can be an effective citizen. Civic engagement that improves the world almost always has three characteristics. It is deliberative: Citizens talk and listen to fellow citizens who may disagree with them. It is collaborative: Citizens actually roll up their sleeves and work together, building or saving or producing goods. And it creates civic relationships, partnerships among people who want to improve the world together.
If you are not doing civic work, you should think about getting involved. Many thousands of college students are volunteers and activists. If you are already active, you should connect with other people who are also involved. Even if they work on different issues or come from different communities, they face the same challenges. For instance, why does our political system cater to professionally led, well-funded interests instead of citizens who deliberate and collaborate? Why do schools and colleges offer so little civic education? Why is so little funding available for citizens’ groups? Why do the news and entertainment media rarely depict citizens working together to address problems? You need to sit down with other active citizens to discuss how to change policies, laws, funding streams and media coverage so that citizen work can flourish and prosper again. That will begin to build a movement of active citizens, which is the only thing that can improve our democracy.
Peter Levine is a professor at Tufts University and author of the new book “We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America.”

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