No doubt you have heard it said from time to time, inevitably with a disparaging tone, that this or that decision by a government official was "political." Perhaps, when the decision was one you disagreed with, you might even have said or thought that yourself. When I hear this, I always want to ask: How else should the decision have been made? In a democracy, politics is the process by which we govern ourselves. When decisions trouble us, the answer is to strengthen our public institutions, become more involved in them and encourage others to do so.
The most precious things we have are those we hold in common with our fellow citizens, things like freedom, security, the natural environment and markets to trade what we have to sell for what we need to buy. In "For Common Things," a remarkable little book full of insights into politics, Jedediah Purdy writes that "contrary to the fantasy of the moment, public life and public institutions can never be obsolete. Our private lives--our work, our families, our circles of friends--are pervasively affected by things that can never be private: law and political institutions, economics and culture."
Democracy works, as evidenced by the success of the American experiment and the spread of democratic governments across the world since our country's founding. But it doesn't work by itself. And if you believe in the essential premise of democracy--that ordinary people must create and run their own governments--then you have to be politically involved and act to strengthen the involvement of others. The methods of politics change with technology--we now tweet instead of passing out handbills--but that imperative remains.
We must remind each other, and especially the best and brightest of our young people, of the essential truth of the argument that President Kennedy made to the graduating class of Vanderbilt University in 1963: that "the educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public. ... He must be a participant and not a spectator."
For a while now, that spirit seems to have been lost. In the preface to his book, which was published in 1999, Purdy wrote, "In roughly the past twenty-five years, politics has gone dead to the imagination. It has ceased being the site of moral and historical drama. It has come to seem petty, tedious and parochial. This change would signify less if politics had mattered less than it has in recent decades."
But of course, politics does matter, and if anything the appearance of politics as irrelevant has worsened since Purdy wrote those words. The central challenge of political leadership today is to excite the political imagination of the people served. This is a cynical age, but cynicism is a dead end. People would like to know how to pitch in and work together in common cause, and effective leadership enables them to do that.
These ideas have profound application to the practical issues that confront state and local governments. From underfunded pensions to outdated sewer systems to inadequate transportation systems, these problems arise from our having collectively neglected politics and political institutions.
As some cities and counties and school districts fall further behind and others turn things around, I see a common theme: In nearly every positive turnaround, there has been some kind of resurgence of political life. Before the test scores improve, the crime rate goes down or the property values go up, there is a rediscovery of common purpose and a resurgence of political involvement. A bankrupt city or a failing school district, on the other hand, is one where the political leadership has not helped citizens understand and carry out their civic duty.
"Collaboration" is a watchword today, but the most essential collaboration is between public officials and their constituents. Before they can fix the sewers or balance the books, leaders have to reignite within their citizens a sense of common purpose and an understanding that it is through politics that that common purpose can be achieved.