Passive Recipients vs Engaged Citizens

I’m going to share one of my political pet peeves with you today. I hear it often from people during an election season and it goes something like this: Candidate X will need to win over my vote.

You might find it odd that I object to that. I understand. It is pretty much a distillation of the political process during an election. I admit that the reason it is a pet peeve of mine is that I assume a context that is often included when a person says that. What I hear is a politics based on “What have you done for me lately?”

That addresses only half of the equation of what politics in a representative democracy are supposed to be about – the one where politicians are the actors and we are the passive recipients. A singular focus on that side of things sets up a dangerous affirmation of how Republicans attempt to make a distinction between the “us” of citizens and the “them” of government in order to de-legitimize the latter.

Perhaps all of this goes back to when I was a child and was first inspired to be interested in politics by the words of John F. Kennedy, who said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” That is the other half of the equation that we don’t hear as much about.

President Obama addressed that eloquently in his 2012 speech at the Democratic Convention. You might remember that his address was panned as “boring” by a lot of pundits in comparison to the one by the “explainer in chief” Bill Clinton (a wonderful speech). President Obama talked about a word that is not pretty…but is nevertheless profound: citizenship.

We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world’s ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations…

We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.

In those words I heard an echo of what JFK said so many years ago that captured my political imagination.

Have we gone so far into the idea of politics being all about “what have you done for me lately” that we now consider talk of citizenship to be boring? To the extent that liberals buy into that frame, we’ve lost the ultimate battle of balancing private wealth with public voice. Here is how President Obama talked about that in 2012:

If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void, the lobbyists and special interests, the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are trying to make it harder for you to vote, Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry or control health care choices that women should be making for themselves. Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.

We have a choice to make. Is politics all about what politicians can do for us? Or is it also about what we can do for our country?

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.