Apathy: the norm of American democracy

By on March 6, 2003

The level of civic engagement in the United States has been steadily declining for at least a generation. People’s motivation to join cohesive, communal political organizations, or even to vote has drastically decreased.

These facts are beyond debate. The issue that remains is, does this seeming trend towards civic apathy represent an American crisis?

The answer to this question is intrinsically no. It is impossible for America to experience a crisis of civic engagement, as political participation is an inherently voluntary and unrestricted practice.

Americans govern themselves to the degree of their own choosing. The central tenet of the republic is that of absolute free will; it is only the people who can determine if a crisis exists, and if so, they have every endowed right and opportunity to correct the unwanted condition.

Americans are guaranteed freedom of speech and the right to assembly, the only necessary factors for the unfettered birth of civic engagement. The freedom to be apathetic is as crucial as the freedom to be actively involved. To submit free will and endorse one or many of society’s factions purely because of public pressure or a forced sense of “civic obligation” is a threat to liberty, and a true crisis.

The real question is, is it better policy to rally around philosophy, or rally around numbers?

America, at its best, is a nation of ideas, not a nation that willingly surrenders to the tyranny of the masses, as Alexis de Tocqueville might put it.

America was born from a burgeoning overdue philosophy, and created and founded by the genius of Thomas Jefferson’s pen. Jefferson was not lobbied by secularized special interest groups, not compromised by the popular opinion of the largest, most organized mass of citizenry.

We are a nation that prospers by intuition and articulate persuasion, not by our ability to form and maintain alliances.

One important factor, which must not be overlooked, is that social capital, when practiced at its most influential form, has actually hindered, not aided, the political process.

While membership in local social groups and Elks clubs are positive social coalitions, they have no real influence on public policy, so it is not these groups that I refer to. I refer to national lobbying groups such as the National Rifle Association or the Teamsters, groups that do nothing but hamstring legislation in an attempt to serve their own specified interests.

These organizations hold candidates hostage by controlling campaign purse strings, and drain political leaders of the very intuition that is supposed to guide them and enhance the nation’s potential.

As money has become more prevalent in politics, special interest lobbies have devolved from coalitions of concerned citizens to self-serving political heavyweights.

Altruistic civic engagement always benefits communities and America as a whole, but people’s levels of involvement are entirely dictated by circumstance and personal urgency.

America has proven willing and able to fight for its sustenance time and time again, whether that fight is in the form of mass military enlistments after Pearl Harbor, or mass blood donations after the Sept. 11 tragedies.

If the citizenry ever reached a point where it didn’t care enough to defend its right to self-governance, the crisis would be in the erosion of Constitutional significance, not in the activity of the people.

Americans will always be adequately engaged to protect their fundamental way of life, to protect their right to be engaged or disassociated with impunity.


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