Citizenship is a public office for which electors are blessed with certain rights and charged with civic responsibilities. Unfortunately, more people demand their rights than their responsibilities so the state suffers from a chronic deficiency in participation and judgment.
Government has hit bottom in public trust, now standing at one-third the level that prevailed in the Eisenhower-Kennedy years. Citizens spend more time bad-mouthing the government than appreciating it. This attitude is affecting the ability of the government to function.
In spite of all the glitches in our policymaking, the will of the people is manifested in a democratic society. And with the expansive polling being done these days the will of the people is measured regularly.
If something is wrong with the government, the people must share the blame. Their erratic response to public issues reflects their lack of ability to support wise government policies.
During the Trump administration, liberal observers were quick to point out the president’s personal flaws. But it was not only President Trump to blame for the mounting hostility that now permeates the whole society. He did get 63,000,000 votes, honestly cast and counted by bona fide citizens.
While Trump is no longer the major player, citizens have taken up the cudgels and even tried to overthrow the government, a similar effort in the Civil War that resulted in more American deaths than all other wars combined.
This is not to say that citizens aren’t entitled to oppose government policy they consider adverse to their interests and values. With such a broad demographic mix in the United States, peace can only be maintained as long as compromise is possible.
We seem to have arrived at a point when compromise is no longer possible. Opinions are too rigid to allow giving ground for the purpose of social peace.
In Washington, compromise has become a bad word because the citizens who elect representatives will not tolerate compromise. The country has become ungovernable.
Equally divided between the two parties, polls show that partisanship has increased. If this is a democracy that reflects the will of the people, we have to conclude that the citizens have become more partisan and less willing to compromise.
The Republican Party has done nothing but subtract from the wisdom of Congress while the Democrats can’t even agree to compromise within their own ranks.
So if the defects of government result from an incompetent citizenry, we cannot expect better policies until the citizens get their act together. Many of the policymakers have proposed that the citizenry needs to have a better grasp of their responsibilities before the situation will improve.
The truth is that more and more people are holing up in their burrows. Instead of developing a broader view of society, they have electronic toys for adults and kids to sit in corners and avoid the general society. “Online” may be more flexible and available, but it stifles the social interaction of young people in their formative years.
We have a problem with a lack of “cognitive flexibility” which simply means the ability to mentally recognize that change is required but we are not flexible enough to respond. All facets of society – social, economic and political – are changing so fast that they have outrun our ability to comprehend and change.
COVID and all of its facets yet unknown is an example of our inability to comprehend and respond. COVID and delta will not be defeated by a divided citizenry that cannot see the need for a near-unanimous response.
While we may wish that citizens master the duties of their offices, it is not going to happen. They no longer have the perspective or the will to become rational officeholders in a form of government that requires more than they are willing to give.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former state lieutenant governor and professor at UND.