What it means to hedge your citizenship
Only civic engagement can stem the slide into continued pedestrian actions that do little to address our long-term economic and political stability
A while back, I wrote on the notion of hedging one’s citizenship and Emersonian self-reliance in response to the policy and political disorder that seemingly continues to surround us. The goal of hedging one’s citizenship is to embrace one’s duties as a citizen or look elsewhere.
Involvement in private and public institutions has reached an all-time low. Civic engagement is the only solution to stem the slide into the continued and pedestrian actions that have done little to address our long-term economic and political stability.
Some might view it as a stretch to see the United States ending up like Greece or Portugal, but it’s no exaggeration to sense the danger of political brinkmanship that puts our country on its own slide alongside these other developed and indebted nations. The recent hastily constructed “fiscal cliff” deal passed by Congress was hailed as a bipartisan triumph. But like the Wizard of Oz, when you look behind the curtain, there is little in terms of sustainable solutions. How does taking on more debt solve a problem constructed in debt?
In an era of 24/7 news saturation, instantaneous, often incorrect, speculation and political gridlock, keeping one’s head’s clear — as a steward, investor and citizen — is critical. We can no longer hide behind the cloak of indifference and accept the notion that bad officials may be the result of good citizens not voting. This is a democracy after all, and if we aren’t going to speak up now, then when will we accept our responsibility for the direction of our nation?
I believe the essence of hedging one’s citizenship is a combination of self-reliance, calculating myriad risk factors, and maintaining a global and historical perspective.
Despite all the daily headlines that make us shake our heads in frustration and bemusement, there are only a few of us who would consider moving elsewhere.
In light of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, I have adapted my citizenship hedge in the most recent election cycle. I began almost two years ago to cease all direct political contributions to candidates or their political action committees and, instead, focused our resources toward civic education.
I draw my inspiration, as many might, from Thomas Jefferson. In 1820, Jefferson wrote, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”
Jefferson did not mention political parties or politicians, but the power of individuals to learn, think and act for themselves. It is a lesson that could be applied at the ballot box — to revitalize civic institutions, or to better comprehend how our society and our markets work.
When it comes to participation, my vote goes to bolstering institutions that help empower the electorate. Few of us have the opportunity to fight against the funding power allowed under Citizens United, but we can cast a vote.
The independent D.C.-based, Center for Public Integrity, which has been the leader in nonpartisan investigative journalism since its founding in 1989, is one of the institutions I support. Their aggressive approach in exposing abuses of power in the public and private spheres is a necessary addition to the mainstream media addicted to highlighting zero-sum political conflicts and celebrity profiles.
Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the center, recently paid a visit to New Hampshire to experience our own brand of retail civic engagement. Bill understands the importance of our political institutions, social capital and, in spite of our relative size, the import of our state in the political process.
On a modestly parallel track, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter is leveraging his legacy to help jump-start the newly established New Hampshire Institute for Civic Education. If there was any doubt about the type of engagement for which people yearn, consider the September appearance of Justice Souter with PBS reporter Margaret Warner during a sold-out forum in Concord. I take his warning seriously that the greatest threat to the country comes from “the pervasive civic ignorance” in our country.
The Institute for Civic Education, which could become a model throughout the country, will provide educational opportunities for teachers with the goal of elevating civic education for students from kindergarten through high school. Souter understands all too well that our democracy struggles without an informed electorate. Another parallel exists in my world and the public’s limited understanding of how our markets work. They go hand in hand.
What has made America great and immensely frustrating is that we have a great ability to confront our challenges and leverage our citizenship. Yet, until we each engage in the debate and each accepts our role in democracy responsibly we won’t have much to say about our future.