We Americans are in a bad mood about our nation and our public life. Three quarters say the country is on the wrong track. Some of us may be especially angry at the current Congress, at President Obama-or both-but the roots of our discontent go deeper than that.
Maybe we are angry because we face profound problems that the government isn’t addressing-persistent unemployment, climate change, violence and mass incarceration, and the slow desertion of our great industrial cities, to name just a few.
Although we should expect more from government and our political leaders, they cannot solve these problems on their own. PEOPLE can solve even the most difficult problems if we are organized and active. That is not a wish-it is a finding of extensive research. But where are we going to get more active and responsible citizens?
That’s where you come in; you can be a more effective citizen. Civic engagement that improves the world almost always has three characteristics. It is deliberative: citizens talk and listen to fellow citizens who may disagree with them. It is collaborative: citizens actually roll up their sleeves and work together, building or saving or producing goods. And it creates civic relationships, partnerships among people who want to improve the world together.
Many thousands of college students are already active in these ways through service programs, environmental groups, faith communities, and online communities.
If you are not yet involved, you should join. If you are involved, it is time to take your engagement to the next level. You should ask why so many obstacles stand in the way of active citizens.
For instance, why does our political system cater to professionally-led, well-funded interests instead of citizens who deliberate and collaborate? Why do schools and colleges offer so little civic education? Why is so little funding available for citizens’ groups? Why do the news and entertainment media rarely depict citizens working together to address problems?
The only people who can overcome these obstacles are the citizens who are already active at the grassroots level, because they know what citizenship looks like and why we need more of it. A movement of active citizens is the only thing that can address our most serious national challenges.
Peter Levine is a professor at Tufts University and author of the new book We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America.