What Does It Mean to Be a Citizen?   /   Fall 2008   /    Articles

Come and Play: Citizenship and the Internet

Michael Cornfield

American citizenship conjures up a set of chores with no discernible payoffs: read up on the issues, attend a town meeting, contact local officials, vote. We learn in school that these are the democratic responsibilities that go with the rights accorded to the citizens of a free republic, but we shudder as we take them on because their value to us as civic activities tends to dissolve in the politics they bring us into contact with.Civics may be clear and noble, but politics is cloudy and base. Cloudy: as we sit at town meetings and stand at polling places, we come flush against the complex and largely unknown ramifications of policy particulars. Here we are listening, and it is good that we are here listening, but we are listening to talk of school bonds, trade regulations, carbon emissions, and pension liabilities. Base: after we’ve done this once or twice, we recognize that while the outcomes will depend to a limited degree on our having shown up and participated in collective choices, more will result from the unseen actions of unreachable people, some of whom will behave unscrupulously. The system tilts heavily to preserve the status quo—and when that is no longer tenable, the side with the crudest slogan and most money usually seems to win. It’s a wonder anyone bothers with civics, given its inevitable descent into politics. At least when you mow the lawn, you get to look at the lawn afterward.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).