Citizen Politics

Citizen Politics

The new groundswell of mobilized citizens suggests an important break—not only with how we imagine politics but also with how we practice it.

At the Millions March in New York City, December 13, 2014 (Brian C. Lorio)

Politics has long been a contested idea. Ever since Plato and Aristotle, we’ve struggled to give the term a stable meaning. Monarchs insisted it was synonymous with their divine right to rule, and revolutionaries with rebellions against this right. Liberals have long associated it with the domain of the interests, and radicals and conservatives with the realm of the passions. Even today we’re not quite sure what we mean by politics. In a single sound bite—like Obama’s recent defense of the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty—politics can refer to both the high-minded pursuit of a nation’s common good and the opportunism of a politician who wants to get her “voice . . . out there.”

There is, of course, also the original meaning of the word, “of citizens,” which the Greeks took to mean the everyday arguments and activities of an engaged citizenry. And it is this understanding of politics—of a citizen politics—that is at the center of our summer issue. From North Carolina’s Moral Mondays and local anti-fracking campaigns to Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter, the American public seems to be directing more and more of its energies to those sites of political action outside formal bodies of power. In part, this is because in today’s political climate, the chances of passing progressive legislation in Congress are slim. It is also because many Americans who’ve been historically under-represented—African Americans, immigrants, low-wage workers—are finding new ways to publicize their demands and grievances.

It would be a far cry to call this new groundswell of citizen politics representative of a more unified and engaged public. But it does suggest an important break—not only with how we imagine politics but also with how we practice it. Instead of remaining dormant between election seasons, citizens are once again coming to understand politics as the province of everyday opposition, of publicity campaigns and local organization, of street marches and citizen journalism. (A remarkable feature of Black Lives Matter is how it has transformed many activists into impromptu journalists.)

Elected representatives will always be the main agents of change in a liberal democracy, and getting out the vote one of the main ways in which we can effect this change. But it is the work of a mobilized citizenry, of those men and women out of office, that can help us publicize complaints, build new constituencies, even run in the opposition. After all, to borrow from Michael Walzer, what would democratic politics be without its kibitzers?