The War on Impoverished Citizenship: Reflections for Government-Citizen Relations around the Globe

Extended Abstract of Remarks Prepared for Delivery at the Institute of Public Affairs, Chonnam National University, Gwangju Metropolitan City, South Korea,

October 27, 2014

 Thomas A. Bryer, PhD

The War on Impoverished Citizenship: Reflections for Government-Citizen Relations around the Globe

A central question to ask in citizen-government relationships, and one that is not so easily answered is: “Are we on the same side?” In the United States, survey researchers regularly ask about citizen trust in government, and observers often lament the lack of trust and, in recent decades, declining trust. However, the political and governmental system in the United States is grounded in assumptions of distrust and skepticism. The U.S. constitutional democracy established a separation of powers across three branches of government based on the assumption that, as one of the nation’s founders wrote, men are not angels. Checks and balances were and are necessary to protect against one branch, or any group of people with authority, from acting in a selfish way.

The distrust embedded in the constitutional framework of the United States further seeped into the thoughts about the role of citizens. The nation’s founders held a rather dim view of the capability of citizens, taken as a whole, to think and act reasonably. They considered citizens as more driven by passion than by reason, thus easily manipulated by the urgency of the moment. Indeed, one founding thinker—and future president of the United States—thought the citizens subject to “temporary delusion,” the kind of which needed systems in place to protect the people from themselves. The people, dominant thinking suggested, are not capable of knowing or representing their own interests. From a public administration perspective, Woodrow Wilson, who went on to become another president of the United States, thought it necessary to endure meddlesome citizens with their oft-changing public opinion while focusing on the core administrative value of efficiency?

Fast-forward to the year 2014, and these biases and challenges are embedded in democracies around the world—old and new. Some democracies have emerged from authoritarian pasts; others have plodded along effectively tolerating active citizens without fully embracing them. The question remains: are citizens and government on the same side, where genuine power-sharing collaboration and authentic dialogue are normatively desirable and practically possible? Or, is it theoretically more compelling and practically more feasible to conceive of the relationship between government and citizens as adversarial?

My response to the question is, yes, genuine power-sharing collaboration and authentic dialogue are both normatively desirable and practically possible. Stated differently, government and citizens are on the same side. However, to make it so, and to persuade as to the desirability of it being so, requires thinking a bit less abstractly. As such, I will focus on the substantive policy issue of poverty alleviation and the involvement of citizens with government to help that cause.

Citizenship and poverty are inextricably linked. Active, ethical citizenship is required in the development of interpersonal empathy, generalized social trust and felt belongingness. Alleviating poverty, or the conditions leading to or consequences of living in poverty, is more possible with empathetic, trusting, and community-oriented citizens. Attending to the substantive democratic needs of a society requires attention to the procedural democratic means of a society, and vice versa simultaneously. To win a war on poverty requires an equally strategic and aggressive war on impoverished citizenship.

The battle will be to destroy the active weapons used in the War on Citizenship that perpetuate and make real the myth that citizens are not capable of reasonable thought and accurate representation of their own interests. The battle will on the following fronts: (1) expertise versus mass competence, (2) transparency versus informed judgment, (3) volunteers versus active citizens with the state, (4) consumerism versus citizenship, (5) quantity versus quality, (6) representation versus inclusivity, and (7) tolerance of ignorance versus empowerment.

Each battlefront will be reviewed and strategically assessed, and conclusions will be suggested to reinterpret Maximum Feasible Participation, an initial core component of the War on Poverty in the United States, for the 21st century. Such reinterpretation will provide lessons for established and emergent democracies around the world to reinvigorate or develop anew strong, sustainable, and skeptical but civil government-citizen relations.

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