The concept of civic duty seems like an old-fashioned virtue that is, at best, a nice-to-have option rather than an essential element of the functioning of our society today. The notion of “duty” in general does not fit easily into our fast-paced, fast-changing society where we expect to shop for different relationships, different politicians and political “flavors”, different products, or even different identities in the marketplace. Alternatively, dutiful behavior is segregated in a glorified “ghetto” and shown off in certain extraordinary circumstances and professions, such as in military heroes or in newsworthy acts of courage, but remains ultimately neglected as a concept in our public life. I am using the word “civic duty” not in its narrow sense of duty to a local community but as a tern for commitments to real “larger than self” entities, like the nation, the environment, humanity, etc.
Despite its near-invisible status in our current society, civic duty is exactly the attribute which politicians (and civil servants) are attempting to demonstrate and perform in their jobs. People elect politicians because they believe they will serve the greater good, which includes them. Politicians attempt to “show” civic dutifulness as well as other characteristics of leadership in their campaign appearances and, while in office, to stay in office. As with all duties, there are aspects that are unglamorous and mundane, which are not easily “shown” nor do they make good television. Public employees and civil servants are, of course, paid to do their jobs but they only excel in these positions if in some way animated by a sense of civic duty. Society requires an “iceberg” of civic duty, where only a very small percentage of dutiful acts and sentiment are shown and, are even “showable”.
Recent History of Civic Duty in the US
In the United States, a sense of duty to country as well as the sense of duty more generally took a big “hit” in the 1960’s, fueled by the political, strategic and moral debacle that was Vietnam. Vietnam, sold to the public as a war of necessity to halt the spread of Communism and Soviet/Chinese influence, called into question the notion of America as the shining beacon of hope to the world and caused many young people (the Baby Boomers and afterwards) to turn away from not only duty to country but dutifulness in general as a part of their own identities. While some transferred their sense of obligation, their propensity to feel a sense of duty, to humanity more generally or other “larger than self” causes, many also became involved in self-exploration and an exploration of their own human potential. What had appeared to be monolithic “American” cultural bloc in the 1950’s and early 60’s, became throughout the 1970’s an ever faster diverging set of ethnic, political, and cultural groups, who were busy exploring their own identities.
While claiming to re-invigorate American values, the New Right led by Ronald Reagan fed off this splintering of the sense of America as a unified entity. In its ideological attack on the institution of government, the libertarianism-inspired Right created a justification for a type of self-involvement that contained within it its own negative justification. Nominally calling for a return to “old-fashioned” duty to the nation, the ideas and the policies enacted under what came to be called “neoliberalism” pushed individuals further into an attitude of, in ideal or fortunate cases, self-reliance, but just as much into self-absorption and self-seeking. According to the new ideological regime, no longer would a central government have a meaningful role except to enforce laws and prosecute wars against evil-doers overseas. Instead people would invent their own livelihoods via the market without government help.
Furthermore, the onerous duty of taxes could now be dispensed with in a step-wise manner. Taxes, throughout history, have been a litmus test of the coherence and popularity of a civilized order. When people feel themselves adequately or well-served by government they do not generally mind the imposition of taxes. However, when there is a sense of the illegitimacy of government, tax revolts can evolve which alter or, in some cases, lead to the fall of governments. Inspired perhaps by the success of Proposition13 in California, Reagan and the New Right spurred such a tax revolt from within government, suggesting that there was a better, as it turns out illusory, option, i.e. to let the market determine almost everything. Packaged as it was with calls for strengthening the military might of the US, it escaped the notice of many that this could function as an excuse to shirk duty to nation and dispense with a one more unpleasant task, i.e. paying taxes. Thus the new libertarianism-inspired ideology reinforced tax aversion and aversion to other mundane duties associated with nationhood.
So compelling was this vision of an autonomous people or autonomous businesses who solved their own difficulties without government that Democrats like Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Conference took up this same mantra, especially when confronted with the dogmatic libertarian-influenced opposition to government coming from the Republican Congress of the mid to late 1990’s. Tax-aversion and downgrading government as a provider of services and leadership was then supported and echoed by both major parties.
The Libertarianism and Utilitarianism
The historical narrative above can be interpreted as the triumph of a narrowly utilitarian view of the self in consumer society, a view that what people care about is “maximizing their utility” often without regard to the consequences for others. Utility can be broadly defined as “happiness” or “minimizing pain, maximizing pleasure” measured according to private personal preferences. The founding documents of the United States have a strong utilitarian current in them, e.g. “the pursuit of happiness”. Yet as a governing policy, utilitarianism needs the proviso that it’s mission is to achieve the “greatest good for the greatest number” rather than a narrowing of focus to the individual’s utility. Most often the standpoint from which the “greatest good” or not good could be surveyed and quantified is the perspective of government.
Civic duty and other types of duty are for the most part associated with a different philosophical/meta-ethical tradition. The opposed or alternate tradition in metaethics to utilitarianism is deontology, the notion that what is good is to do what is right, meaning what corresponds to a pre-established rule obeisance to which is considered good. Duty is the key individual attribute that enables people to follow rules even though to follow duty is not, as Kant pointed out, their “inclination”, i.e. what maximizes their momentary utility at that point in time. Deontology (“deon” is duty in Greek) is then a duty-based ethics. There are some ethical situations within which a deontological approach excels while there are others were it bogs down. Similarly utilitarianism runs up against its limits as well.
If one takes libertarian assumptions, the point of view and point of balance, i.e. government as manager of the society, is eliminated whereby one would attempt to determine what the “greatest good for the greatest number” might be and to attempt to achieve that greatest good. Libertarians don’t believe in such macroeconomic and macropolitical assessments, often claiming that they belong to the tradition of “rationalism” which ultimately leads to Communism. What remains then is narrow, individually-based utility maximization wherein the self becomes its own absolute monarch, unaccountable to anyone, except, in some religious people, perhaps an invisible deity.
An Excuse from Civic Duty
Libertarianism then encourages what might be called an “arbitrary anarchy of the mind” where what is displeasing to a libertarian is consigned to a category of “things I don’t have to do”. While many libertarians believe there should be a government, they tend to believe that that government should direct its coercive force against others, who have either broken the law or who are outside the national community. None of the coercive or displeasing aspects of the government are directed at him or her, in their ideal framework for government.
Duty to others and to the society as a whole then becomes attenuated in an environment in which libertarianism flourishes. If much of what is unpleasant or tiresome about living with other people in society is illegitimate according to the ideology, then the libertarian doesn’t have to go along with or even recognize why those burdensome activities are required to take place at all. A radically different, supposedly better society is what is idealized by libertarians and not much care needs to be directed towards the current society. In this way, libertarianism has many similarities with other extreme ideologies, which “de-realize” the current world.
Thus libertarianism offers adherents and the Republican Party a standing excuse from civic duty in all its pleasant and unpleasant manifestations. No longer does one need to feel obligated to others and to serious engagement with the present difficulties of society. The ideal libertarian society of the mind appears so much different and is realized via the application of such simple maxims that libertarians feel as though they are doing themselves and us a favor by ignoring the uncomfortable realities of a complex society in a destabilized natural environment.
Truth-Telling and Shame Go Out the Window
One of the striking contrasts in the current American political scene is the relative shamelessness of the Republican Party in uttering falsehoods as compared to the Democratic Party. Republicans are able to construct a politics based on a vision of a meddling government that is to blame for our woes. They are able to remain relatively consistent with their ideology but in almost total isolation from history and the tools available to fix our economy. The vision of a government that always and forever must stay out of the role of managing the economy is obviously a false premise but the Republicans have been able to distract from the shakiness of this assumption by staying “on message” even if that message is false and damaging.
Republicans and the media that support them (Fox News and AM talk radio) are able to generate a continuous barrage of talk that is premised on imaginary (in the sense of delusional) ideas about government and the economy. Republicans have a political advantage in spite of the lack of soundness of their proposals because they are able to almost at will invent facts and controversies which continue to distract the public from the real challenges at hand. Republicans almost always have a tactical advantage over Democrats because of the relative “mobility” of their strategy because it is so easy to generate falsities rather than laboriously adhere to true statements. Also Democrats now have the additional burden of defending a series of Democratic policy proposals and bills that are decidedly mixed in their quality and effectiveness.
While this is difficult to substantiate, the striking contrast between the tactical brilliance of Republican and Republican media (based on promoting falsehood) and the Democrats may be connected to their commitment to libertarianism. It is much easier to lie if you “de-realize” or delegitimize government as well as the problems which government has grown to address. If these problems are unreal or soon to be made obsolete by the elimination of “Big Government”, then making up stuff and doing “whatever it takes” to win elections is, in your own eyes, entirely legitimate. It the imagined New Millennium of Limited Government will be introduced by cutting government services and expenditures, then why not tell a few fibs that will help you and your side win? Operating with libertarian assumptions, Republicans have a stunted or non-existent image of the “civitas” (the nation or the world) which they would be obligated to serve with their words and actions. So lying becomes “no big deal” for them.
Democrats may tell lies a lot of the time, too, but for some reason their lying sticks to them. This may be in part due to the fact that many of them, including President Obama, are still making efforts to tell the truth, to govern effectively and make some difference in the lives of ordinary people. Democrats have not excelled in truth telling and in recognizing the real contours of our economy, particularly as regards the solutions to the global financial crisis. They have been swept up in the madness of fiscal austerity that has originated among libertarian/Republicans with their “characterological” anti-Keynesianism. Some Blue Dog Democrats espouse a “Libertarianism Lite”. While libertarian ideology is not solely to blame for the emergence of an almost entirely fictional political discourse by Republicans, the differentiator between Republicans and Democrats is their relative commitment to libertarianism.
Why Care about Lying?
The shameless telling of falsehoods by Republicans and their media is an enormous problem for the American people for a number of reasons. While politicians are generally held in low esteem and they are not expected to consistently tell the truth, we have entered a new era with the combined system of Republicans and their media supporters: because political and policy discourse now often starts from false premises it is almost impossible now for many Americans to tell the difference between truth and lies. Democrats are co-responsible for the sanctification of false premises for political discourse but Republicans have led the way with their focus on winning in the service of their paymasters and their ideology.
On Both Sides of the Aisle, Duty to Funders Trumps Civic Duty
Without public funding for elections and limitations on the length and breadth of political campaigns, both political parties serve their paymasters, the large corporations, rich individuals, unions, and well-funded non-profits. As the costs of campaigning have skyrocketed and election campaigns have lengthened, civic duty has become attenuated by duty to funders. We have seen this on both sides of the aisle: the health care proposals put forward by the Democrats for the most part serve the pharmaceutical and the largely parasitic private health insurance industry. Almost as a byproduct, the American people are offered some protections and a few subsidies.
There are slight differences among the Parties with regard to their attitudes towards funders of elections. Libertarianism excuses the Republicans own commitment to their paymasters and puts the Democrats again in conflict. Libertarianism suggests that market winners are entitled to all of their financial winnings and, furthermore this is evidence of their status as part of the “elect”. Therefore their outsized influence in politics is simply an expression of this manifest destiny of the wealthy and powerful.
Democrats attempt to serve the people as well as the special interests. This puts them in a situation of actual as well as internal conflict: whom to serve and how much? This conflict makes them more easily attackable and not as ready to fully engage in attacking the Republicans’ complete obeisance to almost every wealthy special interest, except labor unions.
The Choice in November: Civic Duty Lite or No Civic Duty At All
I would be the first to point out the inadequacies of Democratic policy proposals and their explanations for why they have chosen them. But the Democrats are at least trying to respond to real problems and seem to evince some shame when they are called to account for misstatements or misdeeds. Both parties have been detrimentally influenced by libertarian ideology.
However, there is a difference between a party that has largely stripped itself of members who are at all committed to the greater good and one which has “feet of clay”.
American voters, please do not let your displeasure at the Democrats’ follies strengthen the Party which has commits itself fully to the enrichment of the very few and the impoverishment of our political life as a whole!!! Support Democrats and hold their feet to the fire! Support primary challenges to corrupt Democrats!! But most Republicans have excused themselves from political and social reality…please do not be fooled!!