Read The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government Online

Authors: Eric Liu,Nick Hanauer

Tags: #Political Science, #Political Ideologies, #Democracy, #History & Theory, #General

The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government (7 page)

BOOK: The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government
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Anti-social contagions spread more readily than pro-social ones, for the same reason that it is easier to push things downhill than up, and easier to fall into vice than into virtue. The challenge is how to generate the right kinds of contagions.
Five Rules
There are five rules we lay out for pro-social citizenship, and they reflect our epidemiological way of looking at civic life.
Small acts of leadership compound.
Participating in a town meeting on a proposed new highway. Leading a corps of afterschool reading tutors. Persuading other voters to support a ballot measure. These are forms of citizenship. So is turning off a running faucet. Picking up a candy wrapper. Helping someone with a heavy load. True citizenship is about treating even the most trivial choice as a chance to shape your society and be a leader. It is laying down habits that scale up throughout society. It is not just setting an example; it is actively leading others to copy you. The science of complex adaptive systems teaches us that small acts, tiny everyday choices, accrue and compound into tipping points. We believe that the systems of the body politic, like the systems of the human body, are fractally interrelated. Just as the tiniest capillaries ramify into like-shaped webs of arteries, so too do the smallest pathways of civic action yield similar patterns of politics and common life. Tiny acts of responsibility are replicated, scale upon scale, and thus every act is inherently an act of leadership—either in a pro-social or anti-social way. Every one of us can set off a cascade. Understood thus, the habits and culture of citizenship aren’t good for social health; they are essential for it. In schools, homes, firms, and every domain, adults have to be more comfortable talking about and modeling
in the most modest-seeming of acts. And as we will discuss more below, government at every turn should be helping citizens take responsibility in small ways too.
Infect the supercarriers.
If we look at good citizenship as a contagion, but as a contagion we want to accelerate rather than contain, then it behooves us to search out the supercarriers—the nodes of networks in every community whose influence and reach are disproportionate. Then it behooves us to infect them. We ensure that they model the kind of pro-social behavior we want, talk about it, and reward it in their own networks. The supercarriers need not be the obvious and most visible leaders; in every circle, there are those who, regardless of station, are so trusted by others that they can make a meme spread very rapidly. Whether you are a neighborhood activist or a youth organizer or a marketer, it has become more necessary than ever to learn and to teach the skills of reading network maps, identifying the nodes, and developing educational and other persuasive strategies for activating those nodes.
Bridge more than bond.
For some Americans, citizenship is expressed by clustering with people very much like oneself. There’s of course a fulfilling place for that in life. But we believe in what Mark Granovetter called “the strength of weak ties.” What sustains the ecosystem of citizenship is not reinforcing old and already strong ties with, say, fellow liberals or soccer fans or Brooklynites, but instead building new and somewhat weaker ties with conservatives or baseball fans or Manhattanites. In every latticework, whether chemical or physical or human, it’s the links that connect a tight ring to another tight ring that add the greatest collective value and make the network bigger and more powerful. Or to put it in terms used by Robert Putnam,
social capital is better than
Great citizens build bridges between unacquainted realms, more than they reinforce bonds among people already close. Bridging spreads trust while bonding concentrates it. This is why, as Putnam described long before he wrote of “bowling alone,” southern Italy with its more tribal blood loyalties has long been a less functional and prosperous social milieu than northern Italy, where weak ties and openness prevail. But because people tend naturally toward building strong ties, they often have to be encouraged to develop the habit of creating weaker ones. In this light, programs like a universal draft or required national civilian service are necessary for diverse democracies. These experiences connect us in ways that the tribalism of everyday life does not.
Create Dunbar units.
We believe that one of the great forces that feeds both citizen apathy and the citizen rage of the Tea Party phenomenon is bigness, and the powerlessness it engenders: big government fighting big business as reported by big media, all fueled by big money, and leaving most of us on the sidelines. The antidote is smallness. Our vision of citizenship is moral and philosophical, but it comes to life only on a face-to-face human scale. There is reason why, across all cultures and time periods, the maximum size of a coherent community has always been about 150. This is known as Dunbar’s number, after the social scientist Robin Dunbar, who named the phenomenon. As a matter of both public policy and private self-organization, we should be de-chunking ourselves into units of no more than 150, and then connecting the chunks. A neighborhood or a housing project of 1000 units is not really a neighborhood. A neighborhood consisting of 10 sets of 100 houses, each set linked to the others—that’s more like it. Since vast cities and vast national organizations create deserts of citizenship, we believe in localizing globally—every chance we get, making little Dunbar units and getting them to identify as such, bridging with one another, sometimes competing in a healthy way with one another. When one’s civic action consists of being just a dues-paying member of a vast national organization, one is only a fraction as powerful and empowered as when it consists of being a leader in a local network, particularly one tied to other local networks. A small-town ethos situated in a high-tech web—as found, for instance, in the statewide network of Watershed Councils in Oregon—makes for effective 21st-century citizenship.
Make courtesy count.
Courtesy—a cooperative consideration of, and deferral to, the needs of others—is the start of true citizenship. It is what we practice when we don’t live on an island alone. And that is why we believe courtesy should be actively encouraged in American civic life, not as ritual or routine but as mindful practice. When you open doors for others, let others into traffic, say “please” and “thank you,” you are watering the garden of social life. These kinds of choices can be named and promoted. Though courtesy connotes something courtly and quaint, it is actually one of the most vital and fluid forces in any civic ecology. That is because, at bottom, courtesy is about subordinating the self, even if momentarily. It breeds trust, and trust is everything in civic life.
Trust in trust.
Trust is foremost among the social virtues that make healthy societies. Alas, we note its absence more readily than its presence. When market actors behave in ways that erode the trust that citizens have in one another—as Wall Street banks did in peddling financial time bombs during the housing boom—they send a signal that “dumb money” deserves its fate. When the state acts in ways that erode the trust that citizens have in one another—by codifying a presumption of deceptiveness, as the CEO affirmations do, or by requiring teachers to teach certain pages of a text on certain days—it is not just responding to a depletion of trust; it’s contributing to it. By contrast, every act of great citizenship adds to the social stocks of trust. Designing experiences where people come to know each other, where they can expect to encounter one another repeatedly, and where the quality of life is increased for all if each individual thinks of himself as a steward—or trustee—of the experience: this is what life is like, say, in a neighborhood library branch, and we believe great citizens behave as if every space they are in is a public library.
Trust, in short, is the DNA to be found in all the other habits of citizenship. It is what fuels the fractal impact of small acts of leadership. It is what empowers supercarriers to infect others. It is what makes weak ties useful. It is why we need to preserve a human scale for citizenship. And it is why courtesy counts.
The Power of One
We recognize that there are latent dangers in the networked ethics we advocate. One is what might be called “hivemind,” the tendency for individuals to lose their voice and identity in the midst of the collective. The other is simple bullying, the fear the Framers had in mind when they drafted the Constitution, that majorities might create great waves of opinion that swamp minorities.
As to the first fear, we are no champions of group-driven dehumanization. But citizenship of the kind we describe is the
of dehumanizing conformity. When any one person can be an agent of contagion, and can set off cascades of new thought or action, that is a truly empowering situation. Yes, that one person needs to have some savvy about how complex systems tip, and not everyone has that. But the fact is that in our story of citizenship, the individual has even more power than she does in the more atomized, solipsistic account of citizenship—and far more than in some collectivist dystopia. The corollary to always being influenced by others (which we are) is always being able to influence others—a power we dramatically underutilize.
As to the second fear, of majoritarian bullying, what we value is cooperation, and there is a crucial distinction between cooperation and conformity. Cooperation presumes difference—and derives its moral value from the fact that joint action is undertaken out of difference rather than out of sameness. That said, we do believe it’s perfectly appropriate for majorities to squeeze out anti-social behavior. The trick is being clear about what constitutes anti- and pro-social behavior. By anti-social we do not mean “deviant” and “unlike others,” as communism or homosexuality were once tagged. We mean behavior that is pathologically selfish, that breaks down group trust and cooperation in pursuit of egotism.
When one person behaves like it’s OK to litter, others do as well, and the behavior of littering goes viral. Or take another example. You’re at the park enjoying a picnic with family and friends and a boom box. Another group at a nearby table turns up their music. Now you feel you’ve got to turn up your music so that it isn’t drowned out. Then the other group feels the same, and turns up
In the study of sound they call this the Lombard effect, the ratcheting-up of noise levels as everyone fights to be heard over the din of everyone else. There is a civic Lombard effect as well. And in a world where the operating mode is to do what you want to do, damn the consequences to anyone else, we get Lombard-esque cycles of discourtesy and disregard.
The new science we spoke of in the introduction reveals that in a networked environment, where behaviors are contagious and can lead to cascades of anti-social one-upsmanship, there is only one way to stop the spiral. And that is to stop the spiral. Or to put it another way, it is to recognize that
society becomes how you behave—
not anyone else but you.
This is a deceptively profound idea. To assume that society becomes how you behave is to leave behind forever the myth of social externalities—that you don’t have to bear the costs of your bad or selfish behavior. To assume that society becomes how you behave is to leave behind also the myth that you are just one in a billion, that somewhere out there is some good person whose acts can cancel out your bad ones, thus creating no net social harm.
To assume that society becomes how you behave is to take on the responsibility of everyday “small l” leadership. This is more than acknowledging that on an individual basis, character counts and virtue matters. It’s acting as if the character of a community will, sooner or later,
reflect your own character: because it will. Collective character is real and something each of us shapes.
So, for instance, when you are cut off in traffic and feel the chemical rush of road rage, play out two scenarios. The first is the commonly expected one, in which the rest of your drive is dedicated to exacting revenge against the offending driver or to paying his ruthlessness forward and cutting off another driver.
The alternative scenario is one in which you catch yourself and choose not to compound one person’s discourtesy with your own. Here, you recognize that if you make the small decision to let drivers into traffic, even if it feels like an affront to your dignity, then other people will do the same. Because the first scenario is indeed the common one, and everyone assumes its rules are the rules of the freeway, gridlock and awful traffic jams are the inevitable result. But when we let the second scenario play out, traffic flows more smoothly. Gridlock does not occur. We get where we want to get faster.
This is not just parable. It is hard science. People who study complex adaptive systems—using computer models of traffic going along two axes (north-south and east-west) —can demonstrate and compare the effects of these two scenarios. Lesson one: others will act the way you act. Lesson two: when you act in a pro-social way, the net result for you and everyone else is better.
This may seem counterintuitive, the notion that slowing down gets you there faster, that to yield now is to advance later. The reason, again, is our ingrained and too-narrow idea about what constitutes our self-interest. In a one-time transaction with someone who won’t exist after the transaction (and here, we are describing the parameters of neoclassical economics), you might rightly think that screwing that person is the best way to achieve your own interest. At a minimum, you’d be safe to think you could get away with it. You would think that someone else’s problem is someone else’s problem.
BOOK: The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government
12.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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