Kwame Anthony Appiah
KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1995, is the Laurance
S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for
Human Values at Princeton University. His recent books include The Honor Code: How
Moral Revolutions Happen (2010), Experiments in Ethics (2008), and Cosmopolitanism:
Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006). His current projects include a book
about the thinking of W.E.B. Du Bois and an essay about the idea of “the West.”
Abstract: There is a famous paradox about democracy: most forms of participation
make no obvious difference to political outcomes and yet people act anyway. I argue
that they are more likely to act politically if they have certain attitudes and
commitments; and that productive attitudes of the right kind can be sustained by
a culture in which two kinds of honor are central. One kind of honor is collective:
it is the honor of nations, which is the concern of the patriot. Another is the
honor of citizens, who are worthy of respect because they contribute to the practices
that serve the republic. I suggest some practices we Americans might want to take
up and honor for the sake of our own republic today, drawing attention to two discoveries
in social psychology that could be productively brought to bear in our political
life: namely, the Ben Franklin effect and the Contact Hypothesis.
[H]ow much more profitable it is prudently to remove, than to resent, return, and
continue inimical proceedings.
– Benjamin Franklin, from his Autobiography
America acts. It starts – and ends – wars, accedes to treaties, gives foreign aid, raises
taxes, authorizes corporations, creates patents, defines and punishes crimes. It
does these things in the name of the American people, and we, the people, by way
of elections, choose the legislators and executives who manage the doing of them.
But we are supposed to be involved in the processes of government in more ways than
simply by voting. All governments are of the people; all usually claim to be for
the people. In our democracy, we aim to be a government by the people as well.
In this essay, I attempt to explain the relationship between our individual acts
as citizens, on the one hand, and what our country does on the other. I assume that,
in some sense, we can act as a people, literal or metaphorical.1 So I want to develop
a picture of the ways in which we individuals participate in those collective acts.
Then, with that understanding in place, I will argue that doing this properly requires
us to develop a certain political psychology: a way of thinking and feeling and
acting as citizens. As you will see, it is a political psychology that is by no
means standard in our country today; and I conclude by suggesting some practices
and institutions that might lead to its becoming more common.
This volume explores how various institutions of our society help sustain democracy.
In every domain there is a form of democratic stewardship that contributes to this
task. It involves following norms, some of which are specific to institutional roles
and particular professions. I focus here on the ways in which citizens contribute
as citizens to the sustenance of democracy and on how institutions can help in this
Aristotle said in his Politics that the ideal political community, his
city-state, should be small enough that its citizens could “know each other’s personal
characters” but big enough to be self-sufficient, and so he recommended that it should
have a population “that can well be taken in at one view.”2 Today, however, self-sufficiency
seems inconsistent with knowing each other’s characters. While there are tiny political
units, like the New England town, where it is plausible that people really could
know one another, and where a meeting of the people really could govern, every American
state and city – let alone the United States as a whole – is bound to be a political
community of strangers. The challenge of modern politics (a challenge that Aristotle
did not contemplate) is for strangers – people who know very little, if anything,
about each other – to cooperate in the collective task of running the republic.
Our social psychologies evolved in prehistoric times in the context of a social
life with a few score people. Aristotle’s city-state already required interactions
on a larger scale; but the government of a group that size could perhaps be conducted
by people meeting face to face, hearing each other’s arguments (at least if you
had the voice, as Aristotle puts it, of Stentor, the herald “whose cry,” Homer said,
“was as loud as that of fifty men together.”)3 Even with the invention of the microphone,
this is evidently inconceivable for the political interactions necessary on our
modern scale of millions. How, then, to take the social psychology of a creature
evolved for life in minuscule communities and transfer it to the multitudinous life
of a modern nation?
Political scientist Benedict Anderson’s well-known account of modern nationalism
focuses on a central mechanism by which the nation-state takes hold of the lives
of ordinary people around the world: namely, by allowing them to think of themselves
as participating, through their shared identities as citizens, in the ongoing
of a vast group of strangers.4 As Ernest Renan, that great French historian and
nationalist, put it succinctly well over a century ago: “An heroic past, great men,
glory – I mean real glory – this is the social capital on which the national idea is
based.”5 What he had in mind was the fact that stories of this glorious past were
part of what linked individuals in national fraternity and sorority: nations are
But there is another kind of connection among those who share identities that has
been less remarked upon recently. It is implied when Renan talks not just about
the past but about “an heroic past,” about “great men, glory.” For what patriotic
citizens feel when they hear and tell those stories is pride. You can understand
how that sentiment works only if you recognize that each of us shares, through our
common national identity, in the honor of our nation . . . a privilege that comes
with the 210 burden of sharing in our country’s shame as well. To have honor is
to be entitled to respect.6 If you care for your honor, you will want to be entitled
to the respect of others. (Shame comes when you lose your right to respect: in caring
for gaining and maintaining honor, you are bound to be concerned about losing it.)
The psychology of collective honor can be made to seem very mysterious. How can
I gain or lose honor when somebody else does something, unless I was somehow responsible
for their doing it? America protects vulnerable people in Somalia. I feel pride.
But why? I didn’t do anything, some other Americans did. America does something
dishonorable at Abu Ghraib. I feel shame. I feel it even though I didn’t do anything,
even though I didn’t support it, even though it was something I have always known
was wrong. Why?
Questions like these are better not answered in the abstract. In John Coetzee’s
recent novel, A Diary of a Bad Year, the South African protagonist writes in response
to the evidence, published in The New Yorker, that the U.S. administration sanctions
torture and subverts conventions proscribing torture:
If we grant the truth of what the New Yorker claims, then the issue for individual
Americans becomes a moral one: how, in the face of this shame to which I am subjected,
do I behave? How do I save my honor?
Here is a reminder of how national honor works . . . and of why we should be glad
that it exists. It can motivate us to see if, together, we can do what is right.
The issue of torture is moral, of course; but what engages each patriotic American
is not just the morality of torture but also the honor of a country that tortures.
And honor, unlike moral responsibility, is something you may need to recover whether
or not it was your act (or culpable omission) that led to disaster.
Patriotism is often identified with love of country. That can’t be right: many of
my friends love Italy, but not being Italian citizens, they can’t be Italian patriots.
Love is a sentiment you can feel for what is not already yours. But you cannot share
in the honor of a country – or of anything else – unless it is yours. My family, my
church, my town, and my profession: each can bring me honor (and, alas, shame).
But your family is, from honor’s point of view, not my business. Patriotism is better
understood as a concern for the honor of your country, your nation. This concern
gives you a serious investment in its doings, even when, like most of us, you do
not control them. National honor can engage citizens even when they know, as policy
expert Anthony Downs has insisted, that they do not individually make the nation
do or stop doing anything.7 They can participate emotionally and symbolically
with a great mass of others nevertheless, because their patriotism draws them into
a shared experience. (The armed services, as the essay in this issue by Andrew A.
Hill, Leonard Wong, and Stephen J. Gerras reminds us, are one of the great molders
of this spirit.)
But just as I cannot, on my own, affect a political outcome in most cases, so I
cannot steer the nation to the path of honor on my own. We have to ask why someone,
even someone engaged with the nation’s honor, should participate if, in this sense,
it makes no difference. Collective honor defines one of the stakes in our common
life. We are bound to care about it if we think of ourselves as Americans at all.
But how can it move us to action? We can be engaged to participate by our wish to
maintain our individual honor as citizens: to maintain, that is, a right to the
respect of our fellows.
We are governing the republic together. The successful functioning of the republic
depends on many citizens playing many roles. Some will serve as soldiers, police
211 officers, civil servants, judges, or elected officials, employed to do the work
that is required if America is to do anything at all. Others will serve the republic
from time to time as unpaid jurors or as election officials. The republic will
work as it should only if most of the citizens who do these things think about what
they are doing in certain ways.
Public officials must, for one thing, avoid using – or,
ideally, even appearing to use – the powers they are granted by their public role
to their private advantage. For another, they must obey norms of nondiscrimination.
The republic can flourish with less than perfect conformity to such ideals, but
certain basic standards – the rules against nepotism and bribe-taking, for example – are
rightly enforced by the criminal law; and others – such as persistent or egregious
racism or sexism in the exercise of one’s duties – are properly grounds for removal.
If we do not demand absolute conformity, we can insist on certain basic standards.
And we must, or the republic will not be able to do its job: indeed, it may degenerate
into something that is no better for some than tyranny.
But there is a further task that has to be performed if the republic is to work.
Some of us must vote. One of the major reasons why democracies are better places
to live than tyrannies is because we change our rulers from time to time. That disciplines
those who are, for the time being, exercising authority. An effective lifetime guarantee
for incumbents – able, once they arrive, to steer the state’s resources to those who
will continue to vote for them in return – exposes them to temptations that are hard
As Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann point out in their essay for this issue, other
conditions must be met if there is to be a reasonable sense of accountability. Voting
districts need to be designed so that there is a reasonable chance of incumbents
being removed if enough voters are dissatisfied, for example. And replacing them
has to have a prospect of leading to a change in actual policies. Our current system,
with its partisan districting and divided government operating with parliamentary-style
parties, often does not meet these two conditions.
Even if they were met, however, the discipline of the threat of removal works only
if voters’ choices are responsive to what elected officials actually do for the republic.
And that requires both:
1) that there be reliable sources of information about their activities; and
2) that enough of the voters pay attention to the information.
The first of these conditions means that someone has to be engaged in investigating
and reporting on public affairs, paying attention to what is happening, deciding
what is important, and making it known. So we need the free press that the First
Amendment promises us, and we need it to take its function seriously. But the second
condition requires that some citizens aim to vote in ways that are guided by that
We can survive if some journalists don’t care about the truth or are toadies to
those currently in office. (We know we can because we have.) We can survive if some
voters don’t bother to vote or vote without knowing what the governors are doing.
(This we know, too, for the same reason.) But without a lively world of journalism
governed by respect for the truth, the electorate cannot do its job; and even with
it, only an electorate that takes notice of that journalism will be able to act
together to discipline those who rule.
There are, thus, many different ways in which citizens can participate in the activity
of the republic, and if enough of us do it well enough we will gain the advantages
of democratic elections. This kind of participation by ordinary citizens is what
makes it true that the people govern. The workings of the republic are, in complex
ways, the outcome of all these citizen acts. But that means that those who do not
participate in any of these ways are free riders on the contributions of those who
do. They gain the advantages of a shared practice without contributing to the burdens,
like a rider on a public bus who has not paid his fare. Free riding of this sort
is, generally speaking, wrong. And it wrongs particularly those who are contributing
their fair share. Acts of this kind tear at the delicate fabric of the political
bond, which is, as I have already remarked, a bond between strangers. When members
of a community fail to contribute in this way they lose the right to the respect
of their fellows. And since, as I have said, honor is basically a system of rights
to respect and shame is the loss of such a right, it is shameful.
We can demand morally that citizens who have the capacity participate in certain
ways; and in requiring jury participation or enrollment in selective service on
pain of penalty, we do. These legal demands are different in important ways from
many others. The demands of the criminal law or the laws of torts and contracts
are not demands made on us as citizens, they apply to all within our jurisdiction;
obeying the law is not part of the business of self-government in the way that helping
to make the law, through politics, or administer it, as jurors, or defend it, as
police officers or soldiers, is.
The question, what forms of participation in the life of the people can we demand,
is harder than the question, why can we ask individuals to obey just laws. And so
it is a delicate issue whether a law-abiding citizen who is not participating in
the life of the republic in some particular way is doing something that is morally
wrong; it is, therefore, a delicate issue to identify which forms of participation,
such as jury service, we have the right to demand, on pain of penalty.
But honor comes to our rescue here. For citizen honor is not something we owe to
all. What we owe morally to all people is the respect due to their humanity, their
human dignity. But how we honor each other as citizens is, in good measure,
up to us. The rewards of honor can be reserved for those who do more than what is
morally required; and we are free, looking at it the other way round, to impose
the penalties of dishonor on those who have not done anything morally wrong, provided
they have fallen below the standard we have set for good citizenship. We may not
have the moral right to punish bad citizenship with the coercive power of the state;
but honor has its own logic, and we can shame those whose lapses are not moral but
In order to decide what kinds of behavior fall below the level that entitles you
to citizen honor – the political respect of your fellow citizens – we need some ideas
about which of the many things a person can do as a citizen are required to earn
citizens their due respect. What is the fair share of the burdens of maintaining
democracy that each of us owes for this purpose? Once we decided this, we could
cry shame against those who were not doing at least their fair share. We should
also cry shame against those who do participate, but do so in ways that are inconsistent
with the norms that govern our shared life: impartiality for public officials, truthfulness
for those in the media, and so on. Honor can operate in the life of citizens not
only through their concern for the national honor, but also through their concern
for their own individual honor as citizens.
Some defections from our citizen obligations are dishonorable because they are morally
wrong, of course. They are wrong because they involve a failure to contribute our
fair share to the common good. So those who are sufficiently motivated by the thought
that these defections are wrong will not need the apparatus of honor to keep them
doing what they should. Some defections are not morally wrong but are undesirable
nevertheless, because without certain contributions, the good that democracy brings
will be hard to achieve.9 What a culture of citizen honor allows us to do is to
shape both the behavior of those who are motivated solely by morality and the behavior
of those who are motivated not even by that, using what political theorists Geoffrey
Brennan and Philip Pettit have dubbed the “intangible hand” of social esteem and
There are places – Australia, famously – where voting is a legal duty. For nearly seventy
years, Australia has achieved a voter turnout rate over 95 percent by imposing a
small fine for failure to show up at the polls. (This is not so much mandatory voting
as mandatory appearance at the voting booth; you can simply record your presence
by voting for “none of the above.”) The penalty is so small – $20 (AUD) if you cannot
provide a reasonable excuse for failing to vote – that we might in fact see this as
a case where the law’s function is largely to express disapproval of, rather than
punish, those who do not vote. And so the society has effectively inculcated a sense
that voting is a civic duty.11
This practice is thoroughly alien to our American traditions. The response to the
moderate mandates of President Obama’s health care reform bill, for instance, suggests
that there continues to be a deep resistance here to individual mandates aimed at
public goods. But in many states, jury service, that other great form of citizen
participation in government, is enforced by penalties about as mild and almost as
effective as the Australian requirement that citizens vote. So there must be other
reasons why the Australian plan is a nonstarter here: one is that politicians will
probably agree only on reforms that do not disadvantage them, and they have reasons
both qua partisans and qua incumbents to fear that such a reform might make an undesirable
difference (to their minds, at least) in the outcomes. Another is that those Americans
who do vote think of it not just as a duty but also as a privilege: one that you
earn by choosing to exercise it. They would likely feel that voting alongside people
who were there merely because they had to be diminished the meaning of participation.
Indeed, from a legal point of view, the vote is a privilege in our society: it is
a right you are granted, one you are permitted to exercise if you choose. Since
we should participate as citizens for non-instrumental reasons, adding instrumental
reasons – the avoidance of punishment or a monetary reward – may stop us recognizing
the noninstrumental reasons it would be better for us to act on. Better, perhaps,
to avoid imposing legal penalties for not voting, because there are reasons to think
that people will take these duties more seriously if they are a matter of honor,
rather than things they must do to avoid punishment (or, for that matter, to gain
an economic reward).
So there are norms of three kinds governing our life as citizens. First, there are
moral norms requiring participation, where nonparticipation is free-riding. Second,
there are norms governing how we participate (if we do), which we can call norms
of participation: they rule out corruption in public officials, inattention
in jurors, ignorance in voters, and the like. Third, there are norms of citizen
honor, which assign rights to respect to citizens who do more than is morally required
in the life of the republic.
It is easier to give examples of citizens who fail to live up to the norms of participation
than to say in general what degree of participation is required. This is in part
because there are so many different ways of participating in the life of the republic
as citizens. On the one hand, it is obvious that many in our news media today are
shamefully uninterested in the truth; but on the other hand, those editors and journalists
who are doing their work conscientiously might reasonably say that they will not
vote. We know that we tend to become “invested” in people we vote for, thus making
it harder to see their faults. Maybe, then, an editor of a website that covers politics
might refuse to vote as an act of citizenship, in order to protect his or her mental
independence. In this case, a citizen deserves to be honored for refraining from
voting. Thoughtful abstention can be one honorable way of participating in the life
of the republic.
There are other cases. I think, for example, we should respect citizens who fail
to vote because they genuinely cannot see, after looking into the matter, which
candidate (or, in a referendum, which position) is right. More generally, because
there are so many forms of citizen participation and because citizens differ in
what they have to contribute, there is a great variety of ways of contributing responsibly,
as a citizen, to government by the people.
Even if you are well informed about what the government is doing, you will not vote
as a good citizen unless you use that information responsibly. And the same ideals
of equality and mutual respect that govern the behavior of citizen-officials ought
to play a role there, too. The republic is supposed to be a pact for the common
good. When I vote, I am not supposed to be looking only after my own interest. In
the economy, it is possible that a hidden hand produces the best results if we each
aim only for our own interests (under the legally enforceable constraint that we
must avoid force, fraud, monopoly, and so on). There is simply no reason, though,
to think that that is so in the political realm. Members of racial and religious
majorities will often be able to combine to allocate public goods in biased ways.
It will be in their individual self-interest to do so. But in our system of government
we are committed, through the Bill of Rights and the Civil War amendments, to the
federal government’s not doing that. This means that the courts are empowered to
reject legislation that is biased in these ways. But it also means that citizens
committed to these values will not vote for officials who want to pass such legislation
or execute it. We ought to be protected from religious or racial discrimination
not just by the courts but also by each other.
Citizens ought to vote for people and policies they believe to be just. There is
nothing wrong in considering your own interest, where justice permits it. But because
there is no hidden hand argument for politics as there may be for the economy, a
society of people who vote only their own interest will be extremely lucky if it
flourishes. Morality requires that you act in ways that contribute your fair share
to the functioning of the republic. We decide “fair share” by asking whether, if
everyone did only what you are doing, the republic would work. If not, you are not
doing your fair share.
But how should citizen voters conduct themselves when they are not voting, when
they undertake those acts that prepare them to vote and that contribute to the social
and cultural conditions that allow our democracy to work well? That, at least, is
the behavior we should honor; we can only require the behavior that we need of everyone
if the system is to work at all.
What is needed will depend on the nature of the republic and its situation. Our
republic, for example, is religiously, ethnically, and politically diverse.12 One
psychological resource amid a diversity of political views is to remind yourself
of an important truth: it is just possible that sometimes the other person is right.
Intellectual humility – what philosophers call fallibilism – is grounded in
the fact that it is unlikely that God (or the Universe) showed a special preference
for me and mine in portioning out the capacity to make sense of the world.13 Time
and again, people are utterly confident that they have the right view. In retrospect,
we often see that they were wrong. There is no reason to think that we will prove
infallible when our grandchildren look back at us.14
Not only is it hard to make sense of the world in general, we are likely to have
especial difficulty in comprehending the world of politics in particular, where good
policy depends on a multitude of facts, many of them hard to discern, and on values
that are hard to weigh against each other. In these circumstances, it seems only
wise to listen carefully to the views of other citizens who disagree with us. If
we do so, we may learn of our own errors, just as they could share in our insights
if they listened to us.
Fallibilism has its enemies. Robert Frost once said that a liberal is “someone who
can’t take his own side in a quarrel.”15This is the critique of someone worried
about too great a willingness to hear the other side. But it is a mistake to think
that you cannot have the intellectual humility that fallibilism teaches, with its
willingness to entertain the possibility that you are wrong, and still proceed seriously
with the commitments that survive the test of argument. To recognize that I might
be wrong is not to declare that I am.
In any case, there are reasons for listening carefully to the views of our fellow
citizens that go beyond the fact that we are likely to learn from them. One is that
our shared participation in the life of the republic will go better if we treat
each other with respect. (Morality commends treating each other with respect, too.
But I want to draw attention to a civic argument for respectful conversation.) An
uncivil atmosphere makes deliberation, compromise, and the development of consensus
– all of which are necessary in a diverse polity – extremely hard.
A second reason for civil discourse is that in politics, what is best depends on
what people happen to want; the bond for the football stadium is good only in a
world where enough people in my city care about football. The best way to learn
that is to hear what they have to say. People may not know what they really want,
and they may have reason to mislead us about what they want. But hearing them say
what they want and why is the beginning of understanding their desires.
The need for respect suggests a habit of mind in which we assume the best of one
another – not, as is so common today, the worst. Someone believes that the state should
continue to recognize heterosexual marriages but not same-sex ones. I think this
is a mistake. How should I respond? It is, of course, possible that this individual
is motivated by simple bigotry. But it is also possible that he has reasons and
that if I attend to these reasons, I will change my mind or may be able to respond
to the arguments in ways that will change his mind. None of that can happen if each
of us starts with the assumption that the other is bigoted, or evil, or foolish.
This discussion must involve more than rigorous argumentation, the assembling of
evidence and the gathering of reasons. It requires take as well as give. My mother
taught me this when I was young. “Your grandfather,” she said, “thought that if
he made a convincing argument, the other party would come round to his view. But
what usually happened was they just wondered what had hit them.” People care to
be heard as well as lectured to. And they care about the attitude with which we
address and listen to them as well as about what we say. It is an old discovery
in politics that people who have been heard – those who have been given voice – will
accept outcomes that they do not prefer.16 That the granting of voice shows respect
is one reason. But so is the fact that seeing your opponents as reasonable, even
if mistaken, human beings makes it easier to accept (what you think of as) their
Political scientist Diana Mutz has reviewed a great deal of evidence showing that
“exposure to oppositional viewpoints”
increases awareness of the rationale for oppositional views, enriches awareness
of one’s own rationales for positions, and enhances individuals’ tolerance; those
with more positive views toward conflict – a sense that disagreement is an important
and acceptable part of democratic dialogue – learn even more.17
Unfortunately, as she also argues, people who regularly discuss politics with those
they disagree with tend to be less inclined to participate in political life. In
order to avoid discourtesy to those we disagree with, we tend to withdraw from political
engagement. It looks as though preparing yourself for responsible political participation
will make any kind of participation less likely.
When we notice problems of political psychology such as these, we can respond in
two ways. First, we can try to imagine institutions that reshape our responses;
second, we may use the very facts about ourselves that we have learned to try to
motivate ourselves. I commend the second strategy to each of my readers. Remember
that as you enrich your understanding of others you may be tempted to withdraw from
participation. Resist. But I want to end by considering some of the possible institutional
Benjamin Franklin, in his Autobiography, tells the story of how he gained
the favor of “a gentleman of fortune and education,” not by paying him “any servile
respect,” but by asking him a small favor. He ends with a maxim: “He that has once
done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself
have obliged.”18 (More than a century earlier, the French writer Rochefoucauld,
in his Maxims, notes a sort of negative corollary of this: “We may forgive
those who bore us,” he said, “we cannot forgive those whom we bore.”)19 These thoughts
reflect the fact that what we feel about people depends on how we behave toward
them, just as often as the other way round.20 Social practices that encourage fellow-feeling
begin by treating others well.
Another piece of social psychological wisdom reflects a connected point. The Contact
Hypothesis, proposed by Gordon Allport in the 1950s, tells us under what conditions
contact between members of two groups will create positive or negative attitudes.
Allport offered a long list of factors that could make a difference, but one general
conclusion was that regular contact in collaborative activities, on terms of rough
equality, tended to make for better attitudes. This is surely one of the mechanisms
that have produced a new generation of young people in our country who do not share
the older prejudices against lesbian and gay people. They have grown up sharing
their world with openly gay people. It is the reason why white politicians otherwise
as different as Bill Bradley and Jack Kemp, who engaged in professional sports when
they were young, are active advocates of racial justice. Their collaboration with
their black teammates on terms of rough equality shaped their attitudes when young.21
The Ben Franklin effect and the Contact Hypothesis suggest ways of interacting with
fellow citizens of diverse identities – including the political identities of conservative,
liberal, moderate, independent, Democrat, Republican – that are very different from
those that actually obtain in many places in our country today. If we are to have
the positive attitudes toward our fellow citizens that are necessary to make our
institutions work best, we need to work and play together across the boundaries
of our identities. A rich associational life in our communities, binding us together
across political identities, is something that we know is a powerful civic resource.22
The soccer league, the choral society, and the drama club turn out to be worth participating
in for reasons beyond their intrinsic satisfactions.
We need to recognize the merits of developing these attitudes and taking part in
these activities. But how can we reinforce our commitment to them and teach them
to the young? I suggest we heed Franklin’s great insight: we should treat each other
better so we can feel better about one another. We should begin by developing a
civil public culture in which we address both those we agree with and those we disagree
with in a more courteous way. Civis, in Latin, means citizen: civility
is the demeanor citizens owe one another. We should not only engage in the exercise
of trying to make the best sense of the opinions of our opponents, we should actually
spend time with people of different political identities, doing nonpolitical things
and taking advantage of the truth of the Contact Hypothesis. We have spent a half-century
learning to escape from the bigotries of race, gender, religion, and nationality;
political bigotry – irrational hatred or contempt for those on other parts of the
political map from ourselves – is no more creditable or helpful than bigotry of other
kinds. As Franklin says in the passage that provides my epigraph, “[H]ow much more
profitable it is prudently to remove, than to resent, return, and continue inimical
If this is the political temperament that will make the republic work, we need to
encourage it through a culture of citizen honor that displays its esteem for productive
participation. We can begin by thanking our fellow citizens who do these things.
We can hope for media that provide a forum for civil deliberation, respectful of
the truth. And we can raise our children, in schools both public and private as
well as at home, to understand the value of civic engagement and to undertake it
in the right spirit. This is more than a matter of what we say to them in class
or around the dinner table. It is a matter of what we get them to do. The habit
of respectful attention to others can be taught through exercises (like high school
debate) in which students are required to mount defenses of positions they do not
share; to give an account of arguments made by others; and to imagine the world
from points of view other than their own. As Andy Stern shows in his essay in this
volume, unions can be another site of such civic education. Religious institutions,
too – church, meetinghouse, mosque, synagogue, and temple – can also practice and endorse
the democratic spirit.
To engage with one another as fellow citizens we also need a shared knowledge of
the institutions of the republic and their history, as well as an ability to understand
discussions of the economy. And since the conduct of foreign policy requires judgments
about the whole world, it seems reasonable to ask those who participate in political
deliberation to have a basic familiarity with global history and geography, too.23
This knowledge will come only from a proper education in history and civics; but
the habits of mind that I have sketched are exactly those that are taught through
education in the humanities and the social sciences. Interpreting texts, analyzing
arguments, engaging imaginatively with fictional worlds and with other places and
times, and reflecting together on our moral responsibilities: these are the methods
of anthropology, history, literature, and philosophy. And though we should learn
these things in school, and deepen our understanding of them if we go to college,
both the knowledge and the habits of mind can be reinforced through the media and
in our practices of public deliberation.
The proliferation of Web-based media that gather the like-minded into circles of
mutual admiration is an obstacle to developing the habits of thought that I have
in mind. But it also provides opportunities. While it is often painful to listen
in on the conversations in these online enclaves – even when they purport to represent
the part of the political spectrum where you yourself think you lie – they do offer
us a chance to learn how the world looks from elsewhere. Understanding even those
who will not engage with us is part of the challenge of managing the republic together.
A commitment to spend some of the time we devote to thinking about politics in the
virtual, if not the actual, company of fellow citizens we disagree with is part
of the equipment of a modern citizen.
One of the great benefits of a stable political system is that citizens do not have
to spend all their time worrying about politics.24 A free society leaves you time
for private pursuits. These ideals of participation and engagement may seem to ignore
that important point. But most Americans spend some time everyday watching television
or reading blogs; most have discussions sometimes, at work or recreation, about
political life. Many of us are already committed to these minimal forms of participation.
I have only been commending ways of improving that participation. And all our citizens
should be given a high school education that offers them the knowledge and helps
develop the temperament I have described.
One final thought: these remarks about the practices and attitudes that I believe
offer hope for our lives as a people managing a democratic republic together are
offered in the modest, fallibilist spirit that I have urged on all of us. In our
shared life as a political people, our citizen conversation is ongoing. No one has
the last word.
ruled, and the work of a ruler is to direct the administration and to judge law-suits;
but in order to decide questions of justice and in order to distribute the offices
according to merit it is necessary for the citizens to know each other’s personal
characters, since where this does not happen to be the case the business of electing
officials and trying law-suits is bound to go badly; haphazard decision is unjust
in both matters, and this must obviously prevail in an excessively numerous community.
. . . It is clear therefore that the best limiting principle for a state is the
largest expansion of the population, with a view to self-sufficiency that can well
be taken in at one view”; Aristotle, Politics, Book 7, chap. 4, trans. Harris Rackham;
available at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0058%3Abook=7%3Asection=1326b.
, The Iliad, Book V, trans. Samuel Butler; available at http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/