Review

Toward an Ethic of Citizenship
Creating a Culture of Democracy for the 21st Century
by William K. Dustin (Philippines 1966–68)
Excel Press/iUniverse.com, 1999
236 pages
$12.95

Reviewed by Arthur Dobrin (Kenya 1965–67)

DURING THE SUMMER OF 1969, I directed the Encampment for Citizenship in Great Falls, Montana. This leadership-training program brought together teenagers from around the country to learn the tools of democratic citizenship. The campers analyzed social problems and studied political theory in a culturally and racial diverse setting. In addition, the campers spent four days a week doing an internship in the city, learning about democracy by doing the work of responsible citizens.
     The teenagers participated in workshops and helped to design, then govern, their own community, not an easy task when Navajo and Puerto Ricans, housing project kids and wealthy suburbanites, farmers and intellects — strangers but all Americans — had to live together in close quarters for six weeks, not setting aside their differences but finding common ground.
     While we saw this as training in democratic living, many Great Falls residents resented the Encampment. We were charged with promoting a liberal/socialist/communist agenda, and not only by the local John Birch Society. It wasn’t citizenship we were teaching, they said, but anti-Americanism. This became explicit when we conducted a forum on the pros and cons of placing anti-ballistic missiles at a nearby Air Force base. In their eyes, good citizens were uncritical supporters — of the president, the war in Vietnam, and American foreign policy in all its forms and permutations. Citizenship, in their minds, wasn’t active, critical involvement but unblinking patriotism.
     Ironically, some on the board of the Encampment for Citizenship in New York shared this view. They willingly conceded the point that citizenship meant promoting the political status quo. Board members wanted a new name, one that more accurately reflected the true nature of the program. (Nothing ever came of the name change. The program evolved into an anti-poverty program, and ended in the 1980s.)
     I am reminded of the Montana experiment in living democracy as I read William W. Dustin’s extended essay Toward an Ethic of Citizenship: Creating a Culture of Democracy for the 21st Century in which he laments the withering away of the democratic ethos and, with it, real involvement in the political process. One of Dustin’s major points is that Americans no longer function as political persons but primarily as market citizens. So pre-occupied with the role of consumer, employer and employee, we have all but relinquished our role as active participants in the political community. “The abdication of the citizenship role on the part of the individual has created a vacuum in which the corporation and various interest groups have rushed in a coopted citizenship for particularistic ends, primarily private economic gain,” Dustin writes. No longer responsible citizens in a democratic republic who contend with others in a public forum and are forced to justify decision-making with publicly justifiable reasons, we have become prey to market forces where decisions are made for private gain and no reasons need be offered.
     Commercial interests have triumphed over political concerns and, as a result, money inordinately determines the political process. Huge war chests are essential for waging a successful campaigns and politicians become indebted to contributors as they undergo endless funding exercises. This results in elected officials representing small but influential constituencies rather concerning themselves with the public good. As every election shows, individuals are less and less interested in voting as their alienation from the political process has increased. The gap between citizens and representatives has become too wide to bridge. Real decisions are made behind closed doors and made on behalf of vested interests. Alienation and cynicism are the shift in philosophical sensibilities from political to marketplace concerns.
     So how to you get people from shopping malls to voting booths? This is the wrong question. Dustin’s analysis is more far-reaching and his solution ultimately simple. Democratic citizenship doesn’t require more voting participation but doing away with elections all together and replacing them with random selections. While elections are superior to authoritarian governments, they fail the test of democratic government in that they don’t meet the three fundamental values of a democracy, namely, rotation of office, distrust of political professionalism and equality. Elected representatives, dependent upon vast sums of money either to attain or stay in office, are susceptible to the corruption. It isn’t surprising that the gap between the few rich and the rest of the country grows wider as the interlocking forces of private interests groups monopolize government.
     No amount of electoral finance reform can fix the problem since elections themselves, by their very nature, are fatally part of fatally flawed system. Even the most extensive electoral reform is patching around the edges. The problem is that we elect our representatives rather than representing ourselves. By turning over the task of governing to others via elections, we set into motion the outcome that becomes more painfully clear with each election.
     Elections need to go, Dustin says, along with the professional political class. We need a lottery system instead. Only the random selection for office can replace the passivity of elections as sales pitches and advertising campaigns and restore a sense of active civic responsibility where people make significant decisions that have public consequences. Dustin rehearses the arguments against elections and argues at length for the virtues of the lot. It is a provocative argument and I have found myself referring to it in recent conversations. It is a case worth making and considering. I only wish that Dustin had written something more felicitous and less heavy-handed. The book reads like a re-worked graduate thesis, as though he needed the weight of authority to make his case credible. As each day democracy seems more like a figment than a reality, as openness is replaced by secrecy, liberty by security, honesty with lies, reason by power, equality by stark inequality, it is perhaps time to consider radical solutions to a dire situation. Dustin has provided an interesting and unique critique. It shifts the current dialogue about political malaise by making us think afresh what we mean by democracy and citizenship. It’s worth the thought.

Arthur Dobrin is the author of 20 books, including two novels, a book of poetry and collection of short stories, all set in Kenya. Several of his book have been translated into Chinese and Korean.