It's long been a national pastime to disdain our elected officials as either inept mediocrities or as corrupt crooks. In doing so, we are probably right. In my admittedly unscientific estimate, roughly 45% of office-holders are inept mediocrities, 45% are corrupt crooks, and only about 10% are decent people genuinely trying to do the right thing.
I am an eager participant in the disparage-our-politicians-as-much-as-possible, but I have to wonder if our enthusiasm for doing so is a society-wide psychological defense mechanism. By projecting so much anger and resentment onto the politicians, we divert our own attention away from our own shortcomings as citizens. And there are lots of those. All too often, we ignore our own responsibilities as citizens out of sheer laziness. While it's easy to blame the ineptitude and corruption of politicians for all our ills, it is equally important for us to look into the mirror. After all, it has been truly said that every people gets the government that they deserve.
In this spirit, let me suggest ten things each one of us could do in order to be better citizens.
This seems pretty simple. Showing up to cast your vote on Election Day is the most fundamental duty of every citizen. If you don't vote, you are not doing your duty to yourself or your fellow citizens. Anyone who claims that they don't vote because they don't know enough about the candidates is guilty of gross negligence, since it's an easy matter to pick up a newspaper or voter guide and learn all one needs to know about the different candidates.
It is true that the two major parties usually don't give us candidates worth voting for, but generally one of the two choices is better than the other. Voting for the lesser of two evils is always preferable to not voting at all. And one always has the option of casting a protest vote for a third party candidate.
Moreover, voting is something of a sacred act. There's nothing like the feeling of standing in line at the polling place with one's fellow citizens, taking part together in the democratic process. It is the oxygen of a republic.
2. Read about American history, especially the Revolution
It's shocking to me how little the average citizen of our nation knows about its history. Our educational system doesn't do it a very good job of teaching us about it when we are children, but there is nothing preventing us from educating ourselves. Any bookstore or library is filled with outstanding and enjoyable books about American history. Not only does learning about it make one a better citizen, but it is a much more enjoyable way to spend time than playing a computer game or watching in inane television show.
In particular, to be a good American citizen, one should learn about the history of the American Revolution. I think that if one knew more about the political struggles waged by Samuel Adams, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and others, they would be less willing to tolerate the direction in which modern politicians are dragging out country. In addition, the more one reads about the struggles faced by George Washington's army during the course of the war, the more one is inspired to get up out of the chair and do something to help our country.
3. Read the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers
Okay, this is a bit more specific, but there is no better way to get into the heart of American political philosophy than to read the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers. They're easily available in paperback for a tiny price and, of course, you can always check them out of the library for free.
The Federalist Papers consist of 85 essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in 1787 and 1788 in an effort to persuade the state of New York to ratify the Constitution. Hamilton wrote most of them, Madison wrote the best of them, and Jay wrote those that dealt most with foreign policy. They are among the most articulate and insightful statements of political philosophy ever written and, considering the context in which they were written, are especially relevant to the United States.
The Anti-Federalist Papers are different in that they do not represent a single, unified project. They were written by various anonymous authors in different states in an attempt to sway public opinion against ratification of the Constitution. They consist of the letters of "Brutus" and "Cato" (probably the New York politicians Robert Yates and George Clinton), the essays of "Centinel" (probably the Pennsylvanian Samuel Byran), the letters of "The Federal Farmer" (never positively identified), and many other pieces. There's not full agreement on what should be considered part of the Anti-Federalist Papers, but several collections have been published. One of the best pieces was a report issued by the dissenting minority of the Pennsylvania ratification convention, which they wrote to express why they opposed the Constitution. Although the Anti-Federalists failed to prevent the ratification of the Constitution, they succeeded in ensuring that a Bill of Rights would be enacted, for which all Americans owe them an infinite debt.
Together, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers are a tour de force of political philosophy, dealing with the proper level of power that government should have over our lives. To gain a proper understanding of the need for a strong military, the powers of taxation, political factionalism, the need for checks and balances, legislative representation, and a vast number of other questions, one can do no better than to read the Federalist Papers and Anti-Federalist Papers.
The powers-that-be would rather people have their minds numbed to uselessness by watching cable network news or frivolous reality television. After all, if citizens truly studied the political ideals on which our nation was founded, they might get the dangerous idea that they, and not the politicians, are the ones who are supposed to be in charge.
4. Know who your elected officials are and how to get in touch with them. Then, do so.
Only about a third of Americans know the name of their representative in Congress and fewer know the name of their representatives in their state legislature. This is just pathetic. It takes a matter of seconds on the Internet to find out exactly who your representatives are on the federal, state and local levels. That so few Americans know the identities of their representatives is a disgrace and one of the most telling failures of modern America.
So, know who represents you. Once you do, it's easy to find out how to contact them through email, letter, or phone. The realities of modern life mean that you are far more likely to speak to a staff member whose job it is to speak to constituents, but that's better than nothing. And if you are persistent or form a large group concerned about a single particular issue, you can usually get through to the actual office-holder.
The next time you want to complain about a political issue, no matter what it is, stop for a moment and think about how to let your elected representative know how you feel about it. If you upset over the state sales tax, write your state representative an email to complain. If you want to complain about lack of action on climate change, write a letter about it and mail it to your congressman's office. If you are upset about your child being given too much homework, call your representative on the school board. And there is nothing stopping you from calling the local district office and setting up a personal meeting, either.
5. Tune out cable network news, political talk radio, and most political blogs
Back when smallpox still existed, it was generally considered inadvisable to visit places that had been infected by the disease. Following the same logic, a good citizen should avoid infectious sources of pseudo-news like cable network news and political talk radio. They do not provide any meaningful content or information and exist only to make people angry at or frightened of manufactured or imagined problems. After all, angry or frightened people are more likely to keep tuning in, which means continued ad revenue. This is why they have evolved into an absurd "crisis of the month" format that is going to be looked upon with horror by historians of the future.
Most political blogs, similarly, are screed sheets written by misguided or silly people who don't really know enough about what they are talking about to comment upon it intelligently. Some are actually quite excellent, but most are idiotic. Find the good ones and follow them. Avoid the other ones like the plague.
Newspapers (yes, they still exist) remain the best source of news and e-book readers are giving them a new lease on life. I personally try to read my local paper, the Austin-American Statesman, every morning. For national news, I try to read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Each has a different editorial slant, but both maintain high standards of journalistic integrity. By doing this rather simple thing, I feel much better informed about what is happening in the country and the world than anybody who spends endless hours watching cable network news or listening to political talk radio.
6. Observe national holidays
It takes a few dollars and a few minutes to purchase an American flag and set up a bracket so that you can display it from the front of your house. The National Flag Foundation provides a comprehensive list of national holidays on which it is appropriate to fly your flag and the proper etiquette for how to do so.
Also, just observe the holidays themselves and not just by having friends over for a cookout. Read the Declaration of Independence on July 4. Read the Preamble to the Constitution on September 17. Take flowers to a military cemetery on Memorial Day. Do something to honor veterans on Veterans Day (see #8, below). Do something to make sure that you embrace national holidays as something more than a day off from work.
7. Cheer on American athletes at the Olympics and the American team at the World Cup
Albert Einstein once said, "Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind." He was quite right and, as a German Jew, he certainly knew what he was talking about. But there is a big difference between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is about denigrating other nations and their people, while patriotism is about taking pride in one's own. Only the weak-minded think that they are the same thing.
The Olympic Games and the World Cup celebrate patriotism while rejecting the base instincts of nationalism. We can take pride in the achievements of our American athletes while respecting the athletes of other nations. How much better it is to compete in athletic competitions than fighting on the battlefield? How much better to respectfully shake hands than to smash one another with fists?
The glory of our athletes in international competition is part of the glory of America. It should be celebrated.
8. Support nonprofits that help veterans
Lots of self-righteous people make a lot of noise about "supporting the troops" and then never actually do anything that supports them. If you ask me, these people are worse than those who don't support the troops at all, since to neglect they add the sin of hypocrisy.
There are lots of nonprofit organizations focused on helping veterans or active-duty soldiers. Far too many of them are borderline scams, with a ridiculous ratio of administrative expenses to funds actually devoted to service programs. Others have mission statements so broad and vague that they are incapable of focusing on anything in particular. Donating to these kinds of groups, sadly, is usually a waste of money.
For all the badly run nonprofits, however, there are several that do outstanding work. Two that stand out to me are Homes For Our Troops and Fisher House. Homes For Our Troops builds specially adapted homes for soldiers who had received debilitating wounds in Iraq or Afghanistan. Fisher House provides families of servicemen with free housing near medical facilities where their loved one is receiving treatment. Both of these groups have received excellent ratings from charity watchdog groups and provide a specific and focused service of crucial importance. If you're serious when you say you want to support the troops, give to these two groups.
9. Visit and help preserve national battlefields
There are literally hundreds of places around the country where American soldiers fought and died in the battles of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. There can be no more moving experience for a good citizen than to walk across these pieces of hallowed ground. Whether you walk the ground where Americans fought for freedom against British troops and Hessian mercenaries at Saratoga, or wander among the hills where Americans slaughtered one another in a terrible civil war at Gettysburg, nothing gives a better sense of what it means to be an American than to visit our national battlefields.
Several of these battlefields have been well-preserved by the National Park System or the various state governments. Most, however, are not protected at all from the pressures of real estate development and, in some cases, strip mining and other industrial activities. My father and I recently visited the battlefield at Cedar Creek in the northern Shenandoah Valley to attends the events of the 150th anniversary of the engagement. As moving as the experience was, it was diminished mightily by an enormous industrial facility dedicated to limestone mining that loomed over the battlefield.
The Civil War Trust has long done magnificent work in protecting Civil War battlefields by buying up real estate before it ends up in the hands of developers. In some cases, such as the battlefield at Franklin, Tennessee, it has purchased and torn up the parking lots and strip malls that blemish our nation's hallowed ground. Recently, it launched a project called Campaign 1776 to expand its work to battlefields from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. If you're interesting it protecting our nation's battlefields from being lost forever, consider becoming a supporter of these efforts.
10. Finally, just be a decent person
Okay, this is good advice generally, but it is also critical to being a good citizen. Don't talk during the movie. Wash your hands after using the restroom. Slow down to let other drivers change lanes. Don't use foul language. Put your grocery shopping cart in the designated return area rather than leaving it in your parking space. Don't yell at waiters or retail workers who make insignificant mistakes. Don't make offensive jokes. In short, don't be a jerk.
I think if people tried to follow these ten pieces of advice, it would have a very beneficial effect. We should all strive to be good citizens. If we do, we might revitalize our country and help it find its way back onto a proper course.