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"I know of no safe repository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."
- Thomas Jefferson
Much has been written about the apathy, frustration, and disenfranchisement experienced by large segments of the U.S. population - and the consequent failure of citizens to become involved in the democratic process. In alarming numbers, the public has become highly skeptical of the ability of government to ensure public safety, to oversee their general welfare, and to provide them with a satisfactory quality of life.
Now more than ever, as we enter a new era of federal downsizing and devolution, it is critical that American citizens become engaged in the process of governance - not only at the federal level, but at the state and local levels as well. Yet, the path toward increased citizen participation in the democratic process is clouded by ambiguity. Not only has the role of government changed dramatically in past years, but so has the role of individual citizens, who until recently often accepted the paternalism of a government that offered them seemingly unconditional support.
The city and county managers and administrators who are members of the International City/County Management Association have become increasingly aware of the crisis facing them as they attempt to strike a balance between constructive civic participation based on democratic principles and the chaos that can result. In the following essay, I will examine the historic roles of citizens and their local governments in the democratic process and offer a prescription for their future.
HISTORICAL MODELS OF CIVIC DEMOCRACY
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."
- The Declaration of Independence
American democracy differs from most governmental institutions in that the people create the government for specific and limited purposes. As outlined in the Declaration of Independence, which was unanimously adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, Americans are empowered to institute a government that will help them secure their rights as citizens. The U.S. Constitution further clarifies the role of citizens in its Preamble, which states that "We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union...do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
THE PUBLIC AS A DELIBERATIVE BODY IN THE LATE 1770s
At the time of the founding fathers, civic democracy was viewed as the responsibility of individuals and the government working together to form "the public." Despite the emergence of well-known, individual key figures, for most citizens being part of the U.S. political society involved civic-minded volunteerism and problem solving.
During the late 18th century, John Adams proclaimed that a successful country would foster a citizenry that could rise to the challenge of tackling the problems that faced them. Adams envisioned citizens as a deliberative body, "created through a process of discussion, debate, and dialogue about current affairs." From this era sprang such citizen-fostered initiatives as public libraries and lengthy electoral …