Civic Engagement and Democracy


By Rick Moniz, Historian

“Lightning makes no sound until it strikes.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Where do we find justice? I was recently reminded of the question about justice in the story, ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ Where is justice? … I say in democracy, and in and through God’s divine guidance. Democracy – with a small “d” meaning informed and participatory involvement and not party alliance – is the source of justice in the USA. God gave us reason and called upon us all to use it wisely. You may call it free will, if you like. But reason without divine guidance would be a foolish enterprise.

Enter small “d” democracy. Democracy requires the participation of its citizenry. Civic engagement, built around an informed citizenry, is the basis of a healthy democracy. The challenge is for ‘We the People’ to care enough about a posterity to which we leave a legacy of hope for all, everywhere. We cannot allow our collective angst to drive us out of the public square and into the back alleys of dissonance, distractions, and despair. How do we arrest this slide into further crisis and confusion? I have been in the classroom over the past thirty-five years and the answer remains the same: through an informed and engaged citizenry.

Civic engagement enables us to hope in a better future and I suspect the meaning behind Franklin’s quip about our early Republic, ‘if you can keep it.’ Benjamin Franklin was a man of The Enlightenment. He had lived a full life and witnessed profound changes in science, politics and the history of mankind. While Franklin was a newspaper man, who had a hand in writing The Declaration of Independence, he did not edit The Constitution. It is interesting to note that the Committee of Style charged with writing the document – after the debates had concluded – included Madison and Hamilton (they would later pen the bulk of The Federalist Papers arguing amidst more debate for The Constitution’s ratification by all states. Madison and Hamilton were, also, founders of two-party system).

Equally fascinating to take note was that The Preamble was attached late, but nevertheless there you find the notion of where ‘We the People’ entered into our history. It was the end of 1787 and over the next nine months a swirling engagement followed throughout the thirteen states. Disagreements were common and loudly expressed. And yet nine states adopted The Constitution. The Federalist Papers followed with more debate and an agreement to add a Bill of Rights to The Constitution. Democracy proved that it could weather the most contentious of storms. And here is the point: we accomplished it through civic engagement which happened across all thirteen states. Yes, there remained many evils to address, but today we live in a land where every citizen 18 years of age can – I would argue shall – vote.

Now more than ever, we need to engage. Today, 233 years later we are at a crossroads. Has civic engagement lost its luster? Are we too busy following the latest NBA, NFL, MLB, Grammy, Oscar or entertainment diversions? Is it just easier to shout down those with diverse, informed points of view? While Jefferson lauded the Revolution of 1800 – changing governments through the ballot box – he also warned about a fire bell in the night. We ignore that bell at our nation’s peril. There are a host of challenges facing the nation and all, perhaps equally, demand our attention. I believe that climate change is one issue that cuts across many realms of justice and might just unite and push us into a new era of cooperation. That is if we can see it for what it is: the greatest threat to humanity requiring immediate action. The science is verifiable, supportable and agreed upon throughout the scientific community. It makes no sense to ignore it or belittle the findings. And it is where the young are seeking to push and demand new leadership. It is where there might be the brightest hope for a better future and the one that unites us. It is where we need to urgently act.

Yet do we care enough to engage? First, we will have to become better informed as a citizenry to beat back the cacophony of dissonance. We have plenty of history lessons to consult. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was engaged in securing justice for the Memphis sanitation workers the day he was shot. Clearly he was a drum major for environmental justice. Recently, students have left their classrooms and gone into the streets to protest the callous disregard of our leaders to global warming. Leadership like Dr. King’s forced us to confront our worse demons: racism, war, inequality and hate. He took the nation by the collar and demanded that we discuss the consequences of our actions. We did. It was not pretty, but it brought change. We the People were forced to discuss and debate the future. That discussion needs to be reignited and climate change might be the one area where little “d” democracy can be revived. Can we engage with intelligence and civility?

President Lincoln’s sentiments in his First Inaugural Address still resonates when he noted and I shall ask: We are not enemies, but friends … and the better angels of our nature shall prevail? A new era in civic engagement awaits us and Dr. King’s clarion still resonates today – “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?”