The Question “what does it mean to be an American” is of current interest. In the article “Toward a Political Science of Citizenship” Macedoet all argue that political participation which is a key element of citizen engagement with the political process of a country is a “product of choice” (p. 19). The question “What does it mean to be an American” thus questions the future of American democracy in light of the challenges arising from citizens lack of participation. While Americans still remain as the shining example for the rest of the world measured in the context of the American democratic experiment, the American democracy has witnessed a trend of apathy amongst citizens on issues concerning democratization and political engagements. Indeed, the American voter turnout remains the lowest amongst all the developed nations. Even though Americans are still active in areas such as engagements with Non Profit organizations, activities that directly measure political participation have been dwindling since 1970s. For example activities such as writing letters to congress people dropped by almost half between 1970 and 1990. Concerning the challenges at hand, it would be perhaps appropriate to argue that the two party systems in congress is responsible for diminishing political responsibility, and that unless congress matures up, American democracy would be jeopardized.
A recent Pew Research Center (2010) asked Americans to list some of the biggest reasons why they were not happy with the whole political system. Eight-three percent of Americans felt that government accountability with the money is the primary reason for their disgruntlement. In the similar test, 83% felt that special interest was the reason behind the deadlock in government while 82%; percent felt that elected representatives did not care about the electorate. Amongst Republicans, 93 % felt strongly that the government did not did not use fund effectively. In 2010, Americans rated congress worse than 2005 with 60% of Americans citing Congress inability to work along with party lines. The party line deadlock in Congress is one reason that dissuades majority of Americans from playing active role in civic education thus compromising the very meaning of what it means to an Americans.
In our class lecture, documented on the PowerPoint MPA 582, session 2, our instructor reasoned that social capital and public participation as the pinnacle of American civilization. Conceivably, one of the strongest arguments presented was thus public participation was strong ingredient of a society embedded on the idea of reciprocity, inclusiveness, diversity, and mutual obligation as key ingredients required for success in a participatory democracy. The ability of trust amongst citizens is an explanation for their actions of demanding accountability from elected officials, desire for progress of the established state, and the understanding that participation in elections, demonstrations, and writing letters to politicians accrues from the desire for general welfare of the society. Whereas such thinking was ubiquitous in the early days of American experiment until 1990s, the diminishing interests in public affairs has resulted into lack of accountability on the part of government, increasing partisanship in congress, and a general feeling of disillusionment in the society. Because of this reasons, extremism in party politics has become an outlet for the people to express their anger.
Another area of concern in America is the role played by the media. Let us go back to the original meaning of the term fourth estate. Conventionally, the term fourth estate is used to refer to the media (including the press, print, and the internet) as an official branch of the government that plays the role of checking on the excess of other branches of the government. Usually, the role of the fourth estate is to inform and educate the public on the doings of the government. The term fourth estate came to the surface from the work of English politician Edmund Burke (1729 -1797). In the American context, the First Amendment grants the freedom of expression (Senevirtane, 2012). The key responsibility of the media, under this amendment is to play the role of the people’s watchdog. The increasingly divisive media that play the taste of political and religious inclinations threaten this role. In addition, the shrinking readership of the newspapers thanks to the internet and over focus on entertainment from the television makes the skewed news channel the only viable sources of news for many Americans. Independent news is thus lost in the paradise of divisive media. Americans need to divorce from political step-brothership and embrace the new meaning of accountability and pose a united front against the excesses of the government. In my view, the meaning of being an America is demanding accountability in the face of adversity, standing for justice during moments of confusion, and using our freedom of speech to do good for the society.
In the end, the absence of credible and independent journalism creates a situation where the official sources are lost and the extremists and biased opinions skewed to the taste of sympathizers take center stage as official news sources. This is damaging to the concept of free space. It becomes self-preservation of the freedom of speech and not the watchdog of the public. The American media has become bedrock of liars and moneymaking organizations with little or no interest of the public. This is an insult to the very idea of freedom of speech. With such a media outlet, public participation in matters governance will continue to deteriorate and congress and continue will thrive in its confusion.
Macedo, S. (2005).Image Not Available Democracy at Risk: Toward a Political Science of Citizenship. Brookings Institution Press.
The Pew Research Center.(2010, October).The People and Their Government DISTRUST, DISCONTENT, ANGER AND PARTISAN RANCOR (Report No.Center for the People & the Press 202-419-4350). Washington, DC.
Report of the American Political Science Association’s Standing Committee on Civic Education and Engagement, August 2004. (2004). DEMOCRACY AT RISK: RENEWING A POLITICAL SCIENCE OF CITIZENSHIP. Report of the American Political Science Association’s Standing Committee on Civic Education and Engagemen.