What is Your Assessment of the Citizen?

Photo: AndrewHorne

A person can view the American citizen in one of two ways. He or she can attribute agency to the citizens – trusting them to be actively responsible in the management of their lives and relationships. Or, the citizen can be viewed as someone who should passively accept direction and aid from their betters. This initial tendency determines an entire downstream range of political viewpoints.

The active versus passive assessment has little to do with a person’s values. Someone who leans liberal might see the citizens as responsible …… or they might not. The same dynamic applies to someone else who leans conservative.

It also doesn’t apply to a person’s standing in life. Someone’s record of success might have been high, or moderate, or “not-so-much.” It has little bearing on how they view the capacity of others to manage their own lives.

So, this appraisal of competency and trustworthiness doesn’t apply to most human categories. But it does apply to the question of power. Those who favor centralized solutions – whether elites or commoners – see the bulk of their fellow citizens as lacking life skills. In contrast, a person who favors decentralized power has placed great faith, in most cases, in their neighbors’ capacity for getting on with life. This faith tends to be consistent, whether the quantity of neighbors numbers one, or 330 million.

Examples asserting a passive view of citizens abound. In the corporate media, we see it in a willingness to propagandize information. In the two major political parties, it can be observed in strained efforts to pander publicly, while making backroom deals privately. In the policies forged by those parties, obsequious efforts to provide free perks are in ample evidence. This bread and circuses mentality – encouraging passivity – has characterized the approach of concentrated power for at least five thousand years …… and probably for far longer.

In contrast, decentralized power has always preferred to allow fellow citizens to actively assemble – and disassemble – as they see fit.

In short, the passive-active judgment applies to the vertical axis of the political circle. It does not apply to the horizontal axis. It’s an orientation that’s key to understanding the twenty-first century’s rising political conflicts. This re-birthed form of conflict began its slow move toward center stage a few decades ago, and has since been supplanting the left-right debate in importance.

The struggle can’t be understood with outdated terms like “liberal” or “conservative.” But Americans still attempt to discuss it within that framework. Terms like centralized and decentralized must be applied instead.

It can be productive to ask a question whenever some prominent political figure places himself or herself in front of the cameras. “Do the underlying assumptions of this person’s stated positions posit the citizens as recipients of some powerful entity’s wise policy prescriptions?” Or do they expect you to act responsibly as a member of your family and community?

It’s helpful to ask such questions of those who attempt to shape your opinion. It’s also helpful to ask them of yourself.

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