Democracy's 'Third Leg'

Sen. Bill Bradley calls for citizens to take a more active role in the public square

CIVIL society is the place where Americans make their home, sustain their marriages, raise their families, hang out with their friends, meet their neighbors, educate their children, worship their God.

It lies apart from the realms of the market and the government, and possesses a different ethic. The market is governed by the logic of economic self-interest, while government is the domain of laws with all their coercive authority. Civil society, on the other hand, is the sphere of our most basic humanity -- the personal, everyday realm that is governed by values such as responsibility, trust, fraternity, solidarity, and love.

What both Democrats and Republicans fail to see is that the government and the market are not enough to make a civilization. There must also be a healthy, robust civic sector -- a space in which the bonds of community can flourish. Government and the market are similar to two legs on a three-legged stool. Without the third leg of civil society, the stool is not stable and cannot provide support for a vital America. In many ways the worlds of politics and business have delegitimatized the local, the social, the cultural, the spiritual. Yet upon these things lie the whole edifice of our national well-being.

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Citizen forums needed

Alongside the decline of civil society, it is a sad truth that the exercise of democratic citizenship plays, at best, a very minor role in the lives of most American adults. Only 39 percent of the eligible voters actually voted in 1994. The role formerly played by party organizations with face-to-face associations had been yielded to the media, where local TV news follows the dual credos, ''If it bleeds, it leads, and if it thinks, it stinks,'' and paid media politics remains beyond the reach of most Americans; when only the rich, such as Ross Perot, can get their views across on TV, political equality suffers. The rich have a loudspeaker and everyone else gets a megaphone. Make no mistake about it, money talks in American politics today as never before, and no revival of our democratic culture can occur until citizens feel that their participation is more meaningful than the money lavished by PACs and big donors.

From the Long House of the Iroquois to the general store of de Tocqueville's America to the Chautauquas of the late 19th century, to the Jaycees, Lions, PTAs, and political clubs of the early '60s, Americans have always had places where they could come together and deliberate about their common future. Today there are fewer and fewer forums where people actually listen to each other. It's as if everyone wants to spout his opinion or her criticism and then move on.

Public policy can help facilitate the revitalization of democracy and civil society, but it cannot create civil society. We can insist that fathers support their children financially, but fathers have to see the importance of spending time with their children. We can figure out ways, such as parental leave, to provide parents with more time with their children, but parents have to use that time to raise their children. We can create community schools, but communities have [to] use them. We can provide mothers and fathers with the tools they need to influence the storytelling of the mass media, but they ultimately must exercise that control. We can take special interests out of elections, but only people can vote. We can provide opportunities for a more deliberative citizenship at both the national and the local level, but citizens have to seize those opportunities and take individual responsibility.

Spirit of giving freely

We also have to give the distinctive moral language of civil society a more permanent place in our public conversation. The language of the marketplace says, ''Get as much as you can for yourself.'' The language of government says, ''Legislate for others what is good for them.'' But the language of community, family, and citizenship at its core is about receiving undeserved gifts. What this nation needs to promote is the spirit of giving something freely, without measuring it out precisely or demanding something in return.

Forrest Gump and Rush Limbaugh are the surprise stars of the first half of the '90s because they poke fun at hypocrisy and the inadequacy of what we have today. But they are not builders. The builders are those in localities across America who are constructing bridges of cooperation and dialogue in face-to-face meetings with their supporters and their adversaries. Alarmed at the decline of civil society, they know how to understand the legitimate point of view of those with whom they disagree. Here in Washington, action too often surrounds only competition for power. With the media's help, words are used to polarize and to destroy people. In cities across America, where citizens are working together, words are tools to build bridges between people. In these places there are more barn-raisers than there are barn-burners. Connecting their idealism with national policy offers us our greatest hope and our biggest challenge.

A 'hero' is not the answer

Above all, we need to understand that a true civil society in which citizens interact on a regular basis to grapple with common problems will not occur because of the arrival of a hero. Rebuilding civil society requires people talking and listening to each other, not blindly following a hero.

I was reminded a few weeks ago of the temptation offered by the ''knight in shining armor'' when the cover of a national magazine had Gen. Colin Powell's picture on it with a caption something like, ''Will he be the answer to our problems?'' If the problem is a deteriorating civic culture, then a charismatic leader, be he the president or a general, is not the answer. He or she might make us feel better momentarily, but then if we are only spectators thrilled by the performance, how have we progressed collectively?

A character in Bertolt Brecht's ''Galileo'' says, ''Pity the nation that has no heroes,'' to which Galileo responds, ''Pity the nation that needs them.'' All of us have to go out in the public square and all of us have to assume our citizenship responsibilities. For me that means trying to tell the truth as I see it to both parties and to the American people without regard for consequences.

In a vibrant civil society, real leadership at the top is made possible by the understanding and evolution of leaders of awareness at the bottom and in the middle, that is, citizens engaged in a deliberative discussion about our common future.

*Excerpted from a speech by Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey to the National Press Club in Washington Feb. 9.

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