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Democracy's 'Third Leg'

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

February 27, 1995

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.

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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.

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.