For the Civic-Minded

With resolutions at the beginning of the year, we aim to achieve some ideal picture of ourselves. We consider how we eat, how much we drink, or how little we exercise and imagine the results we might see with the right habits.

What results do we see from the civic habits we practice? Perhaps part of the response we need to events like those of January 6th, 2021, is to consider that our political life is also a story of our choices between good habits and bad. CBS journalist John Dickerson shared his advice for making these choices this week:

"There's a lot of bait today. You are not a shark. You don't have to take it."

I once used Twitter to connect to voices in indie music, education, and political work across the country. But today, it's all news and a lot of bait. Twitter is my primary source of information on the anti-democratic forces in our politics, the latest data on COVID, and the strategies educators have used to make their classrooms safe.

I feel very "in the know," but it's exhausting.

Two tech leaders who helped design our online spaces have called apps like Twitter "infinity pools." In Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky explain:

"If you can pull to refresh, it's an Infinity Pool. If it streams, it's an Infinity Pool. This always-available, always-new entertainment is your reward for the exhaustion of constant busyness."

Having worked at Google and YouTube, the authors suggest that resisting these sites starts with focusing on your purpose for using them. For example, what do you need from the resources you follow and is there value in reading daily updates?

Collectively, the reward for resisting this busywork is vital to democracy. These infinity pools also distract us from a sense of a shared purpose or a common destination.

According to Stephen Covey, the original guru of habit talk, a good habit will keep us connected to our purpose, working as a compass. In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he describes it like this:

"We are more in need of a vision or destination and a compass (a set of principles or directions) and less in need of a road map. We often don't know what the terrain ahead will be like or what we will need to go through it; much will depend on our judgment at the time. But an inner compass will always give us direction."

Covey calls this habit, "Begin with the end in mind." When we focus on a common destination, we can evaluate our media diets and make proactive choices. A habit that serves me at the moment, helping me feel most "in the know," might also generate an audience that promotes resentment and antipathy.

When I evaluate my civic habits this month, I'm borrowing a rule from Dr. King. In October 1967, he spoke to a group of students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia and told them to hold firm to their commitment to the principles of beauty, love, and justice. Then, as a bit of practical advice on what this might look like, he said:

"Don't allow anybody to pull you so low as to make you hate them."

I'm vowing to leave behind any info-gathering habits that diminish my ability to believe that we are a people capable of beauty, love, and justice. Imagine what the results could be.


"We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men."  —Herman Melville, novelist and poet
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For Your Reading List

Like every other day of the year, concerned citizens had a menu of news options reflecting on the January 6th attack on the Capitol. Some efforts provide more deliberation and concern for democracy than others.

I'm not as interested in predicting the outcome of the next presidential election as I am in understanding the state of American democracy today. The question guiding my reading this weekend is:

What ddid we have wrong about American democracy on January 5th, 2021? What can that tell us about what lies ahead?

Journalists and political scientists alike circulated two stories from The Atlantic, suggesting they were required reading. First, Barton Gellman's cover story in this month's issue of The Atlantic explains how 2024 could mark a quiet end for electoral democracy in the United States. Read: "Trump's Next Coup has Already Begun."

Ronald Brownstein's article brings historical context to that same conversation, "The Republican Axis Reversing the Rights Revolution."

Really, the most thoughtful conversation I've heard about the relevant history is Jamelle Bouie on the latest Slate Political Gabfest. At the 19 minute mark, he explains that what we don't understand about how the Jim Crow regime came to power is the best way to think about the threat that lies ahead.

Vox has a great round-up of political science on the question written by Zack Beauchamp, "How does this end?" I also appreciated a replay of a Vox Conversations podcast recorded last year. Journalist Sean Illing talked to Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works.

For all kinds of reasons, it made sense to share the conversation this week. You'll find the forty-minute episode under the title, "Why American fascism isn't going away."

For Believing in Democracy

Good habits reflect an understanding of a responsibility shared across generations too. There’s perspective found in these imagined conversations where one generation addresses the next:

Mother to Son,” a poem by Langston Hughes, written in 1922 that begins with the lines:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Dear Theodosia,” a song from Hamilton that became part of this years effort to reflect on the attack on the Capitol. In the musical, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton sing the song as they welcome their children to the world:

You will come of age with our young nation
We'll bleed and fight for you
We'll make it right for you
If we lay a strong enough foundation
We'll pass it on to you, we'll give the world to you

One habit that makes a strong foundation is sharing beautiful reflections on democratic life. These two items came together through a text exchange with a civic-minded friend and citizen-scholar. No social media required. Matt is one of the best.