How can the citizenry take back America?
Suppose you believe that climate change is a threat to humanity, but you oppose abortion or that you consider owning a firearm a natural right, but support open borders?
Suppose you think the government COVID-19 lockdowns and school closures were dictatorial, but favor unlimited surveillance of Americans via outfits like the FBI for reasons of national security?
Lots of us live comfortably with such apparent political and cultural contradictions. The woman who proudly voted for Joe Biden in 2020 heads off to the gun range once a month for some target practice with her Glock 19. The guy who cast his ballot for Trump would love to see America swept clean of firearms.
This pragmatism offends many of our political elites and their ideological partisans, who seek to divide rather than unite Americans.
In “I, Citizen: A Blueprint for Reclaiming American Self-Government” (Encounter Press, 2021, 264 pages), Tony Woodlief brings a searchlight to bear on the divisive ideologues working among us to destroy “the reservoir of goodwill that characterized American civil life for generations.”
Encounter Press publishes mostly conservative books of one sort or another, and Woodlief is a self-identified conservative, but in “I, Citizen” he attacks the extremists on both sides of the political spectrum. Near the beginning of the book, he writes that “it’s not ordinary Americans who are bitterly divided into diehard blue and red camps. Our political class certainly is, and it directs roughly 20 percent of American voters who constitute its reliable foot soldiers. Most Americans, in contrast, remain tolerant and trusting of one another, and share a great many values.”
As just one of many examples supporting this argument, Woodlief describes a group of men — he’s one of them — who gather “once a month to talk about ideas, books, and notable figures from our shared faith, which is Christianity.” This group is ecumenical both in terms of its faith and its politics. “A couple of our number are libertarian, another is an avowed socialist. Some of us are unashamed Trump supporters, others have despised him since ‘Home Alone 2.’” He adds that these men are “politically engaged, and ideologically aware. We are, in fact, quite political.”
And yet, as he notes, the men enjoy one another’s company. They argue, and tempers sometimes flare, but they remain loyal friends. “Listening to them is worthwhile,” he writes, then adds: “This is what’s missing among too many of our country’s partisans and political elites. Not loyalty to a government or a party, but loyalty to their fellow citizens. They stopped listening a long time ago.”
Fanning this pyre of polarization are corporate media, certain online news and opinion sites and special interest groups. Opinion polls and focus groups, Woodlief shows, also mold our discussions. All too often they ask questions of respondents that leave little room for nuance or thoughtfulness.
Woodlief also spends some time focused on the failures of Congress over the last decades, its surrender of power to the Oval Office, the judiciary and the federal bureaucracy. This trend often goes unnoticed by ordinary citizens, but it directly impacts them, as the willful surrender of Congressional power diminishes their own standing as citizens. Of the ever-growing power of the presidency, he writes, “This behavior is to be expected in executives when legislatures abdicate their responsibilities, which Congress has done to a shameful extent. Our presidents have grown accustomed to directing our economy and sending our troops into conflict without Constitutional authorization because the people we elect to represent us in Washington have let them.”
These men and women in Congress are the real representatives of the people, not the president or the Supreme Court. By failing to fulfill their Constitutional duties, by weaking their role in government, they in turn weaken us and our voice in public affairs.
So how do we push back against the divisions that now plague us, and rebuild the idea that we the people and not the government are the real power in this country? Woodlief first recommends turning our attention away from what he calls “the imperial city of Washington D.C.” and focusing on matters much closer to home. He urges us to love and appreciate what we hold in common with our neighbors, to engage in our local communities and strengthen them and to pay attention to local elections. Our state governments, which have long ceded power to the feds, should step up and rightfully and vigorously protest the overreaching of D.C.’s political class.
Interestingly, Woodlief devotes two pages of these recommendations to community newspapers like the one you are reading right now. He praises his own local paper, “an ad-supported weekly that covers my town … Its handful of writers reports on every town-council meeting, as well as county matters.” He concludes by urging us to “support people who are still trying to tell you what’s happening in your own back yard.”
Most important of all, “I, Citizen” reminds us that it is up to us to maintain and protect the benefits and rights of our citizenship, that the rights of this citizenship come with responsibilities and that we are meant, as much as possible, to be in control of our lives. If we fail, “our unique American freedom as citizens to govern ourselves will be lost.