By Scott M. Bruner
“In a democracy, people get the government they deserve.” —Alexis de Tocqueville
It doesn’t matter if you chant Neil Young while occupying Wall Street or dress like Benjamin Franklin to oppose public health care; many of us can agree that our treasured American democracy is broken—gridlocked and infected by money and interests that are alien to the common individual.
As Jimmy Carter so eloquently put it in his “Law Day” address at the University of Georgia in 1974, these forces represent our chambers of commerce without ever worrying about representing the customers of commerce.
I don’t entirely know how to solve this problem, but I do have one idea: What if everyone in America had to earn their citizenship?
What impact would it have if either military or community service was required before you could either vote or run for office? Join the Army, teach inner-city youth, serve the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps—any of these voluntary options would prove you could put your country’s needs before your own.
It would also raise the value of the vote. Tea partiers are fond of reminding others that freedom isn’t free—and they’re right. Except that wearing a ribbon or holding a placard isn’t a legitimate method of payment, either.
At one time, the idea of earning citizenship wasn’t radical. Even conservative science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein broached the subject in his classic novel Starship Troopers back in 1959. No democratic superpower can survive the entitlement, apathy or ignorance of its people and remain strong, just and honorable.
With great power does come great responsibility, as a certain neighborhood web slinger once learned. Asking a little more of the citizenry, which plays a major role in a democracy, could help ensure that our government is equal to that responsibility.
This wouldn’t be conscription. If you wish to remain on the sidelines, fine. You can still vote for American Idol.
Don’t get me wrong: I want everyone to vote in political elections. I want everyone to believe in America. I just want us, and those who would represent us, to do the American thing and earn it.
Who knows, we might just create a government that finally deserves us.
Scott M. Bruner is a writer of interactive fiction living in Alameda.