If you’ve followed us through this series, you’ve heard about the importance of we, as citizens, being clear about the whys of voting. Our criteria for “hiring” public officials helps shape our choices in the voting box. We need builders, not gladiators. If we select people who understand their role as managers and stewards of the public laws, systems, structures and activities that create the cities, states and country we need, elected officials will take more seriously their role in creating, maintaining, overseeing them. And, ultimately, this will foster the innovations and reforms needed to imagine and create the government we need for the future.
As our public systems become more responsive, more equitable, more inclusive, better able to achieve benefits for all, the value of engaging with our government and being active citizens—beyond voting–becomes clearer and we recognize the benefits our communities and we, ourselves, receive through government. This reinforces engagement and further encourages good electoral choices. It also helps to hold elected officials accountable for enhancing and strengthening our public structures, which, in turn, can yield even greater benefits. This is a virtuous cycle; the wheel of civic life.
For those of you who remember high school science, I’ve got an analogy for you. Sir Isaac Newton’s original laws of physics give us a way to think about how to set, and keep, our wheel of civic life in motion.
Newton’s first law, as you recall, is that objects in motion tend to stay in motion, and vice versa. Once the virtuous circle is put into motion, it will stay in motion. Likewise, an object not in motion is not likely to move on its own. We’ve all seen this in our communities (and in endless TEDTalks): those people who are involved in making things better started with something small. Once we get involved in improving our communities and our government, our wheel of civic life can be a self-reinforcing mechanism, like one of those watches you never have to wind. It captures all of the energy from its own movement and just keeps on working.
But, like Newton explains in his second law, motion is a function of the mass of the object and the force applied or f=ma. So there are things that can lead to less or no motion. The “mass” of government is profound…schools, roads, laws, soldiers, and so much more. That means that to set our government in motion, we have to be active. We have to apply force. Which will take a lot of us acting together. Like a merry-go-round on a playground. we can apply force from many directions, by voting, by getting more of our friends and neighbors to vote, by starting or signing petitions, by reaching out to elected officials once they’re in office to share our hopes and concerns, by serving on public boards and commissions, by creating civic innovations that improve government from the inside, and teaming up with interest groups that advocate.
Lastly, as we learn from Newton’s third law, when equal forces are applied to the same object from opposite directions, the object will not move. We’ve all seen this law in action – or not in action – from our representatives around the country. This is why we have to model for our public leaders what it looks like to find shared solutions and to enter conversations with universal values and open minds about how to achieve them. We can’t allow the partisan loyalties that help us to find candidates we agree with to derail our ability to find common ground once they’re in office. If we enter into our conversations with one another like opposing forces applying themselves to the same object, we’ll get more the same, and the object – government – can’t move. Our wheel of civic life will stay stuck where it is, not moving enough to set the stage for kind of government we need to make life better for all of us.
The good news is that if we get the ball rolling, apply some force by sharing the load of civic participation, and move past our differences at least enough that we’re not equally opposite forces, then we can set our wheel of civic life in motion. Plus, all of us will benefit from safer neighborhoods, cleaner air and water, more economic opportunities and thriving communities. Sir Isaac’s formula is guaranteed by the laws of nature to work. If we’d only give it a shot.