In writing about the relationship of citizens to their governments, some social scientists use the term “efficacy” for how citizens define their sense of meaningful participation in public affairs. The loss of efficacy, they claim, precedes the loss in citizens’ belief in the legitimacy of the regime. That is, if citizens think they can’t change things that need changing in government, they see themselves not as practitioners of self-government, but as hapless pawns in a nightmarish game in which political establishments always prevail. When this occurs, apathy sets in and, in time, the system collapses, either slowly or catastrophically.
You can hear some of this despair expressed on talk shows. For example, responding to a comment about a governmental matter by a talk show host, a citizen might call in to express concern, disappointment, or frustration about the issue at hand. The talk show host responds to the caller, and sooner or later the conversation ends with the question, “What can we do about it?” Either the talk show host, or the caller, or both finally conclude, “Not much, I guess,” and move on to the next topic, the discussion of which is also likely to end on the same note of resignation.
Readers must not conclude from what I have written that all is lost. Once in a while, a newspaper publishes a story about a citizen who, against great odds, prevailed in a battle about local-government abuse of authority, maladministration, or waste. And occasionally, grand juries in California do what they were intended to do: change the way local government conducts their business. Here’s a little secret about civil grand juries in California that not many people know: Grand jurors have few tools, resources, or statutes that are not also available to other citizens. Not always, but in many cases, what grand juries accomplish, citizens can also accomplish. From time to time, we will feature examples of such achievements on this Web site.
When you read accounts of citizen activism on this site, you may pick and choose among them to decide whether they have any potential for your community. Even if you don’t follow the lead of your fellow citizens now, you will have learned how something can be done when the time comes and you set your mind to it.
Of course, the first thing you must decide is, as the title puts it, “What kind of citizen do you want to be?” One of the subtitles in an old civics textbook expresses the practice of passive citizenship succinctly: “From Subject to Citizen.” Unfortunately, the author of the text didn’t follow through on his idea. He was off to a good start, but when a reader finishes reading the book, he realizes that it contains little about the responsible, direct intervention by citizens into their local governments.
Possibly you are wondering what “responsible and direct intervention by citizens into their local government” means. In our work with civil grand jurors, we have often encountered expressions of puzzlement, distaste, or anxiety when we have expressed this sentiment. “What on earth do you mean?” their facial expression seems to ask.
Rather than try to define “responsible and direct intervention by citizens into their local government” in abstract terms, we shall occasionally post examples of this phrase on this Web page. When you read these examples, think about their implications in terms of the central theme of our political system: self-government. Think also about what you learn from these case studies in terms of the requisite knowledge, attitudes, and behavior that are required for effective, constructive citizen activism.