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Personal vs. Public Interests

An article on Time emphasizes the lack of civic participation in the American public. Similar to Robert Putman’s Bowling Alone…, the article draws attention to the decreasing ‘social capital’ of America. The National Conference on Citizenship, a non-profit organization that aims to sustain civic participation, plans to release Civic Health Index, a survey that looks at the civic participation of Americans. Not surprisingly, Robert Putman is the co-author of the article, as well as a member of the advisory board of the National Conference on Citizenship. The authors cite public distrust in one another and decreased community involvement as some of the factors hindering Americans to participate in politics. In addition, the article explains that people do actually vote but their votes are directed towards their own interests “rather than out of a sense of shared responsibility.?

An example of the focus on personal rather than communal interest: Few days ago my neighbor enthusiastically tried to convince me to vote for Mark Kennedy. I was surprised because she has a lawn sign that endorses Kennedy’s opposition: DFLer Amy Klobuchar. Why Kennedy and why did she endorse his opposition? It turns out that Kennedy spoke at a Somali community center in Minneapolis in which he not only promised to help Somali immigrants in Minnesota, but also said that he recognizes the internationally-unrecognized region of Ogadania. To give a bit of background history, Ogadania is a region inhabited by a Somali clan, the Ogadens, but is located in the nation-state of Ethiopia. British and Italian colonists divided the Somali-inhabited regions into the contemporary nation-states of Somalia, Djoubiti, small parts of Kenya, and a small portion of Ethiopia. Since Ogaden people do not consider themselves Ethiopians and do not receive full citizenship rights from the Ethiopian government, they have been fighting for independence since the colonists constructed nation-states that do not make sense to many oppressed minorities in the former colonized world. My neighbor is from Ogadania and has actually lost some family members to the unjust abuses that the Ethiopian government inflicts on the Ogaden people.

Kennedy clearly stirred my neighbor’s personal interests and she was passionate about helping him win. She seemed to be unconcerned about where Kennedy stands on important policies that affects her here in Minnesota, such as healthcare and mmigration policies. In addition, she told she was not planning to vote until she heard Kennedy speak, and was unaware of which candidates were running. Nor did she care what name her lawn sign endorsed. In fact, she said that she only said ‘ok’ to the person who knocked on her door to place the sign on her lawn because she was busy and wanted to get back to her errands. Both she and I are not civic participants, aside from voting in the last presidential race (our first and last). Yet she was willing to convince others to vote for Kennedy due to that personal interest in her people’s struggle for independence. Hence, when I read this article, my neighbor’s mini ‘campaign’ for Kennedy came to mind.

Pursue of personal interests and political disengagement are not unique to my neighbor (or myself), but is a common weakness of the ordinary American citizen. In the article, Putman and his co-author are hoping that the Civic Health Index will enable local communities to reinforce civic participation. So that people would not just accept campaign lawn-signs without the prerequisite political ‘knowledge’ that would enable them to be effectively involved in civic participation. I do no think that the article condemns personal interests. Instead, it calls for an American public which not only has personal interests but are also citizens who are aware of their civic responsibly. As Putman and his co-author in the article put it, “America could really use a civics lesson.?

In reference to the Time article and Putman's book, as well as my little anecdote, I actually became interested in knowing more about civic participiation among immigrants communities in America. Putman touches this topic a little bit in chapter 5: Connections in the Workplace. Although immigrants living in America might be viewed as having nothing to do with the political domain of this country, I think they are more socially connected than the average American. Social connections become survival tool for immigrants, especially if you are a newly arrived immigrant. These connections may not automatically translate into political involvement, but they do increase the possibility of becoming civically engaged. My neighbor's situation is one example. She was not planning to vote in the general elections. However, when she attended the Somali community center's talk with Mark Kennedy, she automatically became interested in voting. Hence, this shows that immigrants' social connections would increase thier civic participation.