Civics ‘TQM’

[This is a piece from November 13, 2000, originally published in Ethics Newsline, a publication of the Institute for Global Ethics. The original is here. As engagement in politics plummets ever more, and as the 2004 presidential campaigns heat up, it seems to have new relevance. Let me know what you think. –BR]

As we went to bed Tuesday night, many of us felt sure we’d know who had been elected president in the morning. Wednesday night, it seemed clear we’d know more by Thursday’s close of business. Now it looks like the earliest we’ll know anything is November 17, and that’s assuming a best-case scenario. It’s got everyone on edge, and worse: NASDAQ closed Friday down sharply amidst the uncertainty.

It appears that whoever wins the presidency will do so with approximately half of the country grumbling that it was a raw deal. Are we really behaving like a “banana republic,” in the words of Britain’s Daily Mail? Or, as others have said, are we watching the slightly rusty wheels of democracy move forward just as they ought?

This year’s general election has raised tough issues. The questions of whether to allow some citizens to vote again, whether to abolish or fundamentally change the electoral college, and what it means to vote one’s conscience top the list.

Many say that all of the tension surrounding these issues reflects the inadequacy of the candidates between whom we had to choose. Perhaps. But the intensity of the tension also betrays an underlying civic dysfunction. Here in the oldest experiment at self-governance on the globe, we have developed and encouraged an impoverished notion of what constitutes being a citizen.

I used to work at a large company where there was a major shareholder value initiative. We tried to change the corporate culture and encourage employees to make more shareholder value-driven choices in their day-to-day work. One story we told our classes involved the luxury car manufacturers Lexus and Mercedes.

They’re both great cars — both top-quality vehicles, with good reputations. Objectively speaking, they’re roughly equivalent. But at the time (the mid-1990s), the Mercedes cost roughly twice what the Lexus did. Why? Mercedes and Lexus had different manufacturing processes. Mercedes used a traditional approach to quality control: They did the best they could throughout the assembly line, and stationed someone at the end who checked every car thoroughly. If a car was found wanting, back it went. Lexus, on the other hand, had implemented a total quality management (TQM) approach and constantly tried to make each assembly step more efficient and effective. The person at the end of the line, checking final quality, rarely had to send a car back because problems had already been corrected.

But what does this have to do with voting?

Everything. We have been led to believe, by the virtuous as well as the cynical, that there is one day every two years when we must exercise our civic responsibilities: election day. We have developed a popular mythology about voting that has turned it from the sine qua non of civic life into the non plus ultra.

Citizens are so troubled with this year’s results and so mistrustful of the outcome because so many incorrectly see their vote as the only voice they have in the choice of our leaders. The news media, political campaigns, and, ironically, good-government groups have reinforced this narrow view. Focus groups, packaged “messages,” and political news stories that only tell who appears to be ahead according to pollsters, all have helped build these civic blinders. Most disappointing, many well-meaning voter-registration efforts do little to encourage quality citizenship but instead focus on quantity citizenship.

If the only input I have into the future direction of our government comes at the end of the campaign process, in the voting booth, then I am understandably distressed with my choices. I begin to see voting as a way to send a “message” about how I feel about government. But used this way, my vote is a blunt instrument, and not voting seems like a reasonable option. Like the Mercedes quality checker, I choose to send the product back to the scrap heap, when instead I ought to have tried to fix it some time ago.

Imagine we were able to implement TQM in the civic life of the United States. Opinion makers would encourage people to focus on fixing problems early in the process, when it’s first possible to correct — and possibly preempt — them. Instead of telling citizens that their highest — and only — duty is to vote, what if we were to spend a similar amount of energy encouraging citizens to get involved before November? The intense get-out-the-vote efforts by so many nonprofit community groups could become get-out-the-letter-to-the-editor campaigns focused on Labor Day, when there is enough time to influence policy proposals. We could create a new social movement around quality citizenship.

It is tempting to say that such a push is not needed, that people already get involved in ways other than simply voting. But those who do are a small minority. In a survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for The People and The Press in January 2000, eight in ten U.S. citizens said they had not attended a city council meeting, contacted any elected official, or joined any organization in support of a cause in the last twelve months. The share of people who had never done those things was about six in ten. There is a great deal of room for all of us to improve.

There can be little doubt that we will, at some point soon, decide who the next president will be, and the wheels of American democracy will not have flown off. But this year ought to be a wake-up call. We cannot afford to squander our trust in democratic institutions. What is needed is a blueprint to implement civic TQM. It is not clear we can afford another election that taxes our trust like this one.

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