Rethinking Politics as Critically Engaged Citizenship
By Mark Hibben, PhD
As demonstrated over the last year, US national elections often reinforce feelings of bitterness and division. In fact, it is reasonable that many of us become disillusioned with what is often defined as “politics.” We may even become so disgusted that we commit to a life free of politics. As a political scientist, I am both intrigued and disturbed by this reality. Yes, hyper-partisanship is a turn-off. But can we––or should we—look to live a life above or outside politics?
My short answer is no, but with two caveats. First, I argue that we must rethink our conception of politics. Politics isn’t just about elections or political parties. In fact, I maintain that the circus of partisanship and the 24-hour news cycle cheapens and cynically limits our conception of politics. Politics, simply put, focuses on the unequal distribution of power in society. Given that we all impact––and are impacted by––unequal distributions of power, we are all inherently political. This is the case even if we are not consciously aware of this reality.
Second, given that we cannot escape the political world, we must choose how to engage with dynamics of unequal power distribution and strategically and morally respond to this reality. Will we be reactive or proactive? Manipulated or critically aware? Impulsive or reasoned? Reactionary or compassionate?
Through the systematic study of unequal power distribution and its effects, politics thus moves outside the cynical realms and limitations of partisanship. At Saint Joseph’s College, for example, students who formally study political science wrestle with topics that include, among others, how best do we govern ourselves; economic inequality and sustainable development; and the impacts of poverty on terrorism. But they are asked also to do more.
Drawing from our roots as a Catholic liberal arts college in the Mercy tradition, students are asked to engage our world, and to do so in a manner that ultimately serves a deeper purpose. In my understanding, being consciously “political” thus involves critically engaged citizenship that addresses meaningful questions and ultimately makes the world a better place. That’s the kind of politics I can vote for!
Assistant Professor Mark Hibben teaches political science and writes about globalization, international political economy, and human rights. He recently published Poor States, Power and the Politics of IMF Reform: Drivers of Change in the Post Washington Consensus (Palgrave-MacMillan).