One of America’s most distinguished political theorists examines what happens when national politics enters a small New England town
After the election of 2016 and, even more urgently, after the election of 2020, many citizens looked at the economic and cultural divisions that were causing deep disruptions in American politics and asked, “What is happening to us?” Paul W. Kahn explores these fundamental changes as they show themselves in a small New England town—his home of twenty-five years, Killingworth, Connecticut. His inquiry grounds a democratic theory that puts volunteering, not voting, at its center.
Absent active participation, citizens lose the capacity for judgment that comes from working with others to solve real problems. Volunteering, however, is under existential threat today. Changes in civil society, commerce, employment, and public opinion formation have isolated families from each other and from their communities. Even middle-class families live under financial stress, uncertain of their children’s future, and without the support of civil society. Local media has disappeared. Residents do not have the time, information, or interest to volunteer. Under these conditions, national polarization enters local politics, which becomes yet another site for national conflict. To save our democracy, Kahn concludes, we need to find ways of matching opportunities for participation to the ways we live our lives today.
Paul W. Kahn is Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and the Humanities and Director of the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School. He lives in Killingworth, CT.
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