Harnessing mass culture and civic life

If people often feel helpless to change mass culture, can they change public life? I believe they can. But we must first recognize that such change will require that we take a decidedly civic approach, and not merely mimic mass culture, in order to gain people’s attention and engagement. Last week in his blog, Peter Levine, a truly gifted thinker, talked about the link between what he called civic engagement and culture. He surmised, based on Tocqueville, that a heterogeneous mass culture produces a healthy democracy. As he put it, “truly engaged citizens produce diverse cultural products.”

Peter went on to say, “But it seems clear that people feel powerless to change mass culture; that feeling demonstrates the tension between mass culture and democracy.”

Indeed, as I noted in Open for public business, too, so much of mass culture today has actually become a hyper-individualized culture. Throughout society, we have created mechanisms and opportunities for each of us to create our own individual islands of life – a kind of individual sovereignty in which we act as free-agents in everything from aggregating our own news to creating our own individual social networks. It’s less a mass culture where people cohere around ideas and trends, in the traditional sense, than a mass of individuals doing their own thing.

Thus, when notions of the public good or connectedness are talked about, they are often used in nostalgic terms, or are co-opted merely to present a mirage of community. Our politicians are guilty of this; but so too are many civic groups.

It’s clear that we’re in a really dynamic transition these days. The past is gone and we shouldn’t spend a whole lot of time pining for the community of bygone days (and for many people, those communities were not all that inclusive or healthy anyway). Nor, should we simply lament the potentially fragmenting effects of technology, or simply celebrate its transformative power.

As Peter suggests, there is a tension between mass culture and democracy. My belief is that if we seek to regain a semblance of control over democracy and public life – our very community life – than we must not make the mistake of mimicking mass culture. In doing so, we will only deepen the chasm people face, and push people farther away from the very goal they seek to achieve:

  • a sense of coherence about the world around them, as they live in an age of hyper-fragmentation;
  • a sense of connection to one another at a time, when people increasingly see themselves as free agents;
  • a sense of possibility for the public good, when people are told repeatedly that they should concern themselves only with their own good.

To regain control over public life, our task is to bring a decidedly civic approach to the challenge of mass culture. Then maybe people will step forward and we can harness the power of change around us.