The Citizen’s Job is to Ask Big Questions

How to engage the ideas of good government

The questions we ask often say everything about the answers we expect. What passes for political discussion today rarely escapes the smallest questions of self-government — who will win and what will they do with that new power? With every iteration of this discussion, we grow more comfortable with the raw use of power. One party won. The other party is whining.

In this scenario, the American citizen has three roles: voting for the winner, voting for the loser and being an object of power. We lose so much when we boil a citizen’s job down to voting. Casting your ballot matters, of course, but that momentary act offers only the smallest and thinnest understanding of what self-government requires of each of us. An engaged citizen is someone who participates in and promotes the most important activity of a civilized people. This engagement is the work of governing ourselves. We cannot afford to accept limits on the questions we ask or the parts we play.

The questions of a more civic perspective

In the name of cultivating a more civic perspective on the work of citizens, Politicolor quotes Cicero as often as American Presidents, reflects on the messages of a Pixar movie as often as passages from the Federalist Papers. At each step, we follow a timeless tradition of using the past to inquire into the present and asking what a “good life” tomorrow requires of us today. We ask big questions as a catalyst to looking forward and gathering all we can from the world around us.

We talk about the good life the way Aristotle did, as an observer of political life. Writing Politics, he followed all the activity of a community and understood the good life to be the purpose of it all. The purpose of life as an individual. The purpose of living together in political communities. The only way for any of us to achieve the highest purposes of humankind.

Power that serves the people focuses on realizing these ends as a higher calling. Pursuing this good life relies on citizens who make an inquiry of it and then share what they learn. Popular sovereignty requires our ongoing participation.

Aristotle concluded that we are political animals as a result of watching us at our best. Today, we easily curse our politics as politicians at their worst. We talk of these office holders as distant representatives that no one likes. Then, at the next election, we vote for our incumbent representative anyway. We accept the diminished idea of our role as only a voter, and we resign ourselves to politics as usual. We will do it all over again when the next election comes.

Accepting such a small role, we give away leverage in our political system. That’s a known cost and an accepted one. When we decide to leave politics to someone else, we opt-out of so much more than an election or the decisions that particular office-holder will make. Aristotle understood us all to be political animals after watching people in society practice the social behaviors that give claim to our unique position in the animal kingdom. What separates humans from the rest of the animals? Language and reason.

We use language and reason in our inquiries to know more and “to declare what is advantageous and what is the reverse.”

We use the knowledge we assemble to cultivate “a perception of good and evil, of the just and the unjust and other similar qualities.”

This perception makes civilized life possible and gives purpose to political participation. This perception makes it possible to live together and to do so with a shared aim of living well.

Through these inquiries, a citizen steps into a much more significant role. When we ask questions of what is good or evil and just or unjust, we put the citizen back in the leading role of self-government.

Political Animals with Purpose

Aristotle would not be at a loss to make sense of our wickedest politics today. He watched how power operated in the communities he observed. He looked to see who had power and how they used it. Aristotle, however, asked questions about the just and unjust use of that power.

If, as an act of engaged citizenry, we want to take the lead in finding a way out of today’s most polarized debates, we might start with Aristotle’s questions.

Aristotle turned to a discussion of purposes to separate good government from bad government. Do these politics work to benefit the one, the few or the many? He distinguished “good constitutions” from “perverted constitutions” by asking if the government sought to serve the shared interests of the community or the personal interests of the ruling class.

The discussion of power alone, who won or who has the majority, risks missing the point. How are those in power using that power? We need to reacquaint ourselves with this task of evaluating the uses of power. When an electoral “winner” uses their newly acquired power, do they direct themselves towards good government or something else?

The questions you ask about politics either work to limit what you know about political life or to expand both what you know and what you expect. The questions you pose direct your attention and what you see in that space then shapes your perception of what matters. The conclusion that political participation has little consequences is troubling on a personal and constitutional level.

Aristotle had high expectations of good government, “the form of government is best in which every man, whoever he is, can act best and live happy.” As we imagine ourselves to be citizens of good government, let’s train our ears to big, complicated and far-reaching questions.

Asking Questions like Answers Matter

Challenge yourself to step outside of the familiar talking points of partisan politics. Adopt the posture of an open inquiry and allow for the generous interpretation of others. Then compare notes on candidates and office holders with questions like these:

By what measure does this person distinguish good government from bad government?
Whose interests motivate the proposed policies and to what purpose? Whose interests are being diminished and dismissed as a result?
How does this person understand his/her responsibility to the broader community, the individuals outside their ruling group?
What do the answers to these questions reveal about this person’s vision for good government and what will it mean for the rest of us?

Engaging Good Government

A citizen who serves as a spectator to elections and office-holders allows these questions to go unanswered. A citizen who understands her role to be an agent of good government looks for answers to questions that matter. She persists in asking those questions of other citizens as well as elected representatives and sees a responsibility in the answers she finds. The responsibility is to use the power the people grant in ways that advance their purposes. The responsibility is to good government.


Thank you for being concerned about good government too. Right now, you can download our “Stoic’s Guide to Surviving Today’s News” when you join our Questions of Civic Proportions email list. Check it out here.