Category Archives: U.S. Citizenship

15 Ways “Local” Government Affects College Students’ Lives

© Paul Lachelier 2009.  All rights reserved.

The following is a list of ways city, county and state governments affects college students.  It was written specifically for students at Stetson University, where I taught from 2008-2012, but for school teachers, staff and students seeking to politically engage students, feel free to adapt this document for your own educational purposes.  Please do though acknowledge me and this document as a source.


It is said that “all politics is local.”  Many Americans, however, pay more attention to national politics than state, county, or city politics – the three of which are often lumped together and called “local” politics.  Whether you drive a car, rent or own a home, earn minimum wage, or drink tap water, city, county and state governments daily impact your life in many more ways than does the federal government.  Here are just five ways that DeLand, Volusia County, and Florida state government each impacts Stetson students’ lives.


1)      Want to see more happening in downtown DeLand?
City government budgets, laws and priorities substantially influence how many and what types of stores, bars, clubs and events operate downtown.  City zoning laws also shape the outside look of local businesses, whether they offer outdoor seating, whether musicians are allowed to play on street corners, and how many benches, parks, murals, water fountains and other attractive amenities exist downtown.

2)      Want to live off-campus but close to Stetson?

GovtLocal1City government development plans and zoning laws affect how much rental housing
exists, where it exists, and its quality.  Should there be housing above the stores in downtown DeLand?  Should there be more luxury condos, or mixed-income apartments?  How tall should buildings be?  These and other questions are the stuff of local government deliberation.

3)      Want to feel safer?

City budgets, policies, and local police department rules and norms largely determine the number of policemen; where they patrol; whether they drive, walk, or ride a bike; how they act toward residents; and what laws they enforce (Go after drug users or dealers?  Pot or heroin?  Public drunkenness or traffic

4)      Too hot?

City zoning laws and budget priorities substantially determine the number, type, and location of trees, canopies and other shade-providers on sidewalks, in parks, parking lots, downtown and everywhere else in DeLand.

5)      Flooding in your neighborhood?

Whether and how much streets, homes, and other places flood after a tropical storm are determined in part by city laws and budgets.  Cities can help prevent flood damage to homes and businesses by limiting or prohibiting development in vulnerable low-lying areas and flood plains.  Similarly, cities can help keep traffic flowing smoothly in a storm by ensuring construction and maintenance of proper street stormwater infrastructure.


1)      Flying somewhere?

If you’ve ever flown on Delta, US Airways or another carrier from or to Daytona Beach International Airport, you have used a Volusia County government facility.  Volusia
County manages and operates the Airport since 1969, when Daytona Beach’s city government transferred the Airport’s management to the County.

2)      Need a book?

If our Stetson Library doesn’t have the book you need, maybe one of Volusia County’s
sixteen public libraries has it.  With one library card, Volusia residents can use all sixteen libraries free.  Use the “Surfcat” online catalog at to find books, periodicals, CDs and videos.

3)      Want to recycle, or get rid of furniture?

County government in Florida manages trash and recycling.  Volusia recycles everything
from pizza boxes to CD cases.

4)      Need immunization, or STD testing?

Volusia County’s Health Department has several locations, including in DeLand, providing immunizations, STD testing, emergency contraception, pregnancy testing, health education, and much more.

5)      Like the beach?

County government determines whether or not people can swim in the water or drive on the beach, and whether the handicapped can access county beaches, among other things.  County beach patrols ensure safety, cleanliness and law abidance.  County lifeguards
protect swimmers, making an average of 3,000 rescues per year.


Florida State Capitol1)      Do you have a BF?

In 1997, the Florida Legislature established the Florida Bright Future Scholarship Program using state lottery funds to provide college scholarships for academically strong high school students.  In 2008-9, nearly 170,000 Florida students received Bright Futures Scholarships for a total of over $435 million.

2)      Did you get FRAG’ed ?

Florida state government provides Florida Resident Access Grants to state undergraduates attending Florida private universities like Stetson.

3)      Got a car?

Florida government does not provide free cars to state residents, but it does renew drivers’ licenses, set highway toll prices, regulate car insurance rates, and more.

4)      Got grandparents?

If your grandparents are old enough to be receiving Medicare insurance, they benefit from more than fifteen billion dollars in state Medicare funding.

5)      Breathe air?  Drink water?

Florida’s state government regulates water quality, and what state businesses and vehicles can put in the air we all breathe.

To learn much more about how city, county and state governments affect your life, and how you can have a voice, visit their websites:

Deland:, Volusia County:, Florida:

On Civility and Violence in American Society

© Paul Lachelier 2011.  All rights reserved.

I delivered the following remarks on January 27, 2011, as part of a panel of Stetson University faculty speakers discussing violence and civility in American society following the shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others in Tuscon, AZ on January 8.

I’d like to offer a few thoughts on these issues of violence and civility in American society.


I don’t think it’s safe to say that Americans are more violent now in politics than before.  I think it’s safer to say that the United States has experienced ebbs and flows in violence, civil and political, while Americans have had more or less access to guns throughout American history.

20th U.S. President James Garfield (1831-1881)

One measure of political violence are assassinations of government leaders.  The only serving U.S. Congressperson ever to be killed was killed back in 1978, as part of the infamous Jonestown massacre.  The first U.S. President to be assassinated was Abraham Lincoln way back in 1865, and two more presidents were assassinated – James Garfield in 1881, and William McKinley in 1901 – before John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963.  This is not to mention the scores of attempts and plots to kill presidents that have occurred through much of U.S. history.

By at least this measure then, Americans are not clearly more politically violent now than previously.


A different and just as interesting question is whether or not Americans are polarizing, or growing more divided politically.  On this question, there appears to be more debate.

One one hand, the political scientist Morris Fiorina has made a name for himself by arguing that most Americans are not polarizing, but the small political class of activists and government leaders are growing more polarized.

On the other hand, authors like Michael J. Weiss and Bill Bishop find evidence that Americans are quietly self-segregating into socially and politically more homogenous communities or lifestyle enclaves.

My own sense is this:

a)     Americans, like most people, seem to incline to homophily, that is, they like to hang out with people like them.  As I tell my students, in life, the reality is not at all that opposites attract.  They don’t.  Instead, birds of a feather flock together.  And interestingly, as the fascinating merging of consumer and political research indicates, people with similar lifestyles often share similar political beliefs (thus, researchers find, Republicans are more likely to own dogs, and Democrats more likely to own cats).  The trouble with this seemingly innocuous tendency to hang out with those who are like us is that people who are alike are more likely to become intolerant of difference and extreme in their viewpoints when they are together, especially when they see others as threatening.

b)    Fortunately, even if Americans are clustering in communities of like mind and lifestyle, there is evidence that most Americans (not all, but most) incline toward moderation and pragmatism rather than extremism and dogmatism in their viewpoints.  Moreover, there is evidence that Americans are becoming more tolerant of social differences as education levels rise, and as younger, more tolerant Americans replace older, less tolerant Americans.


What kind of citizen is best for democracy?  In answering this question, we face an interesting dilemma: research shows that the more active in politics people are, the more they know and become devoted to politics, but also the more their views tend to move to the extremes.  In contrast, the less active in politics people are, the less they know and care about politics, but also the more moderate their political views.

Political scholars nowadays are mulling over two types of good citizens: the activist, and the deliberator.  The activist is passionate about her/his issue, and works with like-minded others to advance that issue.  The deliberator, on the other hand, is calmer, considers conflicting views and information, then forms an opinion.

Moderate Americans would incline to the deliberator rather than the activist.  However, some recent research suggests that the deliberator is less likely than the activist to participate in politics in various ways, including voting.

So here’s the question: do we wants more citizen participation, yet also more passion and incivility?  Or do we want more moderation, yet also less citizen participation in politics?  At least some scholars argue that we can’t have it both ways – we can’t have both high engagement, and civility.


As ambivalent the picture I draw here is, I’d like to conclude with a more certain prescription: Good citizens aren’t born.  They are made.  If we want active, informed yet also tolerant citizens, we have to make them.  How do we make good citizens?  Through institutions, especially schools and governments.  Just as Coca-Cola doesn’t assume its product will sell itself, governments and schools should not assume that citizenship will sell itself, especially when citizenship competes with Facebook, PlayStation, Garth Brooks, and Dancing with the Stars.

This means more schools should make citizenship education central to their missions.  And this means governments should invest in encouraging active, tolerant citizenship just as they invest in roads and bridges.

A Civic Ethic for the New Year

©Paul Lachelier 2005.  All rights reserved.

Versions of the following opinion column were published in the Albuquerque Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on January 1 and 2, 2005, respectively.

In his autobiography, famed “founding father” Benjamin Franklin enumerated thirteen virtues which he believed led to a morally more perfect life if systematically mastered: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, humility.  Franklin’s virtues are considered a classic expression of the so-called “Protestant ethic,” a disciplined lifestyle and set of cultivated habits which sociologist Max Weber argued nurtured capitalism.

To my knowledge, remarkably, no corollary personal ethic has so succinctly been proposed to nurture democracy.  Yet if democracy, as popularly defined, means government of, for, and by the people, then the disposition of the people toward their government is critical to democracy.  That democratic disposition, or civic ethic, does not simply mean belief in representative government and individual rights.  Nor is it simply a willingness to pay attention and vote once every one to four years when an election rolls around.  The civic ethic is an ongoing lifestyle, a set of everyday actions and attitudes that allow democracy to flourish the more citizens practice them.

With a new year upon us, with its ritual reflection on how we can become better persons, here are three components of a civic ethic ever more needed in our conflict-ridden yet interdependent world:

A Public Work Ethic: First and arguably foremost, democracy demands citizens disposed to work together to pursue common goods, from a local dog park to world peace.  This “public work ethic” must be as strong if not stronger than the tempting disposition to withdraw from public life into what political scholar Alexis de Tocqueville called our “small, private circles” of like-minded friends and family.  In a diverse country and world often deeply divided, engaging those different from us in ongoing, civil ways is far more important than engaging the like-minded.

A Sociological Imagination: Perhaps one of the best ways to nurture a public work ethic is to develop citizens’ “sociological imagination,” a term sociologist C. Wright Mills coined to refer to the ability of individuals to connect their private troubles to public problems.  The connections are countless and profound, including household debt and the vast credit economy, obesity and food industry practice, work-family pressures and labor laws, teen delinquency and the modern segregation of youth from adults, alcoholism and unemployment rates, to name just a few.  The more inclined we are to grasp these connections, the more inclined we may be to engage with public issues.

Ambivalent Passion: Passion for an ideal – whether that ideal be conservative, moderate or liberal – likewise moves citizens to engage more than does the dispassionate reason some political scholars advocate.  But citizens also need ambivalence to temper their self-righteous passion.  Ambivalence entails a number of virtuous dispositions, such as the dispositions to recognize the limits of our ideals and the strengths of competing ideals, to question rather than demonize or deify, and to consider the consequences of the means we pursue to achieve our ideals.  Passion and ambivalence can and do often conflict, and so being ambivalently passionate is an ongoing, self-critical balancing act.

These civic virtues need not be learned only in school.  Indeed, to the extent that citizens learn any civic virtues, as well as civic skills (effective public speaking, media outreach, meeting facilitation, etc.), they more often learn them through practice rather than school.

Accordingly, it behooves governments, local to national, to promote the practice of democracy among their citizens just as energetically as companies market their products to these same citizens (but without the cynical manipulation business marketing too often entails).  As sociologist Herbert Gans once said, if citizens will not come to democracy, then democracy must come to them.  Democracy comes to citizens not only when governments make it easier to vote, but when governments encourage more substantial citizen engagement in the decisions that affect their lives.  There is no lack of ideas for broadening citizen engagement – from policy juries to televised town hall meetings – but there has been a lack of public will, especially when so many view government as an impediment to, rather than a tool for citizens’ development.

Perhaps the best point of departure for opening discussion regarding government’s role in nurturing a civic ethic is this counter-intuitive idea: representative democracy is not opposed to direct democracy, but rather requires it.  For our representatives to be accountable and responsive to citizens, citizens need to be continually, not episodically, engaged in the public decisions that affect their lives, regarding everything from local zoning to global security.  Practice nurtures vigilance.  Otherwise, we get what we have: representatives who respond more to the engaged and well-heeled minority than to the less engaged majority.