Now, Ezra’s definitely right that our representative democracy wins, and the health of our polity increases, when the practice of citizenship is broadly practiced, and the number of people who are both productive workers and constructive, conscientious citizens is high.
As one with Hamiltonian/Madisonian sympathies, the analysis is missing a category: that of the over-engaged citizen. 'Constructive, conscientious' does a lot of work in that formulation, probably more than it can be counted on to do in practice. And, oddly, Poulos' criticism seems to be that Obama supporters have not yet engaged enough as citizens:
Nonetheless, it seems clear that the ability to transform disaffected nonparticipants into good citizens does connect causally to the ability to drive the numbers of mass acts of ‘participation’. And I freely recognize that Obama is doing this at at least some important level. But we make a dangerous mistake when we self-congratulatorily lump superficial engagement together with sustained engagement at not just the national but the state and local level and call it all one big awesome engagement. Comparing Obama favorably to George Clooney, and politics to basketball, puts us in precisely the wrong frame of mind for a healthy and accurate understanding of what makes a good, much less an ideal, citizen and what does not
The working assumption is, I think, that sustained, deeper engagement will necessarily move away from the creepy emotional identification many of Obama's supporters have with the man himself. But there's no reason to think that's true, unless you define 'citizenship' in a way to exclude these possibilities. One might say, for example, that having to negotiate political interests among different actors at each level of government will moderate one's views and encourage cross-cutting coalitions. Then again, enough people liked the old city-boss way of doing local politics. Or for an example close to where I grew up, it was exactly the politics of symbolism that got Kwame Kilpatrick elected mayor of Detroit over several more qualified opponents. I will only gesture in the direction of nationalist movements in states and in portions of states.
I'm not convinced, in other words, that our polity gains anything by an increased level of engagement, and I think one of the purposes of a republican form of government is to render citizen engagement unneeded in a lot of its forms. Especially as a conservative, one should be wary of encouraging citizens to put more eggs into the 'politics' basket.