Part One: A Democracy in Crisis

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

America is not doing well. This was abundantly clear even before COVID19 and the murder of George Floyd.

In 2019, only 17% of Americans said they could trust the government to do what is right all or most of the time.

This level of cynicism does not reflect an engaged citizenry.

In 2017, the top ten percent of incomes represented 50.6% of the total income in the US, leaving 90% of the people to live on 49.4% of the money. That level of income inequality surpasses the level in 1928, shortly before the stock market bubble burst. From 1993 to 2007, the average income of 99% of families grew by 15.5%. The income of families in that last 1% grew by 95.5%.

This level of income inequality elevates the voices of the few, and delegitimizes citizen engagement.

In 2016, campaign spending for congressional races was more than 4 billion dollars. The presidential election was a relatively and unusually cheap >2.4 billion dollars.

This kind of pay-to-play system of government renders other forms of engaged citizenship frustratingly ineffective.

In the same election 55.7% of the voting-age population cast ballots, ranking the U.S. 26th out of 32 OECD countries in voter turnout.

Engaged citizens vote. Too many Americans don’t.

As recently as 2004, Americans largely met in the ideological middle:

A graph showing the large overlap of median democrat and median republican ideology in 2004.  Bipartisan agreement fosters engaged citizenship.

Source: The Pew Research Center’s U.S. Politics & Policy page.

By 2017, we couldn’t seem to agree on anything:

A graph showing a wide divergence between median republican and median democrat ideologies, with only small areas of overlap.   Bipartisan agreement fosters engaged citizenship.
Source: The Pew Research Center’s U.S. Politics & Policy page.

A reasonable amount of consensus is a necessary part of engaged citizenship.

There is very little overlap in our trust of various news sources, which means we are, in large part, exclusively exposed to particular worldviews. More than half of U.S. adults say they get news from social media sites often or sometimes, with 52% of people reporting that they get news from Facebook. The reform or mitigation of Facebook algorithms in the public interest, deprioritizing hyper-partisan, sensationalist content, seems to have fallen by the wayside. At the same time, we are more and more likely to feel lonely and isolated, making us vulnerable to tribalistic thinking.

Engaged citizens must have a shared reality.

And even in our loneliness, it seems we aren’t willing or able to engage with the political process at a personal level.

Last year, only one in ten Americans attended a public meeting, such as a zoning or school board meeting in the last year.15 Regardless of racial background, fewer than 15 percent of Americans attended a local political meeting in 2018; fewer than 10 percent attended a political protest, march, or demonstration; and fewer than 5 percent worked for a candidate or campaign. White Americans were twice as likely as members of any other racial group to have contacted a public official, but even in that group, fewer than 30 percent had done so.16

Our Common Purpose: Reinventing Democracy for the Twenty-First Century — The Challenges

Engaged citizens participate.

On top of all this, good information about what is going on in local politics is getting harder to come by. Since 2004, the U.S. has lost more than 2,100 newspapers.

A map of the United States showing orange dots where a weekly newspaper has disappeared and blue dots where a daily newspaper has disappeared.  The Midwestern, East, and Southeast parts of the country are nearly covered in orange dots, with many blue dots scattered in.  Dots cluster around populated areas in the West and Southwest.  Quality information is important for engaged citizenship.
The University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism.

Engaged citizens must be informed citizens.

Things have gotten so bad that, in a 2017 Pew Research Center study, 46 percent of Americans were open to considering other forms of government, including rule by a strong leader or by experts.

Commitment to the democratic process engages citizens.

Yep. Our democracy, the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, is a hot mess.

And now, on top of all this, we are probably losing the battle with a pandemic, our economy has tanked, and the structural inequality and racism in the country has become too glaringly obvious for even the complaisant to deny.

It’s time to think, and think seriously, about how we can change our trajectory. Theoretically, as a democracy, we should be agile enough to respond to crises with bold ideas and flexibility. It’s time to prove it.

That’s where the American Academy of Arts and Sciences comes in. Here is their mission statement:

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences honors excellence and convenes leaders from every field of human endeavor to examine new ideas, address issues of importance to the nation and the world, and work together “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

It was clearly someone’s job to make that sound great, if a little vague. Take a look at their list of recent projects to get a better sense of the organization.

In 2018, they convened a two-year bipartisan Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. That commission has now come out with its report, including six strategies and 31 recommendations “that communities, institutions, and individuals can take to promote engaged citizenship in the 21stcentury.”

The democratic experiment is first and foremost a form of participatory government. It’s not meant to be a spectator sport. As the franchise expanded in America from property-owning white males to all citizens 18 and up (at least theoretically), so too did the essence of democratic-ness expand in the country. But now, with only half the country voting in a compelling presidential election, with so few participating in civic life, with massive inequality and a pay-to-play election system, and with citizens acting on worldviews so polarized that reality itself is in dispute, it’s fair to say that our democratic-ness is declining.

A voter had to be a really engaged citizen to vote in the recent Wisconsin primary, in the midst of the pandemic.  This image shows such an engaged citizen checking with National Guard member serving as a poll worker in what appears to be a high school gym.
Pvt. Will Reas of the 173rd Brigade Engineer Battalion checks voters into a polling place May 12 in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Approximately 160 Wisconsin National Guard Citizen Soldiers mobilized to State Active Duty as poll workers supporting the 7th Congressional District special election in northern Wisconsin. Wisconsin National Guard photo

In a country that is potentially cruising towards a constitutional crisis, this is a problem. So how do we begin to address some of this?

I found this report particularly compelling because, instead of merely reiterating the problems we face, it attempts to find concrete ways to help fix those problems, or at least put us on the right path. The commission brought thought leaders together for interviews, reviewed previous recommendations for fostering engaged citizenship, and conducted nearly fifty listening sessions across the country and including a wide diversity of people. And it is bipartisan.

Just think about that for a second. A commission of serious, grown-up thinkers from all along the ideological spectrum and all over the country, including leaders from academia, civil society, politics, and business, finding consensus, and agreeing to put forward a package of thirty-one specific and actionable proposals. It’s unheard of in today’s political ecosystem.

In this series, I will take a closer look at the strategies outlined in the report, and some of the recommendations of the commission. Democracy depends on citizen engagement. We all owe it to ourselves to look at some of the ways we can update our democracy for the 21st century, and foster the involvement of the people. That is the only way America can become by the people, of the people, and for the people again.

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