Category Archives: Community

Part Eight: Different Realities

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

Image of a duck, or is it?  If you look at it another way, you see a rabbit.  The duck's bill makes up the rabbit's ears.  This classic optical illusion illustrates how perception creates reality.
There are duck people and rabbit people, and nobody is allowed to be both, anymore. Public Domain, Link

My Mom and I sat down over the last two weeks and watched the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention. The experience made it terrifyingly apparent just how different our realities are as Americans. Camp Red America might as well be on an alien planet from Camp Blue America. We live in alternate universes.

So much of what the Commission recommends is dependent on people of goodwill working together independently of their tribal partisan identities. But can that be done when our differences extend beyond even our identities and determine our fundamental perceptions? If we can’t agree on what is real, how can we agree on what to do about it?

That means that quite possibly, the most critical recommendation the Commission makes is to hammer out a national story we can all accept (6.2). But this can’t just be about history. Before we can even address the past, we need to generate a coherent, unified theory of us in the present. We flirted with this at the beginning of the pandemic, back before Dr. Fauci was politicized. But we couldn’t sustain it. It didn’t take long for our conflicting realities to reassert themselves.

That, then, begs the question; if an unprecedented national crisis can’t bring our worldviews together, what can?

When things transform as radically and drastically as they have in the US over the past 20 to 30 years, one must ask what changed? What is different now that might have led to this outcome? Since this has been a time of massive disruption, it’s easy to find phenomena to blame. It’s Facebook’s fault. The internet did it. The 24-hour news cycle brought us low. One can go on and on.

And one will be somewhat right. All of these factors, and so much more, have contributed to our situation. But I’m struck by one change in particular. The other day my Mom and I talked about the giants of news when I was growing up. Everyone knew who Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings were. And during my Mom’s young adulthood, everyone knew Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and Edward R. Murrow.

Unusual color picture of Edward R. Murrow hamming it up with a cup of coffee for the Pan American Coffee Bureau.  Murrow and anchors like him helped to create a shared reality in America.
Murrow in 1953. Copyright 1953, Pan American Coffee Bureau / Public domain

These newsmen, and they were overwhelmingly men, had plenty of blind spots. The media was complicit in marginalizing people of color and women. The news of the day didn’t tell many important stories and didn’t report critically on a lot of other important stories.

Nevertheless, the anchors of the three big networks, between them, ensured that most Americans were getting the same information with a similar emphasis. Mom and I couldn’t think of a single person in the current mediascape who has that kind of broad-based authority and gravitas. Our fractured media landscape has opened the floodgates of differing ideas and opinions. In so doing, it has had the unintended consequence of creating conflicting realities.

I’m not sure we can begin to reconcile our realities without a common trusted news source.

That may be the recommendation the Commission forgot to make.

I don’t have an answer for how to reunite our worlds, but the Commission itself gives me hope. One can still find 35 heavyweight thinkers from across the ideological spectrum who share enough reality to have a rational conversation and find a consensus. They can even gather enough people interested in civil discourse to have nearly 50 listening sessions around the country. That has to be a good sign.

Now it’s really up to us. Emergency response training tells us that if something bad happens to someone, the impulse to step in and help varies with the number of witnesses. If you are alone with someone who suddenly experiences a seizure, you will probably help them. But if you are part of a crowd that witnesses the seizure, you (and all your fellow humans) will tend to think that someone else has got it, and not help.

Right now, there are 328.2 million witnesses to America’s convulsions. We’re all making the wrong assumption that someone else has got this. No one has it. It’s up to each of us to try to help. The Commission’s strategies and recommendations are a good place to start.

Part Four: Too Busy to be the Public?

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

Jefferson County, Colorado, where I live, is having a virtual public ‘meeting’ about changes to one of the main drags through my town. They’ve done some work trying to promote it, sending postcards to impacted neighborhoods, making a few announcements on social media, and using the mobile traffic message signs (points for creativity). There is a YouTube video outlining two proposals, one that our community can afford, and one that we can’t. The public can give feedback via Survey Monkey. Because these are preliminary proposals, there isn’t much detailed information on the environmental impacts. The residents most impacted may or may not be tech-savvy enough to comment. I found out about this on Monday, and the window for input closes on the 29th.  

If you’re an Evergreen resident, and you’re reading this, you should probably watch this sooner rather than later.

Why does it feel like this decision is already made?  

The county is also currently accepting applications to engage in government by being on one of its many volunteer boards and commissions. These boards and committees handle essential stuff: the Jefferson Center for Mental Health board, the board of health, the housing authority board, the open space advisory committee. Twenty-two boards and commissions are looking to fill 63 plus positions.  

One of the questions on the application reads: 

“By clicking the box marked ‘Yes’ I acknowledge that I have read and understand the duties and functions of the board or commission, including the duties and obligations of persons serving as a member of this board or commission, and that the board or commission may, at times, require several hours per week outside normally scheduled meetings and hearings to perform site visits, review staff reports, attend programs, workshops, or training.”

There are unusual people who, after a long day at work and potentially a long commute, a second job, or kid’s activities, are raring to go to a meeting, hearing, or site visit. They can muster enthusiasm for reviewing staff reports and attending programs, workshops, and training. But let’s be honest. That isn’t most of us.  

A woman juggles items symbolic of things that keep her busy, a clock, children's shoes, a phone, money, a house, a weight, a bottle, etc.  The public is very busy.
Holding government accountable sounds great, until we remember our lives feel like this. Image via Adobe Stock.

Civic involvement is a tough sell.  

W.B. Yeats said that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” in his apocalyptic poem that seems more and more suited to 2020. I don’t want to badmouth the people involved in local boards and commissions or attending public hearings. For one thing, not doing those things myself, I don’t have the right to talk. But it should hardly surprise us that often the most vehement are the loudest, or indeed only, voices representing public opinion.  

My dad, who is a civil engineer, has many stories about how ill-informed (and sometimes absurd) the debate is at the many public meetings he has attended. My favorite is the woman who fiercely opposed paving a park parking lot because her dog preferred walking on dirt. Mind you, they were talking about the parking lot, not the trails. There are valid reasons to oppose paving a parking lot. That isn’t one of them.

The Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship outlines four recommendations for ensuring the responsiveness of political institutions, which is the general purpose of public meetings and voluntary board positions. Apparently, new meeting formats can help expand participation and minimize the domination of well-organized groups and deterioration into gripe-fests so common in public meetings.  

A white goose is shown on a field of green grass.  She appears to be complaining.  Some people just come to public to complain.
Sometimes, people only show up to complain. Image courtesy pixabay.com user Didgeman / 2376 images .

The commission recommends expanding their adoption and leaving real room for public input instead of making the decisions and having the meetings only for show. They also suggest expanding the information available about local government issues, including adding translated summaries of meetings where appropriate; making sure to announce meetings well ahead of time; and scheduling them when most people can attend.  

And that’s all within Recommendation 3.1: Adopt formats, processes, and technologies that are designed to encourage widespread participation by residents in official public hearings and meetings at local and state levels.

The commission recommends having members of congress engage with a random sampling of their constituents to have an informed and substantive conversation about policy at least quarterly (3.2). Participants would have the chance to interact personally with their representative. This sounds like governance by focus group.  Focus groups are of debatable value in the era of big data, but they are still prevalent in the marketing industry. Given that it seems we currently have governance by a combination of special interests and polls, focus groups could hardly do worse.  

There is no way for someone to represent nearly 750,000 constituents fully. Focus groups may be susceptible to groupthink, often dominated by the most outgoing, and have too small a sample size to garner valid data. Still, I would feel better if my congressperson had to talk to real people every so often.  

If one congressional representative can’t engage with even a substantial sample of their constituents, what are the odds of 435 Representatives meaningfully interacting with all 328.2 million of us? In an expanded version of the focus group idea, the commission recommends Citizen’s Assemblies on issues of national import (5.3). There have been many models of this used in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Democratic) countries just this century. The UK has one going on climate change, and Iceland used a version to set its course after its financial crisis, to name two instances. The system has been used with large enough samples of random citizens to even out some of the individual influence in smaller groups.  

A very large conference room full of randomly selected members of the public is shown.  These citizens are helping to guide the future of Iceland.
A large, randomly selected sample of citizens from across Iceland come together for a day-long discussion. Their discussion informed the National Assembly when it generated overriding principles for a new constitution after the financial crisis. Then around thirty citizens, not formally affiliated with any party, and generally not politicians, were elected to be part of the Constitutional Assembly that drafted the new constitution. Image and explanation courtesy of Flickr.com user Matito.

Finally, the commission recommends implementing similar systems at the state and local level, including approaches like Citizens’ JuriesParticipatory BudgetingDeliberative PollingDialogue to Change, and Citizens’ Initiative Review. All of these approaches have been used successfully in parts of the US or other countries.  

These sound like great ideas, but the commission fails to address what I see as the number one barrier to civic engagement (and thus responsive government) in the US.  

We’re exhausted.  

I was surprised to find that on the whole, we have slightly more leisure time on average than we did in the ’60s. In theory, we should be as well-rested, as ready to engage, as excited to join the PTA, a bowling league, and our civic organizations as that generation. Maybe even more so, since we now have even more theoretically time-saving gadgetry at our disposal, and extensive online networks to help us find other civically-minded people.  

So what gives? I don’t have the resources to test my hypotheses, but here are some ideas about the situation.  

  • The American Time Use Survey, conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, relies on self-reporting. I posit that human memory (even recent memory, like yesterday) is a very fallible way to gather this data.  
  • Most women work now. How could that but leave less time for adulting?  
  • As of July 2019, 71% of all nonfarm payroll employees work in private service-providing industries. In 1962, it was 59.1%. Note that the 2019 figure doesn’t include public service-providing jobs. I assert that service jobs, where an employee has to be “on” all day, providing a bright and cheerful demeanor and good customer service, are socially exhausting. It is only the very extroverted who wish to engage with other people after a long day giving excellent customer service.  

If we want a more responsive government, and we really should, we have to figure out why we are all so tired all the time. It will do us no good to implement all four of the commission’s fine recommendations, from the national to the local, if no one will show up.  

If School Can’t Pause, We’re Doing it Wrong

I will return to my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US next week.

Two students are shown in an old photograph shoveling dirt, working on wildfire reclamation for a botany class in school, circa 1996.  Student on right is author.
Experiential learning, back in the day. I’m shown on the right. As part of a botany class, we spent some Saturdays doing wildfire reclamation work in Buffalo Creek, Colorado.

I was really worried when I went to college. Part of my elementary and all of my middle and high school years happened in a public school of choice (like a charter school, but established long before charter schools were a thing) with a radically alternative pedagogy. I hadn’t been formally graded since I transferred to the K-12 school in fifth grade. And I was hung up on the fact that I had never had a US history class.

Classes at the Open School were and are designed to incorporate the classic subject areas (readin’, writin, an’ ‘rithmetic, plus science, social studies, history, language arts, etc.) not by teaching them specifically, but as natural side-effects of deep learning. Courses ranged from the historic and contemporary music of the American South (as a preparatory class for a trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival) to a group read of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (long after my time, but a perfect example of the type of classes offered). Students also did extensive learning in the classic content areas as they pursued personal projects and self-directed learning experiences.

So, no, I had never had a class that specifically studied US history. I did not have the background that I imagined all the other kids would have from their traditional schools.

The nail in the coffin of those worries came when I spent my sophomore year abroad in Nairobi. I was hanging out one evening with some other American students and some of my Kenyan classmates. One of the Kenyans was studying US history. Having a few handy Americans available, and not wanting to look it up, he asked what year the Declaration of Independence was signed. Of course, I deferred to the kids who had been through a traditional school education. They had no idea. “I’m pretty sure it was 1776,” I told him, still lacking some confidence.

As I have gone on in life, it has become increasingly clear that our school system crams young brains with facts which are retained long enough to be regurgitated on a test, then promptly flushed from memory.

A hand with a pencil taking a standardized test -- the old school paper version, where you had to fill in the little bubbles.
Standardized tests are usually done on computers now, but many of us will remember this format. Image courtesy of flickr.com user Alberto G., used by CC2.0.

In a survey of 41,000 Americans, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (name change pending in the Fall) found that only four in ten Americans had enough historical knowledge to pass the citizenship test. If I’m reading the article correctly (the language is a little ambiguous), that drops to only 27% among those under 45. And mind you, that doesn’t refer to acing the exam, just passing it, even scraping by with a D.

In the annual Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey, only 39% of Americans could identify the three branches of government. Alarmingly, this was a significant improvement over years past. In 2017 (I don’t know why they are not citing updated numbers here — maybe they changed the wording or something), more than a third of respondents couldn’t name any rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

A graph showing trendlines for results of the Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey.  Lines are plotted for survey respondents who could name all three branches of government (39% in 2019, a substantial improvement) and those who couldn't name any (22% in 2019, a significant decrease).  Even given that these are improvements more of us should be retaining this information from school.
An encouraging trend — let’s hope it is long-lived.

In the 2017 Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (Piaac), a general test of workplace skills administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Americans were able to hold their own in literacy, coming in a bit above average. However, adults in the US tested 24th out of 32 countries in numeracy, and only 31.4% of the adults who took the test scored at levels 2 or 3 (the highest) in problem-solving in technology-rich environments.

A description of the levels of competency in the Problem-solving in a technology rich environment section of the PIAAC test.  In level 2, adults can - complete problems that have explicit criteria for success, a small number of applications, and several steps and operators - can monitor progress towards a solution and handle unexpected outcomes or impasses.  In level three, adults can - complete tasks involving multiple applications, a large number of steps, impasses, and the discovery and use of ad hoc commands in a novel environment - establish a plan to arrive at a solution and monitor its implementation as they deal with unexpected outcomes and impasses.  
All of these are skills we should be retaining from school.
Description of levels proficiency in problem-solving in technology-rich environments. Courtesy OECD.

It’s clear that the summer slide that so concerns teachers turns into a permanent slump once students leave school.

Given all this, people are right to be very concerned about switching to distance learning during the pandemic. But it is equally clear that this isn’t just a pandemic problem. Students are not retaining the information and skills they are learning in school, regardless of interruptions.

If our kids can’t even handle summer vacation without falling behind, and if we can’t respond to a public health crisis without jeopardizing their future, shouldn’t we be taking a deeper look at how we teach, instead of just agonizing over how to open schools safely?

A young girl sits in front of a desktop computer screen.  She may be playing a game, or she may be in school in a distance learning sense.
Hragaby / CC BY-SA

We have talked a great talk in recent years about teaching “21st Century Skills” such as critical thinking (which I posit has been a crucial skill throughout history and will continue to be one well beyond the 21st century). Perhaps our performance as adults will improve as more students are graduated from a curriculum that focuses more on such underlying skills.

But what I haven’t heard in articles and from pundits is a discussion of meaning in education. I was very lucky to go to the school that I did. Critical thinking skills have always been an important part of curriculum there, but it’s hard to think critically about something, let alone retain it, if it isn’t imbued with meaning and context.

Talking about meaningful education can sound pretty touchy-feely, but without developing a context of importance to one’s self, one’s various communities, and one’s own history, why would our brain retain facts? We retain what we care about, and it seems to me that many students in our current system aren’t shown very many reasons to care about what they are learning. Teaching to the test means that teachers are swimming upsteam, fighting their hardest to imbue learning with meaning, while the current is constantly sweeping them towards the next content standard.

W.B. Yeats may or may not have said “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Plutarch did say “the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.” A student who is (metaphorically) on fire gains more knowledge during the summer break, instead of forgetting everything they’ve learned. A student who is on fire might actually benefit from a gap year during the pandemic — it would be a chance to further pursue the things she or he had found most interesting in previous years.

If we choose to use it, this horrible health crisis actually presents us with many opportunities. We can build back a better, more just, more equitable economy. We can rethink commuting. We can use it as a chance to create a national health system that brings us up to the standard of other developed countries. And we can think deeply about how we can create an education experience for our kids that creates context and meaning. An education to remember, if you will.

Part Three: Getting Off our Arses and Voting!

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

Sign on a fence showing a US flag and an arrow to the left, with the word VOTE in all caps and blue lettering underneath.  The commission has several ideas to make voting easier and to encourage a culture of voting in the US.
The commission has several ideas to make voting easier and to encourage a culture of voting in the US. Tom Arthur from Orange, CA, United States / CC BY-SA

I am a citizen of a country with 328.2 million other citizens. Around 138 million other people cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential elections. Those numbers are big enough that normal human brains have difficulty coming to grips with what they actually mean. We’re a visual species, but just try picturing 138 million people.

Nope! Human brains just aren’t equipped. That’s a lot of people.

A picture showing part of a crowd of approximately 1 million people, with a monument in the background.  Your vote is one in a million and a third.
Roughly a million people attended this demonstration against ETA in Spain in 2000. Not pictured: most of the demonstrators. César Astudillo / CC BY

I believe we all still need to vote, but I’m not gonna act like it is unreasonable to feel like your little ballot doesn’t mean much in such an ocean of votes. If we accept that the pee in any given pool is diluted enough by all that water so we can go for a swim, it’s not irrational to feel that our votes are too watered down to mean anything.

But those 138 million voters in 2016 made a decision that seems to be getting more momentous by the day. And they only represented 60.1% of eligible voters. That might be a hefty lead in polling, but it isn’t even close to good enough at the polls.

A chart showing voter turnout from 1824 to 2008, with percentage of eligible voters casting a ballot on the y-axis, and election years on the x-axis.
US voter turnout 1824-2008. Jmj713 / Public domain

So how can we improve on that? How can we convince ourselves that it is worthwhile to cast a ballot, even when each of us is only one of 230.9 million people eligible to vote?

Our Common Purpose has several suggestions, some of them quite radical.

The most dramatic is to make voting mandatory (recommendation 2.5), since it is not just a right and privilege, but also a responsibility. In the view of the commission, voting should be considered as similar to jury duty — an obligation incurred by citizenship. Apparently, this works well in Australia, where it has been in effect since 1924, and boosted voter turnout from hovering around 50% (roughly analogous to the US currently) to consistently achieving the 90th percentile.

A container of uncooked hotdogs is in the foreground.  Further back are some kitchen implements in a measuring cup, and a long grill with bread toasting, hot dogs cooking, and some tinfoil pans.  A disembodied male hand wields tongs, and a disembodied leg is in frame wearing shorts.  Democracy Sausages are an important tradition of Australian voting.
Voting has been mandatory in Australia since 1924. The country has a strong civic culture around voting, including selling “Democracy Sausages” at the polls for good causes. Kerry Raymond / CC BY

The commission suggests a citation and a small fine for skipping the vote. Importantly, it doesn’t recommend penalizing casting a blank or marred ballot, thus theoretically appeasing those who argue that citizens of the US have the freedom to not vote if we don’t want to. I somehow doubt that distinction would mollify such critics.

In one of my daily posts during lockdown (round 1), I talked about our rights, duties, and responsibilities. This proposal is probably not realistic in the United States, with the high value that our culture places on individual freedoms. Still, having the debate may be a useful way to get us thinking not just about our rights, but also about our obligations as citizens and members of our society.

The other six recommendations are about making it easy and efficient to vote, and expanding the franchise. The commission asks some paradigm-shifting questions, like why can’t we vote at Costco or Walmart, while we are out running errands anyway. (Apparently, we can, if we live in Larimer County, CO, or a few other counties in the country.) Expanding early voting, vote by mail, and voting locations (recommendation 2.1) are things that can be done at a state level, and thus are more realistic than expecting change to come from our vapor-locked federal legislature.

Joe Biden looking over a display of children's books inside a Costco.  The commission suggests opening voting locations at places where people frequently run errands, like Costco and Walmart.
If politicians already visit, we might as well vote at Costco. Vice President Joe Biden picks out children’s books at the newly opened Costco store in Washington, D.C., Nov. 29, 2012. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

I can personally testify, living in one of the 8 states that automatically mail a ballot, that it works well. The fact that my state is thus already well prepared for a pandemic turns out to be a super-important fringe benefit.

Another recommendation that can be done, at least partially, at the state level, is to implement same-day registration and automatically register anyone who comes in contact with a government agency (recommendation 2.3). Universal automatic registration would need to be done at the federal level, but automatically registering those who have any contact with state agencies might be doable. This would also increase the accuracy of our voter rolls, facilitating updates on voters who have changed addresses.

In twenty states it is legal for sixteen- or seventeen-year-olds to get a jump on things and pre-register to vote. The commission suggests expanding this idea to all the states and including voter training in schools (recommendation 2.4). Apparently, in many of the commission’s listening session, younger voters worried that they would make a mistake or vote wrong.

A map of the US is shown, with states colored differently depending on when or if they allow teenagers to pre-register to vote.
AHC300 / CC BY-SA Map of the District of Columbia, states, and territories in the United States that allow preregistration prior to turning the voting age:  

Dark Teal: Preregistration after turning the age of 16 years old
Mid Teal: Preregistration after turning the age of 17 years old
Light Teal: Preregistration prior to turning 18 years old
Black: No preregistration; can only vote after turning 18 years old
Grey: Unknown

The commission suggests bringing voting machines and sample ballots into the schools, but I wonder if they are missing the source of the confusion. Sure, there are some people who are going to be confused by ballots and voting machines, but I suspect for many the issue is more about confusing ballot language and issues. Learning how to read the blue book and figure out your position is much trickier than the nuts and bolts of filling out a ballot.

The same thing goes for the commission’s recommendation to provide new-voter orientation, via a video and with the provision of a small stipend, akin to jury duty orientation (recommendation 2.6). If we followed the first recommendation in this section and provided more polling places, and theoretically then more poll workers, I think the voters who are confused by how to fill out a ballot or use a machine can be provided for.

If we are going to spend money on this, it would be better spent on an orientation video for each election, briefly, neutrally, and entertainingly providing information on ballot initiatives and candidate positions. Perhaps that isn’t possible for all the down-ballot races — each county and municipality would have to produce its own video — but it would at least help with the state races.

A black and white image of three League of Women Voters members in long coats, fancy hats, and jewelry, standing outside the White House with a display that is too small to read.  The League of Women Voters has been putting out Voter Guides for a long time.
The venerable League of Women Voters has been putting out Voter Guides since long before I started voting. Perhaps they could help to create video versions.
Mrs. Edna L. Johnson, Mrs. Kate Treholm[?] Arranes[?], Mrs. Geva[?] Ricker, Nat. League Women Voters, [White House, Washington, D.C.], 11/4/24
National Photo Company Collection / Public domain

The commission’s suggestion would only apply to first-time voters, but I suspect many people who have voted previously either skip whole elections or skip big chunks of their ballot simply because they haven’t had a chance to educate themselves. Videos could be broadcast on public media and platforms like Netflix, and also be available at the polling places, running continually like video displays at many museums.

The other recommendation that can be done at the state level is about restoring the franchise to citizens who have been released from incarceration, regardless of their crime (recommendation 2.7). The US has an incarceration rate of 655 per 100,000, the highest in the world; some 2.2 million imprisoned persons; and about 5% of the world’s population while having almost 25% of the world’s prisoners. Given these numbers, restoring the right to vote to the formerly incarcerated would restore a significant portion of the franchise. Given the racial disparities in law enforcement and incarceration, it is a civil rights issue.

The other recommendation is an answer to the question “Why Tuesday?” and that answer is “let’s stop with the Tuesday!” Apparently, Tuesdays didn’t interfere with market day (usually Wednesday), or religious observances back when those things were more or less mandatory. That was a commonsense approach in an agrarian society. It makes absolutely no sense in a modern one. It’s an inconvenience and a barrier to voting.

The commission’s solution is a stroke of genius. Make voting happen on Veteran’s Day, thus honoring vets and moving the vote to a day many have off already. Of course, the drawback is that we wouldn’t get a new federal holiday. I think we should do it like Thanksgiving, so we could vote on Thursday morning, and then be off for a long weekend and a mini-vacation. I can see, however, that employers might dig in their heels at this proposal.

The commission recommends moving federal, state, and local elections to Veteran’s Day. This would help enormously with turnout for state and local elections, although it might entail some seriously long ballots that might not get all the way filled out. I guess some municipalities have experimented with techniques like flipping the ballot so that all the local stuff comes first, thus encouraging people to keep voting until they get to the well-publicized federal elections.

A row of veterans in wheelchairs with a row of standing veterans behind them, all older, with the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington Virginia, showing the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima behind them.  Why can't we vote on Veterans Day?
We can honor veterans by voting on Veterans Day, exercising our democratic freedom. Veterans visiting the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. NPS Photo

Unfortunately, this one would also need federal action to happen, and that isn’t likely forthcoming any time soon. Shame, it seems so common sense.

None of these measures would make any single vote count any more than it already does. In fact, by increasing the amount of people participating, they would water down our individual voices even further. But they would also eliminate a lot of excuses. If a decision to act is always a balance between the benefit of the action and the cost of doing it, these measures reduce the cost. The measures mentioned in the report’s first strategy (Achieve Equality of Voice and Representation, blog post here), are aimed at increasing the benefit.

I think most of us tend to look at issues like voter turnout as if they were weather. It might not be good, but there isn’t much we can do about it. But here, again, the commission has provided us with several approaches that could really help the situation. A healthy democracy depends on an engaged citizenry. Clearly, we aren’t a healthy democracy right now. Increasing our buy in might be our best chance to save the United States.

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.

Nothing to Lose: Race and Poverty in America

You can’t give people nothing to lose and expect stability.

People protest with signs after the killing of George Floyd.  African-Americans feature prominently, but there is a white person and another person of color in the image as well.  Signs read "black lives matter," "he could not breathe," and "stop (sign image) blue on black crime."
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The grace, tolerance, and restraint shown by black and brown people in the protests gripping the nation continually amazes me. Almost all of the demonstrators are committed to furthering a non-violent movement for change. Given the realities, that demonstrates a dedication to principles of peaceful civil disobedience that is absolutely remarkable.

I have spent most of the last nine years working in low-income apartment communities. The trust that people have given me in letting me a little way into their lives and telling me their stories has been a great honor. And time and again I have seen people boxed into a corner by society. Being poor in America is an unending series of catch-22s with no wins and no way out.

The communities where I worked were economically segregated, and included both people of color and white people. What I learned about poverty applies to them all, but everything one can say about poverty in America disproportionately impacts people of color because poverty itself disproportionately impacts people of color.

I have seen the impact of structural police racism on black lives. It’s not just about the terrifying threat to life and limb that African-Americans experience, it’s about a million petty charges filed, and how those petty charges dog a person’s life. That misdemeanor charge for smoking pot in public or talking back to an officer makes it hard to find housing and employment. A charge that would be scoffed off as someone just being young and dumb (if it was even filed) in white job or apartment applicants is seen as indicative of character for black and brown applicants.

Beyond those obvious effects is the fact that the criminal justice system in America has become a resource extraction industry, fracking impoverished communities to pull out every last nickel and dime for the benefit of the taxpayer, who doesn’t have to invest in the infrastructure of law and order. Any brush with the law incurs a seemingly endless string of expenses. I wouldn’t be surprised if they start making people pay room and board for their jail or prison stays. They already charge for everything else.

It sounds tough but fair to say that if someone committed a crime they should pay the expenses of their punishment. But when you consider that an ankle monitor can cost around $330 a month, and what that means to someone who may have $700 or less in monthly income, it becomes a double jeopardy issue.

Modern apartment building in brick red, mustard yellow, and grey blue.  Sign in foreground reads "Ruby Hill Residences Leasing Center" followed by an arrow.
One of the buildings where I worked — it was brand new when I started there. The city desperately needs dozens more buildings like it. ©clmcdermid

Employment opportunities for the under-educated poor are almost a bitter joke. Most of what is available is exploitation, pure and simple. It’s virtually always shift work, so there is no stability from paycheck to paycheck, from week to week. Without any stability, there can be no planning for the future. Not the far future, like going back to school, getting a degree, and getting a better job. There can be no planning for the near future, like what childcare will be necessary next week, and will I be able to pay for it with the shifts I am getting this week? And the wages often barely cover the cost of getting back and forth to the job.

If a worker makes it into a managerial position, things get, if anything, even worse. Most of these positions are salaried, and have no overtime payment. If you factor in the amount of hours it takes to fulfill all the job expectations, some managers wind up getting less than minimum wage.

With increasing automation, most of even these exploitative jobs are disappearing.

Getting an education that will potentially qualify you for a better job isn’t necessarily so easy either. Property taxes in low-income communities just don’t stretch as far as they do in affluent ones. The public schools suffer for it. Many of the people I worked with in their twenties who had graduated from high school did not know how to send an email, capitalize, or punctuate. It’s hard to go to school every day prepared to learn when your family is enduring the grueling stress of poverty. It’s hard to learn essential skills in an overcrowded classroom with limited technology.

Even for folks who have the skills for college, scholarships are limited and usually don’t include expenses like transportation and parking. In Denver, there is a low-income child care program that will subsidize daycare for those enrolled in school, but spots in child care programs that accept the subsidy are rare, and often far distant. I knew one woman who was traveling two hours by bus every day to drop her child off at daycare, and two hours to pick her up. Many potential college students are sidelined by being caregivers to children, to a parent, or to a grandparent. Immediate family obligations needs must trump opportunities for long term improvements.

Demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter protest in East Lansing, Michigan.  Protesters in the foreground carry an African flag and a Black Lives Matter flag in front of them.  Other protesters carry signs.  Only one sign is legible, and it reads "we wont let you silence George."  The four protesters in the foreground are African American women wearing black.  The protesters behind them are a mix of races.
Black Lives Matter protest in East Lansing, MI. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I can speak, to an extent, to the injustices of poverty, because I have witnessed them. Obviously, not all black and brown people are poor, and racism, both structural and overt, plays a large and somewhat different role in the lives of middle and upper class people of color.

But for the communities of color that are trapped in the seemingly endless snares of poverty, there is vanishingly little to recommend the status quo. And now people of color are dying at hugely disproportionate rates of COVID 19 while the threat from racist policing looms constantly.

Even without an outright police murder caught on camera, is it any wonder that people have taken to the streets? The only wonders are that it took this long and that the Black Lives Matter movement is so committed to non-violence.

When the most basic human right, the right that predicates all the others, the simple right to live and exist, is under threat, people simultaneously have nothing and everything to lose. The fight for change is existential. They myriad frustrations, indignities, and impossible situations of poverty need to be fought against. But gains there must be built on a foundation of the right to be alive and secure in one’s person.

People in the streets today are fighting for the right to better education, better jobs at better pay, better housing, better policing, better health care, and all the rest of the elements that make a good life in modern times. But first and foremost, people are fighting for the right to drink cool water on a hot day, to get a tight hug from a child, to savor a good meal, to walk down the street, to feel the snow in winter and rain in summer on warm skin, to simply breathe and be alive. One cannot enjoy any other rights, any quality of life, without life itself.

When income inequality was last this bad, the workers organized into unions and fought hard, bloody struggles to win us things like a living wage, an eight hour day, and bathroom breaks. Those hard-won rights created a stable middle class, at least for white America. Since those struggles, we have let all those rights erode. We have allowed that middle class, never available to everyone, to evaporate. And we have continued to deny black and brown Americans the basic dignities white people take for granted.

I hesitated to write this up. This isn’t my experience to write about. It isn’t my voice we should be listening to now. Listen to Dawn Turner and many other amazing voices of color, instead.

But sometimes people need to hear something from someone who looks like them, speaks like them, or lives near them. If you can’t take it from the people on the streets, take it from me. Racism isn’t just something that happens in nine brutal minutes, or to birdwatchers. It pervades America, and it pervades class in America. This is about all of that. I haven’t lived the experience, but I am a witness and would take it as a privilege to be considered an ally.

America cannot continue to give her people nothing to lose while threatening the most basic right of all, the right to simply live.

I will be out of town this weekend, so will not respond to comments until Monday or Tuesday. Thanks.

What Will it Be Like?

I used to work in low-income senior apartment buildings. In addition to my duties as a landlord, I got to do some fun activities. Our local public transportation agency had a program where they would provide a bus if you had enough interested seniors, and take them to the museum, an afternoon jazz show, a tour of the local tea factory, a trip to the Italian restaurant with the seemingly endless buffet, and the like.

T-Rex skeleton at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is one of the destinations of the RTD Senior-Ride program. ©clmcdermid

Seniors in low-income communities have typically been through a lot in their lifetimes, and they are still living under the grinding, relentless trauma of poverty. Many were hesitant to spend even the reduced rate bus fair and activity costs. They were worried about spending money on something they might not enjoy. They asked me, over and over, what will it be like?

My mind keeps returning to that plaintive question now. What will it be like has become the question on everyone’s mind. It haunts our national discussions, our private lives, and our dreams. What will it be like when the second wave hits? What will it be like if/when I have to go back to work? What will it be like to find work to go back to? What will it be like to live during an economic depression?

Unfortunately, no one can answer these questions, and we don’t have the option of not finding out.

I’ve written before about tolerating ambiguity as an important life skill that we are all learning and relearning together. Since then, the ambiguity has only grown. Can we open up safely? Can we address the staggering life and death iniquities faced by people of color in modern America? Will another documented instance of shocking police brutality, this time overtly murderous, finally lead to meaningful change? Will there be more legislation to help the states and individuals? Will they extend unemployment?

A painting of French and English troops fighting at the Battle of Waterloo.  Officers on horseback are in the foreground, and troops in formation are in the background.  One officer is in the process of falling off a black horse.
The Battle of Waterloo, by Thomas Jones Barker. Public domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We aren’t used to this anymore. In 1815, it took news of the Battle of Waterloo four days to travel to London, a distance that can now be covered in about five hours by car. The whole continent was holding its breath. Now we get our information in near real-time. We never have to hold our breath for very long. And our forecasting in a variety of fields has become so sophisticated that we’re downright affronted if we don’t know about a storm ten days in advance. Forecasts in politics and economics are often inaccurate, but having constant access to them makes us feel better.

We no longer know what to do with ourselves when even the experts are careful to tell us that they don’t know what is going to happen. We’ve never lived through such a slow-moving crisis before. The repercussions of changes in policy now, as the country is opening back up, won’t be seen for weeks, even a month.

It’s hard to think of times in modern life when the question of what will it be like has been so central. I think about my nieces when they made the big leap from elementary school into middle school. And I think about that right of passage for Americans lucky enough to have the classic college experience. Moving into a dorm for the first time is still fraught with uncertainty, no matter that the campus has been toured and you’ve gotten to know other freshmen online.

But those are personal transitions and tell us little about something we are experiencing together as a society. I asked my parents, 80 and 81, about the uncertainties of the history they have lived through. My mother remembers an armed flight my father took to an unknown destination (it turned out to be Laos) while he was in the Marine Corps and things were heating up in Southeast Asia. Dad talked about the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A black and white cartoon turtle looks in alarm as a cheeky monkey hangs from a tree, holding out a stick from which is dangling a lit stick of TNT.
Bert the turtle knows how to duck and cover. Do you? Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And maybe that can help to pinpoint something we are missing, now. Even my oldest siblings were far too young to duck and cover, but I have always marveled at how schools, parents, and children took the practice seriously. The unparalleled power of a nuclear blast was well known by then. The dangers of radiation were well established. How could otherwise intelligent people convince themselves that a school desk would protect them?

But what duck and cover did was to provide a veneer of control to protect teachers and students from their horrifying powerlessness. It was meant to protect the mental health of kids and adults, more than their persons. The feeling that you are doing something to protect yourself, no matter how farfetched, is crucial to the psyche.

That need for a self-protective ritual is manifesting itself in many ways. For some, the mask has become a talisman to protect from illness, despite most of its efficacy being in stopping the wearer from spreading germs. For others, not wearing a mask has become a sort of rain dance for the return to the old normal. An alarming amount of people believe that rejecting vaccines will protect them.

In this, the reckoning for allowing a vacuum of leadership to form in the country, everyone turns to their own magical thinking. If I disinfect my groceries, it can’t happen to me. If I microwave the mail I will be safe. It can’t hurt me if I have enough toilet paper.

Prince Charles in front of a projected map of the UK with temperatures superimposed on it, delivering a weather forecast.
Weather forecasting has become so sophisticated, even royalty can do it. Image courtesy of user Dunk on Flikr.

And perhaps some of that is a good thing. Rituals like wearing a mask, washing your hands obsessively, and keeping your distance can serve the dual purpose of making us feel a little more in control and having a public health benefit. Other practices, like my weird fixation on being sure to have a full tank of gas as often as possible (yeah, I know) are irrational, but harmless. And of course, some of these superstitions range from merely dangerous to outright malevolent.

Our own personal rain dances say a lot about us. We should choose them with care.

And of course, we have to reckon with the fact that any and all of those rituals don’t make us really safe (though hand-washing and distance are a great start.) Certainly, none of them can rescue us from the uncertainties that haunt us. So far the only answer to the question what will it be like has been that it will be like not knowing.

Missing Multigenerational Interaction

Family of many ages on wooden rope swings, youngest to oldest, left to right.
It’s normal for humans to be around other humans of all ages. Image via Adobe Stock.

I ran across this article today in Aeon by Sarah Menkedick. It is a long-form reflection on the segregation of family (kid-centered) and adult life in the United States. She makes some interesting points, but it really got me thinking that this divide, which she attributes partially to a lack of community, cuts both ways.

I am a single, childless adult who was raised in home daycare. I think it is weird when someone doesn’t know how to interact with a kid or is uncomfortable or incompetent around them. As an adult, I have worked with kids in various capacities, from my earliest jobs day-camp counseling and clerking at my local rec center to my latest adventures in substitute teaching.

Right now, the only kids in my life are my nieces. (Who are awesome, but really teens at this point.)

I miss them. Don’t get me wrong. I could never do the home daycare that my mother did, and I’m not looking for a kid-centric career. But since I am not working with kids, and my nieces are older, there are no places in my life, even once we are all out of quarantine, where I will have any significant interaction with anyone too young to hold a job. There is just no context in our society for a childless adult to be around kids. In fact, custom dictates that we snub them as noisy, messy, and inconvenient.

The implicit theme of Ms. Menkedick’s piece is that kids and families are missing something by being shunted into kid-oriented spaces and even explicitly segregated from events such as weddings. They are, and so are the adults.

Hanging out with kids exposes you to different paradigms. They haven’t yet learned or internalized all the conventions that adults don’t even notice they are living within. If we’re all swimming in the same current, kids perspectives can be so different, based on such different assumptions, they might not even be in the water.

When adults are around kids, they laugh more. In multigenerational interactions, it’s okay to be really enthusiastic, which would be weird in adult-only company. Grown-ups get a chance to teach, a chance to be joyful, and even a chance to share woe in the empathetic way we respond to tears. We get a chance to look out for someone. We are more mindful of our surroundings. We get to think things are neat and show them to an appreciative audience.

An ability, and usually the impulse, to do all these things was baked into us by evolution. We want to give our own offspring the best chance to survive, and the next best thing is to give our kin’s offspring the best chance to survive. It isn’t hard to expand this impulse to a multigenerational community. It takes a village, and all that. It’s natural for humans to be around human children, and it’s weird that we live in a society where we aren’t.

The hole in American life that was once filled by community ties impoverishes us all, kids, adults, and the elderly, alike. Multigenerational interaction is part of community, and it is a key element that is missing in our lonely, self-sufficient (but not really) lives. It’s not just kids who miss out when they aren’t included as citizens and participants in society.