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.
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.
Working for the past 8+ years in low-income housing, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to change a culture. Humans are amazingly mimetic creatures. In surprisingly large part, we do what we see other people doing. Our collective behavior changes when we reach some mysterious tipping point. When enough of us see enough of us acting in some particular way, suddenly everyone is doing it.
In low-income housing, you see this when people break the smoke-free housing rules. Suddenly, when a few people don’t use the smoking area, nobody uses the smoking area. It shows up in countless other bad decisions and leads to most lease violations.
That’s why it is so important with something like masks for leaders, members of the media, and celebrities to don their PPE ostentatiously. That’s why online challenges are a thing. And, perhaps, that is why online trolling has become our new national pastime.
Once a community reaches that tipping point for a particular behavior, or even attitude, it is remarkably hard to change. Reaching that magical point where behavior becomes self-perpetuating throughout a population isn’t intentionality friendly.
In the last 40 to 60 years, the US has gradually developed a culture of civic disengagement. So how do we change it back?
In the last 20 or so years, the US has lurched into an especially bitterly divided, vitriolic, and tribal partisan political culture. How do we change that back?
A Culture of National Service
The Commission’s first recommendation is something that I have written about before. This country is crying out for a robust national service program. An expectation that everyone would spend a year after high school, or around that time, participating in paid national service could do wonders for our economy, our infrastructure, and, perhaps most importantly, our exposure to one another.
As our sources of information become more and more siloed, as our civil society has withered, and as we have self-segregated into Camp Red and Camp Blue, it is worth noting that we are raising our children in this ecosystem. Despite some exposure to one another in school, a Camp Red childhood is very different from a Camp Blue childhood. We need to learn how to talk to and work with one another again. That means we need to expose our young adults to broader sources of (accurate) information and perspective, different kinds of people, and the art of collaboration.
College is not enough. GED students, future service sector workers, community college students, those planning on entering the trades, and the dormitory-bound four-year college student all need to learn to work together, learn from and with each other, and value one another. They need to be Americans together, working on projects that benefit the country as a whole, as well as various communities particularly.
The Commission specifies in its National Service recommendation (6.1) that people needn’t leave their communities to serve. There is great value and empowerment in working to benefit your own in concrete ways. But I see such a dramatic benefit in bringing young people of diverse backgrounds together that I would hope many would choose to serve in far-flung locations or situations.
An ongoing influx of youth in the country experienced in working across the metaphorical aisle, and across racial and socioeconomic strata, could have a considerable influence on the country as a whole. And all that is without even getting into the potential benefits to our infrastructure, both physical (roads, bridges, campgrounds, bike paths, etc.), and in human services (child care, food pantries, social work).
One of the biggest gulfs between Camp Red and Camp Blue is their contradictory stories about how we got where we are. Were the Founding Fathers heroes delivering freedom from tyranny, or were they brutal slavemasters and genocidal maniacs? No one seems prepared to accept the uncomfortable reality that they were both at the same time. Or the even worse contradiction that the advent of constitutional democracy doesn’t absolve the genocide and slaveholding, and the genocide and slaveholding don’t negate the advent of constitutional democracy. Nobody likes cognitive dissonance.
But if we are going to navigate out of our current maelstrom of impasses, we have to accept the reality of our messy and contradictory history. The Commission’s second recommendation in this strategy (6.2) is to develop an origin story that rings true for Camp Red and Camp Blue.
Nevertheless, without a starting point of general agreement on the outlines of our history, I don’t see how our national road doesn’t come to a fork. The Commission suggests coming to that agreement via a series of facilitated national conversations. It seems to me that such discussions would, in some way, need to be official, so that their results could feed into the content standards for our schools.
It also seems to me that we can and should designate some space in our various curricula for learning to sit with and ultimately live with that cognitive dissonance. Even if, through national discussion groups, we can come up with a narrative we can all accept as valid, that narrative is inevitably going to contain painful contradictions. Somewhere in the gap between our noblest aspirations and our basest deeds lies the reality of our national identity. If we genuinely value critical thinking as a 21st Century Skill, educating to this discomfort is necessary.
The Commission says:
Whatever new narratives emerge from these conversations, they should be honest about the past without falling into cynicism, and should demonstrate appreciation of the country’s founding and transformative leaders without tipping into deification. They should acknowledge our faults and take pride in the progress we have made. They should grapple with the reasons we have routinely needed to reinvent our constitutional democracy and how we have done it. They should articulate aspirations for the elevation of our democracy to new heights in the twenty-first century. Working through how we tell ourselves stories about ourselves is a necessary part of renewing our capacity to work together for constitutional democracy.
Our Common Purpose
As with anything else, the visible and demonstrated acceptance of a new narrative would be crucial for its adoption. If people don’t see the media, politicians, celebrities, and substantial numbers of facebookers, youtubers, tweeters, and instagrammers buying in, they won’t buy in themselves.
“Democracy works only if enough of us believe that democracy works.” — Our Common Purpose
John Dewey called it Democratic Faith. It’s easy to forget how many of the things we take as real in our lives are acts of collective faith. Money is just pieces of paper or electronic blips. Human rights don’t exist outside of human imagination. America itself, along with every other nation-state, is a fiction in which we have all decided to participate. According to Yuval Noah Harari, in his seminal book Sapiens, this ability to believe collective fictions is our superpower as a species. It is the secret sauce that has allowed a naked ape with small teeth and weak claws to take over the planet via staggering acts of mass cooperation.
Democracy, like so many other elements of human life, is just an idea. It only works by a sort of mass hallucination for the common good. Even once we think this through and realize that it is a fiction, we still behave as if it were a concrete reality. But when enough of us stop believing, suddenly it becomes all too obvious that we are treating an idea as if were a real thing like a rock or a tree.
I, for one, would feel much more comfortable if we could get back to treating the fiction as an unquestioned reality. One can’t unknow things, but I’d like it if we could all start pretending like our democracy isn’t a house of cards set to topple at the slightest collective national sneeze again.
The Commission suggests in its third recommendation in this strategy (6.3) that the way to do this is to recreate, or perhaps create anew, a culture of our democracy.
“Democratic faith requires cultivation. It requires culture: shared rituals or ceremonies and intentional forms of play, work, reckoning, storytelling, conversation, and gathering that allow everyday citizens to make moral sense of our times in the company of others, and to try to close the gap between our high ideals as Americans and our persistently unjust realities.”
Our Common Purpose
There are many organizations already working in this arena, creating a culture not just of democracy but also of civil society. The Commission suggests that we support them, and facilitate the advent of new organizations fostering such culture.
There is one form of behavioral intervention that we know, beyond a reasonable doubt, works. There is a century of evidence proving its efficacy, and an entire industry built upon it. It is an industry that many other industries depend on utterly. You could say it is like the gasoline in the engine of our consumer economy.
Call it advertising, call it marketing, call it propaganda, the point is, we know how to do it, and we know it can change behavior. Is it a bit sinister? Absolutely. But it seems that we are willing to accept such cognitive manipulation from giant profit-driven corporations. Shouldn’t we then accept it when it is actually in our interest?
Graphic design is powerful. Music is powerful. Words are powerful. And most of all, seeing other people doing something is powerful. We already watch people who are disproportionately thrilled with their toothpaste, laundry detergent, or dishwasher soap. Why not watch smiling, happy, connected, and joyful people voting, going to town hall meetings, being poll workers, and going to school board meetings? In the age of social media, such images can be shared far beyond the initial audience.
The Commission’s last recommendation (6.5) is perhaps the most obvious way to shift our culture back in the direction of civic participation: teach civics. The report cites my own state, Colorado, as one in which recent legislation is reinvigorating civics education, but as far as I can tell, that bill actually stalled out in committee. Considering that all it did was give schools the option to adopt a civics curriculum, that is concerning. And it is alarming that my nieces, who are going into eighth grade, report not having any classes or units on this stuff, to date.
Not participating in our democracy seems like a much more reasonable decision if one has never been taught what it is and how it works.
The Commission is right to point out that this recommendation can’t just be a K-12 thing. We need ongoing civics education. A couple of generations need filling in on what they missed out on in their schooling, and all of us, adults and children, need reminders and updates.
To train people in civic participation, civic education cannot be a passive experience of listening to lectures and filling out multiple-choice tests. The Commission is also right to draw attention to some of the ways learning can be experiential, like:
Debate training, and
The Commission wraps up with the following:
“As we approach the 250th anniversary of our nation’s founding, civic education must do more than teach names and dates, or even impart hands-on experience. The American citizen today must be prepared to acknowledge our nation’s mistakes, to recognize that we have grappled over time to improve our imperfect union, to find pride in those struggles, and to recognize that at our best, everyone is included. We suggest that citizens today must be able to deal with ongoing debate and argument, be able to engage in that debate, find compromise, and from it all find their own love of country.”
America in Transition
All of the Commission’s recommendations under this strategy can help shift the US from a culture of political and democratic disengagement and of extreme polarization. National service can teach us to work together with a diverse cross-section of our peers, and breed an ethos of civic participation. A national story we can all get behind would go a long way toward reconciling our red and blue realities and relieving some of our cynicism. Developing a culture of participatory democracy with rituals and intentionally civic-oriented forms of work, play, conversation, and gathering can create an ecosystem of involvement. Using the practical tools we have to market our democracy to ourselves and to demonstrate reconciliation between Camp Red and Camp Blue can bring us together and turn us out in numbers we haven’t seen in generations. And teaching and learning the nuts and bolts of our participatory system of government is an absolute no-brainer.
All of these recommendations would work in part by showing people doing what we would like to see more people doing. People do what they see other people doing. It’s like monkey see, monkey do, but with great apes.
National service would develop a continuously renewed cohort of participants demonstrating an ethos of service and graduates demonstrating the ability to work together. Telling our national story can give us role models of civic engagement. Some of the best of them are currently lost in the shuffle of history but should be given roles as exemplars of democracy. By its very nature, creating a culture of democratic engagement will show us our peers practicing Dewey’s democratic faith. Advertising largely works by showing us how fun and rewarding others find a particular activity or item. If we can make it look like all the cool kids are doing civics, we’ll probably want to do it, too. And a good education in civics will be full of watching people participate in and enjoy the fruits of our democratic system.
All of the Commission’s strategies and recommendations are interdependent. A culture shift toward engagement and mutual respect must take place within the context of improving equality of voice and representation, empowering voters, improving the responsiveness of political institutions, reinvigorating civil society, and reforming our digital public square. But all of these are also dependent on a cultural shift. Very little can happen in a vaper locked political culture.
Though cultural shift is the last of the strategies outlined by the Commission, in some ways, it must be our starting place as citizens. As an individual, one has little power to expand the House of Representatives or legislate social media companies into creating a virtual public interest space. But one can participate in service. One can work within one’s community to tell our messy national story. One can create rituals of voting, writing to representatives, and going to town meetings in one’s own life One can advertise one’s participation in the process and market it to one’s social circle. And one can learn and teach our system of government.
We’re all part of the culture in the US. We’re all responsible for shifting it.
(I use the term internets because it amuses me, but also because it is more accurate to the current situation. We have a multitude of internets, each increasingly siloed from the others.)
If American democracy was on shaky ground already, the advent of social media has been an earthquake.
Things started with such promise! Back when my household got its first computer, circa 1995, the internet was going to make everything better. Surely a more connected society would be a more democratic society. Surely the chance for individuals to know people from all over the world and from all walks of life would render our society fairer, more just, and more equitable. Early adopters saw a bright future ahead for all of humanity.
That was before everyone was online, and we discovered that human vitriol and relative anonymity are a combination forged in hell. Before we all learned how shockingly credulous we are in the aggregate. Before bad actors figured out what spies have known forever: the most effective hack is done on hearts and minds, not machines.
It is boggling even to begin to think about how to fix the ensuing mess. But the commission rightly points out that we, as humans and as Americans, have created these systems. There is no reason (bar a lack of political will) we can’t change them for the better.
Perhaps the first step touches on the commission’s second (5.2, tax the advertising online and create public platforms) and third (5.3, regulate private platforms to dedicate spaces to public interest applications) recommendations. Before we can get down to business, we have to reengage with the ideas of a public good and the public interest. When TV started, it was understood that broadcasters were using airwaves that belonged to the public. That is, to every person in the country. Therefore, they owed it to the public to produce programming in the public interest, and they paid for the privilege.
Somewhere along the line, we lost sight of this principle. And with the advent of the internets, we seem to have lost track of it entirely.
Perhaps it is because the public good is a little harder to identify. Facebook, Google, and Twitter don’t use the public airwaves, so what right have we the people to regulate them? I submit that our collective data is every bit as much a public good as airwaves, national forests, BLM land, and our coastal fisheries. We may sign away rights to our personal data when we sign up for an account, but our collective data belongs to the public as a whole. And if a company is going to monetize it, they should incur both taxes and fees, and an obligation to provide for the public interest.
All that is without even getting into the idea that the internet itself is a sort of international public good.
Once this is understood, taxing these companies to fund public alternatives (a PBS of social media platforms, if you will) and regulating them to serve the public interest on their platforms is fair. They’re using data that belongs to we the people. They should pay for the privilege and use it in a way that benefits us, or we’ll sell it to someone else.
The commission’s other recommendations in this strategy (5, Build Civic Information Architecture that Supports Common Purpose) have to do with:
how we determine that public interest (5.1),
how we gather data to see if it is being met (5.4),
and developing a data source and clearinghouse for research that supports social and civic infrastructure (5.5).
These are by far the most technical of the commission’s recommendations. A working group (5.1) to “…articulate and measure social media’s civic obligations…” would be a great start. The commission uses the analogy of railroad gauges when talking about creating interoperability between social media platforms. That recommendation (5.4) is primarily concerned with giving researchers and the government access to the data social media platforms are garnering on us. The final recommendation in this strategy is to create the Democratic Engagement Project, a space hosted by a university or consortium of institutions where extensive data gathered on democratic engagement can be studied, including longitudinally.
Unfortunately, the United States has become so polarized that even ideas like a public good and the public interest are political. That makes implementing at least three of these ideas (taxes and fees to fund public social media, regulations providing for public areas in established social media, and interoperability and access to data) hopes for the future. In the current political climate, they are going nowhere.
Our polarization stymies some of the steps to fix our polarization.
But perhaps this situation won’t last forever. At the end of the day, it is up to us. We think of ourselves, the public, as powerless before the titanic forces unleashed by the internets. We resign ourselves to a toxic sea of misinformation, slander, hatred, and aggrieved whining as if there is nothing we can do about it. In reality, the internets and everything we put into them are ours. We should take them back.
I first encountered the term civil society in college, taking International Relations classes. Developing countries tended to have weak civil society institutions. It was one of the reasons their governance was so often dysfunctional.
Without a substantial sector of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), there were no institutions formally and informally holding government accountable. Without miniature democracies operating in communities, like Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs), book clubs, and environmental interest groups, citizens had no place to gain confidence in processes used in national, state, and local government, such as Robert’s Rules of Order. And without the stability of groups, community voices on issues waxed and waned depending on a given individual’s ability to commit time and energy. All of that is not even to mention the empowerment of simply belonging to a group.
As with so many things that I learned in my international relations classes, it was only later that I fully realized that my country has this problem, too.
In my senior year, I did a paper on Robert Putnam’s seminal book Bowling Alone (2000). In it, he documented an alarming decline in civil society in the US. We used to have powerful community connections in this country. When my parents were growing up, concerned (mostly) moms nearly overpopulated PTAs. Membership in clubs like Elks, Kiwanas, and Rotary was commonplace. Most people attended some variety of religious services regularly. As the title suggests, bowling leagues were a popular way to engage with one’s community. Though many of these activities weren’t political, and were sometimes specifically apolitical, they kept participants informed of developments in the community in ways that made apparent the importance of politics in everyday life. They also connected people with different political perspectives.
When Putnam wrote his book in 2000, all of these types of activities had witnessed a massive decline in membership and participation. I’m not versed in current numbers, but recent statistics on loneliness in America tell me the situation isn’t much improved.
Our democracy is suffering for it.
If nothing else, we have forgotten the importance of the civil part of civil society. Growing up with a strong community both in my school and in my home, I learned a lot about civility. One of the key insights I think many people have forgotten is that one doesn’t have to like everyone in one’s community. I have seen people jettison all the benefits of a community experience because they dislike one individual. We’ve forgotten how to be civil towards people we don’t like. One doesn’t have to like everyone. We’ve forgotten how to thrive in an environment with diverse personalities, perspectives, and mannerisms. It has made us altogether too willing to write a whole group off because one person has opinions we disagree with, a nature we see as ornery, or are just annoying. It has rendered us unable to collaborate or compromise, particularly at a political level. It has created a vacuum of identity in our lives that is too easily filled by the knee-jerk remonstrances of tribal politics.
The last three strategies, with their attendant recommendations, in Our Common Purpose, the report of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, focus on civil society, rather than the mechanics of government. We can make our government more representative (Strategy 1), fix our voting systems (Strategy 2), and improve our infrastructure for participation in democracy, such as public meetings (Strategy 3), all we like. But if the people don’t buy-in, it doesn’t do anyone much good. Buy-in comes from civil society (Strategy 4); in the modern world, it comes from functional social media (Strategy 5); and it comes from culture, with its norms and expectations (Strategy 6).
Strategy 4 in the report is to dramatically expand civic bridging capacity. I know roughly what the Commission is getting at, but it is hard to pinpoint what that means. What is civic bridging? What gap is being bridged? Do they mean the space between civil society and participation in governance? Or do they mean the chasm between involvement and non-involvement, period?
The recommendations provide some insight:
4.1, Establish a National Trust for Civic Infrastructure to scale up social, civic, and democratic infrastructure. Fund the Trust with a major nationwide investment campaign that bridges private enterprise and philanthropic seed funding. This might later be sustained through annual appropriations from Congress on the model of the National Endowment for Democracy.
4.2, Activate a range of funders to invest in the leadership capacity of the so-called civic one million: the catalytic leaders who drive civic renewal in communities around the country. Use this funding to encourage these leaders to support innovations in bridge-building and participatory democracy.
The first one is about creating the literal, physical space for civil society to operate. Book clubs, bible studies, environmental groups, and local issue groups need meeting rooms in libraries, parks with walking paths, affordable coffee shops, rec centers, picnic tables, etc. In other words, real places where they can meet, have uninterrupted conversations, hold seminars, host get-togethers, have conferences, and interact. In my observation, the density and safety of these resources vary by the income of the community. The Committee specifies that funding should go to under-resourced communities.
This is pretty straightforward. If one wants a civil society, one needs places for it to happen. We should never forestall community building for mere lack of space. It benefits democracy that such things should happen, and the infrastructure is a good investment.
The second recommendation is a little trickier. Who counts as part of the civic one-million? Does one’s organization have to be explicitly civic, or do other parts of civil society, such as book clubs and walking groups, count? Is the Commission calling for foundations (and whoever else is part of the ‘range of funders’) to exclusively help with leadership training expenses? What other kinds of funding might be called for, here? Investing in these NGOs could mean funding many different types of activities.
Whatever the details, both recommendations are sound, but I have the same concerns that I did for Strategy 3, Ensure the Responsiveness of Political Institutions. The average American may or may not have more leisure time on her hands now than she did in previous decades. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says more, but it sure feels like less. And to make it worse, when humans think that a resource is scarce, be it food, friends, time, or money, we tend to get trapped in short-term thinking and make poor choices, ironically garnering us even less of that resource.
If we don’t have time or just feel like we don’t have time, we aren’t going to invest in civil society as individuals, no matter what the government or foundations do. And if we have forgotten how to deal with community members that just aren’t our favorites, we aren’t likely to flock to community activities.
I would propose two additions to the Committee’s recommendations here. One would be to emphasize community in schools. It’s easy to avoid learning to operate within a community when you go to a high school with thousands of classmates. If schools can’t be smaller, there should be schools within schools. We could have houses, like Harry Potter, but without the boarding in a giant magical castle. Learning to cope with and, indeed, value people we disagree with or simply find disagreeable is a skill best learned in youth.
The other would be to strengthen legislation regarding the eight hour day and to increase the minimum wage. For many, if not most, salaried workers, the eight hour day is a sort of beautiful theory that never makes it into practice. If one works overtime, one should get paid for overtime, and overtime shouldn’t be the norm. There is a reason our forebearers fought, bled, and died striking for the eight hour day. Work should be part of our lives. A big part of our lives. But not our whole lives. And hourly workers should not be working two or three jobs to make ends meet or need food assistance while working full time.
Until we address the scarcity, or even just the feeling of scarcity, of time, and re-learn how to deal with a diverse range of personalities, I posit that our civil society and government will continue to ail.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can’t blame people for being cynical about the value of their vote. In a world where big donors appear to be making the big decisions, districts are gerrymandered into foregone conclusions, the average congressperson represents 747,000 constituents, and nobody knows which special interests are paying the bills, it’s reasonable to ask if we’re even really living in a democracy, anymore.
Wikipedia’s list of forms of government suggests some terms that might be more accurate. It might be correct to call the US a netocracy, a portmanteau of internet and aristocracy describing a new aristocracy of the digitally connected. You could also reasonably argue for the term cyberdeutocracy, a system of government “where information elites engage in the destruction and/or transformation of existing meanings, symbols, values, and ideas; the generation of new meanings, symbols, values, and ideas; and the introduction of these transformed and new meanings, symbols, values, and ideas into the public consciousness to shape society’s perception of political reality.”
Tellingly, one of the definers of the term netocracy also defines an associated underclass:
Alexander Bard describes a new underclass called the consumtariat, a portmanteau of consumer and proletariat, whose main activity is consumption, regulated from above. It is kept occupied with private problems, its desires provoked with the use of adverts and its active participation is limited to things like product choice, product customization, engaging with interactive products and life-style choice.
The time-tested term plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) might also be accurate.
However you define it, government in the US feels less and less like something by, for, and of the people.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
That is really what the First Strategy — Achieve Equality of Voice and Representation — outlined in the report is about. The report makes it very clear that there are steps we can take to wrest control of our government away from the elite and into the hands of the people.
Some of the recommendations call for change at a national level, where good ideas currently go to die. A constitutional amendment to separate corporate rights from individual rights (1.5), an expansion of the House of Representatives (1.1), repealing a 1967 law that mandates single member districts (1.3), and changing Supreme Court Justice terms from life to 18 years (1.8) are all ideas that aren’t going to get traction until we change who we are sending to Washington.
But the recommendation to introduce ranked-choice voting in local, state, and federal elections (1.2) is something that can happen at a grassroots level. So are the adoption of independent citizen-redistricting commissions (1.4); strong state-level campaign finance disclosure laws (1.6); and passing clean election laws, again at the state level, implementing systems such as donation matching and democracy vouchers, to amplify the impact of small donors (1.7).
Americans broadly agree on more than one might expect. From policies like universal background checks, ending cash bail, and legal status for dreamers to principles like lower drug costs, funding for child care, and action on climate change. So how is it that none of it ever gets done? All of the above measures that can be done at the state and local levels would begin to address the problem.
Most elections in the US, from dogcatcher to the president, are organized in a winner-take-all format. That means that if there is a three-way race, and two of the candidates get roughly 30% of the vote each, the win goes to the third candidate who got around 40% of the vote even though 60% of the voters don’t actually like that candidate.
In a real-world example, only 5.5% of eligible voters actually voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries. He was close to getting half the primary votes, but not quite there, which means that more than half of Republican primary voters voted against him.
Winner-take-all or first-past-the-post elections push candidates toward extreme positions because they are won not by the candidate with the majority of votes, but by the candidate who has the most votes, a plurality. To win a majority, a candidate needs to appeal to a broad swath of the electorate and build a large coalition. To win a plurality, a candidate can instead provide red meat for extremists, especially in primaries (since typically only passionate, committed voters, often citizens of the ideological extremes, turn out for them). Once the nomination is secured, the party’s moderates will feel that they have no choice but to vote for a candidate they don’t like, but see as the lesser of two evils.
Wouldn’t it be nice if more of us were casting ballots for a candidate we actually believed in?
There is nothing in the constitution that says states, counties, and cities have to use a winner-take-all system. We’re only doing it this way because we’ve done it this way for a long time, and because we see other states and locations doing it this way. That’s not a very good reason to keep using a system that is giving us increasingly terrible results.
In 2016, after a grassroots campaign, Maine passed a ‘question’ on whether or not to switch to ranked-choice voting. After a bit of a legal saga, and several additional votes, that state will be the first to hold a presidential election by this method in November. There are grassroots campaigns underway to implement similar systems in Alaska, Massachusets, and North Dakota. Several cities, including New York, use the system or will be voting on it soon.
It’s a whole thing, and it works. In terms of how it works, it’s pretty much what it says on the tin. If you have five candidates in a particular race, instead of casting a vote for one of them, you rank them in your order of preference. If nobody gets a 50%+1 majority, the candidates below a certain threshold are eliminated, and their votes go to whoever was that voter’s second choice. It’s basically a run-off system, without the time and expense of actually holding run-offs. Australia has been using it for federal lower house elections since 1918. Ireland has been using it for presidential elections since 1937. Fiji and Papua New Guinea seem to get along fine with it.
The system also encourages third party candidates and their voters, because they won’t split the vote and cause the major party candidate most ideologically similar to them to lose. And just think how nice it would be to rank your choices instead of trying to strategize about which candidate has a better chance in the general.
Instead of candidates going to the extremest extremes to differentiate themselves, ranked-choice voting leads to this sort of thing:
Just think! With a grassroots effort, your slate of 2024 campaign ads could look like that.
The measure that citizens are trying to get on the ballot in North Dakota would implement ranked-choice voting and a citizen-redistricting commission to draw up the districts after the 2020 census. Again, there is nothing in the national constitution that says the dominant party in the state legislature should get to draw the districts.
We all know that gerrymandering is a problem. Somehow it doesn’t feel like what the framers intended. And when you consider the technological innovations of the last 40-odd years, the partisan advantages gained by ever more sophisticated gerrymandering look less and less like something a reasonable sort of enlightenment thinker would endorse.
It is also definitely not something any of our representatives, federal, state, or local, are going to fix for us. If we the people want fair districts, we the people are going to have to start collecting signatures for more ballot initiatives.
The last two of the currently feasible recommendations listed under the strategy of achieving equality of voice and representation are all about campaign financing. Our elected officials know how they got where they are, and it wasn’t by not accepting money or advocating strategies that would level the playing field for less well-funded opponents. We can, and should, expect them to do the right thing. But we clearly can’t count on it.
We’ve been counting on it, and just look how far we’ve gotten. The 2016 elections for national offices cost around about 6.4 billion dollars. Think about all the other things we, as a nation, could have done with an extra 6.4 billion dollars! And those donations are influencing policies. How could they not be?
Washington isn’t going to change this. The framers never imagined it, and so didn’t provide for it. They didn’t write the constitution to limit campaign donations to actual human people, and the Supreme Court didn’t interpret it thus.
Of all the recommendations put forward by the commission, a constitutional amendment reigning in corporate donations seems the most far-fetched, given our current situation.
But if we want to seriously start calling ourselves a democracy again, we’ve got to do something. One of the commission’s recommendations is to empower small donors by matching or multiplying their donations, or giving everyone vouchers to give to their favorite candidate. I’m a little cynical about this one. The question that occurs to me is what are we giving up in order to fund it? Is the campaign donation budget going to come partially from my niece’s middle and high-school education budget? Are we going to take it from the libraries, our crumbling infrastructure, or (lord help us all in the time of COVID) from our public health system?
It’s a good idea, but nobody is going to tax themselves for it.
The other recommendation is much simpler. It’s just transparency. Our elected representatives are going to be selling out to big donors for the foreseeable future. It would be better for democracy if we at least got to know who they were selling out to.
There isn’t much we can do at the federal level. We’re stuck with the campaign finance laws we have until we elect different representatives who might be willing to make different laws. However, our state legislatures often act as a sort of bush league for national office. And we can (some states already have) pass laws so that we can know who is donating what to our state representatives.
If the speaker of a state legislature is elected with massive support from a particular corporate interest, it is reasonable to surmise that her donor portfolio may be similar when she runs for national office six years later, unless her positions have changed substantially.
And, of course, many, if not most, of the decisions that impact our daily lives are made at the state and local level, anyway. Passing laws to take the dark money (particularly from 501(c)3 and 4 tax exempt entities) out of our state and local politics would be a huge win for citizens. And it can be done with ballot measures and via local politics, which are typically more responsive than your average congressperson with their 747,000 constituents.
Overall, even though half the recommendations listed under this strategy in the report are pretty pie-in-the-sky for the time being, I found a lot of reasons to have hope here. I’m especially optimistic about the national groundswell of support around the idea of ranked-choice voting.
It feel so powerless to be a citizen, these days. In this country we talk a great talk about the difference one person can make, and how wonderful it is that we vote. But when it comes to actually changing our increasingly toxic political landscape, most of us have given up. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a report with four down-to-earth, practical, attainable changes that can be made, or at least go up for a vote, if we can just find a few committed citizens to head things up.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.