Category Archives: The Public Good

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 Six: Internets in the Public Interest

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

Our Common Purpose: Reinventing Democracy for the 21st Century highlights many things that are wrong in our democracy. Our institutions aren’t as representative as they could be. Our voting system is antiquated. Our politicians aren’t responsive. Our civil society is dwindling. These issues are either long term trends or the result of baked-in functions whose time has passed. The most dramatic and recent problem for our democracy has cropped up over the last 20 years— the internets.  

Surely a network that was already so vast in 2005 should operate in the public interest.
Partial map of the Internet based on the January 15, 2005 data found on opte.org. Each line is drawn between two nodes, representing two IP addresses. The length of the lines are indicative of the delay between those two nodes. This graph represents less than 30% of the Class C networks reachable by the data collection program in early 2005. The Opte Project / CC BY

(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.   

Back in the early days, we all thought the internet would just automatically serve the public interest.
The early days. Microsoft / Public domain

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.

Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, and What's App (pictured as keys on a keyboard) should serve the public interest, since they are taking advantage of public goods.
They may not use the airwaves, but they use the public’s information. Today Testing (For derivative) / CC BY-SA

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.  

In his 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, then FCC Chair Newton N. Minow (pictured) called TV a vast wasteland, and extolled programing in the public interest.
Newton N. Minow, JFK’s Chair of the FCC, described TV as a vast wasteland in a speech in 1961, laying out the need for more broadcasting in the public interest. The words are certainly apt for the internets. Today Testing (For derivative) / CC BY-SA

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.  

Part Five: Civil Society

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

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.  

A graphic of a fairly big group of people demonstrating diverse races, ethnicities, disabilities, clothing, religious affiliation, etc.  Civil society teaches respect for diversity, not only in the ways we tend to think of it, but also diversity of personal attributes like attitude, mien, friendliness, and opinion.
Civil society is a nebulously defined concept. It can mean the third sector of society. If there is a public sector and a private sector, there must surely be a personal sector, right? But it is also frequently used to mean the full range of non-governmental, non-workplace activities, communities, and groups. It can additionally have connotations of components of liberal democracy, such as freedom of speech and association. The term covers the organizations that we typically think of as NGOs, such as Red Cross/Red Crescent, MSF (Doctor’s Without Borders), and Oxfam, but also includes very localized groups that aren’t issue-centered, such as book clubs and walking groups.

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.  

The book cover of Bowling Alone.  All the way back in 2000, author Robert Putnam documented an alarming decline in civil society in the United States.

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.  

Be Kind written in sidewalk chalk.  Being members of a community, as found in civil society, can help us be kinder people.
Being a member of a community can help us be kinder people. Image by reneebigelow from Pixabay

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.  

An image of a community room with windows for walls in Richland, WA.  Civil society needs places like this to meet, organize, and gather.
Civil society needs common spaces for meetings, like this space in the Richland, Washington Community Center. Lori Ehlis / CC BY-SA

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.  

The Slytherin logo from Harry Potter.  Putting all the people we don't like into one house, like in Harry Potter, doesn't do much for our ability to work together as part of civil society.
Of course, unlike in Harry Potter, we can’t just
put all the people we don’t like into Slytherin.

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.  

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.