Tag Archives: democracy

Part Seven: A Culture of Democracy

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

A crowded town hall meeting in Torrington, CT in 2011.  These citizens are part of a culture of democracy.
Standing room only at a 2011 Town Hall Meeting in Torrington, Connecticut. Dannel Malloy / CC BY

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.  

When we talk about changing the culture of democracy in the US, which is the Commission’s sixth and last strategy, we are talking about a couple of things.  

  1. In the last 40 to 60 years, the US has gradually developed a culture of civic disengagement. So how do we change it back?  
  2. 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 author operates a video camera at a youth summer camp in the woods of upstate New York in 2006.  National service like this can facilitate a culture of democracy.
Shooting video at the site of my AmeriCorps service, a youth summer camp. I went back to work for a summer three years later.

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).  

Origin Stories

Four Tuskeegee Airmen walk across a field with two planes in the background.  We need common heroes in this country.
Can we at least all agree that these guys were rad? (U.S. Air Force photo)

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.  

This seems a tall order in a country where a quarter of the population believes that the powerful possibly or probably planned COVID-19.  

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.  

Democratic Faith

A long line of voters outside a polling place in Denver in 2006.  These citizens are participating in a culture of democracy.
Voters faced long lines in 2006 in Denver, but participated in their democracy, nonetheless.

“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.  

Advertising Democracy

The iconic I Voted sticker that used to come with our ballots in Colorado, but no longer does.  This was a great, cheap way to advertise a culture of democracy.
In Colorado, or at least in Jefferson County, where I live, voters no longer get a sticker. I don’t understand why they discontinued this. It was brilliant free advertising. Whoisjohngalt / CC BY-SA

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?  

The Commission suggests (recommendation 6.4) that we support and build on the efforts of organizations already extant, such as the Purple Project for Democracy, and the I am a voter campaign organized by the Creative Artists Agency.  

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.  

Teach Civics

Immigrants whose clothing suggests a South Asian origin hold up a Citizenship Certificate.  People who have studied for the Citizenship Test typically know more about our democracy than native-born citizens.  We need to do a better job of educating ourselves if we want to foster a culture of democracy.
These new-minted citizens probably know more about our democracy than you or me. Charles Chauvel / CC BY

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:

  • Civic projects,
  • Service-learning, 
  • Student government, 
  • Debate training, and
  • Participatory budgeting.  

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

An Iraqi Kurdish woman in exile in London places a rose atop a ballot box after casting her vote.  We all need to be this excited about voting.
In 2005, I was privileged to witness the exiled Iraqi Kurdish community in London voting in the first post-Saddam Iraqi election. Regardless of what has happened since, getting this excited about voting is something to aspire to.

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.  

Part Three: Getting Off our Arses and Voting!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two: It Doesn’t Have to be Like This — Practical Ways to Fix our Elections

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

A line drawing of a hand putting a ballot into a ballot box with other ballots shown inside.
Image courtesy svgsilh.com

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:

A rounded stick figure of the kind used in road and restroom signs is shown pushing a shopping cart full of boxes.  Bard describes the consumatariate's choices as more about shopping than elections.
Is this all we are? Image via Pixabay.com PaliGraficas

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.

Wikipedia

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.

An image of the US Capitol Building.
Where good ideas go to die. Image courtesy By Architect of the Capitol – aoc.gov, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7531712.

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.

Map of the US showing the vote distribution in the 2016 Republican primary election.  The map shows that Mr Trump garnered the majority of votes in about half of the states that he won, while in the other half he won without a majority.
U.S. States by Vote Distribution, 2016 (Republican Party). You can see that while President Trump had a clear majority in some states, in many others he did not. This isn’t a party thing — there are plenty of Democratic examples out there, I just don’t have a handy chart for them. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Ali Zifan / CC BY-SA

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.

An example of a ranked-choice voting ballot, using an imaginary mayoral election among John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and a write in.  A drawing of a hand is shown filling out the ballot.
It’s a pretty simple system. Image courtesy: Peter J. Yost / CC0 , Wikimedia Commons.

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.

The original 1812 political cartoon depicting a state senate election district in Massachusetts as a sort of dragon/salamander hybrid.  The term gerrymander was coined based on the shape of this district and the last name of then Governor Elbridge Gerry.  Image reflects the problem of gerrymandering in our elections.
Printed in March 1812, this political cartoon was drawn in reaction to the newly drawn state senate election district of South Essex created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor the Democratic-Republican Party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists. The caricature satirizes the bizarre shape of a district in Essex County, Massachusetts, as a dragon-like “monster”. Federalist newspaper editors and others at the time likened the district shape to a salamander, and the word gerrymander was a portmanteau of that word and Governor Gerry’s last name. Image and caption courtesy Wikipedia, By Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835) (often falsely attributed to Gilbert Stuart)[1] – Originally published in the Boston Centinel, 1812., Public Domain, Link

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.

An outline of the Unites States filled in with images of one dollar bills, reflecting the predominance of money in our elections.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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.

An 1865 petition for woman suffrage signed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.  A big fix for our elections, done in part by ballot initiative.
It took 50 more years for women to get suffrage after this 1865 petition. They were signing petitions for change before they were even voters. Part of the fight for women suffrage was done via ballot initative in various states. National Archives and Records Administration / Public domain

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.

Any volunteers?

Part One: A Democracy in Crisis

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

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

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

This level of cynicism does not reflect an engaged citizenry.

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

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

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

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

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

Engaged citizens vote. Too many Americans don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engaged citizens must have a shared reality.

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

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

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

Engaged citizens participate.

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

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

Engaged citizens must be informed citizens.

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

Commitment to the democratic process engages citizens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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