Tag Archives: national service

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.