Tag Archives: voting

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.