Democracy and Civic Participation
For a healthy and vibrant democracy to be sustained, people need to be informed, educated, and engaged. The concept of the “Townsquare” or Athenian agora, a meeting place where people of all ages can meet and share political ideas and experiences is largely missing from our civic landscape.
As we discuss below, people are frequently insulated from civic and political engagement by numerous forces. Barriers to participation must be identified and removed to create safe space for citizens to build consensus on societal challenges, and to establish outcome-based planning. From such a space people can help implement changes in legislation, policy, and appropriations for achieving the desired and positive outcomes. Moving beyond these barriers, we will also develop practical methods to sustain citizen engagement as a principle of social behavior, and not just as a reaction to government policy that is at odds with citizen values.
Barriers to Civic Participation
The voter participation lag in state and local elections, particularly in off-cycle and midterm years, is typically well behind federal elections. In recent years, local turnout has been falling even further behind, plummeting to a low of approximately 18% in 2009 with an average turnout rate near 26% between 1996-2011.This is far below the already low 35.9% of eligible voters who cast ballots for federal candidates in November.
In addition to voter declines in local races, state and local journalism has also suffered. Local newspapers have shut down, and the number of reporters devoted to state reporting has declined by 35% since 2003. The result is a local news environment trying to do more with less and in need of new tools to inform and engage voters at the local level. In this situation, citizens lack the information they need to make critical decisions about local and state issues.
There are many factors that account for a voter’s decision to participate in a particular election. Voter confidence in understanding the issues and candidates is one. Feeling empowered to affect change is another. Voter access to polling places, or better still –mail-in or drop off ballots make the process easier for voters and increases participation. Low voter participation points to the need for innovative tools that make it easier for the public to access and act upon a wide range of information. From voter registration deadlines, party registration rules, to in-depth factual reporting on urgent issues, election data should be readily available to all citizens. It is important to develop the types of platforms and lived spaces where journalists, election officials, academics, and others can creatively deliver that information in ways that inspire and energize ongoing participation.
Civic responsibility must begin in childhood. Here, too, we identify a systemic deficiency. Merely forcing school children to learn and recite the Pledge of Allegiance is not a substitute for teaching what it means to be a responsible citizen. Civics instruction, basic economic theory, and political science need to make their way back into a common curriculum.
While Oregon has been a leading example of protecting and expanding voter rights, in many States we find sinister practices, direct and indirect, deterring electoral participation such as voter caging, manipulation of voter rolls, gerrymandering, and highly restrictive Voter ID laws (Voter ID and Voter Fraud are now code words for suppressing the vote).
Time Scarcity and Diminished Quality of Life
Since the 1980s when worker wages flattened, people have had to work harder and longer in order to maintain a reasonable quality of life. This situation has substantially constrained time spent in engaging in neighborhood or community activities, in researching issues, and in vetting news and candidates for trustworthiness. Resources necessary for maintaining an informed, educated, and participatory society have indeed been jeopardized under the pressures of diminished social stability and security.
Political Corruption and Voter Apathy
Voter suppression techniques can take the form of a direct attack on democracy in the form of voter caging or stringent Voter ID laws that disenfranchise the elderly, people of color, and the impoverished. A secondary cause of voter apathy stems from a form of self-disenfranchisement from voting and political engagement. A steady array of negative advertising, polarization of society, dark money pouring into 527 “Swift-Boat” style attacks are not only effective as a political tool –they cause many people to disengage from the political process through cynicism and apathy. “The major parties are two corrupt sides of the same coin”. “With 900 million dollars of Koch money pouring in –what good will my vote do?”
Big Government: Us versus Them
“Arguments” describing government as an entity separate from society, as opposed to being a representation of society, also create a barrier to participatory democracy. “I want a government so small I can drown it in a bathtub.” “I want government out of healthcare.” “I’d be wealthy by now if not for all of the red tape and regulation.” The purpose of a government is to help provide fairness and a level playing field. When members of a society seek to concentrate wealth and power, their tendency is to push government into the margins of political practice. Greater participation in civic activities and democratic process will help to eliminate this flawed perspective.
Disenfranchised and Powerless Citizens – Post-Citizens United
Vast amounts of “dark money” dumped into local, state, and national races contribute to voter disengagement and feelings of powerlessness during election cycles –particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in “Citizens United vs. the FEC. The ability for the wealthy elite such as David and Charles Koch, or others, to write checks of close to $1 billion dollars in any election cycle tears at the very fabric of democracy. The influx of vast sums of money provides a dual benefit for candidates and political parties which exclusively represent their wealthy suitors. First the direct benefit of producing and distributing propaganda through major advertising campaigns. And second the demoralizing factor of organizing people to counter the generally overwhelming influence of money in elections.
When we perceive the divergence of local, state or federal government from our will, we become more engaged in the political landscape. Protests against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and the civil rights marches of the 1960s are examples of deeper citizen engagement that has brought about change. Over the last several years electronic petitions have become a popular, albeit a largely ineffective, form of engagement.
Attending townhall meetings, candidate debates, marches, elected official office visits; letters, email, phone calls, faxes or tweets to elected officials, campaign funding, community organizing, citizen-led legislation (such as represent.us or the State Innovation Exchange), voting and running for office are all examples of political engagement.
In the face of social disenfranchisement at the local, state, and federal level, economic action has become a vital means to taking back political power. Divesting from banks that participate in funding the Keystone XL or Standing Rock pipelines, Boycotting “Wal*Mart”-style businesses that destroy local economies and shift wealth from the working poor and middle class to the wealthy. Boycotting gasoline purchases from companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil (using mass transit and/or buying fuel-efficient vehicles), and boycotting products and services that promote their reputation based on fake news through the outlets of hate speech: these are effective means of opposition to the economic and political inequalities that threaten democracy and human dignity.
Educational Tools and Community Outreach Instructional media on effective civic engagement as well as on important topics related to wealth inequality, corporate externalities, fracking, fact checking, and many others are greatly needed. Other tools must include guidelines and workshops for writing letters to editors of local newspapers and tips for hosting a “neighborhood film viewing event” or other methods for bringing people together as a community. Learning together, working together, and sharing one’s experience of the political process, all of these empower individuals and communities. Creating new spaces for building common understanding and strategies that can challenge the growing threats to social cohesion will prove to be a key factor in revitalizing democracy.
The Spectrum of Actions
It is useful to identify a spectrum of civic actions with which citizens can engage. In this classification of action, we identify weight factors such as the complexity of the action, the time/resources required to complete the action, behavioral style (introvert vs. extrovert), issue affinity (feeling passionate about an issue), geo-location, and quality of the “call to action” that are important considerations for preparing and carrying out actions.
Examples of Civic Action classifications are:
Tweeting, emailing, faxing to elected officials, viewing and sharing educational media, validated news/information and voting (depending upon voter suppression efforts).
Phone calls to elected officials, changing banks, in some areas boycotts of Wal*Mart (if there is no competition in a particular area), attending a townhall, attending a march/rally, candidate debates, hosting a home party, writing and submitting a “Letter to the Editor”, boycotting advertisers, boycotting corporations and businesses that seek to undermine and diminish democracy (so they can maximize profit), campaign/PAC donations and voting (depending upon voter suppression efforts).
Heavyweight actions include elected official office visits, community organizing, running for office, sponsoring citizen-led legislation and voting (depending upon voter suppression efforts).
Tactical Action vs. Strategic Action
Tactical actions take the form of a reaction to unpopular policy or legislation. For example, when the value of science is challenged, the “March for Science” was organized. Women’s Rights are assailed and a “Women’s March” was organized. As Congress and the Executive Branch attack the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), citizens protest at Congressional town hall meetings. From 2001 – 2008, unpopular policies created societal reaction and protest. The same is occurring at present and will likely continue until citizens elect officials at the local, state, and federal level that will advocate and represent all people and not just the interests of the obscenely wealthy.
It is time to recognize that we must move beyond reacting and develop societal mechanisms for strategic actions as opposed to pure reaction. Determining a set of civic actions in support of implementing a sweeping policy around issues such as:
- Geographically-contextual living wages
- Campaign finance reform
- Addressing wealth inequality
- Justice system reform
- Environmental protection
- Food and Water Security
- Energy policy transition to safe, clean and renewable sources.
Policy groups can then build public consensus on a societal outcome, prepare legislation and build a wave of citizen support using the same civic engagement platform for action creation and distribution. This will provide for a citizen-led mechanism to drive vital changes in society to counter efforts by shadowy groups like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).
Dynamic Actions (shift with change)
As society applies the appropriate pressures to drive much needed political and economic reforms, it is vital to be adaptable to the rapid outcomes that may occur. Organizing phone calls to elected officials, for example, is an important step. However, when officials minimize staff, minimize the number of phones (producing busy signals), or fail to record their voice messages and leave space for new ones, we need to be able to quickly pivot to another form of action. On the other hand, a boycott that brings about the desired result can then pivot to public appreciation for the corporation that moves in a positive direction, thanks to our buying and/or investing power. At one point electronic petitions were effective in providing visibility into societal sentiment with a particular issue or policy which could influence outcomes. Now, unless they are highly-targeted and narrow to a constituent-elected official relationship their value has become marginal.
The Lifecycle of Actions
It is important to note that an action itself has a lifecycle that should be tracked. For example if the ACLU or Moms Rising create a civic action to counter a bad piece of legislation the action is discussed (conceptualized), formed (originated), distributed and acted upon by recipients. The depth of engagement and the rating of the action can be fed back to the originator in order to improve future engagement, the distributor of actions can better understand the behavioral styles of the recipients and fine tune what actions are routed to which recipients and the overall result can be fed back to all.
The End of Silos
These words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. continue to ring true today: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The slaughtering of another unarmed person of color by law enforcement, the threat of another pipeline to the water supply of a community, the poisoning of the air of an impoverished community by an oil company, the closing of clinics that serve women, the passing of voter suppression laws/policy (masquerading as “vote integrity” policy) – these “local” and “state” issues impact all Americans. When we promote profit over people, we are all under attack. When we allow laws that weaken and erode democracy, we are all under attack. When we allow laws that harm a class of citizens –we are all under attack. It is incumbent upon each one of us to be stewards of democracy. We cannot just vote every two or four years and hope for the best. We must engage together and work for the democracy that is within our grasp.
A majority of elected officials that fail to represent the interests of a large part of the population often energizes citizen engagement. In the extreme case, for example, when the legislative branch, executive branch and judicial branch fall under single party control, people on the opposite side of the political aisle are often catalyzed to action. The greater the political difference between the people and the elected body the more likely the engagement is to be sustained.
How do we create a sustaining model where all citizens are engaged and remain engaged, regardless of the political landscape?
Crucial elements are countering fatigue, recognition, gamification and fun, civic education, connecting legislative policy to daily life, community and empowerment (influence to drive change).
When government has shifted far away from the will of the populace there is often an array of legislation and policy across many critical issue areas facing the advocate of democratic values and practices. Women’s rights, environmental protections, voting rights, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, gun violence prevention, economic policy, domestic programs and foreign policy are all pressing concerns in today’s political landscape. Each issue area often has several advocacy and policy groups working to counter the implementation of bad policy. As a result, we, as engaged citizens, can accumulate dozens of emails per day with updates, solicitations, and calls to action. It is simply not humanly possible to keep up with it all, and all too often, it can be discouraging.
The solution is personalized and community management of political resources and priorities. A sustaining model requires tools that assist activists to identify and act upon their preferred style of engagement (introvert vs. extrovert, for example), priority issue areas, and geographical location.
Human beings have a need for social recognition of their contributions in order to identify with, and invest themselves in a movement. Moreover, civic engagement has its share of frustration and disappointment, desired outcomes can often be years away, and without some form of gratification burn-out is inevitable. Open recognition for involvement and effort on behalf of producing better societal outcomes for all of us is necessary to sustain civic engagement. Social platforms harbor great potential as a place for acknowledging and rewarding participation in the political process.
Gamification and Fun
There are times in which our elected officials are well-aligned with the societal outcomes that citizens desire. During such times, it’s too easy for individuals to shift into civic engagement “auto-pilot”. Holding elected officials accountable, helping to inform and educate others about the political process, and helping respective communities become more deeply engaged must become a longstanding part of our social fabric. Mechanisms to gamify and award points or prizes and stature for continuing engagement, regardless of the political landscape, are vital to ensuring that democracy remains strong for future generations
Sadly, school curriculums no longer incorporate the role of citizens in the political process. It’s important for children as well as adults to gain insight into the legislative process, elections, issues, how to vote, and how to participate. The information should be accessible, offered in many languages, and well integrated into the education system.
Connection to Daily Life
In the scope of daily life, people tend to lose sight of the connections between our quality of life and social/economic policies unless under extreme circumstances. There is a great need for explanatory
mechanisms that will help people better fathom the impact of legislation and policy upon their lives. Bringing people into democratic processes by means of open debates on national priorities, for example, or making federal budgeting accessible to lay readers, strengthens minds as well as voices. Issues such as Medicare expansion, living wages, estate taxation, long-term capital gains vs income tax, and many other are often at the heart of ongoing liberal vs. conservative debates and pose a great challenge to trans-partisan cooperation. Connecting the dots between the abstract principles of democratic process and hardcore issues should not be an exceptional state of affairs. Rather, it must become a natural part of our lives as citizens.
The well-being of human beings is dependent upon her or his sense of belonging. We both strive for and enjoy meaningful connection with others. Community development is thus an important factor in sustaining civic engagement. True community is antithetical to “insulating bubbles” which lead to ideologically entrenched groups and polarization. It provides a safe place to discuss and resolve differences of thought while being civil and respectful. The best societal outcomes derive from a competition of ideas that should be vetted among people and subject matter experts representing a diversity of perspectives.
People want results. True citizenship requires results. There is, indeed, an essential link between strengthening one’s inner vision for change and concrete change itself. Working together at a large scale (picture, here, a societal flash mob), and outside of typical boundaries or silos, there is no doubt that we will drive substantial change and evolve toward the democracy we all know is possible. The courage to stand up is strengthened both by inspiration and by concrete wins. And the latter requires, once again, keen tactics and strategies that come from the people.
When people strategize, engage in, and achieve important wins – whether it is passing an anti-corruption bill in Florida, an anti-fracking bill in Texas, protecting voter rights where they are under attack, or working to expand Medicare – those who play a role in such outcomes will be empowered by the victory. Likewise, positive change that results from citizen engagement is meaningful and adapted to social context. Such change will not only sustain the spirits and democratic traditions of those involved, it will go down in history as an example for future generations of the significant role of empowerment in the viability of democracy.