The Power of Civic Engagement
Our op-ed pages carry the cries for action—populism, centrism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism and all manner of hybrid isms. Go left. Go right. Double down on the center. Each expert makes his or her case with varying degrees of persuasiveness, but most miss a fundamental point about America. We are not and have never been a one-size-fits-all nation. No matter how much money is spent by autocrats on national campaigns, we will remain a nation of communities. Our vision of America must be attained one community at a time, not just from the top down.
Civic engagement fosters trust in government and enhances our ability to compete. Yet, there can be no doubt that our interest in civic affairs is waning. Voter participation, a key indicator of civic engagement, is pathetic. The US voter turnout rate for congressional elections is the lowest of the world’s 39 developed nations, and less than half that of many nations. In 2014, our mid-term turnout, at just over 36%, was the lowest in 72 years). Our local election voter turnout struggles to reach 20%.
The causal factors for this trend, such as poor civic education and biased media, are complex, but the results are clear. As our ignorance of civic affairs grows and the partisan noise worsens, we cede more power to wealthy elites. Thoughtful voices and ideas are muffled by the din of shrill ideologies. Among most citizens, staggering indifference and alienation prevail. Favorability ratings of civic institutions plummet. Rising citizen distrust and anger manifest themselves in nascent waves of faux populism. More and more us opt out of the civic enterprise.
Can this dispiriting trend in the world’s most important democracy be reversed? Yes, if we take advantage of the opportunities at our doorstep.
We are witnessing profound shifts in the way we keep in touch with the world. Data is more varied, accessible and personalized. We increasingly use our hand-held devices to answer questions, solve problems and track current events. As data threatens to overwhelm us, we will seek tools to manage it. For example, our appetite for civic ratings will likely grow (e.g., best hospitals and colleges). As new web-based media proliferate, some of us will likely seek media platforms with reliable journalistic standards and credible, concise data.
The good news is that technology offers a promising catalyst for the very community building that our country so desperately needs. The rising use of social media, coupled with immediate data accessibility, is accelerating the networking of previously disconnected persons. Crowdsourcing can help replenish web-based content and spur civic innovation. Market-matching, with a dizzying array of algorithm-based tools, can not only help match buyers and sellers, but link volunteers with civic initiatives. Crowdfunding offers a dynamic (and ubiquitous) engine for raising funds for civic groups and initiatives.
One of humanity’s great gifts is its capacity for networking. While we often glorify the individual, most of our greatest achievements have been the result of human networking. For example, while most of us know Turing’s Nazi code decryption activities during WWII, few of us are aware of the collective codebreaking efforts of America’s 11,000 anonymous female cryptanalysts. Codebreaking helped end the war, but it involved more than the heroic efforts of one person. It was the culmination of extensive networking, careful organization, selfless teamwork and smart systems thinking. And it was made possible by a systemic approach to information gathering, record-keeping, file maintenance, pattern recognition and data storage.
This phenomenon is arguably even more true in politics. We glorify our “Founding Fathers,” but our republic is the byproduct of networking. It is the product not just of inspiration, but of debate, dissension and compromise, not of a few, but of the many. More recently, in the 2017 off-year elections, we saw another example of the power of local organizing and networking. In Chesterfield County Virginia, an affluent suburban county of Richmond, citizens organized to upend the political status quo. Leveraging new technology and the support of national groups like Mobilize America and Higher Ground Labs, citizens arose to achieve historic electoral results.
The lesson is clear. Technological developments may be harbingers of a new era of political activism, but only if we exploit their potential—systematically and resolutely. We must know what we want to accomplish with the technologies, that is, we must define our values and goals. We must understand who we are and whose interests we want to advance, that is, we must organize our respective communities around shared values and goals. And we must determine how to best use the technologies. This will mean thinking about the best ways to sell and carry out our strategies (e.g., media partners, distribution channels, data systems and reporting formats).
To realize America’s promise, we must attain our vision one community at a time. We should use emerging technologies to reconnect and reengage citizens where they live, learn and work. We should give each community the tools it needs to strengthen its capacity for articulating and realizing its vision. In each community, we should embrace practical solutions and seize the common ground in which we can plant those solutions. This is our time to leave partisan sniping behind and do what is right for our nation, states and communities. If we are smart, our moment will be sustained.