US has been a beacon of democracy to many throughout the world. So, it is no great leap of faith to believe that saving democracy here is vital for us and the rest of the world. The big question is how to save it?
Saving American democracy will require bold action on three fronts—individual, community and legal. In this newsletter, we address what our communities can do, actions we can take together to revitalize democracy without enacting legislation.
Our constitutional system depends on an informed, engaged citizenry. As de Tocqueville observed, from the republic’s early days, Americans strove to solve problems through consensus. By the late 19th century, democracy became our civic religion, associations proliferated and Robert’s Rules of Order became a best seller. In 1944, Arthur Schlesinger Sr. called civic groups the “greatest school of self-government,” teaching us how to “choose leaders, harmonize differences, and obey the … will of the majority.”
Democracy is a habit learned through repetition. In the US, we practiced democracy by joining civic groups, following civic rules and voting. In recent decades, our civic participation fell sharply. From 1994 to 2004, civic group membership fell by 21%. While the national volunteer rate rose to 28.8% after 9/11, it has fallen since (to 24.9% in 2015). In the last decade, no state’s volunteer rate has risen and 31 states have experienced a decline; even rural and suburban volunteer rates have fallen.
Declining civic participation has many fathers. Job losses, low wages and economic distress dampen our civic spirits. Demographic shifts and cultural anxieties strain our bond with civic institutions. Social isolation, aggressive self-sorting and splintering media (mass and social) fuel the spread of misinformation and conflict. Dark money, toxic politics and frayed values dull our cooperative impulses.
Regrettably, declining volunteerism is but one threat to democracy. Another is that our traditional civic engagement and education platforms—civic groups, schools and churches—teach us precious little about democracy. Civic associations are increasingly managed by salaried professionals leaving members to pay dues and little else (like governance). Schools no longer prepare students for democracy, curtailing civics classes and student self-governance privileges.
It gets worse. Social media, the fastest-growing outlet for our civic sentiments, exacerbate matters. By giving us a convenient platform for immediate grievance-airing (without the cooling effect of direct dialogue), social media give us the illusion of civic participation without the guardrails of human interaction. In our artificial world of smart devices, we can disregard settled civic mores (like accepting the will of the majority).
When civic knowledge, action and collaboration wane, the results pose profound threats to our future. Contempt for civic institutions grows. Susceptibility to demagoguery rises. Civic norms vanish. Power and wealth congeal. Accountability suffers.
Americans have far more political power in groups than they do alone. By founding, leading or joining civic groups, they can disproportionately impact local, state and national politics.
Witness the red-state teacher revolt. In states like Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia, years of tax cuts engendered budget gaps, overcrowded classrooms, teacher compensation cuts, and teacher shortages. But, as legislators learned it was easier to cut taxes than raise them, teacher frustration mounted. Organizing statewide strikes (and walkouts), teachers forced legislators to address the growing crises. Victorious teachers reminded us how civic activism (and democracy) can work.
In Virginia, civic activists transformed state politics. In 2017, a progressive coalition took 15 GOP congressional seats and nearly seized control of the state legislature. In 2019, these activists helped Democrats seize control of the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, reversing earlier Tea Party gains. By acting together, citizens demonstrated their political power.
Citizen assemblies and panels, neglected since Athens, offer another path. Nationally, citizen assemblies debate climate issues (e.g., Scotland and UK), guide big infrastructure projects (e.g., France) and review ballot issues (e.g., Finland and Switzerland). At the state level, the Citizens’ Initiative Review model helps citizens review and summarize ballot measures (e.g., Oregon). Locally, citizen assemblies promote climate policies (e.g., Copenhagen and Gdansk) and citizen review panels support planning (e.g., Toronto).
We should explore several ideas to revitalize civic engagement and collaboration, including the following:
- Build a national network of vibrant local civic groups across metro areas and states
- Design a new local civic action model that communities can use to ensure representative, thorough citizen involvement in big public decisions (e.g., ad hoc or permanent citizen assemblies and panels)
- Develop a playbook to help civic groups mount civic action campaigns (e.g., social media use, online communications, membership recruitment, grassroots organizing and community services)
- Revitalize student self-governance programs (e.g., increase student involvement in schools, churches, civic groups and public commissions and incorporate self-governance programs in core civics curricula
- Promote and deploy promising digital civic education and engagement tools (e.g., Collab) to make public decision-making more inclusive, data-driven and transparent and help citizens organize, grasp issues, compare options, propose solutions and track public actions
- Designate and expand inclusive public and community-owned third places (e.g., community centers and libraries) with ample public amenities (e.g., WiFi) and new services (e.g., license renewal) to galvanize diverse civic gatherings, interaction, dialogue and collaboration
- Support affordable small business workspaces to link entrepreneurs with resources (e.g., intellectual and capital), foster institutional partnerships and build trust across sectors (e.g., Baltimore)
Ironically, by violating longstanding norms and unleashing deep-seated civic passions, national politicians may inadvertently make America great again. As more citizens become informed and involved, using new civic models, strategies and tools, our hopes for revitalizing democracy may yet be realized.
The embarrassing spectacle of our national politics is a symptom of a more profound civic disease. Replacing the current President, for instance, will not restore our civic health. The underlying factors for the rise of demagogues will remain after they fall. Rather, we must find new ways to transcend political divisions, rebuilt mutual trust, come together and attain meaningful civic progress.
Democracy works best when we work together to define problems and chart a pragmatic course for solving those problems. As Pericles wrote, “ordinary citizens … are … fair judges of public matters … and … discussion [is not] a stumbling-block in the way of action [but] an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.” The costs of continued paralysis should alarm us. The potential benefits of renewing our collective commitment to civic action should inspire us.