Some pundits think liberal democracy is on the ropes, around the world and here, a view for which there is considerable evidence. Others think our institutions can overcome such threats. Since every democracy is fragile, we should do everything we can to preserve ours.
What can we do? Saving American democracy requires three types of action—individual, community and governmental. In the first of our three-part democracy series, we proposed individual actions. In the second part, community actions. Here, we discuss steps that governments can take.
Our democracy is threatened by many forces, some beyond governmental reach. Those highlighted below could be confronted with new public initiatives, laws, policies and investments.
First, public faith in government has plunged. The Pew Research Center says only 18% of us trust government “always or most of the time,” down from 62% in 1968. The flood of money into politics and extreme gerrymandering make government appear insensitive to ordinary citizens.
Other trends reinforce these perceptions. The arcane rules and intractable polarization of Congress. The partisan tilt of the courts. The rise of federal administrative rule-making. The stagnation of state bureaucracies. The fragmentation of local governments. The dearth of news stories about good government. As faith in government falls, the receptivity for fear mongering, inflammatory rhetoric and simple solutions grows and public support for democracy wanes.
Second, our voter participation levels are embarrassing. While over 70% of eligible Americans are registered to vote, national turnout rates remain low, especially compared to other established democracies. State and local voter turnout rates are even lower. In 2019, 63 of America’s 100 largest cities (with over 47 million citizens) held elections, many with turnout rates below 20%. Down-ballot races (e.g., judge) garner even less participation.
Third, as more civic engagement efforts have become proforma, they’ve become ineffectual, and even detrimental. Routinely required since the epic Jane Jacobs-Robert Moses struggle, public meetings have become predictable. Many civic engagement processes have devolved into complaint forums, distorting public opinion. In some cases, public input processes have even impeded civic progress (e.g., Boston’s Big Dig and Austin’s CodeNext zoning revamp projects).
Fourth, our nation’s long-standing commitment to civic education has flagged. With George Washington’s urging, we invested in civic education and, for most of our first 200 years, strove to prepare youth for citizenship. Until recently, most high school students received multiple civics courses. But, after the enactment of No Child Left Behind, standardized state tests began stressing math and English, most schools shifted instructional resources to STEM and most parents lost interest in civics. By 2017, per the Education Commission of the States, the situation for urban schools was even worse.
In Rhode Island, citizens filed a federal class-action suit against the state for failing to mandate civics classes for students and prepare young people for citizenship. They want the federal court to affirm the constitutional right of students to an adequate civics education—one that prepares them for voting, jury duty and other civic duties—and force the state to upgrade civic education.
Fifth, objective news sources are scarce. The loss of traditional revenue sources for local newspapers (and their subsequent downsizing and demise), coupled with the challenging market for balanced digital news outlets, has shattered our shared national narrative. The simultaneous proliferation of biased internet media and ideological echo chambers that loathe compromise and disseminate strident partisan rhetoric.
Finally, as objective news sources struggle, unfettered social media platforms prosper. Preying on our natural cognitive frailties, social networks spread misinformation and accelerate anger. Their corrosive influence is becoming all too clear. Lies are retweeted faster than truths and inflammatory posts travel faster than reasoned arguments. The line between opinion and fact—the cornerstone of any functioning democracy—becomes hopelessly blurred.
Declining public trust, dismal voting rates, outmoded engagement mechanisms, under-funded civic education, thriving social media and collapsing journalism. These trends weaken our democracy, but also offer pathways for transformative public initiatives. State and local governments, which directly serve citizens, are well-positioned to regain public trust. A renewed commitment to civic education could yield a new generation of enlightened civic leaders. Consumer comfort with digital platforms and news feeds could increase their receptivity to similar platforms for government.
Recommended Government Strategies
What can state and local government do to help revitalize our democratic processes? As it turns out, quite a lot—with the right leadership and political will. Our initial blueprint is outlined below.
- Make government more responsible and accountable – We will address this issue in more detail in a subsequent newsletter, but government must continually improve to earn and keep the public trust. Executive agencies must be more efficient. Legislative bodies must be more agile (e.g., abolish filibuster) and ethical (e.g., strengthen conflicts of interest rules). And the courts must be less partisan.
- Enact state laws promoting political competition – Every state must recommit itself to the free market of political ideas. Each party must see each upcoming election as a genuine opportunity to promote its agenda and elect candidates that will champion that agenda. For example, each state should:
- Tighten the disclosure of political donations and increase public campaign financing
- Remove elected officials from the redistricting process and eliminate gerrymandering
- Streamline voter registration (e.g., automatic, same-day and linked registration)
- Offer incentives to private entities to help tenants or employees secure their voter registration
- Improve voter access (e.g., convenient identification, voting sites and voting times)
- Simplify elections (e.g., merge offices, appoint others and shorten ballot)
- Ensure that more elections reflect voter preferences (e.g., test ranked choice voting)
We will return to this issue in a subsequent newsletter.
- Advocate public-private voting initiatives – State and local government should work together—and with private partners—to boost voter participation. For instance:
- Encourage local high schools to share registration materials with students and submit completed forms to local election administrators
- Integrate public services with voter registration systems to help citizens register when obtaining a government benefit, service or license (e.g., housing voucher, parking permit or library card renewal)
- Allocate local funds for designing, printing and distributing local voter education materials and promoting voter registration and election day events
- Offer special, discounted or free election day transportation services
- Upgrade polling site staff (e.g., recruit bilingual workers and improve training)
State and local governments should make voter turnout one of their top priorities.
- Expand and energize civic engagement networks and processes – Civic engagement should be more than an empty gesture. We should redesign public hearings and panel sessions to be more productive. We should build a model citizen engagement process that influences big public decisions (e.g., plans, budgets, projects and ballot issues). We should employ technologies to improve data sharing and services across agencies and jurisdictions. And we should use proven crowd-sourcing platforms for tracking government performance and restoring accountability.
- Improve civic education in public schools, colleges and universities – Ill-informed citizens cannot be expected to make wise voting decisions. If Forrest Gump was right, that “stupid is as stupid does,” we cannot revitalize our politics without better civic education. While this investment could be costly, the costs of doing nothing could be staggering (and irrevocable). Every state should endorse a clear constitutional right to a civic education. Every state should mandate civics teacher training, civics courses and student self-governance. And every public school, community college and university should have robust civics curricula, instructional materials and teacher training guides.
- Invest in digital media that keep voters informed – We must harness new technologies for the public good. To replace the disappearing traditional newspapers, large states and community foundations should spur the creation of nonprofit, independent digital news outlets to provide a reliable, objective source of news. Universities and foundations should fund easy-to-use tools for rating news sources. In addition, private groups should start rating news sources, much like they do for other consumer products. Finally, states should require social media firms to identify dubious sources and assess content.
These initiatives offer many benefits. More responsive, accountable government will engender stronger communities. Easier voter registration will enhance voter turnout and broaden civic participation. Improved civic engagement will enrich public decisions. Informed citizens will select more qualified leaders. Finally, more balanced, reliable and visually compelling information will help voters think for themselves.
We must step back from today’s hyper-partisanship, too often inflamed by leaders who place self above country. We must reject the illusion that merely removing one person from office—even one so toxic as the current White House occupant, will magically rejuvenate our politics or restore our civic discourse.
The long-term viability of our democracy depends on ordinary citizens demanding that it work for them. This requires most citizens to not know a lot about how to fix democracies, but also how to use democratic processes to improve their communities. State and local government can be invaluable partners in this effort.