How Good Governance and Informed Citizenship Can Save America
This is Civic Way’s third commentary on the state of politics in America, outlining some potential strategies for improving governance, rebuilding citizenship and fixing our politics. The first commentary addressed the threat of extremism and the last commentary discussed media extremism and political polarization. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the US.
- Let us rediscover our shared values, redefine what it means to be an American and rewrite the Pledge of Allegiance using the preamble to the Declaration of Independence as our guide
- We should improve government in ways that will improve our politics, starting by reconnecting government at all levels with the people it serves
- We should revitalize our outmoded two-party system, make our parties more competitive, reduce extreme partisanship and restore civility to our politics
- We should make a transformational investment in civic literacy, launch a compulsory national service program and encourage Americans to start thinking for themselves
The country has to awaken every now and then to the fact that
the people are responsible for the government they get. – Harry Truman
Rediscovering our Nation’s Shared Values
American democracy is a victim of good marketing, market segmentation more precisely. Incessantly sliced, diced and resorted into narrow market segments, Americans have lost something essential—how to be part of something much larger like, for instance, a nation. How to think of themselves as Americans.
Market segmentation involves subdividing a market (or a nation) along bright lines—geographic, demographic, psychographic (e.g., traits) and behavioral (e.g., religion and spending habits). It encourages us to think more about specific groups (e.g., married, middle-aged Asian-Americans with a college degree, mid-manager job and Diet-Coke habit) than Americans at large.
Political microtargeting brings market segmentation to politics. Using sophisticated databases, it tracks voter habits much like companies track consumer tendencies. Microtargeting uses specific voter characteristics (e.g., party affiliation, voting frequency, contributions and psychological traits) to help campaigns tailor messaging and ads to smaller and smaller voter groups.
The American electorate is always under a microscope. More frequently analyzed than some endangered species. Subdivided and surveyed to help experts explain voter behavior. The Pew Research Center’s new political typology classifies voters into nine groups based on party affiliation and attitudes. George Packer writes about four factions (i.e., Free America, Smart America, Real America and Just America). The typologies change as fast as the weather.
Our differences aren’t surprising. What is so precarious about this moment is that our divisions are obscuring what used to unite us. If we are to recommit ourselves to the America Project, we ought to give some thought to our civic theology, starting with the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
– Preamble to the Declaration of Independence
Let us renew our definition of an American, with the preamble as our north star. When we vote, we should select candidates who will honor those ideals. When we pay our taxes, we should revisit the social compact those taxes help fund. When we ask soldiers to defend us, we should have no misconceptions about the values they are upholding on our behalf.
Every morning, our children say the Pledge of Allegiance. Since 1954, it has contained the following 31 words:
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
We should update the Pledge of Allegiance to incorporate the core values of the preamble—equality, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and self-governance. And while we’re at it, let’s draft a new National Anthem, one that fully reflects the values first memorialized in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.
America has the greatest story to tell about itself, if we have the maturity to tell it honestly.
– David Brooks
From now on, let’s find ways to remind ourselves every day of the sacrifices, values and hopes the Flag is supposed to represent. Let’s start telling an American story that enlightens and inspires.
Restoring Responsive Governance
[We] resolve that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
In many ways, our governance has improved in recent decades. It is generally more efficient, effective and conscientious, virtually at every level. Despite a determined (and often fruitful) effort to discredit, dismantle and downsize government, it has survived. And, while most improvements have been incremental (if not imperceptible), they have been attained.
Still, there remains considerable room for improvement. The biggest problem is government’s detachment from those people who need it most. The federal government, controlled (or paralyzed) by out-of-touch politicians and self-serving benefactors, suffers from low trust. State governments, saddled with archaic borders and political structures, have become too partisan and meddlesome. Local governments, while far more trusted, are highly fragmented and vulnerable to the whims of state and federal government.
The anti-government sentiments of the last few decades have exacerbated these issues. The nation’s romance with individualism, coupled with the success of many public programs, has tested the public’s dependence on government. The more our society has focused on attaining (and holding) individual wealth, the more indifferent we have become about helping those on the margins. The less we think about the unfortunate, the harder it is to see government’s indispensability.
No American is ever made better off by pulling a fellow American down, and every American is made better off whenever any one of us is made better off. A rising tide raises all boats. – John F. Kennedy
Instead of hoping and waiting for better politics to improve government, we should improve government to improve our politics. We can do this by reconnecting government at all levels with the people it strives to serve. Here are some suggested strategies:
- Increase voter participation – increase voter turnout, expand the franchise, make voting more convenient, reduce red tape, simplify ballots, improve voter education and adopt new rules to strengthen the legitimacy of elections and post-election audits
- Make government more representative – extend statehood to unrepresented populations, rebalance US House elections to ensure more equal representation among districts, modernize the census process and institute more competitive redistricting procedures (i.e., eliminate partisan gerrymandering)
- Enhance legislative performance – eliminate partisan primaries, reform the filibuster, establish new thresholds for guaranteeing up or down votes on bills and restructure legislative and committee procedures to encourage bipartisan negotiation and compromise
- Promote bipartisanship initiatives – develop and refine bipartisan, pragmatic and evidence-based policy initiatives (e.g., public health, democracy and infrastructure) and fund an aggressive bipartisan policy agenda at the federal, state and local levels
- Rebuild the middle class – formulate and implement policies that will improve middle class access, promote economic opportunity and growth, align jobs with local needs, promote education and innovation, reform taxes, improve health care and reward personal responsibility
- Improve public services – expand public surveys and engagement, conduct more aggressive outreach, especially among under-served or alienated populations, strengthen citizen feedback systems and continually revamp services across all constituencies
- Reconnect governments with communities – make local government a safe haven for civil discourse, restore the connection between local governments and their constituencies, rebuild community institutions and empower local governments and galvanize their voters to pursue needed reforms
In a democracy, it is virtually impossible to secure and sustain good governance without the representative consent of the governed. Rededicating ourselves to Lincoln’s call for government of and by the people—all of the people—is the vital first step in that quest.
Restoring Civility to our Politics
Improving governance will rejuvenate our politics. But, as part of that effort, we must redesign our outmoded, and often toxic, two-party system.
If we are to have two major parties, we need them to be competitive, not just combative. If one party is to represent traditional values and the other future progress, they should compare and contrast those competing visions. Conservative principles like stability, rule of law, austerity and accountability. Liberal values like opportunity, tolerance, justice and equality. Rational debates about such competing visions can only benefit our nation. Regrettably, today’s two-party system is no free marketplace of ideas.
We don’t have to abandon the two-party system, but we must increase third-party influence to keep the two major parties honest, that is, more attuned to the long-range implications of their partisanship.
We should start by easing third party formation rules (e.g., by minimizing signature requirements). We should streamline ballot access rules (e.g., filing deadlines and signature requirements) for independent candidates. For independent presidential candidates, we should eliminate ballot access rules that effectively prevent an Electoral College win and improve the access of qualified third-party candidates to debates and public funding.
We also should consider reforms that would force the two major parties to be more inclusive and pragmatic. Replacing partisan primaries with a single non-partisan primary. Eliminating caucuses. Creating independent redistricting commissions. Testing and refining fusion and ranked-choice voting systems.
One more idea to think about. If we really want two major parties, and we want them to be constructively competitive, we might look to the sport of football (soccer). The English football league system comprises four divisions, including the Premier League (Level 1) and Championship League (Level 2). Teams may be promoted or relegated from one level to the next based on performance.
If we made it easier for third parties to rise (and major parties to fall), we could make the overall party system far more competitive. Major parties that disintegrate (like the Whigs in the 19th Century) could be relegated to the next tier which would create a promotional opportunity for one of the larger third parties (e.g., Libertarian, Green or Constitution Party). Party tiers could be defined using objective criteria and party performance could be based on weighted indicators like registration, votes and funding.
Making our politics more competitive will revitalize the political center. Forcing extremists to build coalitions and think more broadly about our nation’s future will mitigate the plague of extremism. Ultimately, a more competitive party system will give us more civil and constructive politics.
Building an Informed, Engaged Citizenry
Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.
– Thomas Jefferson
If we do nothing else, we must make a transformational investment in civic literacy. Now.
Not another federal program that tosses money at all states and localities. Rather, a comprehensive national program that allocates federal matching dollars to every state and school district committed to more robust civic education. A program with sufficient funds to quadruple the instructional time for civic affairs and American history. A program with sound instructional standards stressing honesty, patriotic values and civic engagement.
This is not a new idea. The Civics Secures Democracy Act co-sponsored by Senators Coons and Cornyn would appropriate $1 billion to support civics and US history teaching at every level. While opposed by the Heritage Foundation as a left-wing conspiracy, it is clearly a good faith, bipartisan proposal. In 2018 and 2019, over 30 states debated bills to strengthen civic education in public middle and high schools. The best ideas focus not on teaching students what to think, but how to think, debate and disagree—critically and respectfully.
We also should launch a new national service program for young adults. Again, not a new idea, but an overdue one. A compulsory national service program would require the completion of at least one year of civilian or military service before the age of 25. By incorporating the best features of other programs (e.g., AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, Teach for America and Volunteers in Service to America), the new program would offer a broad range of volunteer services and educational opportunities. It would expose young adults to experiences and people that would expand their horizons and make them better citizens.
It is not only important but mentally invigorating to discuss political matters with people whose opinions differ radically from one’s own. – Eleanor Roosevelt
As individuals, we also must learn to take pride in rejoining and becoming part of a larger tribe—Americans. In service of that noble goal, we should:
- Think critically – cherish curiosity and humility, maintain a healthy skepticism, seek diverse news sources, stay informed, avoid manipulative distractions, respect facts and think for ourselves
- Listen respectfully – seek to understand other views, give others your full attention, ask follow-up questions and leave no doubt that you have truly listened (especially to those with different views)
- Communicate civilly – state your opinions concisely, dispassionately and politely, emphasize how your values and patriotism inform your views and resist any impulse to win or convince
- Vote with vision – select virtuous, qualified leaders who will listen, learn, unify us, appeal to our better angels and govern on behalf of all of us, including future generations
- Enter the arena – increase your impactful engagement in civil affairs, especially at the local level, vote frequently, mobilize others, volunteer, attend public meetings and join public boards
As citizens, we should love our nation enough to honor its founding principles. Enough to respect those with different views, but also enough to repel the arsonists, nihilists, demagogues and racists among us. Enough to vote and participate, but also enough to think for ourselves.