“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia reportedly asked the above question to Benjamin Franklin, who had taken part in the secret deliberations of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. His response underscores the responsibility that citizens have in maintaining this experiment known as The United States of America, the success of which rests upon civic engagement.
The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement finds in their report Civic Engagement and the Changing Transition to Adulthood that “Today’s young adults are less engaged in civic and political activities than their predecessors were 30 years ago. One reason, we argue, is that other aspects of young adulthood have also changed dramatically….As a result, it is not surprising that voting and other forms of engagement are also being delayed. The delay is nevertheless harmful because young adults lose political and civic influence and opportunities to develop skills and networks.”
Unfortunately, rates of civic engagement have been fading for decades, and as the report cited above demonstrates, millennials are much less engaged than earlier generations were. This Wallethub study explores evidence of a growing lack of political engagement among all Americans. Why has this once-cherished American value declined in the last fifty-odd years, and what can we do to reinvigorate it? Why is civic engagement so important?
In this mini brief, we seek to provide our Circle members with a deeper understanding of the importance of Americans’ participation in civic life. We’ll also explain how The Policy Circle helps to build social capital, a crucial element of society strongly related to civic duty, and how you can become a more engaged citizen.
What is Civic Engagement?
How engaged are you in your community? Perhaps you serve on the school board or the PTA or you’re a member of a local charity. Perhaps you read your local paper or quarterly newsletters from your municipality and vote at election time. Or perhaps not. Between work, family, and other commitments, it can be hard to find time to pay attention and get involved, but civic engagement is an essential part of exercising your voice in our society.
But what does civic engagement mean?
Thomas Ehrlich, a former State Department special assistant, board member of the Corporation on National and Community Service, and author of Civic Responsibility and Higher Education offers the following definition:
“Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes….
A morally and civically responsible individual recognizes himself or herself as a member of a larger social fabric and therefore considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own; such an individual is willing to see the moral and civic dimensions of issues, to make and justify informed moral and civic judgments, and to take action when appropriate.”
In other words, people engaged in their communities tend to be more invested in their communities’ health and well being; they see their role in a larger context, beyond only what affects them and their families but society as a whole.
Civic Engagement, Free Markets and the Common Good
Often it is said that good business requires civic engagement. But it’s important to note that converse is true: creating an environment based on free-market principles where human creativity can flourish leads to greater political stability, opportunity and stronger communities.
Milton and Rose Friedman, in their popular book and 1977 TV series, Free to Choose, describe the story of the United States as such:
“The story of the United States is the story of an economic miracle and a political miracle that was made possible by the translation into practice of two sets of ideas both, by a curious coincidence, formulated in documents published the same year, 1776.
One set of ideas was embodied in The Wealth of Nations, the masterpiece that established Adam Smith as the father of modern economics. It analyzes the way in which a market system could combine the freedom of individuals to pursue their own objectives with the extensive cooperation and collaboration needed in the economic field to produce our food, clothing and housing. Adam Smith’s key insight was that both parties to an exchange can benefit and that, so long as cooperation is strictly voluntary, no exchange will take place unless both parties do benefit. No external force, coercion nor violation of freedom is necessary to produce cooperation among individuals who can benefit from participating. That is why, as Adam Smith wrote, an individual who “intends only his own gain” is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”
See this video based on economist Russ Roberts’ poem “It’s a Wonderful Loaf” and how forces independently organize to deliver a representative staple: bread.
The Friedmans continue in Free to Choose that “The second set of ideas was embodied in the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson to express the general sense of his fellow countrymen. It proclaimed a new nation, the first in history established on the principle that every person is entitled to pursue his own values: “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.”
Economic Freedom is an essential requisite for political freedom. By enabling people to cooperate with one another without coercion or central direction, it reduces the area over which political power is exercised. In addition, by dispersing power, the free market provides an offset to whatever concentration of political power may arise.”
Human flourishing happens best in a society where respect for individual rights, self-determination, and free-enterprise are promoted wherever rules are designed: family, small and large businesses, and communities. Civic engagement thrives in a culture that celebrates individual empowerment and personal responsibility.
Ancient Influences: Greece and Rome
The concept of civic duty dates back to the ancient world. This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly features a reproduction of the Athenian oath, which young men pledged in ancient Athens when they came of age. The oath states:
“We will never bring disgrace to this, our city, by any act of dishonesty or cowardice, nor ever desert our suffering comrades in the ranks. We will fight for the ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many; we will revere and obey the city’s law and do our best to incite a like respect and reverence in those above us who are prone to annul and set them at naught. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty, that thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”
“Civic virtue” was also an essential part of the fabric of society in ancient Rome, and this Roman virtue in turn influenced America’s Founding Fathers. “Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Paine, Jay, and Henry signed the Declaration of Independence, framed the Constitution, and formed a nation … our Founding Fathers were formed by, and highly developed as a result of something most of our leaders today don’t have – a classical education,” writes Mike Myatt in Forbes. A classical education is based on the writers and thinkers of classical Greece and Rome and has formed the basis of education for hundreds of years, though modern education has drifted away from this foundation (but that’s a topic for another brief).
Modern Influences: Bowling Alone
Modern-day Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putman is well-known for his writings on civic participation and “social capital” in America. His influential book Bowling Alone, published in 2000, examines how rates of participation in charity leagues, bridge clubs, and groups like the NAACP and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and churches and synagogues started to decline at the end of the 20th century.
“It wasn’t so much that old members dropped out,” writes Putnam, “at least not any more rapidly than age and accidents of life had always meant. But community organizations were no longer continuously revitalized, as they had been in the past, by freshest of new members.”
In earlier writings, he defined “social capital” as “connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called ‘civic virtue.’ The difference is that social capital calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.”
For more on Putnam and social capital, see The Policy Circle’s post, “Social Capital and the Value of the Roundtable Discussion.”
This 2011 report by The Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement National Task Force likewise found that “withdrawal into comfortable enclaves and wariness of others who are different persist, while public confidence in the nation’s political institutions erodes in a downward trajectory” and reported that “among the 172 world democracies, the U.S. ranks 139th in voter participation.”
A 2013 federal report showed “declines in 16 of 20 indicators of civic health, including falling rates of volunteerism and engagement with community organizations and flagging trust in public institutions.”
Why Has Civic Engagement Declined?
The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life lists the following five obstacles to civic engagement:
“Lack of Civility. For most citizens, yelling about politics is a turn-off. But the political arena is fast becoming hostile territory, as politicians and their operatives rely on ad hominem attacks, name-calling, and innuendo over earnest efforts at persuasion. The lack of reasoned discussion and debate introduces noise and distraction into the national conversation, and increasingly alienates the public.
Lack of Attention to Public Affairs. Informed engagement is clearly preferable to uninformed. The research is clear that voters make different choices and consider a wider range of perspectives when they are well informed. Yet sources of substantive news are in decline, and many citizens are losing the hard news habit—or never developing a taste for quality information at all.
Lack of Role Models. Citizens are made, not born. But the forces that can help mold citizenship are in decline. Fewer parents follow the news or talk about public affairs over the dinner table. Fewer politicians seem to exemplify leadership and devotion to public service. Fewer media outlets tell stories that inspire faith in civil society and the political process. Cynicism has become fashionable.
Lack of Civic and Political Skills. Even an informed voter needs more tools to become a full participant in civic life. To make communities better places to live, engaged citizens need to learn the skills of communication, networking, even running for public office.
Lack of Awareness. Reversing the forces of incivility, misinformation, and the active marketing of cynicism will require concerted, collective efforts. Yet many citizens are disillusioned and wary of political life, and so lack the motivation to engage. And too often, our politics only reinforces that wariness.”
Why is Civic Engagement Important?
Democracy – and in our case, our federal republic – depends on citizen participation in civil society. The United States Institute for Peace (USIP) writes, “Civic participation and empowerment refer to a condition in which every citizen has the means to actively engage in the public sphere, including political processes. Under this condition, civil society is empowered, protected, and accountable; the media are present, professional, and independent of government influence; equal access to information and freedom of expression is upheld; and political parties are able to form freely and are protected. Civil society, the media, and political parties can mitigate the potential for violent conflict by providing legitimate public forums and mechanisms for peaceful debate. Through these means, the population can also peacefully participate in politics, provide a check on the government, and influence government policy.”
When citizens are engaged, they can exchange ideas, invest in finding solutions and employ civilized discourse to address the issues facing their communities.
See this TED talk about civic engagement and how one expert is making it “sexy” again:
Policy Circle, Civic Engagement and You
The Policy Circle began as a group of women looking for a way to connect with others to talk about policy and its impact on their families, communities and the country. If laws provide the framework for governing a society, policies are the guiding principles behind those laws and these women sought a better understanding of policy and how they could become more engaged in the civic process. So how does The Policy Circle do that?
First, we emphasize the value of conversation and by focusing on policy rather than politics, we cultivate civil conversation rather than contentious partisan debate.
The Policy Circle’s model of the roundtable discussion allows women to learn from each other and consider members’ varying perspectives and experiences in policy matters. It also builds women’s confidence by creating a safe and welcoming environment for each member to share and make her voice heard, whether she is a stay at home mom, a full-time professional, introverted or extroverted, well-versed in policy or new to the issues.
Marc Vaillancourt, musician and host of the podcast The Conversation Hub, writes in a piece about the power of conversation, “Through conversations relationships are formed, knowledge is shared and, more importantly, life happens and finds meaning.”
Conversation is the arena where women find and strengthen their voices.
Second, The Policy Circle educates women on a range of policy issues including economic growth, poverty, taxation, immigration, healthcare, education and foreign policy, among others, from a limited government, fiscally responsible free-market point of view. Women also learn about the principles of free-market economics and what makes the US exceptional in this regard.
The library of briefs outlined in our “Year of Conversation” topics enable members to think critically about these policy issues and how related policy proposals will affect them, their families, their communities, and the country at large.
The Policy Circle also encourages women to engage with each other and expand their networks outside of The Policy Circle through connecting with outside organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute, state-level think tanks and conferences such as the Women’s Influence and Liberty Conference. These opportunities offer a chance for women to connect outside of Policy Circle discussions, deepen their understanding of policy and expand their networks.
Policy Circle members find that once they better understand policy they have the confidence to engage with others about it and become more interested in how policy plays out in their communities. This looks different for each woman; for some it means having a conversation at Thanksgiving dinner with a brother-in-law on the opposite end of the policy spectrum. For others, it might mean a run for a local board or higher elected office.
It’s transformative when a woman finds her voice.
Beth F., a Circle Leader from Wilmette, Illinois, says she’s noticed changes in herself and the women in her group.
“Like me, the women in my Circle have learned to speak up, especially those whom I noticed were quiet at the start. At each meeting someone learns something which is energizing.
We also have had women in our Circle decide to run for school board, park district board and even Congress. This isn’t our mission but I see it as an extension of what they are learning by being a part of a Circle. Their interest in public service is exciting and very meaningful. ”
To read more about Beth’s experience as a Circle Leader, visit our page, “Meet One of the First Circle Leaders.”
What Can You Do?
To follow in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers of our country and others who came before us, here are some ways we’ve found we can start to “walk the talk” and add value as a citizen:
- Talk about policy with people in your life, be it with your hairdresser, taxi/uber drivers or your kids; talk through how policy impacts behavior and the importance of a free society.
- Follow an issue in your community – sometimes just showing up and asking about the facts can have an impact, e.g. asking for a budget of your local municipality.
- Introduce yourself to your legislator, state comptroller, attorney general and other local elected officials – they want to know their constituents.
- Find a free market think tank in your state and follow them; subscribe to their newsletter and keep up with what is going on in your state. State Policy Network has a directory of think tanks by state.
- Look up national think tanks (AEI, CATO, EdChoice, AFC, Truth in Accounting, Foundation for Economic Education, Foundation for Government Accountability) and read about ways they are having an impact across the country.
- Follow the U.S. House Agenda “A Better Way,” which makes the case for a stronger, safer, and more prosperous America and outlines concrete steps and reforms to:
- Reduce poverty
- Ensure a strong national defense
- Create a stronger and smarter economy
- Make government more accountable, representative, fiscally responsible and transparent
- Improve healthcare with lower costs, greater choice and flexibility
- Reform the tax code to make it simpler, fairer, and more conducive to economic growth
“We the People”
The Preamble to our Constitution begins “We the People.” As citizens it is not only a right but a privilege that we get to influence the governing of our country so that it holds true to the principles outlined in our Constitution. This applies to all levels of government – federal, state and local.
By connecting, learning and becoming engaged, we can ensure that this great experiment known as The United States of America continues to thrive and that we are each doing our part to keep the Republic.
Questions for Discussion
- How engaged are you in your community? Do you remember your parents being involved in civic/community groups and organizations when you were young?
- How would you navigate a conversation on policy issues with someone with whom you disagree?
- How has being a member of The Policy Circle impacted or changed you? If you are just starting out with The Policy Circle, what impact do you hope to see?
- What steps can you take to become more civically engaged? What is within your comfort level and what would be outside of it?
- How would you explain the importance of civic participation to the younger people in your life, be they children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews? Or even other adults?