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“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:
“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; 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?
Listen to The Civic Leader Podcast for an audio version of this brief.
Running for local office is one of the best ways to make a difference in a community, but most people don’t know where to even begin. In Austin, Texas, it’s not so difficult with the ATXelerator program. The program seeks to identify, educate, and support local civic leaders and the general public regarding public policy and service, and its three-month program specifically trains and educates potential candidates for local offices such as city councils or local boards and commissions. Mentors in the program are current or former elected officials and community leaders, who teach participants classes on various issues pertaining to communities from land use and economic development to social equity and homelessness.
What makes the ATXelerator program stand out is its tech-accelerator model – like Shark Tank, but applied to local politics. Participants are immersed in the world of government operations and issues facing their community, and end their experience with a pitch that allows them to propose a policy platform that they would advocate in a hypothetical race. Regardless of the route participants take after they complete their training, the program seeks to give citizens the tools they need to “handle the big issues that growing cities face.”
Why it Matters
Democracy – and in our case, a federal republic – depends on citizens’ participation. When citizens are engaged, they can exchange ideas, invest in finding solutions and employ civilized discourse to address the issues facing their communities. People have the freedom to participate in and influence government policy, acting as a check on the government. The media are also present and independent of government influence, and provide equal access to information. All of this unites people under a shared purpose, which builds trust, empathy, and human connections, and support bases.
See this TED talk about civic engagement and how one expert is making it “sexy” again:
Putting it in Context
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, 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.”
Taking action can include some of the key focal points of civic engagement:
- Political participation through voting, voter registration, or being an election judge;
- Educating Americans on government and history;
- Volunteering in organizations that build community well-being;
- Advocating for legislation and models;
- Representing fellow citizens by appointment or election
You can see a broader spectrum of civic engagement here. All of these actions demonstrate how civic engagement is about engaging people in a process of self governance. Values associated with fostering civic engagement are:
- Trusting and respecting how a community wants to take action for itself;
- Creating agency and power in people, particularly those most affected by an issue;
- Nurturing or fostering healthier, stronger, happier places to live;
- Engaging community members in a processes that affect them and their communities;
- Promoting transparency and participation
People engaged in their communities tend to be more invested in their communities’ health and well-being. When people volunteer their time, skills, knowledge, and enthusiasm to promote the quality of their community, they exhibit civic leadership by finding ways to positively impact their communities for the common good. They see their role in a larger context, beyond only what affects them and their families to what affects society as a whole.
The concept of civic duty dates back to the ancient world. In ancient Athens and ancient Rome, “civic virtue” was an essential part of the fabric of society and is believed to have influenced America’s Founding Fathers. According to Mike Myatt in Forbes, “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.”
In the 1830s, French sociologist and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the United States and was struck by American civil society and civic engagement. He documented his observations in Democracy in America, explaining, “If men who live in democratic countries had neither the right nor the taste to unite in political goals, their independence would run great risks…if they did not acquire the practice of associating with each other in ordinary life, civilization itself would be in peril.”
Almost 200 years later, Tocqueville’s acknowledgements remain true: A healthy democracy requires civil associations and a society willing to work together for the common good. For this reason, many modern-day scholars are concerned by the apparent decline in civic engagement. Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam is well-known for his writings on American civic participation and “social capital.” His influential book Bowling Alone, published in 2000, examines how rates of participation in charity leagues, bridge clubs, groups like the NAACP and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and churches and synagogues started to decline at the end of the 20th century.
For more on Putnam and social capital, see The Policy Circle’s post, “Social Capital and the Value of the Roundtable Discussion” or The Policy Circle’s Stitching the Fabric of Neighborhoods brief.
By the Numbers
Civic engagement takes many forms, from volunteering to voting. Global estimates from the UN’s State of the World’s Volunteerism Report place the number of worldwide volunteers at close to 1 billion, the equivalent of 109 million full time workers. If the number of volunteers were to comprise a country, it would constitute the fifth largest country in the world, two places behind the U.S.’s 149 million employed people. On average, 30% of volunteers volunteer formally through organizations, associations, and groups, while the remaining 70% volunteer through informal engagement. Women (57%) are also more likely to volunteer than men (43%).
In the U.S., levels of civic engagement have been falling in recent decades, as evidenced in Robert Putnam’s work. This 2011 report by The Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement National Task Force 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.” A similar federal report produced in 2013 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.” Only 20% of Americans express trust in the government.
Engagement in terms of voting has been low as well. Over 140 million eligible Americans did not vote in the 2014 midterms, marking the lowest voter participation in 72 years. In the 2016 presidential election, only about 64% of the voting age population registered and voter turnout amounted to 55.7%, meaning close to 92 million eligible American voters did not vote. Based on the 2016 turnout, PEW Research reports the U.S. ranked 30th out of 35 OECD countries in terms of voter participation, although voter turnout in 2020 surged to its highest levels in at least four decades.
The U.S. Elections Project explores in depth U.S. voter participation.
Civic Engagement, Free Markets, and the Common Good
Milton and Rose Friedman, in their popular book and 1977 TV series, Free to Choose, describe the story of the United States as “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 Adam Smith’s 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. The key insight was that no external force, coercion, or violation of freedom is necessary to produce cooperation among individuals who can benefit from participating.
The second set of ideas came from 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, allowing people to cooperate with one another without coercion or central direction. Dispersing power offsets 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.
Current Challenges and Areas for Reform
The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life lists the following five obstacles to civic engagement:
- Lack of Civility – For many citizens, politics is seen as “hostile territory,” and “lack of reasoned discussion and debate” alienates public participation and dialogue.
- Lack of Attention to Public Affairs – Trust in news sources is on the decline. Many citizens are unsure of where to go for information, leaving them less likely to be informed about a wide range of perspectives, and even less likely to be engaged.
- Lack of Role Models – “Citizens are made, not born,” but with fewer discussions about public affairs and fewer politicians exemplifying “leadership and devotion to public service,” there are fewer opportunities for a civic-minded population.
- Lack of Civic and Political Skills – Communication, networking, and even running for public office are processes and skills can help engaged citizens make communities better places to live.
- Lack of Awareness – The combined forces of “incivility, misinformation, and the active marketing of cynicism” have left many citizens disillusioned and unmotivated to engage in their communities.
Civics education prepares students to be “effective citizens, voters, and members of their communities” by “providing students with an understanding of how democratic processes work, as well as how to engage in these processes” and “participate in the civic life of their communities.” It often includes classroom instruction in government, history and law as well as components involving current events and service learning.
According to a 2018 Education Week study, most states embed civics into their teaching standards and leave the school districts to determine how to package civics into instruction. Still, not all states require high school students to take a year-long civics or government class in order to graduate. And it shows: according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, only 39% of Americans could correctly name all three branches of government.
At the post-secondary level, concern “about the nation’s anemic civic health” prompted the U.S. Department of Education to work with the Global Perspectives Institute, Inc. (now Global Perspectives Institute, GPI) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) to assess “the status and vibrancy of civic learning in colleges and universities” and determine “how to animate education for democracy as a twenty-first-century outcome of college.”
The Center for American Progress reports the policy that has gained the most momentum is the standard that requires high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship exam, or a version of it, in order to graduate. Critics maintain the exam does little to measure comprehension of material, and creates an additional barrier to high school graduation. Supporters reason that students should need to pass the exam if immigrants must pass the exam, and studies demonstrate too few students given the test pass it.
The Civic Literacy Curriculum at the Arizona State University’s Center for Political Thought (previously of the Joe Foss Institute) has inspired over 30 states to establish civics proficiency requirements for high school graduation, half of which have adopted some form of the citizenship exam in those requirements. The initiative additionally includes “lesson plans and an interactive online curriculum that promote deeper understanding of civics concepts.” The Civic Education Program at The Philanthropy Roundtable has also compiled a list of more organizations promoting civic engagement and education projects, including many that provide middle and high school students opportunities to learn about civics and government, and to engage in civic leadership activities.
John Dickerson of CBS shares with Khan Academy why studying government and civics is important:
Interested in learning more? Check out instructional and educational videos on U.S. government, civics, and the Constitution from Khan Academy or the Constitution Center, or see The Policy Circle’s U.S. Constitution brief.
Local leaders are in charge of developing policies and initiatives that impact the day-to-day lives of citizens in their communities. But lack of communication between residents and municipal leaders is common, and often leads to confusion or misunderstandings. Opportunities to bridge those gaps and foster a deeper sense of appreciation are powerful means of engagement. One such method is through Citizens Academies, featured on the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) website. ICMA is an association of professional city and county managers and other employees who serve local governments.
A Citizens Academy is “a course or program that teaches residents about their local government and encourages them to engage” by supplying residents with clear and reliable information about government services and developing their community leadership skills. These Citizen Academies are often organized by city management, such as boards of county commissioners, administrators, and community involvement and affairs coordinators.
In communities across the country, local governments and residents serving on boards and commissions teamed up to form their own Citizen Academies to teach residents how their communities function and encourage residents to engage and communicate with municipal leaders. In Massachusetts, the citizen academy prompted community residents to serve on community committees and boards. In Ohio, mistrust of the local government was replaced by greater understanding and more frequent interactions between municipal leaders and residents. In Pennsylvania, local business owners and even college students have participated in Citizens Academy sessions to learn how residents can further engage in their communities. It is this kind of civic engagement that reflects a capacity for constantly bettering our environments.
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. To ensure this happens, it is essential for all citizens to not only learn about and understand how the government functions, but also actively participate in these systems.
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Ways to Get Involved/What Can You Do
The 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?
The Policy Circle emphasizes the value of conversation, and by focusing on policy rather than politics, cultivates 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 Villaincourt, musician and host of the podcast The Conversation Hub, says in an interview on the power of conversation, “Through conversation…relationships are formed; through conversation…knowledge is shared; and, through conversation…life happens and finds meaning.”
Conversation is the arena where women find and strengthen their voices.
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 “How to Choose a Brief” page enables 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 encourages women to connect and engage with each other and with other organizations, 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. For example, in January 2020 the Indiana State Leadership Council of The Policy Circle hosted an event to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment. You can read about the event here and learn more about The Policy Circle’s Connector Program here.
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 and the experiences of other as Circle Leaders here.
Putting Conversations to Work
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:
- Brush up on American Citizenship yourself, and introduce civics to young people in your life that you mentor.
- Engage in initiatives that teach civics in your local schools, high-school, community colleges, or initiate a project such as a Citizen Academy with your city. Here are some civic engagement projects making an impact.
- Participate in Voter Registration initiatives, and visit Ballotpedia.com to find out what will be on your ballot in the upcoming election.
- Consider becoming an Election Judge (read and discuss The Policy Circle’s Elections & Election Integrity Brief)
- Find out what are the public policy research centers in your state by visiting SPN’s directory by state and by issue.
- Put Conversations to Work and Engage Locally — see the following proposed steps to engage further.
More Steps to Civic Engagement
How do you want to move the needle on an issue? Consider these steps, outlined at The Policy Circle’s 2019 Summit, for becoming an engaged member of your community:
- Does your community know your name?
Consider how well you know your community, and how well they know you. To begin getting involved, the trick is to start local. Issues and stories are local – the best place is right on your block.
- Do your neighbors know your name?
- Do the owners of neighborhood shops and restaurants know you?
- If you have kids, do parents at your kids’ school know you? Or have you participated in children’s school life?
- Do religious leaders, of your denomination or not, know you?
2. Do you know your local government?
Whether you are interested in being a national leader or getting involved in your state, leadership starts locally and radiates out. To expand your network and understand local challenges and what is happening in your community, you need to know your local government and how your city works.
- Met the teams that run your town (such as police/fire, infrastructure/engineering, economic development, parks and recreation, energy, communications?)
- Familiarized yourself with how decisions are made, the commissions that make them, and who determines who runs for elected positions?
- Met school principals and district chairs?
- Interacted with local elected officials, such as trustees/aldermen or school board members?
- Investigated what structures in your town influence who runs for office? In some states there are local self-appointed caucuses.
- Considered becoming an Election Judge?
3. Have you developed your financial acumen?
Interacting with the people who lead your community and local city agencies is key to being further involved and becoming a leader. A large component of this is knowing how to responsibly manage the finances that keep your community running smoothly. Part of being a leader involved developing a financial acumen and knowing where to focus your time. Reviewing the financial of your town is also a great focus for your Policy Circle.
Do you know:
- The budgets of your town, library, school, or certain enacted policies?
- How community investments are managed?
- Your state finances and treasury?
- The finances of your company or nonprofits with which you are affiliated?
4. Do you know how the most vulnerable are assisted in your community?
The most vulnerable in your community are also the most likely to be overlooked. Caring for neighbors in need, families in crisis, and the community at large is the kind of work done “on the ground” but is also key to being able to connect the dots, foster connections, and make an impact. Part of this entails knowing and understanding services provided.
How familiar are you with:
- Healthcare facilities?
- Advocacy organizations (such as for mental health or homeless shelters)?
- Integration and opportunities for lower income residents?
- Youth Centers and Social Services Department?
- Organizations and your city’s committees that assist and welcome:
- People with intellectual disabilities
5. Have you built your network of community influencers?
Civic leaders are not lone riders; they have broad networks of people with various expertise, focuses, and backgrounds. They themselves can demonstrate their abilities by assuming roles in the networks related to their professions, and ensuring other roles are properly filled. This involves knowing how to play a leadership role in your community and community’s association, knowing where to start, and how to prioritize.
- Are you a local or national leader in your Chamber of Commerce, industry, or association?
- Do you know your local business owners or nonprofit leaders?
- Are you familiar with the Community Development offices in your city, or the Economic Development Committees?
- Have you facilitated your company’s participation in local events?
- Are you active in local clubs?
- Do you know your local civic influencers, such as Policy Circle members, the League of Women Voters, or local watchdogs?
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.
Suggestions for your Next Conversation
Explore the Series
This brief is part of a series of recommended conversations designed for circle's wishing to pursue a specific focus for the year. Each series recommends "5" briefs to provide a year of conversations.