I was supposed to keynote the League of Women Voters’ state meeting yesterday, but the event was cancelled due to the weather. I do hate to waste a good rant, so here–for those willing to wade through a longer-than-usual post–are the (slightly edited) observations I’d planned to share.
The news—you will be unsurprised to learn—is not good. At the end of March, the Center for Civic Literacy, which I direct, will join the Indiana Bar Foundation and IU Northwest to release data from the latest Civic Health Index. I don’t intend to step on that release, but I will tell you that Indiana’s civic health is not good. If Indiana was a person, she’d be on life support.
Indiana had one of the lowest turnout rates in the last midterm elections. And although Hoosiers are rarely in the vanguard of anything, we do remain on the cutting edge when it comes to voter suppression tactics—to begin with, we were among the very first states to pass a so-called “voter ID” law. The legal challenge to that law was unsuccessful largely because its actual operation was speculative at that point; since the Seventh Circuit rejected that challenge, it has become clear even to the Judges who voted to uphold the law that its sole purpose was to discourage voting by poor and minority voters who might be expected to vote for Democrats. Voter ID laws were a “remedy” for a non-existent problem—in-person voter fraud.
But the World’s Worst Legislature certainly isn’t resting on its laurels: this session, lawmakers have voted down efforts to change the time the polls close to 8:00—Indiana’s polls close at 6:00, much earlier than most states. This makes it much more difficult for non-professional working people to vote. Lawmakers have also left in place the ability of a single member of a county election board to prevent the establishment of a voting center. Wouldn’t want to make voting more convenient!
Laws making voting more onerous are only one reason among many for low voter turnout and disappointing citizen engagement. I am going to suggest three others that combine to depress interest in government and the electoral process: gerrrymandering, widespread and growing distrust of government, and low levels of civic literacy.
Let’s start with gerrymandering.
The goal of partisan redistricting is to draw as many “safe” seats as possible—more for the party in charge, of course, but also for the minority party, because in order to retain control, the winners need to cram as many of the losers into as few districts as possible, and those districts are safer still. While we have engaged in this effort since Vice-President Gerry’s time (and he signed the Declaration of Independence!), the advent of computers has made the process far, far more efficient.
Neighborhoods, cities, towns, townships—even precincts—are evaluated solely on the basis of voting history, and then broken up to meet the political needs of mapmakers. Numbers are what drive the results—not compactness of districts, not communities of interest, and certainly not democratic competitiveness. There are several consequences of this effort to retain the political edge, none pretty but some worse than others:
1) The interests of cities, neighborhoods, etc., are less likely to be represented.
2) Safe districts create sloppy legislation: if you are guaranteed victory every election, it is hard to be motivated and interested, easy to become lazy and arrogant.
3) Party preoccupation with gerrymandering consumes an enormous amount of money and energy that could arguably be better directed (although given the Indiana legislature’s fixation on disabling environmental regulations, enabling religious discrimination and privatizing education, maybe not.)
4) Safe seats allow politicians to scuttle popular measures—or sponsor unpopular ones—without fear of retribution: if you doubt me, just take a look at the current General Assembly! The avalanche of truly awful bills has kept me supplied with blogging fodder, but I’d happily find other things to blog about.
5) Lack of competitiveness makes it impossible to trace campaign donations, since unopposed candidates send their unneeded money to those running in the dwindling number of competitive districts. When the folks with “Family Friendly Libraries” send a check to Rep. Censor, who is unopposed, he then sends it to Sen. MeToo, who is in one of the few hot races; but Sen. MeToo’s campaign report shows only a contribution from Rep. Censor.
More important than all of these negative consequences, however, is the fact that lack of competitiveness breeds voter apathy and reduced political participation. Why vote when the result is foreordained? Why donate to a sure loser? For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner? Why volunteer or put up a yard sign, or attend a political event when those efforts are clearly irrelevant?
It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation: it becomes increasingly difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. The result is that in many of these races, there is either no candidate running from the minority party, or a token, where voters are left with a choice between the anointed and the annoying—marginal candidates who offer no new ideas, no energy, and no challenge of any sort.
We hear a lot about voter apathy, as if it were a moral deficiency of the voters. Allow me to suggest that it may be a highly rational response to noncompetitive politics. Watch those same “apathetic” folks at the local zoning hearing when a liquor store is trying to locate down the block! I would suggest that people save their efforts for places where those efforts might actually count, and thanks to the increasing lack of competitiveness, those places may NOT include the voting booth.
Gerrymandering has also contributed mightily to the polarization of politics, and the gridlock and disaffection such polarization causes. When a safe district disenfranchizes one party, the only way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary—and that generally means that the challenge will come from the “flank” or extreme. In competitive districts, nominees know that they have to run to the middle in order to win a general election. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological voters. So Republican incumbents will be challenged from the Right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the Left. Even where those challenges fail, they are a powerful incentive for the incumbent to toe the line–to placate the most rigid elements of each party. Instead of the system working as intended, with both parties nominating folks they think will be most likely to appeal to the broad middle, we get nominees who play to the base— the most extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide—because those are the voters who show up at the polls.
In “The Big Sort,” Bill Bishop detailed the increasing tendency of Americans to live in areas where others share their values. We can’t eliminate such residential “self-sorting,” a phenomenon that has given us bright blue cities in very red states, but we can and should eliminate the intentional gerrymandering that exacerbates it. If we don’t, it really won’t matter who wins election, because the winner will encounter the intransigence and gridlock that is such a vivid consequence of the current system. That gridlock adds to the pervasive cynicism about government, which further reduces participation.
These truly nefarious effects of partisan redistricting are a major reason we have seen so much erosion of trust in government, but they are hardly the only reason.
So let’s talk about trust—or more accurately, the lack thereof.
Ever since Ronald Reagan said that government was the problem, not the solution, pundits and politicians have been beating on government. The people who want services but don’t want to pay taxes to pay for those services have crippled government’s ability to do many things we want and expect government to do. That disdain for the collective mechanism we call government is a big part of the problem—but there are other reasons as well for our current cynicism and distrust.
The problem is, that distrust infects other aspects of our communal lives.
Political scientists have accumulated a significant amount of data suggesting that over the past decades, Americans have become less trusting of each other. They warn that this erosion of interpersonal social trust—sometimes called social capital—has very negative implications for our ability to govern ourselves.
In 2009, I wrote a book titled Distrust, American Style, in which I argued that the “generalized social trust” our society requires depends upon our ability to trust our social and governing institutions.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but fish rot from the head. When we no longer trust the integrity of our social and governing institutions, that distrust infects everything else.
Many people get it backwards: they blame America’s growing diversity for the erosion of social trust. I disagree. The cure for what ails us doesn’t lie in building a wall between the United States and Mexico, discriminating against Muslims or LGBT folks, or recasting America as a “Christian Nation.” The remedy is to make our governmental, religious and civic institutions trustworthyagain. And we can’t do that without recognizing the pre-eminent role of government, which is an essential “umpire,” enforcing the rules of fair play and setting the standard for our other institutions, both private and nonprofit.
If I am correct, and government has an important role in building trust and social capital, we have a problem. There is a widespread perception right now that our governing institutions are not trustworthy—and there is plenty of evidence that American elected officials—even the non-crazy ones—have pursued policies or behaviors that are actually destructive of social trust. I would include in those policies the “privatization” and “reinventing government” ideology that has grown over the past thirty plus years, which has had the unintended consequence of “hollowing out” not just government, but a substantial segment of the nonprofit and voluntary sector. If healthy and functioning government agencies, and a robust civil society are necessary to the maintenance of trustworthy institutions, such “hollowing out” makes their task infinitely more difficult.
Since Distrust, American Style was written, it has gotten worse. We have had Citizens United and its progeny, we have had a Great Recession brought about by inadequate regulation of venal and greedy financial institutions, and we have seen daily reports of government corruption and incompetence—some true, some not. Which brings me to today’s media environment.
It is always tempting to assert that we live in times that are radically unlike past eras—that somehow, the challenges we face are not only fundamentally different than the problems that confronted our forebears, but worse; to worry that children growing up today are subject to more pernicious influences than children of prior generations. (In Stephanie Coontz’ felicitous phrase, there is a great deal of nostalgia for “the way we never were.”) I grew up in the 1950s, and can personally attest to the fact that all of our contemporary, misty-eyed evocations of that time are revisionist nonsense. The widespread belief that 50s-era Americans all lived like the characters from shows like “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver” is highly inaccurate, to put it mildly. (Ask the African-Americans who were still relegated to separate restrooms and drinking fountains in much of the American South, or the women who couldn’t get equal pay for equal work or a credit rating separate from their husbands.)
Nevertheless—even conceding our human tendency to overstate the effects of social change for good or ill—it is impossible to understand the current cynicism about government without recognizing the profound social changes that have been wrought by communication technologies, most prominently the Internet.
We live today in an incessant babble of information. Some of that information is transmitted through hundreds of cable and broadcast television stations, increasing numbers of which are devoted to news and commentary twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. But it’s the Web that has had the greatest impact on the way we live our daily lives. We read news and commentary from all over the world on line, we shop for goods and services, we communicate with our friends and families, and we consult web-based sources for everything from medical advice to housekeeping hints to comedy routines. When we don’t know something, we Google it. The web is rapidly becoming a repository of all human knowledge—not to mention human rumors, hatreds, gossip, trivia and paranoid fantasies. Picking our way through this landscape requires new skills, new ways of accessing, sorting and evaluating the credibility and value of what we see and hear—and most of us have yet to develop those skills.
Today, anyone with access to the internet can hire a few reporters or “content providers” and create her own media outlet. One result is that the previously hierarchical nature of public knowledge is rapidly diminishing. The time-honored “gatekeeper” function of the press—when journalists decided what constituted news and verified information before publishing it—will soon be a thing of the past, if it isn’t already.
The Web allows like-minded people to connect with each other and form communities that span traditional geographical and political boundaries. It has encouraged—and enabled—a wide array of political and civic activism, and that’s great, but it has also created and facilitated what Eli Pariser calls “the filter bubble”–the ability to live within our preferred “realities” with others who share our biases.
The information revolution is particularly pertinent to the issue of trust in our civic and governing institutions. At no time in human history have citizens been as aware of every failure of competence, every allegation of corruption or malfeasance. At no time have we been as swamped with propaganda and partisan spin. Politicians like to talk about “low-information” voters, but even the most detached American citizen cannot escape hearing about institutional failures on a daily basis, whether those failures are true or not. It may be the case that corruption and ineptitude are no worse than they ever were, but it is certainly the case that information and misinformation about public wrongdoing or incompetence is infinitely more widespread in today’s wired and connected world.
When people do not respect the enterprise that is government, when they suspect their lawmakers have been bought and paid for, is it any wonder they remain detached from it?
Finally, there’s our astonishing lack of civic literacy. Research confirms a correlation between civic knowledge and civic participation, and Americans overall are civically illiterate.
Only 36 percent of Americans can correctly name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. This isn’t a new phenomenon: in a 1998 survey, nearly 94% of teenagers could name the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but only 2.2 percent could name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Most Americans (58%) are unable to identify even a single department in the United States Cabinet. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2006 report on civics competencies found that barely a quarter of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders are proficient in civics, with only five percent of seniors able to identify and explain checks on presidential power. Only 43% of high school seniors could name the two major political parties; only 11% knew the length of a Senator’s term; and only 23% could name the first President of the United States. One scholar has reacted to the 2010 NAEP results by worrying that the amount of civic knowledge in this country may be “too low to sustain democratic governance.”
Here’s the bottom line: when citizens do not understand the most basic structure and purpose of their governing institutions, we shouldn’t be surprised if they fail to recognize the multiple ways that structure affects them, as well as their obligations to their fellow citizens.
When you don’t know that there are three branches of government, and you have a zoning problem or a social security issue—you don’t know where to start, where to go to resolve the issue. You find the system unresponsive and intimidating—and you opt out.
If we are going to encourage more people to participate, to vote, to become involved in electing and monitoring our government at all levels, we have to do at least three things: we have to work for laws that will enable rather than discourage voting, beginning with nonpartisan redistricting; we have to start talking about the things that government does well, while working to make it more ethical and accountable; and we have to raise the level of civic knowledge, so people will know how to do those things and why they matter.
Piece of cake, right?