Tag Archives: civic participation

Charlottesville’s Mayor Assigns Homework

The Mayor of Charlottesville seems an impressive guy. I say this even though I’m still bemused by the tepid response of his police department during the demonstrations–good practice would have kept the neo-Nazis and counter-demonstrators separated.

That said, Mayor Signer exhibited the forcefulness that the city’s policing lacked, both in public statements in the aftermath of the demonstrations, and in a letter published by the New York Times. Unlike other elected officials who were reluctant to “call out” the President, the Mayor called it like he saw it.

Asked about Trump’s culpability, he responded

I mean, look at the intentional courting both on the one hand of all these white supremacists, white nationalist group like that, anti-Semitic groups. And then look on the other hand the repeated failure to step up,condemn, denounce, silence, you know, put to bed all those different efforts just like we saw yesterday. I mean this is not hard.

In his essay in the Times, the Mayor considered the underlying issues raised by the conflict.

We start with a paradox: It was only because we live in a strong democracy, with a robust commitment to free speech, that these people were able to march in the first place. Narrowly speaking, their presence was in a way an expression of our democratic values, even as they sought to destroy them. In response, we must find an answer that both fights back against voices of hate, but at the same time stays true to the values that undergird our community in the first place.

As both the mayor of Charlottesville — a city steeped in the legacy of Thomas Jefferson — and the author of a biography of James Madison, I believe our answers lie in what I think of as the “soul” of the founders’ vision.

The Mayor went on to describe the mechanics of our system, the checks and balances and legal constraints that we depend upon to keep our polity functioning– but then he made an important point. The mechanics, he wrote, are nothing without the norms and values that enable us to collectively solve problems without force, violence and intimidation.

The people who visited terror on us last weekend were using the mechanics of the Constitution — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly — to attack its soul, to set fire to the pillars of civility, deliberation, compromise, tolerance and reconciliation that underwrite our system of government.

Signer noted that events like those in Charlottesville elicit calls for restricting the rights that allow such protests to occur, and he warned against going down that path.

It’s counterintuitive, but our democracy has often been at its best when our constitutional soul has been poked and prodded and has stood up on its hind legs to defend itself.

So–if retreating from our constitutional liberties is not the proper response, what is? Signer doesn’t simply recite platitudes; he spells out who should do what: companies must use their weight to press for tolerance and diversity, “whether that means pressuring states on transgender bathroom laws or refusing to sell services to groups that advocate hate.” Colleges and universities must “recommit to instilling the values of deliberation and civility in their students.” News organizations must not only convey correct facts, but “present contextual and fact-checking resources.”

It means a broad social commitment to organizations telling the stories of embattled minorities, whether Muslim Americans or L.G.B.T.Q. youth, so they are humanized to the rest of the country. It means law firms dedicating pro bono hours to stand up for the rights of the harassed and the oppressed.

It means mentors teaching young folks that they don’t always have to fight to get what they want, that carrots often work better than sticks. It means government agencies using negotiation rather than just mandates. It means politicians agreeing to sit down together and negotiate, rather than lob hopeless bombs.

And it means governments finally telling the truth about race in our history. It means strong new programs to build bridges between isolated communities. And yes, it means political parties and organizations actively reaching out to the economically dispossessed, who feel left behind by today’s cultural and economic changes.

I read this letter as a call for active and informed citizenship, and at this moment in our national life, a properly mobilized and informed citizenry is probably the only thing that will save us.

Electing the Problems

I don’t know how many conversations I’ve had with people who couldn’t understand how the Indiana legislature could [fill in the blank with your choice of the biggest travesty]. During the just-concluded session, Republicans and Democrats alike posted highly critical messages to FB and Twitter, most of which involved some version of “what is the matter with these people?”

So– who elected these folks?

The Center for Civic Literacy recently worked with the Indiana Bar Foundation and others on the most recent iteration of the Civic Health Index, a periodic state by state measurement of civic engagement. In Indiana, the effort is co-chaired by Randy Shepard and Lee Hamilton, and the survey results may give us a clue about why so many elected officials in Indiana—not just in the legislature—are so disconnected from the attitudes and policy preferences of so many Hoosiers. That disconnect, as we saw with RFRA, leaves them susceptible to small but highly motivated interest group lobbyists.

Let me just share a few of the most pertinent metrics.

  • 6.5% of Hoosiers report working with neighbors to solve a community problem.  Indiana ranks 47th among the states.
  • 17.5% of us participate in associations or organizations. We rank 44th.
  • 69.2% of those who are eligible are registered to vote. We rank 37th.
  • In a presidential year, 69.2% of us vote. We rank 37th.
  • In the last off-year election, as you may have heard, 39.4% voted, ranking Indiana dead last among the states.
  • Only 11% of Hoosiers report ever contacting a public official. We rank 30th.

There is considerable evidence that higher levels of civic knowledge correlate with increased civic engagement. The statistics on civic knowledge are incredibly depressing: only 36% percent of Americans know that we have three branches of government, 58% cannot name a single federal Cabinet department—it goes on and on. People who don’t know how government works don’t participate in self-government.

The Center for Civic Literacy was formed to examine the causes and consequences of low civic literacy. Lack of participation is one of those consequences.

The question we can’t answer–at least, not yet–is: what would it take to get more people involved? What needs to happen in order to get more people out to vote? There are certainly reasons other than low civic literacy for low levels of civic participation—lack of competitive contests in gerrymandered districts, for example– but until we raise the level of citizens’ knowledge, we aren’t going to raise their levels of participation.

And without significantly higher levels of informed participation, we’ll just keep electing our problems.

Wages, Poverty and Civic Participation

Pew’s Research Center recently noted that financial insecurity has a range of what it called “secondary effects” for communities, including diminished participation in civic and political life.

The question that immediately occurred to me was: is this a feature, or a bug?

Ever since Ronald Reagan identified government as the problem rather than the solution, the ascendant radical right has worked tirelessly (and successfully) to remove or reduce the social supports available to poor Americans through government.  At the same time, the GOP has worked to discourage or suppress the votes of those same Americans.

In today’s America, the financially secure have what political scientists call “voice.” Even before Citizens United and its progeny, the well-to-do could and did donate huge sums to favored politicians. The corporations that are “people”(!) can and do hire well-connected lobbyists to ensure that their interests are represented in the halls of power. As Pew has now pointed out, the financially secure are also much more likely to vote.

Voting is the only way financially insecure folks have voice. If enough poor people voted, it would be much more difficult to fashion a government protective of privilege. Keeping poor folks from the polls is thus in the (short term) interest of the well-off.

As Pete, who frequently comments here has pointed out, these aspects of our civic landscape are not the hallmarks of a democracy; they are the attributes of oligarchy.

One problem with oligarchy is that its goals tend to be both short-term and short-sighted.

If we don’t reverse course soon, if we don’t take the boots of the advantaged off the necks of the impoverished and give disheartened Americans a reason to participate in their own self-government,  that short-sighted focus on the next quarterly statement and disregard of the long-term good will take us all down.

Oligarchs included.