Citizenship & the Constitution: Civic Engagement The Bill of Rights Institute DePaul University, Chicago, IL October 11, 2007 Artemus Ward Department of Political Science Northern Illinois University The Boston Tea Party: December 16, 1773 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: August 28, 1963
Democracy at Risk • Americans have turned away from politics and the public sphere in large numbers, leaving our civic life impoverished. Citizens participate in public affairs less frequently, with less knowledge and enthusiasm, in fewer venues, and less equally than is healthy for a vibrant democratic polity. Pulitzer-prize winning photograph “Vietnam Napalm” by Kim Phuc Trang Bang, South Vietnam 1972
Civic Engagement • Civic engagement includes any activity, individual or collective, devoted to influencing the collective life of the polity. • Civic engagement can, for example, mean participation in formal government institutions, but it may also involve becoming part of a group or organization, protesting or boycotting, or even simply talking to a neighbor across the backyard fence.
U.S. Constitution: Preamble • “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Founders on Citizenship • "A share in the sovereignty of the state, which is exercised by the citizens at large, in voting at elections is one of the most important rights of the subject, and in a republic ought to stand foremost in the estimation of the law." --Alexander Hamilton, 1784 editorial as Phocion
Founders on Citizenship • "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." -- James Madison to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822
Founders on Citizenship • "Cherish, therefore, the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature." - Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, January 16, 1787
Founders on Citizenship • "Need I infer, that it is the duty of every citizen to use his best and most unremitting endeavours for preserving it [the Constitution] pure, healthful, and vigorous? For the accomplishment of this great purpose, the exertions of no one citizen are unimportant. Let no one, therefore harbour, for a moment, the mean idea, that he is and can be of no value to his country: let the contrary manly impression animate his soul. Every one can, at many times, perform, to the state, useful services; and he, who steadily pursues the road of patriotism, has the most inviting prospect of being able, at some times, to perform eminent ones." – James Wilson, Independence Day speech, July 4, 1788
Negative Duties: Obligations • Obeying the Law • Attending School • Paying Taxes • Serving in the Armed Forces • Appearing in Court, including as a juror or witness
Positive Duties: Privileges • Voting • Being Informed • Sustained Volunteering/Public Service • Short-Term Political Participation: such as writing letters to the editor, participating in rallies, and volunteering for political campaigns • Joining and contributing to voluntary organizations
Are these Duties? • Work • Rest and Leisure • Health
The Decline of Civic Engagement • American voter turnout ranks near the bottom among democratic nations. • Between 1974 and 1994, engagement in twelve key political activities, such as writing letters to the editor, participating in rallies and demonstrations, and volunteering in campaigns, fell significantly. • Citizens need public information, but the number of civics courses taken in public schools has declined by two-thirds since 1960, and, at least by some measures, college graduates nowadays know as much about politics as the average high school senior did fifty years ago. • In 2002, only 15 of 435 congressional races were decided by 4% or less. Of the 50 congressional incumbents who ran in California, not one lost, and all got at least 58% of the vote. • In the 2004 presidential election, despite a massive voter-drive ground war in which interest groups alone spent more than $350 million to get out the vote, voter turnout, at 59 percent, was only five percentage points higher than in 2000. • Also in 2004, just 2% of House incumbents and a single Senate incumbent—the aggressively targeted Senate minority leader—lost. • From the mid-1970s to the present, the number of adolescents who say they can see themselves working on a political campaign has dropped by about half.
The Design of our Institutions and Practices Turns Citizens Off • If Americans find the presidential primary process long and boring, it is because that process is indeed longer than it should be, and its lengthy and episodic nature discourages sustained attention and continued political learning. • If Americans find congressional elections dull, it may be because they are rarely competitive. Our systems of redrawing district boundaries and financing campaigns, as well as our increasingly candidate-centered politics, all work to the advantage of incumbents—an advantage that has grown in recent years. For example, in 2004, 98% of the incumbents running in House races won. When elections are not competitive, citizens have little incentive to pay attention, become informed, take part in the campaign, and vote in the election. • If Americans find partisan politics excessively ideological, nasty, and insufficiently focused on practical problem solving, there is reason to think they are right: American citizens tend toward the political middle, but safe congressional seats may empower the ideological bases of the two parties at the expense of moderates, intensifying party conflict in Washington and hindering efforts to work across party lines. • If poorer Americans believe that local political institutions are incapable of addressing their problems, if racial minorities find American politics to be exclusive rather than inclusive, and if better-off Americans seem disconnected from the problems and experiences of their poorer fellow citizens, this is partly because our metropolitan political institutions encourage privileged Americans to move to suburban enclaves, defying the promise of common public institutions and a sense of shared fate.
Improving our Institutions to Promote Robust Citizen Engagement is Essential to American Democracy • First, civic engagement enhances the quality of democratic governance. More voices are better than less. • Second, the promise of democratic life is not simply that government by the people yields the most excellent governance. It is also—and perhaps mainly—that government is legitimate only when the people as a whole participate in their own self-rule. • Third, participation can enhance the quality of citizens’ lives. Civic engagement has the potential to educate and invigorate. • In sum, when citizens are involved and engaged with others, their lives and our communities are better. Not only do people “feel” better but they produce a wide variety of goods and services that neither the state nor the market can provide.
Some Solutions? • National Level: • How do we increase voting? • Mandatory voting? • More flexibility in terms of time, manner, and place? National holiday? • nonpartisan redistricting of congressional districts? • State and Local Level: • There continues to be tremendous and growing inequalities associated with places of residence, inequalities that defy democratic ideals of equality and inclusion. How might this be addressed? • Associational Life and the Nonprofit Sector: • Will increases in public funding for a variety of programs of national service, whether in a military or civilian capacity such as Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), AmeriCorps, or the Peace Corps, promote civic engagement?
Is Change Possible or are we Resigned to Bowling Alone? • “Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values--these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness.” – Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (2000).
Conclusion • The framers of the Constitution recognized that civic engagement was crucial for America. • The current situation in the United States features three characteristics: questionable legitimacy, high cynicism, and great indifference. • Increased participation, more equal participation, and a higher quality of participation benefit America? Is it even possible?
References • Macedo, Stephen, et. al, Democracy at Risk: How Political Choices Undermine Citizen Participation and What We Can Do About It (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005). • Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000). • Skocpol, Theda and Morris P. Fiorina, eds., Civic Engagement in American Democracy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999).