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Civic Engagement: Yesterday & Today. Artemus Ward Department of Political Science Northern Illinois University March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: August 28, 1963. Bill of Rights Institute Bozeman, Montana

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civic engagement yesterday today

Civic Engagement: Yesterday & Today

Artemus Ward

Department of Political Science

Northern Illinois University

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: August 28, 1963

Bill of Rights Institute

Bozeman, Montana

November 13, 2012

  • Does the U.S. Constitution require the American people to participate in public life?
  • Did the founders expect that the American people would be civically engaged?
  • In this lecture we will so how the ideals of American civic engagement have degraded over time to today’s reality of disillusionment, cynicism, and ignorance, putting American democracy at risk.
  • What can and should be done so that the American people will become more engaged in public life?

The Boston Tea Party: December 16, 1773

then do the framers matter
Then: Do the Framers Matter?

George Washington was sworn in as the nation's first president on April 30, 1789, on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York. The mural depicts (from left to right) Robert R. Livingston, chancellor of the state of New York, administering the oath; Secretary of the Senate Samuel Otis holding the Bible; George Washington, with his hand upraised; and Vice President John Adams.

  • We will discuss how some members of the founding generation thought about civic participation.
  • What did they mean by education, voting, knowledge of current affairs, and public service?
  • Can we apply their ideals to American society today?
u s constitution preamble
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.”
  • Does this sentence merely explain the meaning of the document or is there an ongoing, instructive component?
john adams on education
John Adams on Education
  • “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend upon spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences.” – John Adams, The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1779
  • What did Adams mean by “spreading the opportunities”?
alexander hamilton on voting
Alexander Hamilton on Voting
  • "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
  • What did Hamilton mean by “a share in the sovereignty of the state”?
jefferson on attention to public affairs
Jefferson on Attention to Public Affairs
  • "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
  • What are the consequences to an “inattentive” public?
  • How can the public’s “attention” to “public affairs” be cultivated?
james wilson on public service
James Wilson on Public Service
  • "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
  • What “useful services” should citizens undertake?
james madison on knowledge
James Madison on Knowledge
  • "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
  • How can the “people” “arm themselves” with knowledge?
now democracy at risk
Now: 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
  • 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.
negative duties obligations
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
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
Are these Duties?
  • Work
  • Rest and Leisure
  • Health

American voter turnout ranks near the bottom among democratic nations.

  • Who doesn’t vote? 86% of people with advanced college degrees have registered to vote, compared to only 50% of people who did not earn a high school diploma.
  • The people who don't vote are generally poor, less educated, younger and more residentially mobile.
the decline of civic engagement
The Decline of Civic Engagement
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 2008 presidential election, despite a massive voter-drive ground war, a severe economic recession, an unpopular outgoing president and a charismatic new Democrat, voter turnout, at 62% of eligible voters, was only two percentage points higher than four years prior and less than the 64% high for modern elections in 1960.
  • In 2012 turnout was down to 58% -- 93 million eligible Americans did not vote for president.
the design of our institutions and practices turns citizens off
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
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
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?
  • Experts have called for increasing civic education noting that government has been made into the villain in contemporary society.
is change possible or are we resigned to bowling alone
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).
  • 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.
  • Experts suggest that civic education is the key.
  • But would increased participation, more equal participation, and a higher quality of participation benefit America? Is it even possible?
  • 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).