Last Thursday, statewide Americorp volunteers met in Indianapolis for a day of workshops and training. I was honored to keynote the day’s activities, and I’m sharing those remarks below. (Regular readers will recognize “themes”…..)
Americans talk a lot about civic engagement. We don’t talk as much about what we mean by that term, or the different forms such engagement can take. And we talk even less about the different, important roles of the public and voluntary sectors, and why genuine, productive engagement requires that we understand and support the proper functioning of both government and what we call civil society.
Most of you here today are just beginning your term of service. During that service, you will learn new skills, recognize new values, and come in contact with volunteers motivated by a variety of life experiences and beliefs. If relevant research is to be believed, that experience will keep you civically engaged long after you have completed your service.
What Americorp volunteers do for Hoosier communities is impressive and beneficial; your efforts will improve communities across the state and the nation. Your willingness to engage with your communities is commendable.
But I’m not here to commend you.
I am here to suggest that the efficacy of your volunteerism, the effectiveness of your efforts, depends to a considerable extent upon two underappreciated aspects of American culture that are in dangerously short supply: an understanding of America’s constitution and governing system—what I call civic literacy–and that old-fashioned but essential virtue we call civility.
Let me start with civility.
A year or so ago, I came across the proceedings of a symposium on political civility. The contributors wrestled with difficult questions: what is the difference between the necessary arguments that illuminate differences and help us resolve them, and rhetoric that “crosses the line”?
The consensus seemed to be that incivility is rudeness or impoliteness that violates an agreed social standard. I’m not sure we have any agreed social standards left in this age of invective—certainly, no such standard has been evident during this election season, which has featured a real “race to the bottom.” We have been assailed with rhetoric that focuses on, and disrespects, persons rather than positions, substitutes name-calling for reasoned debate, and elevates bigotry over the fundamental American values of inclusion and community that have led each of you to join Americorp.
When I first became “civically engaged,” the political environment was very different. I always appreciated Dick Lugar’s often-repeated phrase recognizing “matters about which reasonable people can differ.” That phrase was an acknowledgment of the equal status of citizens who might hold different opinions on matters of public concern. It was civil, and it encouraged civic engagement because it recognized the legitimacy of people with whom we might not share positions or backgrounds.
A trenchant observation in that symposium attributed the gridlock in Washington and elsewhere to “partisan one-upmanship expressed in ways that do not show respect for those with differing views.” In other words, if your motivation is simply to beat the other guys–to win an election, or prevail in a matter of public debate–and if that need to win outweighs any concern for the public good, civility is absent and both governing and civic service become impossible.
And he made those observations before the current, dispiriting campaign season.
The reason politicians and civic leaders no longer begin arguments by saying that they “respectfully disagree” is that they do not in fact respect their opponents.
When political discourse is so nasty, and regard for truth so minimal–when the enterprise of government has more in common with a barroom brawl than a lofty exercise in statesmanship–is it any wonder that so many of our “best and brightest” shun not only politics, but civic engagement of any sort? Who wants to go to work for a government agency the very existence of which is regarded as illegitimate by a substantial percentage of one’s fellow-citizens? Who wants to work with a nonprofit organization co-operating with that agency? Who cares about that abstract concept called “the public good”?
One reason for our current cynicism and lack of mutual respect is that America has developed a troubling disregard for fact and truth. That disregard has been enabled by partisan television, talk radio and the internet. Survey after survey shows that people on the left and right alike get their “news” from sources that validate their biases. Meanwhile, we have lost much of the real news, the mainstream, objective journalism that fact-checks, that confronts us with inconvenient realities and demands that we attend to the substance of arguments rather than the personalities of those making the arguments. In this environment, it becomes easier to characterize those with whom we disagree as unworthy of our respect.
It is easier still if we lack even an elementary grounding in the origins and philosophy of American government, which brings me to the second impediment to all civic engagement, whether political or through civil society: civic ignorance.
Americans have spent the last thirty plus years denigrating both government and public service to an audience increasingly ill-equipped to evaluate those arguments. Now we are paying the price for our neglect of civic education and our reluctance to defend the worth of both the public sector and the common good.
You know, we Americans tend to have a bipolar approach to most things: they’re either all good or all bad. But our polyglot communities and policies are rarely all good or all bad. We don’t have to abandon critical evaluation of the performance of our common institutions, we don’t have to close our eyes to their faults–but we do need to remind citizens of their importance and value. We have to rebuild civic trust. In a very real sense, your service will be part of that effort.
Political scientists have accumulated a significant amount of data suggesting that over the past decades, Americans have become less trusting of each other. 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 examined the research on declining social trust, and 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. And when we don’t understand what government is supposed to do and how it is supposed to operate, we lose the ability to evaluate its performance. That makes us vulnerable to all sorts of claims of mischief and malfeasance.
Many people are currently blaming America’s growing diversity for the erosion of social trust. It’s those immigrants, those “Black Lives Matter” agitators, the troublemakers pushing the “Gay Agenda.” The “Other.” Those of you who are on the front lines in your communities, working with a variety of Hoosiers, know better.
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 White Christian Nation. Looking for someone to blame for our problems, retreating into an “us versus them” tribal worldview doesn’t fix anything; it doesn’t make our communities happier or richer or safer.
It’s people like you, who are willing to serve those communities, who care about what happens in them, that make them better.
The remedy for what ails us really is civic engagement; a broad effort to make our governmental, religious and civic institutions trustworthy again. 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–if understanding and supporting government is an important part of building the trust and social capital that our private and nonprofit organizations require in order to flourish —then Houston, we have a problem.
In the years since Distrust, American Style was published, the situation has gotten much 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, many 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. Ask the African-Americans who were still struggling under Jim Crow, or the women who couldn’t get equal pay for equal work or a credit rating separate from their husbands, for starters.
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 and the civic enterprise without recognizing the profound social changes that have been wrought by communication technologies, most prominently the Internet.
Even in the smallest communities you will serve, people today are inundated with 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 the Web 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 “gatekeeper” function of the press—when journalists decided what constituted news and verified information before publishing it—is a thing of the past.
But it is the Web’s redefinition of community and engagement that may prove to be most significant. 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,” in contact only with those who share our beliefs and biases.
The information revolution is particularly pertinent to the issue of trust in—and understanding of—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 ideological spin. Even the most detached American citizen cannot escape hearing about institutional failures on a daily basis, whether those failures are true or not. Corruption and ineptitude are probably 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 than it ever was before.
When people do not respect the enterprise that is government, when they suspect their lawmakers have been bought and paid for, it’s no wonder they remain detached from it. But that detachment, that withdrawal, isn’t simply from government activities; cynicism promotes disengagement from civic activities generally.
Research confirms a strong correlation between civic knowledge and civic participation, so it matters that Americans overall are civically illiterate. And they are.
In one study, only 36 percent of Americans could correctly name the three branches of government. Civic ignorance 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. In a 2006 study, only 43% of high school seniors could even 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.
We can’t fix what we don’t understand.
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, let alone their obligations to their fellow citizens.
When citizens don’t understand the foundations of America’s legal system, they can’t evaluate the likelihood that candidates for public office will honor those foundations. When a candidate for President of the United States promises to uphold “Article 12” of the Constitution—an article that doesn’t exist—or “make all Muslims register” in blatant violation of the First Amendment, or institute a national “stop and frisk” program in violation of the 4th Amendment, or suggests that his opponent could unilaterally “get rid of” the Second Amendment even if she wanted to–we have a right to expect most citizens to recognize that such positions betray a total lack of familiarity with our Constitution and legal system and a truly frightening ignorance of how our government works. And that’s terrifying, because commitment to our Constitutional system is what makes us Americans.
The underlying premise of organizations like Americorp is that we are all, ultimately, a national community. We Americans may be composed of diverse and different elements, but when push comes to shove, we look out for each other. We respect each other. We interact with civility, and work together to protect essential American values and extend American liberties and largesse to those who are struggling. People don’t engage with what they don’t understand, and vitriol and insults don’t forge bonds of community. If we are going to foster civic engagement, we have to encourage understanding of and trust in the communities with which we are engaging.
Those of you involved in Americorp are doing yeoman work, but you can’t do it alone. If we want your numbers and effectiveness to increase, we have to get serious about encouraging and rewarding civility and serious about efforts to foster and improve Americans’ civic knowledge.
During your service, you will demonstrate the value of engagement to the communities you serve. You will reap the rewards that come from knowing you have made a real difference, a real contribution to the public good. You will be role models encouraging others to commit to public service, civility and informed civic and political engagement.
No pressure… but…
We’re all depending on you!