The American Bar Association recently passed Resolution 108 finding that “Contemporary political discourse continues to spiral to unprecedented levels of acrimony and venom, thereby endangering not only the quality of decision making about important public issues, but also the very lives and safety of public servants and citizens.”[i]
The shouting matches that we observe on television are nothing new. In the election of 1800, John Adams’ “men called Vice President Jefferson ‘a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a mulatto father.’”[ii] The incentives in a competitive political campaign have usually favored nastiness, and competition is healthy.
What has changed is the lack of an everyday alternative. Unions, religious congregations, and neighborhood and membership organizations have all shrunk dramatically since 1970. People are substantially less likely to work on community projects and to attend meetings than they were a generation ago. Newspaper readership has fallen at a similar pace, and no alternative source of reported and edited political news comes close to replacing the traditional daily newspaper.[iii]
Other trends run roughly in parallel to these. Jury service plays a shrinking role, as the proportion of criminal cases that go to trial has dropped from one in 12 to one in 40 since the 1970s.[iv] In 1940, each school district in the served only 1,117 people, and usually the district had an elected board. Today the average school board serves almost 20 times as many people, and often it has an appointed leader.[v] The odds, therefore, that any individual will serve on a jury or a school board have fallen by huge margins.
As a result, Americans cannot react to a nasty fight on the television news by telling themselves: “That is not how we get along in our community.” Increasingly, we are not involved in the business of our own communities. Because we lack experience making decisions about public matters with fellow citizens who are different from ourselves, we are in no position to judge the quality of arguments among leaders or to choose representatives who are good at civil dialogue. We cannot distinguish between rudeness and passion, or between obfuscation and complexity.[vi]
Civil society is in grave condition, measured not by the proportion of talk that is “civil,” for which no statistics exist, but by the sheer rate of participation in voluntary organizations that involve talk. We are withdrawing from such conversations with diverse people, by, for example, choosing to live in politically homogeneous communities[vii] and leaving multi-purpose, diverse organizations for single-issue lobbies and narrowly-defined professional organizations.[viii]
Some of the symptoms of this withdrawal include alienation from public life, with Congress holding a nine percent approval rate at the time of writing, and pervasively manipulative communications. Our first instinct now is to develop a “message” to persuade masses of other people to our view – rather than initiate a conversation to decide what would be best. In this context, angry and divisive messages often pay off.
ABA Resolution 108 calls for lawyers both as individuals and in groups to take a “meaningful steps” to do what they can as lawyers to help promote a more constructive civil discourse. Those who work at the state and local levels have a special opportunity in this regard because of their ability to influence what government might do to improve civil discourse. Meaningful steps in this regard might be to encourage government to:
1. Choose one grave national issue and use federal policy to support participatory, deliberative solutions. The issue could be, for example, the high school dropout rate, constantly rising costs of medical care, the loss of jobs and population in our post-industrial cities, childhood obesity, or the failure of policing and sentencing to deter crime. Regardless of the issue, the response would involve a substantial amount of decentralized decision-making and direct work by empowered local bodies that are supported with funds and education and held accountable for results. Youth would be recruited, trained, and rewarded to play important roles in both the discussions and the work.
To be sure, each social or environmental issue connects to others; people do not live within particular institutions such as high schools or clinics. However, the momentum for civic renewal is too weak to permit the federal government to use civic strategies broadly right away. Too few citizens and leaders are now demanding such strategies, nor are they equipped to help implement them. A deep investment in one issue area would provide a high-profile model. At the same time, it would train and empower hundreds of thousands of active citizens, some of whom would later create or demand civic opportunities in other issue domains.
For example, if the U.S. Department of Education, reversing 20 years of momentum in the opposite direction,[ix] were to delegate important decisions to empowered bodies of parents, teachers, students, and other residents, some members of those bodies would become active at the local level in related topics, such as crime and obesity. Many historical case studies indicate that the strongest impact of particular projects comes later, when participants start unanticipated initiatives of their own.[x]
2. Make voluntary national service a means to develop civic capacities. Every participant should have opportunities to discuss and influence the strategies used in his or her service program and should be expected to obtain skills for deliberating, facilitating meetings, recruiting citizens, analyzing issues, and advocating publicly. To achieve that objective would require setting standards for learning across all the federal service programs.
3. Prepare a new generation of active and responsible citizens. People form attitudes and habits related to civil society when they are young and keep them for the rest of their lives. But civic education has been cut in most school systems, and there are too few opportunities for young people to learn through service and extracurricular activities. Congress should revive the small Learn & Serve America program that provides competitive grants for service-learning, eliminated in 2011 after 21 years of work. Congress should also restore funding for civic education in schools, eliminated in 2011, but direct the funds to organizations that test or expand innovative educational methods and rigorously evaluate their impact.
Meanwhile, the Office of Civic Education within the U.S. Department of Education should be elevated from its current low status within the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools and given a leadership role in coordinating the civic education functions of all federal agencies, including the National Parks Service, the national endowment for the humanities and the arts, the Defense Department, and Homeland Security.
4. Support charter schools, community development corporations, watershed councils, and federally qualified health centers. These are examples of public institutions that have expanded opportunities for civic engagement. Citizens may found such organizations or help guide them by serving on their boards. Their structures vary in ways that matter for civic renewal. For example, a charter school that has a board composed of parents and community members promotes active citizenship more than a charter school dominated by its charismatic founder. A school that must accept students from a lottery promotes equity better than one that can select its student body. Thus, the government should sustain or expand support for these innovative institutions while also moving them in maximally “civic” directions.
5. Give the public a voice in policymaking. When members of Congress meet the public in open sessions misleadingly called “town meetings,” they encounter polarized and mobilized members of advocacy groups, acting strategically.[xi] But when citizens are convened to discuss complex and divisive issues, majorities usually choose reasonable policies, and almost all the participants report satisfaction with the process. A model is the national deliberation called “AmericaSpeaks: Our Budget, Our Economy,” which convened 3,500 participants to develop budget outlines for the federal government in 2010. Participants, although highly diverse, shifted toward a mixed package of revenue increases and budget cuts. Ninety-seven percent thought that “People at this meeting listened to one another respectfully and courteously,” and 81 percent thought that “Decision makers should incorporate the conclusions of this town meeting into federal budget policy.”[xii]
To make such processes common and enhance their influence on policies and on the broader political culture, Congress should take two major steps. One would be to fund a high-profile deliberation on a divisive and important topic. The participants’ favored policy would come back to Congress as a bill requiring an up-or-down vote. The other important step would be to create an infrastructure that is ready to organize this and other public deliberations when needed. The infrastructure would consist of standards for fair and open public deliberations, a federal office that could coordinate many simultaneous forums and collect all their findings, and a list of vetted contractors that would be eligible to convene public deliberations with federal grants.
6. Launch a Civic Communications Corps: The metropolitan daily newspaper and its professional roster of reporters was a pillar of civil society for more than a century, complementing voluntary civic associations. Newspapers and traditional journalism are in dire condition. Without government’s help, citizens are creating diverse and interactive new forms of media—mostly online—to counteract the decline of the commercial news and entertainment businesses. But many Americans cannot participate in or benefit from these new media because they lack equipment and broadband access or the necessary skills to be creative online. Meanwhile, thousands of young adults, including many without college educations, have relevant skills, from highly technical expertise with computers and networks, to human relationships in their communities, to creativity with videos and music.
To take advantage of their potential, the government should launch a small new Civic Communications Corps within AmeriCorps.[xiii] Full-time volunteers would be placed in community organizations to serve their communications needs and would also meet at the municipal level to work on city or county-wide strategies for enhancing the flow of information and discussion. They would generate software, examples, training videos, and other resources for the rest of the national and community service world to use in serving public communications needs. College and universities would also be encouraged to use these tools to become communications hubs for their neighboring communities.
Peter Levine (www.peterlevine.ws) is Director of CIRCLE, The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, and Research Director of Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. Levine is the author of The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens, co-editor of The Deliberative Democracy Handbook, and has published six other books. He can be reached at Peter.Levine@Tufts.edu.
[i] A.B.A. House of Delegates, Res. 108 (passed August 8, 2011).
[ii] See Kirwin Swint, Founding Fathers' dirty campaign, CNN (August 22, 2008), http://articles.cnn.com/2008-08-22/living/mf.campaign.slurs.slogans_1_jefferson-family-sally-hemings-vice-president-jefferson?_s=PM:LIVING .
[iii] Peter Levine, Five Strategies to Revive Civic Communication, A White Paper on the Civic Engagement Recommendations of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, http://www.knightcomm.org/five-strategies-to-revive-civic-communication.
[iv] Richard A. Oppel Jr., Sentencing Shift Gives New Leverage to Prosecutors, N.Y. Times (September 25, 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/26/us/tough-sentences-help-prosecutors-push-for-plea-bargains.html?pagewanted=all.
[v] Author’s calculations based on school district statistics from the for Education Statistics and population estimates from the U.S. Census, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d10/tables/dt10_090.asp.
[vi] Stephen L. Elkin, Reconstructing the : Constitutional Design After 177-8 (2006).
[vii] Bill Bishop & Robert G. Cushing, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Is Tearing Apart (2008).
[viii] Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (2003).
[ix] F. Fege, Getting Ruby a Quality Public Education: Forty-Two Years of Building the Demand for Quality Public Schools through Parental and Public Involvement, 76 Harv. Ed. Rev. 576 (2006).
[x] See, e.g., Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland, Civic Innovation in , 37-43 (2001).
[xi] See, e.g., Jennifer Steinhauer and Carl Hulse, House G.O.P. Members Face Voter Anger Over Budget, N.Y. Times (April 26, 2011). http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/27/us/politics/27congress.html .
[xii] Kevin Esterling, Archon Fung & Taeku Lee, The Difference that Deliberation Makes: Evaluating the “Our Budget, Our Economy” Public Deliberation (December 1, 2011), http://americaspeaks.org/projects /topics/budgeting/americaspeaks-our-budget-our-economy-2 .
[xiii] Levine, supra note 3.