Analysis

A Quiz

A quick quiz: Can you name your U.S. Senators? And your U.S. house representative? What about your state senator? And your local school board chief and mayor? If that were a civics test, I’d fail. In fact, if I gave myself two chances to take the test, in both Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, I’d get 2/6 both times.

Knowing Our Representatives:

I highlight these questions and my failure to answer them to suggest a simple way we could all improve as political actors. We should all know who represents us. When I asked Maggie and Lisa, who both work in foreign policy, three things all Americans need to know about their country, they immediately mentioned that we needed to know all of our representatives. There’s a lot of ways we can achieve this goal. We could vote in every election, local, state, and federal. We could keep up to date on local news, not just national headlines. Or we could be active, and contact our representatives when we identify a problem.

Why our representatives matter:

But, as simple as it sounds, knowing who represents us – our values, our ideas, our wants, our needs – at every level, on as many issues as possible, is so crucial. For me, the issue I care most about is educational equity. If I wanted to act through our political system, I would need to know the Superintendent in Lower Merion or Philadelphia. I know neither. In other words, I talk a big game, but I don’t have the basic information I need to try to convince public servants to change their mind.

A lot of us are in this boat. I would bet most people reading this post would get a 66% or worse on the quiz I gave above; a Benson Strategy Group poll found that 77% of people don’t know their state senators. We can name the famous politicians, the people who anger and excite us. But much of our lives is decided by other public servants. Local representatives who have lived in their communities, ran with small budgets, and won on tight margins decide most policies and dictate community responses to problems.

If my first suggestion was to engage others directly in your community, my next is to know who you need to engage to create systematic change, big or small. If we don’t know who represents us, we can’t hold them accountable. We can’t influence the system. And we can’t speak in an informed way about our communities. Sometimes, the simplest civic tests are the most important ones.

Looking for your elected officials? Common Cause allows you to find every elected official who your community played a part in electing!

 

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This post is my last one before I jump into the normal content of the blog: interviews with people. But before I begin posting those, I want to be honest about my own thoughts. Having read on the state of citizenship and learned about many organizations’ amazing work, I feel like I’m ready to write about what I think the keys to being a good citizen are.

A Class Discussion:

First, though, I want to share an anecdote that might explain why I feel so strongly about this subject. In a class I took in college, there was a reading on jury discrimination in post-Civil War Virginia. Many black men did not have the chance to serve on a jury because prosecutors feared that black jury members might make it harder to convict former slaves of accused crimes. As a result, many black defendants lacked the basic right of a jury of their peers, and many black men didn’t have the right to serve on juries. A federal judge took action and jailed several Virginian judges for violating the Constitution.

As my class debated whether the federal judge made the right choice, I realized how important it was for all of us to have conversations like that one. I learned how crucial our government system was, and how little I understood about it. More importantly, I recognized that being a citizen – listening to the potential crimes of my peers, voting for elected officials, being equal before the law – was not an opportunity many people have had. Being a citizen, then, was something to cherish. (For more on this story, see David Moss, Democracy: A Case Study).

The Five Keys:

This story and the discussion that day hint at many of the traits that I think are important to being a good citizen. At this moment, I think that the five keys to being a good citizen are:

  • Informed advocacy. Advocacy without knowing about an issue is often not effective and can often be counterproductive. Knowing the topic is important, and so is knowing the candidates in an election.
  • A willingness to listen. During class that day, people’s answers were quite varied. In fact, some of them made me uncomfortable. But in that class we had to listen, and then wait our turn to reply. This approach to public conversation would benefit us all.
  • Compassion. We need to care about the well-being of our country and each other for all of us to thrive.
  • Generation Citizen’s idea that we have to have confidence in our actions really resonated with me. It’s hard to remain engaged, and encourage others to engage, if we don’t believe in our value as citizens.
  • A belief in the process. I think at the end of the day, people have to believe in democracy, its potential, and its workings for it to work.

Maybe the people I will talk to will talk about these same traits and actions. In some ways, though, I hope they don’t. I hope they challenge me to imagine citizenship as something different and show me that someone, anyone can be a good citizen in a variety of ways.

If you are interested in reading more of my thoughts on being a good citizen, you can find them here. Have thoughts on the keys to being a good citizen? Send them to me at [email protected]

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Given that data suggests citizenship is in poor condition, I wanted to find some existing ideas on good citizenship. Below, I provide three different visions of what citizenship could and should be. None of these are meant to represent my ideas; I’ll publish those later. Instead, these examples outline some of the amazing efforts of others to encourage good citizenship.

Generation Citizen: Confidence + Habit = Participation

The front banner of Generation Citizen’s website makes its mission clear. It reads: “Generation Citizen believes all students have the right to civics education that prepares them to participate in our democracy.”  The organization, according to employee Sydney Menzin, seeks to “build a habit among citizens to be engaged.” The tool to realizing this idea?  An action civics curriculum, taught to 5th through 12th graders across the country.

Menzin says habit-forming is key because students need to be confident citizens. One story Menzin told me stood out. At first, students often say that there’s no way they can make a difference. They believe no one important will listen to them. But then volunteers, who are local college students, show videos of previous students’ experiences. These students talk about senators who wrote them back and projects that city governments implemented. After seeing the video, students begin to believe they can make a difference.

Continue reading Existing Ideas on Citizenship

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Before I left for my travels, I wanted to know the state of citizenship in our country. What are people saying? Does it seem like people are good citizens? Do they care if they are? Existing research suggests I might be in for a disappointing trip.

Civics Education Failing?

If tests are any indication, it seems like struggles with civic engagement begin at a young age in America. On the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 23% of 8th graders were considered proficient in Civics. The average student scored a startling twenty-six points below the proficient level. But students do not only lack knowledge. They also lack an appreciation for citizenship’s and citizens’ importance. For me, the most alarming finding from NAEP was that fewer than one-in-five students could “explain how citizen participation affects democracy.”

Democratic Decline

It’d be one thing if only our youngest citizens lacked knowledge and confidence. But I found that these problems continue and maybe even worsen as people age. Researchers Robert Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk recently showed that almost a third of American millennials do not believe that living in a democracy is “essential.” 24% even think democracies are bad or very bad. Sadly, people vote at rates that suggest they really do feel this way. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that the United States ranks 28th out of 35 OECD member countries in voter turnout and that only 64.1% of eligible Americans are registered to vote.

It didn’t surprise me, then, that a Google research team showed that almost 50% of Americans could be described as “Interested Bystanders.” We, as Americans, tend to be people who are “paying attention to issues around them, but actively not voicing their opinions or taking action on those issues.” People want to be involved, but they often don’t know how. Likewise, it seems like people prefer local civics – because they feel like they can make a difference – but still don’t vote in local elections.

My Take on Citizenship Today

American citizenship appears to be in a difficult place. People aren’t voting. They don’t trust the federal government. And maybe most importantly, they don’t feel like they matter.

But the point of this trip is to go beyond the data, beyond the common narrative. I want to know what people think when they talk to someone on the street about these issues, and I want to know if they do care, but just don’t know how to show that they care. Citizenship is more than a number, or casting a ballot. I think it is about stories and experiences. I know it’s about how people live their lives as Americans and members of their communities. Hopefully my project will offer more detail on whether citizenship really is so dire.

More Resources:

Want to learn more on the state of Civic Health? Visit these sites!

Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools

Pew Research Center

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