Author Archives: Peter Levine

why young people don’t vote

This graph (using Census survey data from 2010) presents an interesting contrast:

Reasons Given for Not Voting, 2010

College students are much more likely to cite being out of town or away from home as the reason they didn’t vote. That make sense: they tend to live away. Their peers who are not in college are somewhat more likely to cite a lack of interest or faith in the impact of their vote. They are also more likely to give miscellaneous “other” reasons.

We are aware of the limitations of survey data about reasons for non-voting. Individuals may not know or disclose their own true reasons. And some of the answers are ambiguous. For example, if you say that you were “too busy,” does that mean that you absolutely could not get to the polls or that voting was a relatively low priority for you? (Would motivating you make any difference, or not?)

Still, this graph suggests that the obstacles to voting are quite different for current college students and for their more numerous contemporaries who are not in college.

the ideological position of a pro-democracy campaign

Paul Evans, a democracy advocate in the UK, is intrigued by our Campaign for Stronger Democracy and explores the need for a similar coalition in his country. The British have Liberty, a major lobby for human rights and civil liberties, comparable to the American Civil Liberties Union, but that is not the same as a democracy lobby. Individual civil rights and positive opportunities to participate are mostly complementary, sometimes in tension, but certainly not synonymous. Democracy lacks an effective lobby on both sides of the ocean.

Paul asked his network for feedback and got some critical reactions:

The first one was that [the Campaign for Stronger Democracy] looked like a surrogate campaign for the US brand of left-liberalism. The focus has a clear appeal more to the US left than the right and one suspects that the demands for ‘democracy’ are for a version that wouldn’t have cross-partisan appeal in the US. The second problem my interlocutors suggested was that there aren’t the kind of agreed definitions of democracy in the UK that could make for an effective campaign without being hi-jacked…

Paul responds with a thoughtful list of 17 principles that, he thinks, define the democracy movement, are neutral ideologically, and deserve to be championed by some kind of campaign. Examples include: “Wider participation in policy formation is a good thing–it increases the public stake in collective decision-making.” “Interest groups are good at achieving their aims at the expense of everybody else. These powers must be counterbalanced.” The whole list is worth reading.

In the US, I see an important debate about the relationship between democratic or civic reform, on one hand, and partisanship and ideology, on the other. Some proponents of civic renewal regard it as ideologically neutral and scrupulously nonpartisan, an effort to improve our democratic processes that should be welcomed by well-meaning political activists across the spectrum. For instance, Martín Carcasson and his colleagues see “passionate impartiality” as one of the “Key Aspects of the Deliberative Democracy Movement” (which, while not identical to a civic renewal movement, bears a close resemblance to it).

Others view civic renewal as ideologically centrist, filling a gap between the hostile major political parties and appealing to moderate voters. For example, the Declaration of the No Labels campaign states, “We believe in the vital civil center.”

Yet another group holds that civic renewal is the heir to participatory democracy in the 1960s–the decentralizing and populist impulses of the New Left–and is thus the best strategy to revive the political left, including Greens, democratic socialists, and left-liberals.

A few thinkers have argued that civic renewal is authentically conservative in its embrace of small, voluntary groups and local traditions.

These disagreements are by no means an embarrassment but represent an opportunity. Many different kinds of Americans can find a place in discussions of civic renewal and contribute their own insights. It would be a victory if the major political parties began to incorporate insights from their respective allies who are working on various flavors of civic renewal. We need to have a debate about what “democracy” means and how to promote it, much like the debates we already have about what “prosperity” means and how to attain that. The result will not be consensus but helpful competition.

Within the democracy field itself, we should expect the internal ideological debates to be heated and divisive, because the underlying disagreements are genuine and important. For instance, the Coffee Party split in 2011 when a faction committed to liberal economic and social reforms created Coffee Party Progressives as a left counterforce to the Tea Party. On behalf of the original Coffee Party, Eric Byler responded that, although he welcomed “an energetic, populist left” to participate, his vision was a broader, more ideologically diverse movement that would reduce political polarization. This kind of disagreement is to be expected, possibly even welcomed, but it will not always be pleasant.

For myself, I believe we need to pursue the cause of stronger democracy where it takes us, even if that makes us seem partisan or ideological because one party happens to agree with more of our principles than the other one does. My Ten Point for Civic Renewal plan is not all about neutral processes. I favor controversial policies, from charter schools to campaign finance reform, as means to strengthen citizenship.

On the other hand, speaking for myself, I do not think this is a liberal agenda. It challenges some prevailing elements of modern American liberalism, such as faith in expert-driven, centralized, regulatory solutions. In the field of education, for example, I support lots of local public participation in schools. Smart liberals like Jonathan Chait hold exactly the opposite position. Chait says that local control would strangle reform. “‘Local control’ almost invariably means letting a policy question be dominated by the strongest local economic interest, with no countervailing power. In education, the only real economic interest with skin in the game is the teachers’ union.” I don’t want teachers’ unions to exercise all power, but I see huge untapped potential in community engagement for better schools. To get citizens engaged means empowering them. That is far from a mainstream liberal view; it may even get a better hearing from today’s conservatives.

the university, a bud forever green

This is the beginning of Section II of William Carlos Williams’ long poem Paterson (1946), which is a kind of portrait of the author’s home city in New Jersey.

Robert Lowell confidently says that the “bud forever green / tight-curled, upon the pavement, perfect / in juice and substance but divorced, divorced / from its fellows” is the university, scholarship, or science, divorced from the city and its democratic life. I cannot vouch for that allegorical reading (bud=university), but the poem is surely about some kind of “divorce” between abstract thought and human needs. We know how things are going–badly enough to howl–but not why. Intelligence does not shape the flow; we watch coldly from afar.

These are challenging words for us who enjoy being inside that tight-curled bud.

the promise and perils of volunteering

(Washington, DC): In lieu of a separate blog post, here is an interview of me with Youth Volunteer Corps. A few excerpts:

Do you have any anecdotal and/or quantifiable information about the impact that diversity has on the success of youth volunteer programs?

There is some evidence that students learn more when they work together with people who are different from themselves on community projects. (See this, for example.) There is also some evidence that it is harder to have frank discussions of pertinent issues when the group is diverse. In this paper for CIRCLE, David Campbell reports, “as the percentage of white students increases, black students are less likely to report that their teachers encourage political discussion in class, and as the percentage of black students increases, white students report less discussion in schools with a larger black population. In other words … teachers appear to shy away from the discussion of political and social issues in schools where students have divergent views.” That is a problem that requires constant and skillful attention. The best scenario may be a diverse group led by a skillful person (either an adult or a youth) who knows how to support frank yet civil discussions. But that situation appears to be rare.

Do you have any anecdotal and/or quantifiable information about how the “spirit” of a youth project impacts its success?

I think it is very important for the spirit of the program to match the real needs of a community and the values of the young people who serve. In this paper for CIRCLE, Michelle Charles finds that many African American teenagers from the inner city of Philadelphia are unmotivated by projects that involve street cleaning and graffiti-removal (to which they are frequently assigned), because they “see first-hand how the clean-up sites repeatedly become trash-strewn after all their organized efforts,” and because such work may seem to deserve pay by the city government. On the other hand, in the same study, African American youth were observed “thriving in their mentoring roles with younger children,” which they regarded as a path to long-term and fundamental change.

a ten-point plan for civic renewal

In 2006, I proposed a Ten Point Plan for Civic Renewal: a set of policy proposals for the federal government. Reviewing that list recently, I found that one item had been accomplished (the expansion of AmeriCorps, only recently put in doubt by the House Republicans), but harmful decisions and developments have created new needs. Considering the current state of play, I would now propose the following Ten Point Plan:

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 and are 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 twenty years of momentum in the opposite direction) 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.

2. Pass the Fair Elections Now Act or a close equivalent. This legislation would provide clean public funding for candidates who were able to raise sufficient numbers of small private contributions to demonstrate a base of support. It would not only reduce corruption—in the broad (ethical, not legal) sense of that word—by making wealthy donors less influential; it would also articulate a public philosophy that money is problematic in politics. Money is not equivalent to speech and participation. What should count is the best argument, not the most cash.

3. Make voluntary national service a means to develop civic capacities. Early in the Obama Administration, Congress voted on a bipartisan basis to authorize the tripling of federal voluntary service programs (Americorps, Senior Corps, Peace Corps, and others). That was an important step that only became controversial after the Republican Congressional victories of 2010. Maintaining or expanding the size of national and community service is valuable, but at least as important is to make service programs opportunities for civic discussion and learning. 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.

4. 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.

5. Put citizenship back in the civil service. Because of the looming retirement of Baby Boomers in public service, the federal and state governments face an enormous challenge in recruiting and hiring adequate numbers of highly skilled workers, even if they cut their payrolls because of budget cuts and efficiencies. The Partnership for National Service estimates that the federal government alone needs about 91,000 new employees every fiscal year for positions defined as “mission-critical.” Governments’ need to attract and retain qualified civil servants creates an opportunity for civic renewal. Public sector jobs would become more attractive if they are were more creative, collaborative, and rewarding. Encouraging public employees to work in partnership with communities and civic groups would help. At the same time, government should declare that they are looking for employees with demonstrated experience and skills in deliberation, collaboration, and public work. By setting specific criteria for new employees, they could change curricula in colleges and universities.

6. 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.

7. 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. 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.”

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.

8. Use the Internet to make the regulatory process more deliberative. Regulation by administrative agencies has become a dominant mode of law-making, but it is problematic. Appointed officials lack the legitimacy to make explicit value-judgments, so rulemaking degenerates into a combination of bargaining and cost-benefit analysis that is not morally justifiable. Citizens’ voices can help, and administrative agencies have long been required to receive and formally consider public comments. But the influential comments tend to come from well-placed experts and stakeholders. In October 2002, the federal government launched eRulemaking, an initiative to allow the public to comment electronically on pending rules and to search and read others’ comments. The resulting system has won awards for technical excellence and for making government more accessible and transparent, but it still does not favor deliberative norms. Each comment is a separate communication to the government; participants do not exchange reasons, judgments, and evidence with one another. One important exception is the Peer-to-Patent website of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which encourages a community of volunteer reviewers to assess pending patent applications collaboratively. Assessing the merits of a patent claim is a relatively technical and non-ideological matter. The next step is to build similar websites that encourage users to discuss controversial that have come before federal agencies. The goal would not be consensus—which could suppress the right of individuals to petition the government in their own voice—but rather an illuminating public dialogue.

9. 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. 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.

10. Incorporate immigrants into civic life. As a result of the great modern migration into the United States, more than one quarter of young Americans could be classified broadly as “immigrants” (having at least one parent born abroad). Despite variation among immigrant groups—and changes over the course of most immigrants’ lives—their levels of active civic engagement are lower than average, even once education and income are taken into consideration. Our goal should not be to wash out the distinctive aspects of immigrants’ political and civic cultures. On the contrary, communities that value immigrants’ distinctive contributions see much higher levels of immigrant civic engagement. But it will take investment and reform to raise their rates of civic participation. Two important steps would be to make the naturalization process a supportive education in civic engagement rather than a hurdle to be jumped, and to pass the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), which would make undocumented young people eligible for financial aid.

The theory behind this Ten Point Plan is not that federal policy reforms can cause a renewal of civic life in America. Well-chosen reforms may provide some support for civic renewal in the form of financial incentives, legitimacy, publicity, relevant jobs, and training. Just as important, the successful pursuit of policy reforms may turn disparate and politically weak organizations into a movement.

The Voting Rights Act offers an analogy. Its passage did not (by itself) change the balance of political power in the United States. Separate from the law, the Civil Rights Movement had to educate, motivate, and register voters, recruit and develop political candidates, change the consciousness of African Americans and whites, reform the inner workings of the Democratic Party, and litigate for reforms in district maps, ballots, election dates, and many other details of the electoral system: a struggle that continues today. Nevertheless, the Voting Rights Act was a powerful tool for activists, and the struggle to pass it was a unifying and inspiring goal for the Civil Rights Movement. The same could be said today of policy reforms for civic renewal.

I have emphasized federal reforms here for the sake of brevity, but states and localities could be equally important if one or more jurisdictions became genuine Laboratories for Democracy. There should also be crucial struggles for civic engagement in universities, nonprofit service agencies, professional associations, unions, religious congregations, and newsrooms, to mention only some of the important venues outside government.

Some of the most promising steps may seem rather far removed from you and from me. For example, the first item on the Ten Point Plan was to drive civic renewal strategies deep into the work of at least one federal agency. That would take a committed, skillful, and experienced cabinet-level official. Unless you are the president of the United States, you cannot nominate individuals for the cabinet. Unless you are so nominated (and confirmed by the Senate), you cannot lead a federal agency. Few of us will ever play either of those roles.

Nevertheless, if you work at the local level on a particular issue—say, education—in ways that combine deliberation and work and that develop your own and others’ civic capacities, you are building the foundations for strategies at the federal level. A successful federal initiative would not be possible without persuasive examples and evidence, local organizations and individuals capable of handling grants and power, and active supporters who defend civic strategies. By working at the local level, you can help provide those conditions for success at the federal level. You can do more if you recruit new people to such work, build networks connecting your projects to other similar ones, view yourself as part of a nascent movement for civic renewal, encourage peers to think of themselves in similar ways, and provoke conversations about the broad topic of civic engagement.

Those conversations should encompass facts, values, and strategies. The factual questions to pose (regardless of the scale of one’s civic work) include: Who is engaging and who is left out? What are the consequences of our civic activities, both positive and negative?

The values questions include: Are our goals consistent with justice? Are our discussions and processes ethical and fair? What are the consequences of our work for the virtues and dispositions of the people involved?

The strategic questions include: What resources and opportunities (including funds, skilled people, legal rights, and responsive institutions) do we possess for our civic work? What resources and opportunities do we lack? What would it take to get what we need? That last question moves us to consider reforms in institutions and policies as well as changes in our own behavior.

Overall, the goal is to replace a vicious cycle of citizens’ disempowerment and public corruption with a virtuous cycle of re-engagement and reform. The obstacles to changing our national direction in such a profound way are serious. They include a disempowered and divided citizenry, a shattered civic infrastructure, and a set of interest groups that will fight to defend the status quo. But the opportunities are also significant: they include a substantial base of skillful, motivated, and increasingly experienced and interconnected civic reformers.

Cynicism and pessimism are themselves obstacles to reform that we (you and I) should strive to counter. After all, cynicism and pessimism are belied every day by the many organizations already working on civic renewal in America. Although success is hardly guaranteed, the consequences of failure are dire. In the words of the Port Huron Statement, “If we appear to seek the unattainable, it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”