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Many millions of Americans used to belong to associations that developed civic skills, managed and created public goods, promoted discussions, and connected people to their government. People typically entered such associations not because they had strong, pre-existing civic commitments, but because of economic needs, religious beliefs, social ties, and personal identities. The unions, fraternal associations, churches, and synagogues that they joined then turned them into active citizens.
These organizations have since shed most of their members and have also lost impact because of the corruption of our formal political institutions, which increasingly respond to narrow special interests, money, and expertise. Now we need a broad base of active citizens to promote the types of associations that recruit people into political life and demand political reforms that make government more responsive and fair. But since people are not organized into civic groups, we lack the base we need. This is a conundrum.
The solution begins with recognizing that a significant minority of Americans have recently participated in meaningful civic work that includes aspects of open-ended discussion, problem-solving, education, and collaboration with diverse peers. As in the past, our civic organizations do not rely solely on recruits who have remarkable civic motivations from the start. Instead, they offer various concrete and sometimes even materialistic benefits, such as jobs, educational credentials, or solutions to local problems. But often the people they recruit have rewarding experiences when they are invited to act as deliberative, constructive citizens. They enjoy themselves, they feel that they have solved problems, and they gain satisfaction.
These Americans represent a base for civic renewal. We need them to develop a greater self-awareness as active citizens, a set of network ties, and an agenda for renewing democracy together.
How many Americans have participated recently in worthy democratic activities? One way to answer that question is to ask representative samples about their own experiences.
• Eighteen percent of survey respondents in 2007 said that they had participated within the past year in a meeting with people of diverse views “to determine ideas and solutions for problems in their community.” That 18 percent was diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and educational background.
• A different source is Census data collected annually from 2005-7, which suggest that 11.8 percent of adult Americans have either attended community meetings or worked on community problems. That group is somewhat skewed toward older, richer, better educated, native-born, white people.
• In 2003, a team of political scientists surveyed 1,001 Americans about various deliberative experiences and found that 25 percent had “attended a formal or informal meeting … to specifically discuss a local, national, or international issue—for example, neighborhood crime, housing, schools, social security, election reform, terrorism, global warming, or any other public issue that affects people.” In this study, African-Americans and young people (ages 18-29) were as numerous or even slightly more numerous among the deliberators as in the whole sample.
It is no surprise that these estimates of the proportions of active citizens differ, given the diverse survey questions and sampling methods. But a fairly consistent pattern emerges: somewhere between 10 percent and 25 percent of adult Americans claim that they have engaged in deliberative politics, with the number falling as we add conditions. Although voting and volunteering are stratified by social class, talking and working together on local problems draw a diverse and representative segment of the population. Talk alone is more common than talk combined with action, as might be expected. If the lower range of these estimates is correct, 10 percent of adult Americans participate annually. That is a base of 30 million people: plenty to build a movement.
The problem with surveys about obviously desirable activities (such as collaborating with one’s diverse neighbors) is the tendency for respondents to exaggerate their own participation. The best conducted surveys of voting do not suffer from serious response bias. If you are asked whether you voted in a recent election, an incorrect answer is probably a lie, and less than two percent of adults seem to lie about their voting in the biennial Census survey. However, the problem may be worse when we try to measure an activity less concrete and discrete than voting. For example, some subsamples in some surveys are eight times more likely to say that they regularly watch the news as actually watch the news. Similarly, if you are asked whether you talked with your neighbors about community issues within the last year, you can probably persuade yourself that you did so, even if a close observer would say that you did not.
Another way to build an estimate of the number of already engaged citizens is to aggregate counts of the actual participants in particular initiatives. For example:
• The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation has more than 2,000 individual members who are interested enough in organizing and facilitating public discussions (often linked to local action) that they subscribe to the NCDD mailing list, which is full of practical suggestions.
• Public Allies is an AmeriCorps-funded program that recruits mostly disadvantaged young people and places them in leadership roles in nonprofits, developing their ability to invent solutions in collaboration with peers. Public Allies has 2,800 alumni.
• The American Democracy Project (ADP) of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities is one of several national networks of campuses that enhance the civic engagement of their own students and build partnerships with local civil society. ADP is distinctive because its member campuses are mostly non-selective, local, state colleges and universities that serve demographically diverse students. I estimate that ADP involves at least 11,000 people nationally.
• Community Development Corporations employ almost 200,000 people, but I estimate that about 13,800 CDC employees are directly involved with deliberation, community organizing, civic education, or public work.
• The River Network is a movement that empowers residents to understand, enjoy, and protect their local watersheds. Its focus is local collaboration and problem-solving rather than centralized regulation. It has formal partnerships with 600 nonprofit organizations across the country. If we assume that each nonprofit involves an average of 30 people (staff and volunteers), that implies a movement of about 18,000 active participants.
• In 2008, the Case Foundation announced a grant competition called “Make it Your Own,” seeking projects that they defined as “citizen-centered.” The Foundation expected all applicants to promote deliberation about goals, to move from talk to action, and to build capacity for future projects. I estimate that the competition drew about 1,840 applicants who truly understood and practiced citizen-centered work, representing roughly 36,800 people.
• Everyday Democracy has been promoting Study Circles and other forms of deliberative community organizing since 1989. It has worked on more than 450 separate dialogue projects in 600 communities. Since each project by definition involves a substantial group, I cautiously estimate the number of “alumni” of Study Circles at 60,000.
• The Coffee Party, a movement for civility and political reform, attracted 335,000 Facebook “friends”; but a safer estimate of its active membership in March 2011 would be its email list, which numbers 65,000 people.
• YouthBuild USA recruits young people who have dropped out of high school by offering them both hourly pay and training opportunities. Once in YouthBuild, participants find themselves governing their own work sites through deliberative democracy, and some members progress through a set of civic education experiences to become highly effective leaders. YouthBuild USA claims 100,000 alumni.
• Community, Migrant, Homeless, and Public Housing Health Centers are not-for-profit corporations that provide health care, that are rooted in poor communities and unable to move, and that are governed in part by their own clients. Those that qualify as Federally Qualified Health Centers must have governing boards of which more than half are current clients of the center who demographically represent the population that the center serves. “The governing board ensures that the center is community based and responsive to the community’s health care needs.” Overall, community health centers employ 123,000 full-time workers or the equivalent. There are 12,000 centers, and if the average board numbers 10, that implies 120,000 board members.
• More than 165,000 people are employed full-time in our public schools to teach social studies or civics. Part of their job is to encourage and moderate informed, civil discussions of issues. Most say that they do so. Ninety-four percent of high school civics teachers say they use “controversies as teaching opportunities to get students engaged and to model civil debate and discussion.” That response suggests that about 150,000 adults promote deliberation with democratic goals and a developmental ethic.
• The League of Women Voters claims 150,000 members and active supporters, organized in chapters, states, and a national network. Typical League activities include holding and facilitating local discussions, advocating for political reforms, and educating the public.
• AmericaSpeaks organizes large, day-long deliberations called Twenty-First Century Town Meetings that have significant influence over governmental decisions. At least 160,000 people have participated in these events since 1995.
• Members of the Industrial Areas Foundation are religious congregations and other institutions, not individual people. No census of participants is available, but there are 47 regional IAF organizations, each a hub for scores of local congregations. The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (by no means the largest or oldest IAF affiliate) drew 4,000 individuals to its founding assembly in 1998. If similar numbers of people are active participants at the average IAF site, then the total count would be almost 200,000 Americans.
Aggregated, these organizations and professions number more than one million members, even if one presumes that they overlap a bit. (Some social studies teachers belong to the League of Women Voters; some CDC workers are active in IAF). The list is illustrative, not exhaustive, and it could easily be extended, even doubled.
Thus it is safe to say that we have a base of at least one million people for civic renewal. We need to communicate this message to them: You have personally experienced dignified, valuable, effective civic work. That kind of opportunity is rare and undervalued today. Would you like to talk with peers who have had similar experiences about how to expand the movement?