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With Liberty and Civic Engagement for Some

Our political participation too closely resembles early America. We can change that.
Voters in 1959. (Photo: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Voters in 1959. (Photo: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A dozen old, white, property-owning men sit around a pub and decide how best to govern America. Is this the scene of a town hall during the American Revolution or a local city council meeting today? It could be either. And that's a problem.

The reality is that most public meetings still skew older, whiter, and wealthier. When city planning meetings or budget committee hearings attract such a narrow minority of the population, policy decisions that tend to favor the few at the expense of the majority.

Or, as Dan Parham, co-founder of Neighborland, a Web-based platform that engages residents in city planning projects, lamented at a recent event at New America California, "When public hearings are held at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday there is no way for my wife, a working mother, to show up, get informed, and contribute." Our current system fails to adequately educate and engage residents so that they can participate in deliberative democracy.

The more that we reward civic participation, the more representative public meetings and institutions will become.

And so people don't participate. In 2014, California experienced record low voter turnout, with only 3.7 percent of eligible 18 to 24 year olds showing up. There are many reasons that people don't vote. Some never registered, others are held back by complex processes and time constraints, but, for many, it is a lack of trust in government and little interest in politics that keeps them from registering and casting a ballot. There is no shortage of people in Washington, Sacramento, and Silicon Valley who are working to change this, and to answer the question of how to engage an increasingly un-engaged electorate.

But first, people and organizations working to make democratic institutions more inclusive must understand that there is no singular definition of civic engagement.

In his recent book Democratic by Design, Gabriel Metcalf argues, "In today's climate of widespread inequality, political gridlock, and daunting environmental challenges, we sorely need a fresh approach to social and political change." He goes on to cite numerous examples of alternative institutions that people have created to circumvent traditional structures of government and business. Examples include car-sharing organizations, workers cooperatives, community land trusts, credit unions, citizen juries, and many more. Metcalf believes that, when scaled, these examples of a more collaborative society have the power to deliver the broad social progress for which we've been waiting.

Similar to Metcalf's idea of alternative institutions is the innovative model of participatory budgeting. Although participatory budgeting has become increasingly popular since it came to the United States in 2009, Hollie Russon-Gilman's new book, Democracy Reinvented, rightly asserts that growing apathy and mistrust of government have restrained the potential impact of participatory budgeting and other programs in civic innovation.

Many people who volunteer on a regular basis decide not to vote either because they don't think it makes a difference or because negative campaigning turns them off. For people who do vote, some vote by mail because it is more convenient, others insist on voting in person because they enjoy the civic ritual. No matter how people engage civically, everyone wants to feel like it is a worthwhile and rewarding activity, or else they will stop doing it.

Research by Google's Politics & Elections team revealed that 48.9 percent of the population falls into the category of "Interested Bystanders"—people who are paying attention to the issues around them, but totally disengaged from political action. One of the most fascinating findings about this unique group of actors is that, despite believing that local action has the greatest impact, most report voting only at the national level, indicating a tension between voting choices and their own sense of efficacy.

This new body of research suggests that, in order to build a broader pipeline of people who are continuously engaged in politics and policy, we have to ensure that people have concrete evidence that their effort made an impact. The more that we reward civic participation, the more representative public meetings and institutions will become. Regardless of whether people choose to engage locally or nationally, by voting or volunteering, civic technologists, social scientists, policy advocates, and community organizers should be focused on connecting individual action to outcomes.

With a little help, one of those outcomes will be looking a little less like we did in 1776 and a little more like we do in 2016.


This story originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.