Ineffective communication between members of Congress and their constituents has led to a breakdown in trust in government and democratic institutions, a recent report found.
Lawmakers are inundated with constituent messages every day, but they lack the resources and training for how to respond effectively. As a result, most Americans do not feel heard by their representatives and have become disillusioned with politics, according to the Congressional Management Foundation's latest report, "The Future of Citizen Engagement: Rebuilding the Democratic Dialogue."
The 48-page report, released Wednesday, analyzes these communication problems and offers guidance for how to improve engagement between representatives and constituents.
Congress' approach to communicating with the public is stuck in the 1970s, said Bradford Fitch, president and CEO of CMF.
"Few offices are rethinking their engagement with constituents to facilitate inclusive opportunities to invite constituents to contribute substantively to public policy," he said. "Congress needs to change its thinking and goals — engage in a paradigm shift from just 'answering the mail' to building trust in our democratic institutions."
One of the main factors contributing to this issue is the fact that members of Congress receive more communications from constituents now than ever before, but they lack the staff and budget to keep up with it.
While House members are allowed to have up to 18 staff members, most have fewer because their budgets of $1.5 million cannot support 18 salaries. (Not to mention the low pay many congressional staffers receive due to these budget constraints, although Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently raised the cap on staff salaries and Democrats have proposed a corresponding budget increase to make that possible.) Senators do not have limits on the number of staffers they can employ, but most have between 35 and 70, depending on their budget.
And over the years, the number of constituents each lawmaker represents has grown significantly. As of 2020, each House member had an average of 761,000 constituents — three times the amount when the number of representatives was frozen at 435 during the Taft administration. Additionally, Senators represent as little as 580,000 citizens (in the least populous state, Wyoming) to as many as 40 million people (California).
Recent technological innovations have contributed to the increase in messages lawmakers receive. However, Congress has been slow to embrace new technology, and the tools representatives do use often turn contact from constituents into data points, rather than substantive engagements.
As a result, everyday citizens do not feel heard by Congress, nor do they believe the government is working in their best interest. Nine in 10 Americans believe the government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, rather than for the benefit of all people. By comparison, in the 1960s, two-thirds of Americans felt the government was run for the benefit of all people.
Trust in government has also declined since the 1960s, when three-quarters of people said they trusted the government to do what's right "just about always or most of the time." In 2018, less than one-fifth of Americans said the same.
"Practices by both the public and Congress have led to the relationship between Congress and the People being viewed as purely transactional, not the robust, substantive democratic engagement envisioned for a modern democratic republic," the report says.
To help rebuild a foundation for effective communication between members of Congress and their constituents, CMF recommends following these 10 principles:
- Congressional engagement should foster trust in members, Congress and democracy.
- Congress should robustly embrace and facilitate Americans' First Amendment rights.
- Congress must robustly collect, aggregate and analyze meaningful knowledge from diverse sources.
- Senators and representatives should strive to engage with a diverse sample of their constituents, not just those who vote for them or seek to influence them.
- Congress should provide additional and diverse avenues for public participation.
- Congressional engagement should promote accessibility for all.
- While individual members should prioritize engagement with their own constituents, Congress should develop additional venues for public policy participation and engagement.
- Constituents should be honest and transparent in their engagement with Congress.
- Constituent advocacy must prioritize content and quality over medium and quantity.
- Input from the public should be integrated with other sources of information for Congress to make good public policy decisions.
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A national study that checked in with Generation Z one year into the Covid-19 pandemic suggests the U.S. government has work to do to gain their trust.
According to findings from "The New Normal," a nationwide February 2021 study conducted by Springtide Research Institute, majorities of Gen Z disagree that the government has done its best to protect us (66 percent), that they've felt protected by the government during the pandemic (64 percent), and that the government has done a good job navigating the pandemic (65 percent). A strong majority (80 percent) disagree that they felt safe in public during the pandemic.
These findings have significant implications at a time when the government is ramping up efforts to reach a generation that accounts for a quarter of Covid cases yet has shown vaccine hesitancy, being called one of the "biggest barriers to mass immunity." More than half of the study's 2,500 participants (57 percent) agreed that it might be hard to trust others, including the government, because of how they handled the pandemic.
Distrust may be to blame for vaccine holdouts
Most of the coverage on vaccine holdouts among Gen Z has focused on their lack of urgency due to their age. They are "invincible, young, and healthy," as one psychologist put it. However, Springtide's findings suggest that distrust toward the government may be the elephant in the room that isn't being addressed.
As recently as April, it was discovered that little to no vaccine messaging from the White House was being tailored to Gen Z. One 22-year-old told STAT, "There isn't anything that is consumable and/or targeted at our demographic. ... [Messaging online] isn't targeted toward our age group, it doesn't explain why, if you're a healthy 19-year-old, you should get this vaccine."
Other Gen Z'ers have shared concerns about the long-term health impact of the vaccines, citing the need for more information before making a decision. "Health and government officials must honestly address concerns and barriers raised by Gen-Z adults regarding vaccination," medical students Matt Alexander and Jesper K, told CNN, naming concerns about infertility, blood-clotting, heart conditions, and the fear of missing work, school, or caretaking duties. "While it will be challenging to create effective campaigns that resonate authentically with Gen Z, it's a necessary step to build trust among our generation," they said.
Young people are the ticket to reaching Biden's goals
Last week, the White House admitted that the United States would not reach its stated goal of 70 percent of adults receiving at least one Covid-19 shot by Independence Day, and the gap is primarily made up of young adults — which Biden's Covid team acknowledges. Vaccine coverage among Gen Z has been lower and is increasing more slowly than in other age groups. If the current pace continues, only 57 percent of adults under 30 will have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine by the end of August.
Notably, the White House's new strategy to close the gap is to leverage the trust that young people have toward their peers. The Biden administration's grassroots approach includes the formation of a Covid-19 student community corps of leaders as young as 16 years old. The initiative aims to equip young people with tools to go into their communities and talk to their classmates, family members and friends about getting vaccinated.
The White House is also leveraging the popularity of social apps among Gen Z, partnering with Snapchat and YouTube to encourage vaccinations. Snapchat alone reaches 90 percent of people ages 13-24 in the United States as well as 75 percent of the 13- to 34-year-old U.S. population.
The high stakes of building trust with Gen Z
This multi-pronged, grassroots approach suggests the Biden administration is sensitive to the challenge of persuading a generation that is far less trusting of the government than previous generations. In a 2019 Pew study that tracked American's trust in the government and other aspects of civic life, nearly half of young adults (46 percent) ended up in the "low trust group" — a significantly higher share than among older adults. Even more, data on epidemics since 1970 suggest that individuals who experience an epidemic during their "impressionable years" (ages 18-25) are less likely to have confidence in political institutions, leaders and elections.
For the Biden administration and Gen Z, the stakes of building trust couldn't be higher. The highly infectious new Delta strain of Covid-19 is spreading rapidly among young people in the United Kingdom, prompting Biden to tweet, "If you're young and haven't gotten your shot yet, it really is time. It's the best way to protect yourself and those you love."
Hopefully, Biden's plea isn't too little, too late.
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Meyers is executive editor of The Fulcrum.
The ever-growing democracy reform movement is built around the idea that the American democracy is in trouble because the system is broken. Those with money have an outsized influence on politics. Ballot access is far from equal. Politicians get to pick their voters, rather than the other way around.
That's why, in 2019, I helped launch The Fulcrum, a nonprofit news platform dedicated to coverage of efforts to fix the system. As my then boss, Issue One's Nick Penniman, preaches, government's policy dysfunction cannot be addressed until the political dysfunction is first resolved.
While I remain committed to the mission of informing more Americans about efforts to fix the system, there's a parallel and equally important issue to be addressed: the lack of civility in our collective discourse.
Anyone scrolling through Twitter or Facebook is bound to repeatedly land upon nasty exchanges about Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Unfortunately, the dialogue is rarely a debate over ideas, but rather is full of nasty name-calling, sexism, bigotry and other forms of hate.
And it's not just on social media. Americans have a profound lack of trust in one another. Last summer, the nonprofit More in Common asked Americans whether "most people can be trusted." Only 39 percent said yes while a horrifying 61 percent said "you can't be too careful in dealing with people."
In fact, we can't even blame social media for making distrust more prevalent — just louder. The More in Common report cites data from the nonpartisan research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, which found this lack of trust to be a long-term problem. NORC's historic data shows the last time more than 40 percent of Americans said most people can be trusted was ... the mid-1980s.
And while the Pew Research Center has found that Americans generally trust one another to do the right thing in many situations, that trust does not extend to political decisions. At the end of 2018, just as the United States was gearing up for a second Trump campaign, Pew learned that only 43 percent of Americans were confident that others would cast informed votes and 42 percent were confident people could have a civil conversation with someone who has different political beliefs.
And that's why I'm supporting America Talks, a much-needed effort to foster civil dialogue — not by regulating social media or limiting speech, but by encouraging individual Americans to engage in one-on-one conversations. It's important we all recognize that just because someone has different beliefs, they aren't evil or unpatriotic.
Not only do we need to get people talking, we need to create some optimism that things can get better. That same More in Common study found that only 51 percent of Americans believe it's possible "for the country to come together in 2021" and just 39 percent say it's likely. While Democrats are more positive (68 percent possible, 52 percent likely), independents and Republicans are far more pessimistic (43 percent and 37 percent, respectively, said it's possible).
(Interestingly, racial minorities are more optimistic than white Americans: 63 percent of Black respondents said unity is possible in 2021, along with 58 percent of Hispanic people and 55 percent of Asian people. But only 47 percent of white people said so.)
We need to apply Isaac Newtons' first law of motion: An object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by a stronger force. Our citizenry is only going to become more divided, more untrusting unless something stops that trend. America Talks could be that something.
There's no institutional fix to the pervasive lack of trust in the United States. But America Talks can help us start fixing things, one conversation at a time.
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Every democracy depends on a certain level of trust among its citizens and in its key institutions of government, business and civil society. We clearly have work to do, according to new research.
More in Common, a nonprofit that works to end polarization, released "Two Stories of Distrust in America" on Monday. The report catalogues across-the-board distrust and identifies ways to restore faith in institutions and each other. With more than 10,000 people participating via surveys, long-term study and dialogue, it's a comprehensive view of why trust is missing with institutions and among people.
The report breaks the issue down into two parts: "an ideological 'us versus them' distrust and a 'social distrust' that tracks interactions and feelings of belonging, dignity, and equality."
The top-level ideological data shows a remarkable lack of faith in core institutions. Only 11 percent of Americans believe the federal government or corporations are honest (conservatives are slightly more positive about corporations). The national media scores better — 22 percent overall — with liberals and progressives sharing a much more positive opinion than moderates and conservatives.
There have been dramatic swings in Americans' confidence that the government will do what is right for the country. In March 2021, 50 percent said they are confident, up 11 points from June 2020. But that data point belies a huge partisan divide. Confidence among Republicans dropped 29 points while raising 50 points among Democrats. (There was virtually no movement among independents).
The More in Common survey also found that a lack of trust in other people has continued to steadily decline. Four in 10 Americans said "Most people can be trusted" but 61 percent said "You can't be too careful in dealing with people." The National Opinion Research Council has been asking whether most people can be trusted for decades, and positive responses haven't cracked 40 percent since the mid 1980s.
"Without a baseline of trust in key institutions and in each other, we cannot solve collective problems or advance changes that benefit all sectors of society," reads the report." In high-trust societies, people are able to organize more quickly, initiate action, and sacrifice for the common good. High trust societies have lower economic inequality and growing economies, lower rates of corruption, and a more civically engaged population."
There are also significant feelings of a lack of belonging across ideology, age and race. Overall, 34 percent of Americans say they do not feel a sense of belonging in any community.
Additional takeaways from the 50-page report include:
- Disgust is more prevalent than anger, which is the path to dehumanization of each other.
- Exposure to people different from ourselves, in settings where we share an overlapping identity is critical. For example, parents share an identity that is not based on ideology. Positive interactions on non-risky identities leads to more tolerance overall.
- Participation in civic life increases our sense of belonging, which increases trust. Participation (or lack of) is both a cause and a cure for distrust.
- The easiest place to start is local, in our neighborhoods and communities where we can see the impact of our involvement.
- Communication from elected officials and leaders needs to be thorough, with clear acknowledgement of the impact when people participate. Let people know they've made a difference.
Building trust will be among the most important societal design challenges for the 21st century.
"Efforts from government leaders to promote bipartisanship and to restore Americans' confidence in the institutions of democracy should be complemented by strategies and programs for building social trust within and across communities, groups, and people," reads the report. "A comprehensive strategy to build trust would catalyze a virtuous cycle wherein efforts to reduce ideological and social distrust reinforce and accelerate one another."
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