Moore-Vissing is associate director for national engagement at Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to creating a stronger, more inclusive, more participatory democracy for everyone. This is the third in an occasional series.
The events of the past year — including the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests and the insurrection in the Capitol — have shown our nation what happens when we don't address civic challenges or risk factors.
Similar to a dry forest that can become inflamed by a tiny spark, when we don't pay attention to threats to our civic health, one incident can set off a series of chain reactions. For instance, the public's lack of trust in government, which has been steadily declining for some time, has contributed to prolonging the pandemic in multiple ways, including people's unwillingness to wear facemasks or become vaccinated.
When our civic health is strong, communities are less polarized and people are physically healthier, safer and more resilient in times of crisis. Understanding what makes civic health function well or poorly is critical to supporting a strong and functioning democracy.
How do we measure civic health? Multiple factors facilitate healthy or unhealthy civic life – including whether people vote, talk with their neighbors and trust their government. Why are some communities close-knit, while in others people barely talk with each other? Or why do some communities react to crises well, with droves of people helping deal with tragedies or natural disasters, while others lack the "people power" and networks to respond effectively?
My organization explores how to measure these things. Similar to check-ups at the doctor's office, regular "civic health" assessments are essential. By collecting data in a geographic area, we can better understand civic assets, risk factors and what we can do about them.
The predominant way civic health is currently measured is using data from the Current Population Survey, a monthly Census Bureau poll of about 60,000 households. The National Conference on Citizenship currently works with states across the country to create "civic health indexes," pulling data summaries from the civic engagement and voting supplements of the survey.
But the Census Bureau data is limited in measuring civic health in three important ways.
It provides a state-level picture only, so it's not possible to compare what's happening in different parts of a single state. While the survey measures civic actions such as voting or volunteering, it doesn't gauge attitudes and feelings, such as trust in government or whether people feel they matter to others in their community. And while the poll asks about civic actions ("Do you read the news?") it doesn't provide information about the civic life in their community ("My local council gives me a meaningful say in decisions that affect me.")
Civic health outcomes are affected by a community's "civic infrastructure" – the laws, processes, institutions and associations that support opportunities for people to connect, solve problems, make decisions and celebrate community. This can include such diverse things as welcoming public spaces, grassroots groups like neighborhood associations and racial equity training for public officials.
We often incorporate this idea in our research. For example, we helped folks in six states by examining the local and state civic infrastructure before they started trying to improve civic health.
To get a more comprehensive assessment of civic health, several approaches can be taken.
Going beyond the census data may lead to deeper depictions of engagement. The Social Capital Community Benchmarks Survey, sponsored by three-dozen community foundations and used sporadically across the nation, measures trust, social connection and barriers to engagement. Other national surveys, such as the Pew Research Center's American Trends Panel, ask other valuable questions about civic life that could be included in other surveys.
Other state and national research may shed insight into how civic health affects certain populations or social issues, such as opioid use. For instance, the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count data and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey both provide information about youth experiences and civic health.
Plenty of tools allow citizens to share their own assessments. We have a Civic Engagement Scorecard for people to rate their local community's civic life in terms of participatory practice and transparency. Communities may also experiment with qualitative data collection, such as participatory action research or storytelling campaigns.
Once civic health data is collected, how can communities use it? Ideally, civic health outcomes should directly inform interventions to strengthen civic life. For instance, in our study last year of New Hampshire, we found Millennials lagged behind other generations in civic health outcomes. With one of the oldest populations of any state, New Hampshire's future depends on its ability to support young adults in participating in civic life. Now, the state is considering a variety of approaches to this challenge.
Other states have used civic health data to catalyze conversations about civic life. Connecticut created a statewide civic health advisory committee, which includes the secretary of the state, where leaders from different sectors discuss civic priorities. The Georgia Family Connection Partnership used civic health data to stimulate conversations in different counties about civic health programming and priorities.
The choices we make in the coming years, such as how to rebuild community after the pandemic, will have lasting effects on our society. We are staring into the face of unprecedented political polarization, with rising calls for white supremacy as well as intensifying movements for racial equity. At the same time, our population faces the challenge of reentering public life after more than a year of social isolation.
So there is no more urgent time to make informed choices about what actions will best support strong civic health.
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Leighninger is vice president of public engagement and Moore-Vissing is associate director of national engagement at Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research and public engagement organization dedicated to strengthening democracy and expanding opportunity for all Americans.
The 2020 election was a painful and divisive experience for most Americans. Now that it is over, it can be a turning point for our democracy.
Americans did their civic duty: Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump broke the previous record for the total number of votes cast for a presidential candidate. Huge numbers of people care about the future of their country, and that fact is one that we can build on.
People agreed, even before the presidential campaign began, that American democracy was in trouble. Our trust in public institutions has been on the decline for some time, along with our trust in one another. Our research and public engagement work have shown, though, that there are areas of alignment and a willingness to collaborate across political, racial, religious, cultural and other barriers. These moments exist, even if the dominant narrative says otherwise.
The coronavirus pandemic itself has built some community connections, through acts of civic grace as simple as bringing groceries to elderly neighbors. But while acts of civility do help, real change comes by building common ground and enacting democratic reforms at both the local and national levels of our public life.
Other parts of the world, for example Northern Ireland and South Africa, have emerged from even more divisive and painful experiences. If peaceful pluralism is possible in those places, it should be possible here.
The aftermath of the election gives us a chance to start to rebuild democracy and unite a divided nation at both the local and national levels. In some places, people are ready to embrace the goal of reconciliation; in others they are not. Recognizing this, we can still find things for people to work on together. Here are three possibilities: encouraging and supporting collaborative volunteerism, helping citizens find common ground on important policy questions and adopting democratic reforms that have systemic impact to restore trust and foster respect.
Service: Volunteerism is a low-stakes way to bring people together across their divisions. There will be a lot of work to do in the coming months, including supporting our health care workers and staffing food banks. These kinds of local public services can be inspired, coordinated and supported nationally, especially through digital tools. We can use the aftermath of the election to frame volunteerism as a way to celebrate both difference and unity — "We may be different, but we can all work together to make our communities stronger" — or the message can be a simple appeal to help those in need during an ongoing national emergency.
Deliberation: Research shows Americans actually do share common ground on many policy questions and are capable of building more of it. The key is to engage citizens rather than just leaving policy discussions to our legislators. There are many pathways to convening members of the public so they can participate in important decisions in meaningful, deliberative ways. This is particularly true at the local level; for instance, we can engage people in public decision-making and problem-solving to help their communities rebound economically from the pandemic.
Reform: The most fundamental problem in our current democracy is that the systems for public engagement aren't working for people. Citizens want more of a say in decisions that affect them, more choices and more access to information. They generally don't get any of those things in the typical public meeting. In this day and age, we have the tools to inform, connect and gather input from millions of people, but most of the official opportunities to engage, at every level of government, are the same ones that have been in place for decades.
These are only examples of many types of practices and reforms that can find common ground and help us strengthen engagement. Our Yankelovich Democracy Monitor research tells us that Americans support a range of reforms that would give them greater voice and a more equitable, collaborative relationship with their governments.
We can rebuild trust by giving people stronger roles in governance locally, as well as nationally. Again, these efforts can be described as ways to increase civility, but they don't have to be — the important thing is that they enable civil, productive decision-making and problem-solving.
All these steps represent areas of agreement among a large and diverse cross-section of Americans. In all three, there are strategies that can help us achieve the kind of democracy we need right now, given the problems before us. In all three, there are practices and reforms that can help us figure out what kind of democracy we want to build.
Abraham Lincoln faced a similar but far more painful moment in our history when he gave his second inaugural address. Through service, deliberation, and democratic reform, he said, we can find ways to lead our diverse country toward what he would call a "just and lasting peace."
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