Hudman is managing partner at Vikasa Health, which invests in reducing social inequalities that make people sick, and the board chair of Generation Citizen. Warren founded that civics education organization and is a visiting fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, which seeks to strengthen global democracy by improving civic engagement and inclusive dialogue.
Our country is in the middle of a health crisis. The very foundation of our country's democracy is at risk. But there's an antidote that would tackle not only some of what ails us but also what's poisoned our governance. That medicine: Getting more political.
The disastrous mortality rate of the pandemic, with more than 534,000 people having died from Covid-19, has not just affected our physical health. More than half of all adults in the United States report their mental health has declined. This is especially acute in young people: Last year saw a 14 percent increase in emergency room mental health visits for children and a 31 percent increase for teenagers.
While the recent pace of vaccinations promises a healthier future, and coronavirus cases are declining across the country, this larger health crisis is not going away. The Trump administration's mismanagement of the pandemic is only the tip of the iceberg. Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, the public health infrastructure had been gutted, with funding cuts lowering the front-line public health workforce nationwide as much as 20 percent.
And while our health care withers, our country is in the middle of a crisis in democracy. For four years, the Trump administration destroyed long standing political norms, exploited and further deepened our political polarization, and carried out a full-throated assault on voting rights.
So we are exhausted — from the pandemic and our vitriolic political system.
But there is no return to an old normal. In a moment when the future of our country's health and democracy are both at risk, the solution is to actually get more political. Rather than turning away from politics, our cumulative health may be dependent on us working to build a better democracy in itself. Political participation is good for our health, and our health care system may be dependent on a healthier democracy.
If American democracy were a patient, a doctor might say its vital signs are a cause for concern. After the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6, it is time for urgent intervention.
A range of studies agree the United States is hardly the world's governance ideal anymore; The Economist's most recent annual ranking pegged us as a "flawed democracy," the 25th most democratic nation out of 167 countries analyzed. Public trust in government has declined to near historic lows, with just 17 percent of Americans saying they trust Washington to do what is right. Fewer than 30 percent of young people even think democracy is the best form of governance.
The positive news is that our young people may be in the midst of a political awakening. They are so fed up with the status quo that the pandemic, and the inequities further unmasked by it, may lead to a historically engaged youngest generation.
Tufts University's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which studies the young electorate, estimates up to 55 percent of eligible voters younger participated last year, up fully 11 points from 2016. In many states, including Georgia, analysts indicate that young people swung the results.
Beyond elections, young people being activated and engaged politically on issues they care about -- like climate change, reproductive rights and gun control — can lead to policies that improve health outcomes for all of society.
But the act of civic engagement, by itself, has also been shown to improve health. Theoretical and correlational evidence points to positive associations between improved mental and physical wellbeing and such acts as volunteering, voting and having feelings of civic empowerment.
A study of 44 countries found that individuals participating in the electoral process — casting a ballot, registering people to vote and other campaign activities — reported better health than those not similarly active, regardless of socioeconomic status. Researchers in another study found people who did not participate politically fared worse, reporting poor health in later years.
Young people, especially those from structurally marginalized backgrounds, can experience civic empowerment gaps, which can manifest as avoidance of civic activities such as voting or organizing. This civics empowerment gap has been linked in extensive literature to health inequities.
To combat this civic empowerment gap, organizations like Generation Citizen promote experiential civics education programs in schools across the country. Recent research found that participants not only gained increased civic self-efficacy but also reported better physical health. Additional research has shown that voting and volunteering among adolescents and young adults is associated with better mental health.
The racial justice movement born last summer may also lead to health benefits — activism is associated with self-esteem, empowerment and self-confidence. Studies indicate that 40 percent of participants in Black Lives Matter protests last year were younger than 30. From the perspective of social capital theory, living in communities with strong social bonds appears to be good for your health.
We're sick and tired of the pandemic. And many of us are sick and tired of politics. But right now, for the sake of our cumulative health, and for the sake of our democracy, we need to continue to stay engaged. Our future, our own health, and that of our democracy, may all depend on it.
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When Joe Biden becomes president in four weeks, he will face an unprecedented number of crises. An unabated global pandemic. An increasingly unequal and fragile economy on the verge of recession. A climate rapidly worsening. A generational fight for racial justice causing a society-wide reckoning.
All are monumental, potentially existential challenges. But it will be impossible to make progress on any of these problems without addressing perhaps the most profound crisis the new administration will face — the crisis in democracy itself.
A fight for the survival of democracy requires a solution that may seem laughable, but is completely necessary. The new president needs to appoint a democracy czar.
This crisis in democracy has not solely been caused by the autocratic tendencies of President Trump, and will not go away when he leaves office. Over the last several decades, the American people have become increasingly distrustful of a system of governance they feel has produced more cronyism than results. The sobering statistics are endless but include: Fewer than 20 percent of Americans trust the federal government to do the right thing, a historic low, and fewer than 30 percent of young people even think democracy is the best form of governance.
And despite an election that by all accounts was free and fair, historically high levels of polarization remain — stimulated by a Republican Party that has put winning above democracy, meaning tens of millions still wrongfully believe Biden was not rightfully elected president.
While these numbers are alarming, the democratic backsliding and erosion is not just an American trend. Across the world, democracy is at the precipice. Wholesale change, wrought by automation of the economy and societal demographics, is provoking fear. Societies are questioning whether democracy can actually work. And across the world, leaders from Hungary to Thailand to the United States have been taking advantage.
So if the president-elect wants to have any chance of succeeding in his ambitious policy agenda, he must make restoring democracy an urgent priority. And to help spur this critical rebuilding project, he should put a single person in charge as soon as he's inaugurated.
Yes, the term "democracy czar" is oxymoronic. An all-powerful individual to restore collective action and trust amid the masses?
But the appointment of John Kerry as "climate czar" demonstrates the potential for such an approach. Kerry's role, while sitting on the National Security Council, will be to coordinate the administration's response to the climate crisis across multiple agencies. Rather than environmental policy becoming the work of any one department, the former secretary of state and 2004 presidential nominee will have the stature to ensure each Cabinet secretary makes climate change a priority, whether they are coordinating international relations or farm programs.
While some have called for a whole new Department of Democracy, a democracy czar would similarly and nimbly push the interdepartmental prioritization of democracy essential to restoring trust in the American public and across the world.
This official could start by following through on the "democracy summit" Biden promised in the campaign, bringing together countries to focus on fighting corruption, defeating authoritarianism and promoting human rights. A similar, but domestic, summit could include civil rights and voting organizations, educators and civic engagement groups.
Beyond such meetings, an effective approach to democracy would require a broad inter-departmental approach.
It would ensure the State Department prioritizes the fight for democracy in its policies — not through imposing an American-version of the governance concept, but by actively supporting grassroots, pro-democracy efforts in countries such as Thailand, Uganda and Venezuela. It would mean the Justice Department reversing the voter suppression that defined the Trump era, through ensuring new regulations put teeth back in the Voting Rights Act and protect election systems at the local level. It would mean the Education Department ensuring schools prioritize educating for democracy through a revitalization and deep investment in civics education. And it could mean the Health and Human Services Department helping register people to vote when they use HealthCare.gov or go online with Medicare and Medicaid.
The federal government can prioritize democracy with initiatives to actively encourage citizen involvement. This year has seen an unprecedented amount of citizen action — not only record turnout for the election but the furthering of social movements like the Movement for Black Lives and mass actions on climate, immigration and women's rights. A democracy czar could make sure these movements do not see themselves as oppositional to the government, but instead make sure they build durable power by helping inform and guide federal policy.
Several prominent people are well-suited to lend gravitas to such a position. Stacey Abrams, who's received deserved plaudits for her work organizing and protecting the vote in Georgia, could build on this success at the national level. Deval Patrick built a strong record of civic engagement as governor of Massachusetts, and his brief 2020 presidential campaign explicitly promoted a "democracy agenda" that included making voting accessible and secure, universal national service and strengthening democratic institutions.
Many of Biden's policy proposals are focused on outcomes — a rebuilt economy, for starters, then reforms of the immigration, education and energy systems. None will be sustainable without a robust democracy that encourages citizen engagement, fosters dialogue and ensures Americans of all stripes feel the government truly cares about them and listens to their opinions.
No person can solve all of these challenges. But in an unprecedented moment, innovative solutions are required. A democracy czar would show the Biden administration's commitment — not only to solving for the challenges of today, but to making sure the American democratic experiment continues into the future.
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