While it is difficult to get the American public to agree on anything, one issue does seem to unite citizens from across the political spectrum: our democracy is dysfunctional. Analyzing every indicator at our disposal, from the single-digit approval rating of Congress to widespread decreasing voter participation, from lackluster knowledge of the governmental process to complete distrust of our politicians, we all agree that something needs to change. Yet, the solutions proposed all tend on the reactive side, focusing on blaming politicians and changing policies, rather than rebuilding the very body that can most drastically change our democratic fabric over the long-term - the citizenry itself.
In the midst of this burgeoning movement to improve our own existing political system, we continue to promote democracy abroad in developing states. But, in these foreign efforts, we pro-actively build up institutions, while also crucially, foster an informed and engaged citizenry.
Our State Department, through USAID, spends tens of million dollars each year on civics education programs in the developing world, which includes writing curricula for secondary schools, producing radio shows, and hosting town hall meetings. Various other developmental organizations, like the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, further this focus, creating politically-focused TV dramas in Somalia, holding focus groups on the new constitution in South Sudan and conducting trainings for youth in Burma.
Implicit in this work is an assumption that citizen engagement is necessary for a functioning democracy. Various studies have demonstrated that these international civic education programs have “contributed to significantly greater rates of political participation among program participants.” In our international efforts, the United States asserts, according to NDI, that, “making democracy work requires informed and active citizens who understand how to voice their interests, act collectively and hold public officials accountable.”
Unfortunately, domestically, our democratic reform efforts do not focus on the citizenry. Potentially because our institutions are older and more entrenched, citizens are not seen as vital cogs in our own democracy. Civics education is presumed necessary when building a democracy, when the incorporation of institutions depends on buy-in. But once functional, systems are largely regarded as static, and input is seen as unnecessary.
Many domestic foundations have started to recognize that, as Macarthur Foundation President Robert Galluci recently stated, “Government has a crucial role to play in our society (and) the failure of our political system to deal adequately with crucial issues is not in the national interest.” However, Macarthur’s answer to the problem is to focus on voting rights (which addresses citizen access, but not education), money in politics, and journalism. The Hewlett Foundation also asserts “the democratic process of the United States is in bad shape.” Their answer is to focus on political polarization. All of these solutions are institution-centric and avoid citizens.
This dynamic is becoming widespread. In a recently released Demos report focused on political inequality, the proposed solutions to curbing the role of the wealthy in policy were three-fold: reduce economic inequality, reduce money in politics, and increase political participation. Yet even as they provided recommendations for bringing more “ordinary people into civic life,” the report focused on voting rights, not on educating citizens.
Civics education is thus seen as an after-thought domestically, in both the democracy and education spaces. Our education debate focuses increasingly on STEM subjects as necessary for individuals to enter the work-force ready to earn money in a depressed and globalized economy. Civics is seen as a cute, “nice to have” subject- one that no one objects to, but no one prioritizes. The Department of Education, in fact, has housed civics education under the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, explicitly stating that civics is valuable chiefly as a means to safer schools, not as the linchpin to a more engaged electorate.
The reality is that if we actually want a better functioning democracy, just as we promote in our efforts abroad, we need a more informed and active citizenry at home. Perhaps problematically for funders and politicians, focusing on educating our young people to become active citizens will not lead to immediate results; it may require a generation of focusing on the subject for a more involved citizenry to emerge. But it’s necessary.
Just as universal pre-kindergarten is a subject that has united those in the combative education arena as a potential long-term solution to inequality, so can civics education unite democracy reformers. We must, however, see the subject as a “need to have,” and not as a luxury program. Internationally, we understand this – our funding priorities demonstrate our belief that a democracy cannot emerge effectively without an engaged citizenry. We need to apply this logic domestically –a democracy can only function when the electorate actively engages with decision makers. To save our democracy, civics education must become a pillar of our domestic agenda.
Warren is the co-founder and executive director of Generation Citizen.