Too much money in politics, and not enough in democracy
The anniversary of Jan. 6 was a grim reminder of our democracy in crisis. Instead of hoping that the upcoming midterm elections will be a period of convergence on kitchen-table constituent priorities, we have ample reason to fear greater division. Recent election cycles have escalated polarization and mistrust.
Our dollars are adding fuel to the fire. We have too much money in politics and not nearly enough money in democracy.
The 2020 election cost over $14 billion, the most expensive on record. Already, nonprofits like OpenSecrets and other campaign spending watchdogs predict that 2022 will set new spending records. At the same time, America’s multiracial democratic experiment, following five decades of declining public trust in government, stands at a crossroads. Organizations like International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance have labeled the U.S. a “backsliding” democracy, and The Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School released a national poll of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds in December that indicates a majority of young Americans believe our democracy is “in trouble” or “failing.”
Many people who care about improving their communities choose to donate to political elections as their primary strategy to advance preferred policies. That is logical, of course, but insufficient.
A healthy democracy itself is essential for our system of self-government to function and rise to the challenge of tackling major challenges like public health, economic security, and education. It requires an engaged citizenry with civic knowledge, mutual trust, and a sense of community responsibility — regardless of political affiliation.
Donors need to rebalance their portfolio for short-term investments in elections together with long-term investments in our democracy.
If we can’t trust our elected representatives to express the will of their constituents, it won’t be solved by one more election. It requires strengthening through bottom-up investments in our local civil society and democracy, with an eye towards early intervention in our civic infrastructure.
Young people, who will inherit our democracy, know this well. I had the opportunity to speak with a young woman from Rhode Island recently, who told me “When you take a group of young people and talk to them about what is possible in their community, they start to believe they are capable of creating long-lasting and necessary adjustments for the betterment of society in all spaces.”
Investing in real-world democracy education for our nation’s young people is the high-impact, long-term investment our democracy needs now.
For a fraction of what is spent in a few months for an election, civics education organizations deliver high quality, project-based civics lessons to tens of thousands of students each year. The future of our institutions and systems belongs to millions of young Americans who see our collective challenges and are wondering if they might suffer them or solve them. We know that when young people are not just spectators to civic chaos, but active change makers it benefits them and sets us on a better path forward.
Starting at the school and neighborhood level, students can identify issues that matter to them and engage in deliberation, participatory research and community problem solving. This makes them agents of change, not just spectators of political bloodsport.
At Generation Citizen, a national civics education nonprofit, we’ve seen positive civic learning exemplified through nonpartisan, student-led projects that build on U.S. History classes. A class of 8th grade students from Fall River, Mass., was interested in protecting marine wildlife from plastics pollution, and wanted to beautify their city so that young people like themselves could take pride in their community and want to build their lives there. Students deftly grabbed local media attention and testified before the city council’s ordinance committee, successfully advocating for the reconsideration of a plastic bag ban.
Our communities and our students need these initiatives, which unlock a sense of agency in young people and a sense of hope in one’s community. Today, the investment helping young people get on the first rung of democracy’s ladder is too small, and the investment in hyperpolarized elections is too large.
Elizabeth Clay Roy is CEO of Generation Citizen, an organization working to transform civics education through working with thousands of young people every year.