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Democracy Is In Danger. Do Americans Care?

Most Americans believe in the benefits of good citizenship. But it remains to be seen if they will engage with their governments.
May 23, 2019
Democracy Is In Danger. Do Americans Care?

It is undeniable that Donald Trump and the environment that created him—and which he perpetuates—pose numerous dangers to American democracy. The breakdown of constitutional norms and unparalleled corruption he has led put long-standing institutions at risk, while polarization and the loss of shared values are signals of a potentially existential threat to democratic culture.

This is not the first time the country has faced such peril. But missing from the many conversations that have resulted from the 2016 election has been a critical barometer of democracy: whether we, the citizens, are constructively invested in it and actively shaping it.

In fall 2017, I set out to answer that question. I spent time with more than 200 people of all backgrounds in 25 states. I wanted to learn about Americans’ civic values, mentalities, and actions in the era of Trump – and to find out if our citizens could be a part of the solution.

My interviews showed that Americans remain more united than the nightly news might suggest. However, the future of government by, with, and for the people is currently threatened not simply by Trumpism, but also by Americans’ feelings of political irrelevance and the resulting civic inaction.  

The Centrality of Citizenship

The critical role of the citizen has been at the heart of the American story since the nation’s founding. The creation of a republican democracy demanded that America’s citizens—a small group limited to white, property-owning men at the time—be self-governors who understood the country and acted in its best interest.

Over time, the pool of voters and civic actors expanded, and with that, so did the requirements of being a good citizen. The country’s tradition of disagreement guaranteed that there was never a fully settled idea about all the components of good citizenship. Often, as Alexander de Tocqueville observed, Americans joined and built local groups to address problems the government could not. Other times, such as during the civil rights era, explicitly political efforts became necessary to solve societal failures.

However, amid changes and disagreements over the ideal approach to civic engagement, a foundational definition of good citizenship emerged and endured: good citizens took responsibility for the well-being of the country, its institutions, and their fellow Americans.

In 2000, Bob Putnam published Bowling Alone and suggested Americans had stopped joining organizations and solving problems together. The book was a siren: Americans’ commitment to collective action and civic duty was in decline. More recently, Yoni Applebaum argued in the Atlantic that these trends of civic disengagement have worsened. Both Putnam and Applebaum express concerns that Americans now seem unwilling to enrich democracy in their communities and beyond.

A Set of Shared Values

On my travels, I was heartened to hear many stories that cut against Putnam’s and Applebaum’s fears. Americans continue to believe in the power of community and the need to participate in it. In fact, community was the most commonly used word in my interviews, and of the people I spoke with, roughly two-thirds expressed a communitarian spirit as central to citizenship and to their own lives.

Based on these conversations, Americans appear to believe two virtues are the foundations of this ethos.

To them, the foundational aspect of communitarianism is being a good neighbor. As simple as it sounds, the people I met see day-to-day interactions with those around them as pivotal to communities’ and the country’s wellbeing. Adriel, a Democrat, LGBTQ-rights activist, and non-profit employee in Detroit explained to me, “I really think being a good citizen is on the micro level. It means you have a rapport with the other citizens around you … that shows you have a concern about bigger issues, such as safety and a general concern for your fellow human beings. If one of my neighbors says, ‘Hey, how’s it going? How are you?’ when I’m going to the car, that isn’t just being a good neighbor, it shows a concern for me and other people.”

Chris at his BBQ shop. (Photo by James Piltch.)

While these small efforts are an important start, they are not enough to be a good communitarian according to my interviewees. The second necessity is a spirit of charity, with both one’s time and resources. Chris, a military veteran and Trump voter, owns a restaurant in in Daleville, Alabama. Every Thanksgiving, he hosts a free dinner for all in the community who cannot afford their own Thanksgiving. He spends days preparing and pays for all of the meat out of pocket. Critically, he has inspired others in the Daleville area to bring food and to join the dinner, too.

Americans on both sides of the aisle quite like volunteers like Chris. In a Pew Foundation poll about people’s preferences in neighbors, the only attribute that more than 30 percent of Democrats and Republicans said would make it easier to be someone’s neighbor was if that person volunteers.

The ideals Chris and Adriel embodied were mentioned by more than 140 people I spoke with, and James and Deborah Fallows capture these values in practice in their book Our Towns. Both the Fallows’ stories and my own time on the road suggest that a notion of community loyalty remains a powerful force for Americans of all political affiliations. While critics like Yuval Levin may be onto something when they argue that increased individualism is causing communities to disintegrate slowly, Americans at a minimum espouse and aspire to deeply communitarian views. Polarization has not taken that away.

No Call to Action

But citizenship never has been, nor will it ever be, just about values. It is also about action.

Here, Americans are falling short, particularly when it comes to the acts required for self-governance. Indeed, most Americans do not believe engaging with any level of government is part of citizenship. Only 15 percent of people I spoke with mentioned voting as important to citizenship, while fewer than 20 people said that being informed about political events was important to civic life. These findings accord with the broader political environment. The last midterms had the highest turnout in decades, and only 53 percent of people voted. It is not surprising then that the United States ranks 26th out of 32 OECD countries for voter turnout.

If Americans believed that the system was functioning well, these figures would be less concerning. But they don’t. Only 11 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of faith in Congress, and trust that the government can solve problems domestically is down to 35 percent.  

(Photo by James Piltch.)

Frighteningly, in the face of this falling trust, Americans seem unwilling—or unaware of how—to undertake actions by which citizens can shape democracy. Take, for example, James and Kate, soon-to-be doctors in Pittsburgh. Even though they espoused a distinctly political approach to citizenship, they did not think their political or civic participation mattered. Kate explained that she wanted to run away; she felt like she could not change political problems, so why try. James was cynical, too. He noted that the fact that “some people’s votes count more than others” deterred him from wanting to participate at all.

In my interviews, citizens most frequently cited the constant negativity of media, the role of money in politics, and racism as the sources of the feeling their participation is irrelevant. These or other influences may well be discouraging all Americans. Pew found in 2016 that 42 percent of Americans believe that there is not much ordinary Americans can do to influence their government. This percentage is higher in in the United States than in many other countries, including South Africa, India, and Kenya—much younger democracies than this one.

If Americans do not believe that they can influence change, there is a fundamental disconnect between democracy at its individual level and at its largest institutional scale. That disconnect, if not reconciled, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in which citizens gradually engage less and less and in turn see fewer and fewer of their ideas enacted.  

The Gap Today

This gap in democracy is particularly critical in the Trump era. The federal government’s disregard for civic norms and explicit lack of interest in serving the entirety of the American people requires increased effort from citizens themselves.

Certainly, there are structural problems that discourage people from participating. The primary system’s bias toward extremist voters and the efforts to curtail minority voting and reduce voter turnout in general make participation both more difficult and less appealing. But given intensifying polarization and the decreasing number of GOP officials who stand up to Trump (in part because they believe their voters do not want them to), Americans will likely need to rediscover their civic voice and capacity before any reforms can be passed.  

Voting Trump out of office or protesting in the streets are the straightforward political answers. Democrats seem quite willing to undertake this work. Over half reported to Gallup that they have considered protesting recently, and some (though not many) of my interviewees talked about doing so. But political action undertaken by the party out of power in order to seize that power back creates change only in the short term. Without other kinds of deeper engagement, these actions do not build a broader culture of self-governance or an identity of citizenship that extends beyond one’s party affiliation. They risk encouraging a culture of reciprocal and reactive resentment that threatens to deepen polarization even further.

That’s not to say protest, both in the streets and in elected offices, isn’t a critical component of democracy, or that feeling inspired to fight back at the ballot box isn’t important. They are both essential. But it is to say that they cannot be the entire answer to civic problem solving.

The limits of activism in addition to Americans’ focus on their communities might suggest that disengagement from national politics occurs because Americans have realized that the most impactful way to be good citizens is to spend their civic energy differently. That’s not the case. Democrats and Republicans I met offered few actions unrelated to national politics that they undertook (or had thought about trying) that might address problems they noticed and wanted fixed.

For example, immigration was a constant source of conversation on my trip. Close to 85 percent of people I spoke with expressed support for documented and undocumented immigrants’ presence in the United States. Sherry, a devout Christian and a Democrat, told me that she has always thought of America as a “salad bowl” where people of all nationalities come together. Many echoed Sherry with their own distinct language. John, a Republican, told me that Americans must recognize that “we are a nation of immigrants … that’s who we are.”  

And yet, few Americans I met believed that they could do anything about the immigration conflict. The vast majority of the Trump voters I met lamented his hateful language. They admitted, however, that they did not discourage others from employing it. Few, if any, reached out to immigrants in their own community to offer support. None called their representatives asking them to hold Trump accountable for his behavior. While non-Trump voters were quicker to condemn the president and the GOP in harsh terms, they were no more likely to offer ideas about how they might help address the problem.

The inaction on immigration was indicative of how Americans I met talked about civic problem-solving in general. Citizens holding the government accountable for its failures and acting to correct them is core to the American political tradition. Often that work comes by engaging local or state officials to create a new policy that helps one’s own community, or by joining a community activist group focused on a particular cause. However, fewer than five people I spoke with talked about participating in state or local politics. Another solution might be to create or join a civic organization outside the political structure that addresses a local issue. But as Applebaum noted in October, the percent of Americans in civic groups declined 21 percent between 1994 and 2004. That rate today seems unlikely to have improved.

While the shared values of community remain alive in America, the inspiration those values provide Americans to participate in self-government has become narrower and less powerful. The effect is that the country has a citizenry with a passive mentality, except when angry, and little idea how to engage at a moment in which democracy may well depend on their holistic engagement. Americans today seem uninvested in their identities as good citizens and unaware of their own importance to democracy.

Updating Citizenship for the 21st Century

I did meet one person who turned his communitarian instincts into engagement intended to improve American political life. His name is Jin Park. Next year, he will be the first undocumented Rhodes Scholar.

Jin told me that to be a good citizen, people must demonstrate they are a member of their community and the country. As an undergraduate, he channeled his frustration over his lack of political rights into running the Chinatown Citizenship program in Boston. Every Saturday, he and a handful of other college students helped immigrants prepare for their citizenship test and adjust to living in America.

To Jin, being an American is “understanding that that there’s a challenge in your community, and doing something about it.” But a community, he explained, is a political union, and so to ignore political problems that are affecting the people in it would be a failure of citizenship.

Almost a century ago, this sort of language about citizenship as a holistic practice was common. The 1910s and 1920s marked the peak of an immigration scare, as millions of immigrants arrived to America from Eastern Europe. Not coincidentally, American schools made good citizenship a centerpiece of the curriculum during this period, and it dominated books and other forms of culture.

The debate about citizenship at that moment charts a way forward for how more Americans can embody Jin’s example. In one camp were those who believed in Americanization: teaching immigrants a strict set of rules that would supposedly turn them into good Americans. John Dewey and his followers were on the other side of the debate. They believed that democracy was a bottom-up endeavor. In their view, citizens from all backgrounds create and re-create it with every generation, and the nation should embrace immigrants as a part of that project.

    Today, the same sorts of instincts about civic life and democracy that inspired the desire to Americanize immigrants appear also to drive Trump’s popularity. This type of nationalist civic mentality is powerful because it is a call to action that asks supporters to be loyal and fight for their leader (or country). With this view of civic life comes relatively simple practices and a clear identity, both justified by anger and political affiliation. Even though few Americans I met espoused these sorts of poisonous and nationalistic civic ideals, the communitarian values shared by the vast majority of country have proven little match for the return of Americanization and the political corruption and institutional rot it has enabled.

    The answer, then, may be to infuse de Tocqueville’s belief in the power of banding together as a community with Dewey’s notion that citizens create and are responsible for democracy and politics in addition community wellbeing.

The literature on populism and authoritarianism makes it clear that in the short-term, this new civic ethos will require citizens to undertake significant political action to rid themselves of the country’s power-hungry, undemocratic leader. Americans fortunately appear to be taking up this mantle. From mass protest on the left to the work of Never Trump conservatives to protect the rule of law, there has been a promising political response to Trump’s excesses. This work will need to continue for at least two more years and perhaps six.

However, these sorts of purely political acts are not the long-term cure to American democracy’s ills. The opportunity to undertake them is largely limited to highly educated Americans with time, resources, and access, and they only address Trump and our federal institutions. They also will not alone be able to solve all the causes that led to Trump—isolation, inequality, immigration, the spread of social media, and America’s history and continued practice of racial exclusion, to name just a few.

To reinvigorate democratic life, more Americans, regardless of whom they voted for in 2016, will need to become involved in a deeper, more meaningful way. The best and most realistic way to do that is for Americans to start harnessing their communitarian instincts to engage directly with political problems.

In some cases, that work will be person-to-person: reaching out to people across the aisle or to communities that current government policies have negatively affected. Other times, people will need to create solutions. They can do that through advocacy in the community, through engaging local government, or through forming groups that help solve the greatest failures of this administration (climate and immigration seem to be top contenders).

It is relieving to know that Americans still share civic values. Their existence is critical to democracy. At a moment like this one, though, a commitment to putting those shared values into action is even more so.

Given the many demands of American life, not everyone will be able to undertake this work. But re-establishing good citizenship and civic action as expectations and ideals is critical not only to the flourishing of people’s own communities but also to the health of American democracy and the country as a whole.

James Piltch

James Piltch is the chief research assistant to David Gergen at the Harvard Kennedy School. He writes on civic life and democracy. Follow him on twitter @james_piltch.