Civic Engagement in U.S. Democracy
This course goes beyond the civic knowledge that is standard to most civics education. It will push learners to think about what it means to be a citizen and civic participant, and they will acquire the skills to be informed, active, and engaged as civic participants. Ultimately, learners will consider their personal capacities for civic agency and will have the opportunity to carry the course into their lives with an “action plan” for further civic engagement.
By the end of the course, you will be able to:
Tell a story of self that explains what you value and why, and the kind of communities and government in which you’d like to live;
Understand what it looks like when rights are not protected and how constitutional democracies are designed to secure rights;
Understand how and why U.S. democracy was built as it was, how it has changed over time, and what the levers of change are in this constitutional democracy;
Move from “I” to “We” in order to connect your own concerns with those of broader communities, with awareness of how a diversity of perspectives and experiences can be integrated in the story of what U.S. democracy has been historically and can be in the future;
Differentiate and choose among the civic roles available to people who live in a constitutional democracy;
Express your opinions in public forums and create your next step plans as a civic participant.
Section 1: Your Civic Identity: Understanding Identities, Values and Agency
Section 2: When Rights Were Not Protected: From Grievances to a Declaration of Independence
Section 3: Designing a Constitution to Secure Rights
Section 4: Loyalty, Voice and Exit: The Philosophical Foundations of Democracy
Section 5: Justice in Action and the Levers of Change
Section 6: Writing for Democracy – Using Your Voice
Section 7: My Civic Action Plan
Ten Questions Text and Development Trajectory
Question 1: Why does it matter to me?
To participate equitably, we need to see where our reasons for engaging come from and what brings us together with others. Figuring out one’s authentic motivation and understanding the core values involved are crucial first steps not only to getting one’s peers on board, but to understanding how one might engage in equitable participation.
Question 2: How much should I share?
Civic engagement inevitably means participation in public contexts and requires the development of a public persona. In our digitally networked world, it’s important to think in advance about which elements of one’s life one wants to share in public contexts where narratives can circulate widely. That said, it is very difficult to maintain a firewall between one’s private persona and a public persona, so as one enters into the public realm one has to ask the question of how, not whether, parts of one’s private identity become public. Research from the MacArthur network has shown that early in their civic experiences, young people often make intuitive choices about whether to try to wall off their online and offline identities, blend them partially, or merge them fully (James et al, 2009). The effort to keep online and offline identities separate is often harder than young people expect, and the surprise convergence of different personas can lead young people over time to retreat from civic engagement. Consequently, it is important for young people to think up front about their “public persona,” the question of how much of their personal lives they would like to give over to the public sphere through civic engagement.
Although the specific kinds of personal risk associated with our fast-changing digital context are new, the value of self-protection in democratic life is not. In a civic context, self-protection is somewhat different than just shielding oneself from harm. The question of “how much should I share” involves weighing how much cost, or sacrifice, one can willingly and equitably bear for the sake of political participation and for the sake of others. Participation inevitably costs one’s time and commitment, but deeper engagement can come with much greater sacrifices: participation can also cost civic agents their attachments, reputation, well-being, or other opportunities in life. Democracy has indeed developed through the sacrifices of numerous “change makers” who voluntarily set aside their self-interest and developed the courage and resilience to endure the burden of public action. Yet one should not undertake such sacrifices lightly, nor without forethought and preparation. Civic agents must build a basic foundation for self-care if they are to be able to pursue equitable or effective political action. The relevant analogy is the lesson on airplanes that one must put an oxygen mask on oneself before helping other people. One’s safety is foundational to seeking equitable relations with others and to seeking equitable public outcomes through civic action.
Question 3: How can I make it about more than myself?
Here, the role of equity in political friendship becomes clearer. Civic engagement is in part the recognition of that “It’s not about me anymore, but about us” and one’s relationship to others as political equals. Coordinating divergent and merging self-interests among us surfaces from this point forward in the process, as does the recognition of the burdens and sacrifices one might choose to take on for the sake of the goal of linking one’s own interests to a broader conception of a shared good. An equitable foundation for one’s own civic action is fundamental to successful coordination with others and being able to expand one’s sphere of influence by acquiring allies and partners, the final goal of the whole sequence of questions.
Question 4. Where do we start?
Now that you have thought about your own motivation and civic persona, it’s time for a pivot from “I” to “we.” From this question to the end of the list, all the questions focus on engaging with others in civic action and participation. Equitable civic agency needs to also be effective. Successful civic actors reflect not only on their personal goals and the interests of others, but on how they can effectively pursue those goals through individual and collective action. The first step to broadening one’s influence by bringing others on board involves identifying places where one peers are already engaged in participatory culture and building on that pre-existing engagement to connect them to new purposes.
Question 5: How can we make it easy and engaging for others to join in?
After one identifies contexts for connection with others around the issue one cares about (question 4), the next step is to develop opportunities for others to connect with you on a shared project. What simple invitation for participation can you offer to others? One can start where one’s civic agent peers already hang out, for instance, by engaging them on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Platforms such as these can be useful for gaining initial traction with a broader network of civic agents. While quick and easy participation through social media is occasionally criticized as “slacktivism,” the findings from the YPP Research Network studies suggest that this type of light engagement can be an effective gateway to deeper engagement (Earl & Kimport, 2011). From digital connections, you want to build toward in person meetings and engagements that combine deliberation about problems to be solved with the development of potential solutions, and then action plans. Questions 6-9 help with this work of deliberation, problem-solving, and planning for engagement.
Questions 6: How do we get wisdom from crowds?
Democracy is fundamentally about drawing on the knowledge dispersed throughout the entire society. Political institutions channel experience, expertise, and opinion from all corners of a society into decision-making processes. This is even more true in our digital world. One of the great virtues of digital tools is the opportunity they offer to draw on the wisdom of crowds. Civic actors are able to achieve powerful investigative work by reaching out to digital audiences to ask people to share information and videos about challenging issues, for instance. Question 6 invites civic actors to learn how to leverage collective knowledge
Question 7: How do we handle the downside of crowds?
Crowds bring danger as well as benefits. Question 7 invites civic actors to learn how to protect themselves from potential harm, especially in digital environments. A related danger of online participation is bullying behavior. Even when posting discreet remarks, engaging in a civil discussion, or just consuming civic information passively, civic participants need to be aware that the atmosphere online might turn against them at any time. The sheer volume of attention to digital public statements, for instance, even when positive, can prevent people from making good judgments and even compromise their mental bandwidth. Civic participants people who haven’t fully developed their cognitive and emotional capacity are particularly vulnerable to such risk.
Question 8: Are we pursuing voice or influence or both?
Some civic agents seek mainly to express themselves—to add their dissent or affirmation to the public conversation mainly for the sake of being counted, so to speak. They wish that their point of view be registered too when commentators offer portraits of national opinion, for instance. Those who change the logos on their Facebook page to convey support for a specific social movement can be seen as choosing to pursue “voice” in this way. Other civic agents, however, seek to pivot from voice to influence. By influence, we have in mind achieving concrete change through institutional levers. Influence can entail working through political institutions—whether at the municipal, county, state, or federal level—to win specific policy victories. It can entail working through other public or leading civil society organizations to win policy victories in those spaces—schools, hospitals, or the professional associations that determine practices from real estate to legal services, to name a few. Influence can also entail seeking to change the behavior of large corporations and other private actors. The point of seeking influence, though, is to go beyond expressing oneself and ensuring that one’s voice is counted in tallies of public opinion. Influence looks to bring about change in the behavior of others, particularly those who hold power to make decisions that affect shared social life and the institutions that structure it. A key feature of becoming an effective civic agent is to take the time to decide whether one is pursuing voice, or influence, or both. The purpose of Question 8 is to teach civic actors to ask themselves: “Is our action primarily expression, or is it targeted at influencing policymaking or decision-making processes, or both?” These two kinds of action ––expression and influence––are often intertwined, and drawing a clear line between the two can be tricky. That said, the two categories aid civic actors in becoming more alert to issues that would otherwise have gone unnoticed; they can reflect on their actions according to the intended goals and potential outcomes, weigh the pros and cons of their choices, and devise better action strategies. Moreover, they can come to recognize how voice and influence may synergize with one another, or be pursued simultaneously. This focus on voice and influence should lead to design of more effective approaches to civic agency.
Question 9. How do we get from voice to change?
Here there is a simple lesson: the conventional realm of politics remains important for structural change, no matter how loud a noise one makes outside of political institutions. Change is made through policymaking. Though political institutions have less authority over policymaking than they once did, their official and primary function for policymaking never vanishes. Teaching about the three branches of government and policymaking processes, therefore, continue to be important in civic education. New emphasis should be placed on how the political system works differently in a digital age, how one can channel participatory energy into policymaking processes, and the complex intersections of expressive action and formal political institutions.
Question 10. How can we find allies?
As discussed, civic agents have access to a wide range of opportunities to drive change outside institutional politics. A new agenda for civic education would include identifying levers that young people can operate for amplifying their voices, such as by working with non-governmental organizations, individual influencers (e.g. celebrities), local politicians, or for-profit corporations. Reaching people in power is difficult, of course. Finding allies who can broker actions on behalf of young people and mentor them is thus an important component of effective action.
One of the strengths of the Ten Questions Framework is that its key objectives of equity, efficacy, and self-protection are treated in a developmental sequence. As young people progress through the questions, the scope of the issues concerned progressively expands. The series begins with a focus on one’s personal narrative and stake in an issue and then pivots from “I” to “we,” to the wisdom and downsides of crowds, and to coordination of divergent self-interests. It concludes by encouraging clear thinking about how to connect voice and expression to influence through institutional and policymaking processes. The Ten Questions Framework guides a young person or student through the process of developing consciousness about the steps entailed for civic action and provides a navigational system. Through reflection practice with the framework, students should take with them questions that they can use in an ongoing way as part of their civic practice, such as: “Does my choice of action support equitable relations with my peers?” “Is it an effective choice?” “What other alternatives are possible?” “Will my choice of action harm my privacy or future safety?” The reflection works both before and after civic action: the questions can be used for planning an effort at civic engagement or be directed toward reflecting on how an effort at civic engagement has gone.
Reference: The curriculum “Civic Engagement in Our Democracy” was developed in collaboration with educators by the Democratic Knowledge Project, an initiative of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. .