How to strengthen your civic muscles, a participatory experiment
According to a November-December 2018 survey conducted by NPR and PBS, nearly half of all American adults said they planned to make a New Year’s resolution. Personal health topped their plans, with 13% saying they would exercise more, 12% saying they would stop smoking and 10% saying they would lose weight. New Year’s resolutions tend to be personal of course, so it’s not surprising to see health along with other forms of self-improvement dominate the list. When it came to other-directed goals, the poll found 9% saying they wanted to be a better person, 2% saying they wanted to be kinder to others, and just 1% saying they wanted to get politically involved.
Being civic, that is, being engaged with others focused on common, publicly-shared needs, doesn’t rank very high among Americans, it seems. As Eitan Hersh writes in his valuable new book, Politics is For Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change, Americans spend very little time on civic or volunteer activity. According to a regular survey done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that asks Americans how they spent their previous day, the average person has about five-and-a-half hours of leisure time. About three-quarters of that is spent watching TV or on a computer. Americans spend just about nine minutes, averaged across all of us, in civic or volunteer activity.
Even people who are daily news consumers, the so-called “highly informed” part of the electorate, aren’t civically engaged very much. Hersh writes, “Consider the American National Election Study, the flagship political science survey of America attitudes since the 1940s. Among daily news consumers in 2016, less than 4 percent reported doing any work whatsoever on behalf of a campaign or party that election year. Even among those who reported that they were afraid of Donald Trump, only 5 percent reported that they did any work to support their side.”
Don’t pat yourself on the back if you are a regular voter, in other words. Being civic means being involved, and most of us just aren’t. Hersh adds, “Of Americans who consume news every day, most report belonging to zero organizations. Sixty-five percent report that in the last year they have done no work with other people to solve a community problem. Sixty-eight percent say they have attended zero meetings in the last year about a community issues.” He notes, by the way, that most of this data probably skews upward—that is, people tell pollsters they are more active than they actually are.
And, worst of all, of the people who claim to be politically active—a third of all Americans say they spend two hours a day on politics, Hersh found in a 2018 survey—80% of those people report that time is spent spectating, consuming news and social media and sharing content with others. Hersh calls those people “political hobbyists.” Are you one?
The National Conference on Citizenship produces annual civic health indexes in collaboration with many partners. It defines “civic health” as “the degree to which citizens participate in their communities, from local and state governance to interactions with friends or family. Civic health also relates to the overall well-being of neighborhoods, communities, states, and the nation.” For its reports, NCOC looks at a variety of metrics, including voter registration rates, how much people talk about politics with friends or family, trust in institutions, social connectedness, and various forms of civic participation including attending public meetings, charitable giving and volunteering.
So here’s a challenge. If you made a resolution to improve your health this year, how about including your civic health? I’ve made a simple spreadsheet with a ten point list of activities you can score yourself on: My Civic Health Tracker, at bit.ly/mycivichealth. Feel free to copy that if you want to use it privately, or add your name and start tracking your monthly activity. (Power users: this is very beta, so if you want to suggest improvements or ways to change the scoring, dive in and make comments.)
We all know 2020, indeed, the 2020s, are going to be a critical time. How we show up as civic actors will be crucial.
P.S. Some good reading on how tech fits into this larger picture: Douglas Rushkoff in The Guardian on how we’ve been defined and reshaped and Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times on how to avoid dystopia.
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