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For democracy to survive, it requires civic engagement

Women’s March on Washington
Demonstrators at the Women’s March on Washington.
Noam Galai/WireImage

The relationship between citizens and government is changing. The first 10 days of Donald Trump’s presidency has been a reminder that citizens’ thirst to have a voice in their democracy spans the nation’s cultural, partisan, and ideological divides. In his inaugural address, Trump thundered, “We are transferring power from Washington, DC, and giving it back to you, the people.” The past two weekends have seen millions demonstrate in Women’s Marches and large crowds gather at airports and in downtowns to voice their discontent over Trump’s draconian executive order regarding immigration and refugee policies.

Beneath the acrimony, everyone seems to agree that citizens need a greater voice in our democracy. But both sides face a common challenge: Neither the marchers nor the president they detest have articulated a coherent set of mechanisms to translate their passionate rhetoric into concrete initiatives, programs, or policies that actually empower citizens.

How do we bring citizens into democracy? Americans were accustomed to a longstanding model: institutions and their leaders as the stalwart of democracy. Not even a week into Trump’s presidency, many folks are left wide-eyed with the realization that our civic institutions are not going to work without consistent citizen pressure and activism to protect them. At a time when citizens’ faith in institutions and democracy is at all-time lows; we each need to be vigilant and actively engaged.

Civic engagement is not just for creating better policies but also for reinvigorating democratic practice — this is an underlying condition of our current political dysfunction. There are tools from our democratic “arsenal” to support this new relationship between Americans and their government. Regardless of how we proceed, this is going to take work, and there isn’t a panacea. The new dynamic between the government and citizens is not going to fix itself. It is not going to be fixed by a new policy or a new government official. There is now no choice but to engage in a multigenerational project to reinvigorate American democracy.

First, individual citizens can hold power to account by bringing new and relevant facts into the public light. People can serve as watchdogs, activists for truth, and monitors of governance. Individual people can serve as more credible truth tellers than other parts of society that are viewed as beholden to special interests or lobbying. From photographing police violence to tracking public documents online (e.g., through the Freedom of Information Act) to ensuring that elected officials maintain their campaign promises, individuals can become purveyors of truth and put pressure on institutions and elected officials.

Take, for example, India’s Mumbai Votes, where information crowdsourced by students and activists on elected officials is viewed as credible and reliable information, often in contrast to biased paid news. In an environment of declining institutional trust, there is a vacuum of facts. Individual people empowered with a smartphone or even a microphone can be the purveyors of truth and can leverage that information to hold government accountable.

Second, citizens can revitalize the power of diverse community-based organizations. For a long time, these organizations weaved the vibrant fabric of America civic and communal life. Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings about early American life included the potency of civic associations for strengthening democracy. One component of these organizations was the ability for people to come together across different ideologies and beliefs.

Today these organizations are no longer as vital, diverse, or powerful as they once were, and American democracy has suffered as a result. There has been much scholarship on the decline of civic associations in the United States. Now is the moment to reengage with civil society organizations — not just passively donate every year. Instead, actively participant in local chapters of a national group or a neighborhood association.

Civic organizations are not a monolith. There are some that are filled with people who share the same preconceived views, while others may have less homogeneous ideology. Given the changing relationship between citizens and government, now is the critical moment to form nontraditional alliances and more deeply engage with people with dissenting viewpoints. The goal is to strengthen critical civil society institutions, not just to feel reaffirmed. Building tolerance for peaceful dissent and disagreement toward shared democratic goods, which transcend any one person, is a critical building block for reinventing the relationship between citizens and the state.

Finally, across our 3,007 counties there are participatory options and new partnerships between government and the people to work collaboratively as co-producers of public goods. For example, Central Falls, Rhode Island, which is Rhode Island’s only majority-Hispanic community, was the first city in Rhode Island to declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy. The city government decided to try something new to engage the community around a shared project.

It partnered with Citizinvestor, a crowdfunding and civic engagement site that is similar to “Kickstarter for governments,” to launch a civic crowdfunding campaign, one of the first in the United States. Local residents were active participants in every part of the process: identifying the area for fundraising; pledging their own dollars; and collaborating. Examples like this are occurring across the country where citizens are empowered not merely in a consultative or advisory role, but are given a real role in public decision-making.

Another process gaining momentum across the country is participatory budgeting, a World Bank “best practice” in democratic reform to give residents a portion of public money to decide how to allocate. Last year, community residents allocated more than $60 million across the United States through discretionary funds of local officials, since the process started in 2009 with $1 million in discretionary funds in a Chicago ward. Perhaps we can learn from instructive international examples in Brazil or in Paris, where €100 million per year is allocated through the process.

Strengthening the relationship between citizens and their government requires tireless energy, vigilance, and creativity. By design this requires new experiments. Charlotte, North Carolina, won a Knight Cities Challenge for a project called Crown TownHall, which offers direct one-on-one opportunities for local public city officials to have an in-person conversation with a member of the community. This requires time on behalf of both citizens and their public officials. Deepened relationships can develop even with just a 10-minute conversation.

It is going to take unprecedented work to rebuild the civic fabric and reignite the civic associations that have been the hallmark of America. Many of us feel fired up, angry, or worried about the direction of our country. The way to move forward begins with sustained civic activity, one conversation at a time.