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Our expectations of what civic engagement looks like don’t match reality. Can we fix that?

Rep. Keith Ellison Holds Town Hall Meeting At Detroit Church Photo by Sarah Rice/Getty Images

The election of Donald Trump has reawakened people’s desire to engage in politics.

People are eager to be connected to others who also want to make their voices heard. Activists on both the right and the left are fired up: They want to join civil society organizations, participate in their town hall meetings, protest, and engage with social media whenever an all-too-powerful executive seems to be infringing upon their liberties or attempting to roll back progress. They want to be part of something bigger.

This is definitely a moment to be seized.

But for this new wave of civic engagement to be sustainable, our understanding of what political engagement looks like ought take into account people’s limitations. It also ought to take into account civic tech’s shortcomings in creating opportunities for participation. Models of civic engagement need to be based on the rule of how people think about politics and their willingness and ability to participate, not the exception.

The underlying belief of proponents of civic engagement is that community and group involvement leads to better citizens and that active citizenship is crucial to the survival and maintenance of American democracy. That, in turn, leads them to make the assumption that people will get involved if we lower the costs and barriers of engagement by creating better tools and processes; and that they want to learn more about their communities, if we make it easy for them to do so.

But 60-plus years of political science theory on political behavior combined with what we know about the limitations of civic tech and civic engagement show that there are limits to what we can expect from people. That’s because most people can’t perform the role of the super citizen: Without any knowledge or experience in policymaking and administration, it’s difficult for voters to stay involved in the minutiae of politics.

In 1964, political scientist Philip E. Converse, while studying the nature of belief systems in mass publics, found that “many citizens don’t have meaningful beliefs, even on issues that have formed the basis for intense political controversy among elites for substantial amounts of time.” Most people don’t play close enough attention to politics to care. We think of people as omnicompetent and committed citizens, when in fact they have a hard time with basic things such as trade-offs: They say they want lower taxes and more government spending.

And to the extent to which people care about an issue, that is shaped by their ethnic, racial, occupational, religious, and other types of identity, as well as previous experiences. Availability of information doesn’t guarantee that people will vote differently from the group they belong to just because they have access to a new policy paper or go to a town hall meeting. When making decisions, people will see what their friends think is important and decide that’s important. It’s how we make decisions: by seeing what other people like us think. This is why we so often read stories about candidates with stances on issues that are antagonistic to what is in the best interest of their constituents getting elected again and again.

Ordinary people are also busy with their responsibilities at work and with their private lives. They have diverse interests and time availability, and trust that democracy (in the form of elected representatives) will work for them. If participation can be meaningful only if it takes place in the form of protests or membership in voluntary associations, participatory democracy can end up doing exactly the opposite of what it aims to do. Civic life can be quite elitist and exclusionary when certain processes and tools widen the gap between the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless.

In Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life, Theda Skocpol argues: “[A]s strategies for the revitalization of US democracy, recommendations so preoccupied with local and social life — remedies that ignore issues of economic inequality, power disparity, and political demobilization — are simply not plausible. … The people most likely to take local community and social capitalism to heart — to benefit from them and feel well-satisfied — are, I fear, the same folks already flourishing, in increasingly privatized ways, in America’s more lightly governed version of just plain old capitalism.” The last thing we need is another gap between the rich and the poor in the form of how people engage, how accessible tools for engagement are, and the issues that are addressed.

Civic tech can be a tool for positive change and a real asset to civil society organizations and other forms of social entrepreneurship. For those who wish to see voters participate in more meaningful ways, they seem to lower participation costs and provide access information in innovative ways.

Today, more than ever before, tools for organizing, for sharing information, and for keeping elected officials accountable are abundant. But without preexisting ties, effective political action is less likely to flourish.

Social media and other tools that foster participation serve as catalysts for people’s preexisting alliances and sentiments. Surely, the Arab Spring and, to a smaller extent, Bernie Sanders’s revolution, the Women’s March, and Trump’s “Make America Great Again” probably would have progressed at slower paces and potentially in a less well-organized fashion without the help of tools like Facebook and Twitter. But to claim that the existence of organizing tools was the fundamental reason behind the feasibility of these movements is not an accurate assessment of the events that unfolded. We had social movements before social media.

Tools that facilitate participation do a very good job of creating networks of shared interests in very specific ways: They bring together people who already share similar views, and who welcome each other's ideas, pushing them further into homogenous groups. It is easy to believe policy X is better than policy Y when, coincidentally, all of your friends on Facebook seem to agree with you. The power and the danger of social media is the same: It pushes people further into their filter bubbles. And that can be a dangerous thing. It can make people less tolerant and less willing to engage in compromise.

All of these barriers to participation are real and hard to overcome.

The sustainability of this new wave of civic engagement depends, in part, on our ability to set up realistic expectations of what participatory democracy can accomplish, given our own limitations.

Proponents of participatory democracy ought to adjust their ideas of where most people, real people, fit on the “political engagement spectrum.” If we want to ensure that this rekindled motivation to participate is sustainable, advocates for higher levels of civic engagement need to adjust expectations on how people think about and “do” politics. Tools and processes that foster civic engagement need to be designed for real people.

Institutions that connect people, aggregate their concerns, and create a channel for communication between them and policymakers writing and voting on legislation also play a key role. They serve as catalysts for popular will, and bring to the forefront issues that cannot be effectively addressed via scattered local action.

As Skocpol notes, “Improving local communities and social life will not create sufficient democratic leverage to tackle problems that can only be addressed with concerted national commitment.” For example, think about health care and unemployment, issues that require national policy and legislation. Intermediaries such as political parties and public interest groups have a key role to play in maintaining a balance between popular forces and experienced leadership, while creating pathways for the will of the people to be reflected in policymaking and creating tangible opportunities for engagement. They fill in the leadership gap left by networks for civic engagement.

None of this is to say we shouldn’t aim for more civic participation. When people are part of organizations and face situations where they have to make difficult decisions, or even engage with people with different worldviews, they can become more tolerant and feel higher levels of political efficacy. At the same time, we also know that we’re not going to get thousands of people marching every weekend forever.

Civic engagement is not a panacea for all the ills of American democracy, and it doesn’t need to be. Thus, with those caveats in mind, proponents of civic engagement and civic tech need to ensure that there are accessible and transparent mechanisms for people to participate should they want to do so. They need to create tools that better serve super citizens and civic entrepreneurs, by taking into account the limits, and perhaps distortion, of social media and people’s willingness and ability to participate. Finally, they need to create spaces that help people establish connections and develop trust in a way that outlasts single-issue battles.

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