Beyond "The Crisis in Civics" [DMLcentral]

On March 14th, Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, delivered the opening keynote address at the Digital Media & Learning Conference, DML2013. Responding to the conference theme of "Democratic Futures," Zuckerman presented a compelling counter-narrative to the standard charge that youth-- especially teens-- are disinterested and disengaged in civic life.

Like many Americans born in the 1970s, my civics education included Schoolhouse Rock, which featured 10 America Rock segments in its initial run, including the memorable “I’m Just a Bill,” a three-minute explanation of the complex process by which Congressional bills become laws. Much of what I learned about civics in elementary and high school echoed the general tone of Schoolhouse Rock, a simplified version of a system that would admit my limited participation once I became an adult: I could share my concerns with my representative (who I would help elect) and she might author a bill, which could become a law.

Passing laws in Congress is an important part of the American system of government, but it’s a lousy way to introduce young people to civic engagement. For one thing, Congress doesn’t pass a whole lot of laws these days – the 112th Congress, described as the least productive in a half-century, passed 61 bills of 3914 proposed. (Shep Melnick has the best counterargument I’ve read to the idea that the 112th Congress was badly broken, but I remain unpersuaded.) While excellent books like Bob Graham’s America: The Owner’s Manual include stories of young people who’ve had major impacts on legislative processes, for many people, civic engagement is going to unfold far outside the legislative realm.

We tend to teach a version of civics that would have been familiar to 19th century Americans. Aspects of that 19th century model still apply, but we rarely teach the 20th century model of campaigning that governs our electoral processes, or the 21st century forms of participation that may transform governance and engagement. The mismatch between a 19th century understanding and a 21st century reality may help explain widespread distrust and dissatisfaction with government (I’m grateful to Oscar Salazar of CitiVox for the idea of mismatching expectations in American government over the centuries).

Representative democracy rests on the idea that a small number of representatives can meet, face-to-face, and deliberate their way towards solutions, representing the perspectives of their constituents but being open to persuasion through argument and compromise. At the outset of the American experiment, the nation’s founders argued at length about the size of congressional districts, wanting a balance between a number of representatives who could meaningfully debate with one another, and districts small enough to allow representatives to “possess a proper knowledge of the local circumstances of their numerous constituents,” in the words of James Madison in Federalist #55. Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg, a long-time advocate for expanding the size of Congress, points out that George Washington’s sole intervention during the constitutional convention was to argue for districts that included 30,000 citizens, not the more massive 40,000 proposed.

Congress hasn’t expanded the total number of districts since 1913, except to add seats for Alaska and Hawaii, and the average representative now speaks for 709,000 people. While it was possible – perhaps even likely – that voters had a personal relationship with their representatives, it’s much less likely now. This, in turn, challenges the logic of representative democracy, raising questions of whether representatives know the opinions of those they represent, and whether those represented trust their representatives.

The shift towards larger districts has been accompanied by a shift towards broadcast democracy, where representatives campaign via newspapers, radio and television, and where broadcast media in turn provides information to representatives about the preferences of their constituents. These broadcast channels amplify a limited number of voices to very large audiences, and with the rise of nationwide cable news networks, they likely have contributed to a shift in which politicians address voters nationally, not just the voters in their communities. Representatives who are out of step with the broader mood of their party are likely to receive criticism from around the nation and will suffer financially when they run for local office, as party money and money from outside donors is likely to be withheld.

In the process, moderates have completely disappeared from the Senate, according to the National Journal, which ranks politicians on ideology based on their voting record and finds that no Republicans are more liberal than any Democrats, or any Democrats more conservative than Republicans. That’s a stark change from a few decades back, when New England Republicans were often more liberal than Southern Democrats. Those liberal Republicans were able to get elected in a state like Massachusetts because many voters found a mix of fiscal pragmatism and compassionate social policy to be an appealing mix. But that mix doesn’t work when audiences are national – Mitt Romney, who was elected governor as a progressive republican was forced to declare himself “severely conservative” when running for the presidency.

The 20th century has seen both the de-regionalization and homogenization of politics and the rise of political specialists who understand how to work the mechanisms of broadcast democracy. Lobbyists have grown powerful offering the vast sums of money necessary to finance television campaigns. Pollsters and media consultants manage the process of determining voter perspectives and communicating messages locally and nationally. While the recent trend in campaigning is towards hyper-targeting, as explored in Sasha Isenberg’s “The Victory Lab,” the technical innovations in identifying and mobilizing the few conservative voters in liberal Cincinnati in the hopes of winning office in Ohio are hardly victories for increased agency – broadcast democracy often treats voters as a mass entity, and targeting treats them as smaller masses, not as independent actors in an ongoing conversation with their representatives to build and shape policy.

With the rise of social media in the 21st century, media has become more personal and less homogenous, leading to concerns that individuals are occupying filter bubbles or echo chambers that make it harder for people to empathize and find common ground with those who hold different opinions. Social media has helped people find micropublics, circles of friends who share an interest or a common history and tend to be highly responsive to each other’s posts, updates and online sharings. People are becoming used to creating “content” of all sorts, and receiving feedback on this content, whether it’s a post about their personal life or their political beliefs.

The U.S. government is slowly adapting to this new reality. We the People is an odd mashup of pre-digital political technology – the petition – with the micropublic, where 100,000 people can join together and demand a response on an issue they are passionate about. In this model, there’s the possibility of creating a community that debates and develops a response to an issue, but that capacity is more latent than realized, as Catherine d’Ignazio reports in her blog post on a White House civic hackathon.


These highlights are excerpted from Ethan Zuckerman’s post at DMLcentral.

Published April 01, 2013