CIVIC ENGAGEMENT IN AMERICA and political engagement
[List of related readings and links]

Note: this is only a description of some of the issues and ideas considered. For our official set of recommendations, see our BetterTogether report.

The fourth Saguaro Seminar (Saguaro IV) met in Los Angeles in February, 1998 at the Getty Center’s Research Institute and focused on political engagement and social capital, namely: what strategies would lead citizens to be more engaged in the political process? By this we meant more narrowly, how to increase participation in the electoral process (running for office, voting, petitioning government) and more broadly, how to rally individuals around shared public goals to achieve public goods (such as the significant extra-governmental NetDay efforts that helped wire public schools to the internet using volunteer efforts and organization)?

The problem: We chose Los Angeles as a site to discuss this topic, because it is, in many ways, paradigmatic of the way in which modern day politics are carried out.

What is this modern style of politics and how does it inhibit civic engagement? Marshall Ganz’s "Voters in the Crosshairs" [American Prospect, Winter 1994:100-109] and Robert Putnam’s "Revitalizing Trilateral Democracies", Chapters 1 and 4 [published by the Trilateral Commission in 1995] lay out more cogently how we have shifted from retail politics and "shoe leather" to wholesale politics based on the media. In a nutshell, politicians increasingly pay political consultants based on the number of direct pieces of mail or number of voters targeted; thus, a system has developed to ignore both the "unreachable" votes (or simply try to minimize their proclivity to vote) and the secure votes, and to focus all one’s attention on the "swing votes". Within this swing vote, voters increasingly communicate with politicians through focus groups or polls; the consultants use the data to tailor the politician’s message to those voters’ concerns, messages generally communicated through media/commercials, and pre-tested on samples of swing voters. Advertisements enable the message to be well crafted and mistakes to be minimized.

The impact of the big rise in advertising and political consultants has caused the cost of campaigning to skyrocket and thus put a premium on candidates who can raise the most money. Likewise, as money has enabled candidates to "speak directly" to the public, it has diminished the roles of once powerful political parties that used to mediate the interest of voters and the interests of candidates, and aggregate conflicting social and economic interests into coherent public policies. [See "The Big Tilt" by Verba, Schlozman, and Brady on how money has replaced time in campaigns.]

In addition, campaigns are increasingly influenced by the media. Messages are crafted for sound bites and good theater, even if true policy solutions are much more complicated. Politicians kowtow to the media’s desire to present politics as a battle by demonizing other politicians for their views rather than searching for common ground, or by blocking promising proposals from other parties lest it will make their opponents look good. Politicians also shy away from more risky face-to-face conversations and towards staged events where it is clearer what the media’s coverage will be and how it will play.

What have been the civic consequences of these changes? To oversimplify, primarily three-fold: 1) voters are less trustful ; 2) they are disempowered ; and 3) it has increased the concentration of political power and activism in professional lobbyists, PACs, and wealthy donors. First, the process of packaging messages and positions to appeal to swing voters, or stating a campaign message one way to one set of voters and another to a different, increases the chance that voters feel a politician will say anything to get elected or will "go back on his/her word", thus lowering levels of trust. Second, trust is degraded by voters feeling that politicians are beholden to the individuals and organizations that contributed financially to the campaign. Third, the changes have left voters feeling unable to exercise much control over the process, since volunteering is less important. Most voters may also feel ignored; if politicians are competing for swing voters, most voters who do not care about the same issues as swing voters will find that the issues they care about are less visible in the campaign and receive less attention.

Some of the solutions to these issues may lie in more macro level reforms: ease of registration and voting; changes in how campaigns are financed; involving youth more in politics; revitalizing the party structure; and rethinking the role of media and technology.

At Saguaro IV we considered three things:

1) New v. Old: a contrast between some exemplary proponents and practitioners of the "new" way of politics (described earlier) on the one hand and more intense, grassroots engagement on the other, in order to see what the group could learn from this juxtaposition.

2) Technology: a discussion of the changing role of technology in political engagement. Where is our country heading technologically? What impact will or might this have on how politics will be waged? Are there ways of using technology to change the political playing field in a direction that fosters civic engagement?

Background: Across the country, voters’ frustration with politicians and the political process is increasingly putting pressure on systems for more direct forms of democracy. A slippery slope of ever more rapid, and less reflective democratic action seems likely. The building pressure can be seen in several places. A poll of current and potential users of computers indicated the high desire of the public to use computers for voting. Internet providers face severe economic pressure to find secure ways of verifying credit card transactions in the near future; these technological developments will likely pave the way for verifying voters on-line. California already enacts the majority of its most sweeping legislation through direct democracy (i.e., referenda). It is increasingly likely that California and other states will move to permit proponents of ballot initiatives to qualify their referenda by collecting signatures over the internet. Once electronic voting is feasible, and computers are widely owned (which is likely to happen within the next 5-10 years), pressure will mount to permit voting on initiatives immediately after signatures are collected, and to take effect immediately. Elected politicians who support more reflective action may see their policies undercut by voters who want to seize power back.

3) Structures of government: What is the connection between structures of government and political engagement? It seems likely that the structure of government is integrally related to the public’s participation. Political philosophers dating back to the founding of the Republic, in Federalist #10, argued about the optimal size for government, in order to avoid tyranny or the usurpation of power. Three inter-linked proposals in the L.A. area that would alter the relationship between citizens and elected officials may help re-engage citizens. These three are: charter reform, neighborhood councils, and secession.

The city of Los Angeles is in the process of reconsidering its charter (the equivalent of the city’s Constitution). As part of this process, two separate commissions have been established: one appointed by the City Council, one elected. These Commissions are taking testimony from Angelenos and striving to interest the broader public in this issue. One of the key issues of Charter reform is the issue of participation. Charter reform was initiated in response to an effort of the San Fernando Valley (the more middle class region, north of L.A.) to secede from the city of Los Angeles. Secessionists argue that more local government improves government accountability, encourages greater participation, and gives citizens more control over how their tax dollars are spent. [The secession movement is put into a broader context in "Let’s Break up the Big Cities" by Howard Husock in City Journal, Winter 1998: 71-87] Others have argued that neighborhood councils need to be established: some assert that these should be appointed, others suggest elected councils. Neighborhood Councils might have the power of the purse over some services or might be merely advisory. Some have suggested that the Empowerment Congress, created by Councilmember Mark Ridley Thomas in South Central L.A. six years ago, may be a model for such councils. We heard from some of the players involved in this debate and considered what broader lessons could be learned about how the structure of government could be used to foster political engagement.

Resources and Readings:
Information on Political Engagement and Social Capital

The Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America - Harvard Kennedy School of Government
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