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How the Public Can Make Our Democracy Work Better

August 12, 2014

The American public is not well prepared to complete its main task as citizens: to form thoughtful judgments on the nation’s important issues.

Americans must become as adept and engaged as citizens as they are as consumers.

The public must be willing and able to give as much thought as they do to buying a car or a new home to alternative choices on policies relating to the economy, health care, education, the environment and other matters of concern to individuals and the community.

Successful public engagement involves both will and skill, and at present both are lacking. (Credit: Marc Wathieu, Flickr)

The public’s task as citizens is to deliberate on the nation’s most important issues and form thoughtful judgments free of bias and wishful thinking.

This is a far call from the present response patterns of the public. In recent years, the American public has almost lost the habit of becoming engaged in the search for solutions to the nation’s most pressing problems. Successful public engagement involves both will and skill, and at present both are lacking.

In its place we find polarization, demonization of those who hold different views, passionate conviction without thought, and extreme subjectivity. Just at the time when we most need a thoughtful pragmatic public, we get instead a public on vacation from reality.

From my more than a half century of experience in monitoring the values and attitudes of the American public, I have reached the reluctant conclusion that the American public is not currently well prepared to take on one of democracy’s most essential tasks—restoring fairness to our nation.

On the other hand, I believe that this could improve for the better with relatively modest changes in our culture. At present, Americans are frustrated because their voice is neither welcome nor heard. But there is enormous potential willingness among Americans to act as true citizens, if given a genuine opportunity to do so.

In later posts, I’ll elaborate how this could happen with good leadership and a bit of luck.

Rebooting Democracy is a blog authored by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich. While the views that Dan shares in his blog should not be interpreted as representing official Public Agenda positions, the purpose behind the blog and the spirit in which it is presented resonate powerfully with our values and the work that we do. To receive Rebooting Democracy in your inbox, subscribe here.

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Daniel Yankelovich

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