Voting every four years and then checking out is a recipe for a weak democracy. People need authentic and satisfying avenues of engagement between elections.
During a panel discussion two weeks ago, we explored a number of questions: Can the public have a real voice in American politics? Is too much democracy a bad thing? Can we address our differences and move forward? Will the tools we use currently to engage the public be adequate for the radical moment we are in?
The lively panel conversation concluded with many questions from an engaged and curious audience. Sadly, we did not have the time to answer everyone’s questions. We’d like to take the opportunity to answer a few of the questions audience members submitted here. Have additional questions for us? Leave them in the comments.
Responses to the below questions come from Will Friedman and Matt Leighninger.
Can you talk about the factors that might keep people from “coming to the table” even if the infrastructure/opportunities for them to come to the table (engage) were in place?
There are all kinds of factors that keep people from the table: they’re busy, they’re working multiple jobs, they don’t speak English well, there’s no child care provided, they don’t like public speaking, etc. Dealing with these barriers is important. But focusing too much on the barriers can lead to a somewhat condescending attitude toward people we think of as “disengaged” and somehow “hard to reach.” We assume that the fact that they are disengaged has to do mainly with their own limitations – and we ignore the fact that almost all of us are disengaged most of the time. It is a mistake to deal with the barriers without also making “the table” (whether that’s a meeting, a process, or a website) something that is meaningful, powerful, convenient, and fun.
How would we overcome the lack of trust in government or in the “other” that might keep people from engaging?
Relationships and responsiveness. Public engagement processes that give people a meaningful opportunity to get to know each other and talk about issues tend to build trust because they build relationships – between citizens and public servants, between different kinds of people, between different ideologies and generations. Then, when people find out that the input they gave had an impact on a policy decision, or when their involvement leads to some other kind of good outcome, they gain trust that the system is responsive to them and their interests.
The panel is giving me the impression it feels “the public” didn’t have a voice in the current elections. But if a significant part of the public, the 70% without a college degree, didn’t have a voice, how was Trump elected?
The point is more that too many members of the public do not feel they have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, contributing to the profound discontent with the status quo that the election revealed.
How do you get people to the table who don’t necessarily want to be there in the first place and aren’t motivated by Participatory Budgeting money?
One of the essential facts of engagement: people participate when someone they know and trust asks them to. Other kinds of outreach are nice supplements to that – flyers, e-blasts, articles in the newspaper – but they won’t lead to a large turnout by themselves. Successful recruitment requires a web of relationships of trust. To improve and sustain engagement, we should pay more attention to growing and supporting those webs on an ongoing basis, not just when we face a big decision or a big crisis.
Americans across the political spectrum and in all demographic groups feel disenfranchised and powerless. What role does our non-regulated “system” of campaign finance play?
According to research Public Agenda is conducting, people do feel disenfranchised because they feel that wealthy and powerful special interests control the nation’s policy agenda. That doesn’t mean that campaign finance reform is all that needs to happen to create a more engaged and empowered public, but it’s fair to say that it’s a factor.