By Eliza Newlin Carney

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Photo by Shutterstock

Election Day is here, and Americans are on edge. Storefronts and office buildings are boarded up in anticipation of street violence. Partisans on both sides are warning that the opposition will rig the outcome.

At this moment of national anxiety and even paranoia, it behooves us to pause and take note of the silver linings that peek out from behind these clouds of disruption and fear.

Spotlighting civic success stories may seem naïve given all that is going wrong these days. But it’s equally gullible to assume the absolute worst in the politicians, judges and fellow citizens in whose hands this election lies. That’s precisely what the enemies of democracy, foreign and domestic, want you to believe­–that nothing and no one can be trusted. One way to inoculate yourself against disinformation is to see the whole picture, and retain the capacity for nuance. That includes taking note of the opportunities that arise when things start to fall apart. …


By Eliza Newlin Carney

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Photo by Shutterstock

On the surface, this election looks like a disaster waiting to happen. Congress approved only a small fraction ($400 million) of the estimated $4 billion that states needed to run the election amid a pandemic. Lawsuits, postal service delays, and fears about voter suppression or a looming constitutional crisis have left many Americans bracing for Election Day chaos.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the ballot box this year: average Americans, business leaders, student volunteers, and state and local officials have all stepped in where the federal government failed. In addition to the $400 million that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have donated to help election officials, business leaders on both left and right have contributed millions worth of protective equipment, infrastructure and people power to help salvage the election.

As I note in The Fulcrum recently, this year’s unprecedented outpouring of private sector support ranges from the four dozen stadiums that sports leagues have opened up as polling places to the millions worth of masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and face shields donated by major corporations. The private money has drawn controversy, sparking lawsuits from conservatives and some complaints from liberals who say elections should be publicly funded.

But most election experts say the private donations are legal, and on balance should be applauded. As David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, told me: “Plan A should always be that government pays to provide the infrastructure for our democracy. But we are in unusual times right now. State budgets are particularly strained. Congress has refused to act. And it’s not like we can delay the election.”

STATE SUCCESSES: Our nation’s balkanized voting system, which leaves election administration to state and local officials, raised plenty of problems in the primary and may still disrupt the general election. States are still scrambling on the fly to process millions of mail-in ballots, which voters may or may not sign and seal correctly. Still, some success stories are emerging as early voting gets under way. Poll worker shortages during the primary have dramatically lessened, thanks in part to an army of young volunteers recruited by such groups as the new nonprofit Power to the Polls.

Early voting has also exploded, with more than 44 million ballots cast as of Oct. 22, according to the U.S. Elections Project. (That compares with only 5.9 million at the same point four years ago.) Some speculate that the shift to early voting will be permanent, potentially increasing the nation’s historically low turnout rate. And the use of ballot drop boxes, which as I noted in The Fulcrum are the no-brainer solution to this pandemic-plagued election, has expanded in both red states and blue. It’s another shift that, if it becomes permanent, could boost turnout over the long term.

AN EXPANDING COALITION: An array of new groups have joined the campaign to protect voting rights, adding to the coalition spearheaded by such established players as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. The bipartisan group VoteSafe, co-chaired by Tom Ridge, the former Republican Governor of Pennsylvania, and former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, is working to expand absentee voting and protect voters from health risks at the polls. …


By Eliza Newlin Carney

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Photo by Kim Wilson

Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate cements 2020 as the year of the Black woman, particularly when it comes to campaign fundraising. Biden raised $48 million within 48 hours of tapping Harris, the senator from California, as his №2 on the Democratic presidential ticket.

A record 267 women of color are running for Congress this year, half of them Black, and they’re riding a tidal wave of campaign cash. African American candidates across the board have been showered with campaign contributions since the May police killing of George Floyd, as I note recently in The Fulcrum, helping close a longtime political fundraising wealth gap that has thwarted candidates of color.

Black women candidates are doing especially well, and several have outraised their opponents, having been initially dismissed by the party establishment. These include Democratic challenger Pat Timmons-Goodson in central North Carolina, who raised more than twice incumbent Republican Rich Hudson in the second quarter, and Democrat Jackie Gordon, who has an 11-to-1 cash advantage over Republican state Rep. Andrew Garbarino in the race for an open House seat on Long Island.

A growing constellation of PACs, nonprofits and consulting firms that support African American candidates are also enjoying a huge cash influx, thanks to hundreds of millions flowing to groups advancing racial justice from philanthropists like George Soros and Mackenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Of course, barriers remain, and plenty of candidates of color complain that party higher-ups continue to give them short shrift. As Steve Phillips, the founder of Democracy in Color, told me: “The rhetoric is easy” compared with “doing the hard work to actually move the resources.” Read the whole story here.

AMERICAN HISTORY’S “EDUCATIONAL CRISIS”: How do we tell the whole American story? That question has gained new urgency as the nation grapples with the stark racial inequities in employment, health care, housing and education that both the pandemic and the latest wave of police brutality have brought to the fore. A new, diverse generation of students is complaining more vocally that they do not see themselves in outdated lesson plans that fail to tell the stories of people of color. As rising Yale freshman Caleb Dunson recently wrote in The Chicago Tribune, opportunities to learn about civics in schools are “inadequate, incomprehensive and inaccessible.”

In a recent post on Medium, two-dozen prominent history teachers from around the country called the state of history instruction “an educational crisis.” They blamed curriculum standards that lack empathy and humanity, textbooks that lack diversity, an ongoing time crunch, and reluctance to embrace tough conversations, among other problems. “Valuing and funding high-quality, diverse, and honest history education is a required pathway to working towards solutions to a problem that comprises the deepest fibers of our nation’s genetic code: racism and how racial history is taught in all of our schools,” the teachers wrote. Read their whole post here.

WHAT VOTING RIGHTS? There was little to celebrate on the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act this month, as election administration problems exacerbated by the pandemic threatened to hit voters of color disproportionately hard. Racial voter registration gaps, voter suppression tactics from purges to polling place closures, and the intensifying threat that Postal Service disruptions could hamper voting by mail have all raised alarms among civil and voting rights advocates. As Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, an ex-Louisiana state legislator and an associate professor at Duquesne University School of Law, told CNN: “The stakes are quite high. Voting equals power. And once you are able to elect the candidates of your choice, that means you have to be given a seat at the political table.” Read the whole story here.

BLACK LIVES MATTER ON CIVIC SATURDAY: A highlight of my summer was participating in the Civic Saturday Fellowship run by Seattle-based Citizen University. …


By Eliza Newlin Carney

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Visuals for Unsplash

Americans may have to wait days for final election results this year, election experts warn, as the pandemic drives voters to absentee ballots. Since Republicans favor in-person voting while Democrats are more inclined to vote absentee, President Trump may perform better on Election Day than in the days that follow, as mail-in votes are tallied.

All that has raised alarms about a crisis of public confidence in the election result, particularly given Trump’s recent attacks on mail-in voting. Recent primaries marred by long lines, lost absentee ballots and malfunctioning machines have intensified fears of an Election Day meltdown.

The one saving grace in all this, as I wrote recently in The Fulcrum, is that mail-in voting is broadly embraced within the GOP. For all the partisan disputes that have bogged down election administration, voting by mail has been one area of growing bipartisan agreement.

Prominent Republicans have increasingly scorned Trump’s baseless claims that absentee voting leads to “fraud” and “corruption,” and have pushed to expand voting by mail in red states as well as blue. Many correctly predict that barriers to voting by mail will drive GOP voters from the polls. If Trump does challenge the election on the basis of absentee ballots, he may find few Republicans in his corner. Read the whole Fulcrum story here.

HOPE AGAINST HOPE: It was a bittersweet July 4 for many Americans who gave up parades and family gatherings, and who struggled to reconcile our nation’s promise of liberty with the brutality and racial reckoning now spilling into our streets.

Yet for all that, a recent Pew Research poll found a surprising development when it surveyed Americans on the eve of the nation’s 244th birthday: An uptick of hope. As The Washington Post reported, “Americans have become somewhat more optimistic about the country’s future,” despite their fear and despair.

Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” was widely quoted this year, and many African Americans wondered openly what they had to celebrate. At the same time, multiracial street protests are fueling renewed faith in civic power. As Spence Spencer, an ex-State Department official who now runs an international nonprofit told The Post, recent protests are “a cause for hope, a reassertion that the American tradition of getting people to act on a matter of social justice is alive and well.” Read the whole story here.

WHAT DO WE TELL THE CHILDREN? American children of all ages have given up a lot this year, from school, camp, and college, to sports, travel, and visits with friends and relations. Yet the University of Washington’s Center for Philosophy for Children sees it all as a teachable moment. Courage, resilience and how to be alone are some of the themes children are exploring in the center’s online programs, The New York Times reported. …


By Eliza Newlin Carney

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Arthur Edelman for Unsplash

Is the nation falling apart, or coming together? Perhaps a bit of both, but the forces of unity are stronger than they might look on the surface.

By one measure, the number of Americans who describe the country as unified has jumped fourfold since 2018, as I write in The Fulcrum this month, and 90 percent say “we’re all in it together,” up from just 63 percent two years ago.

The coronavirus has exposed political divisions and inequities, but it is also the kind of systemic disruption that could open the way for new political alignments, as happened in Japan following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. And the administration’s chaotic response “has created a leadership vacuum that all sorts of smaller players have stepped in to fill — state and local leaders, nonprofits, foundations, CEOs, small businesses, neighbors helping neighbors.” …


By Eliza Newlin Carney

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Utsav Srestha on Unsplash

One of the ironies of the Covid-19 pandemic is that local newspaper readership is surging at the same time that plunging ad revenues are forcing newsrooms cut their staffs to the bone.

In the short term, the news industry needs federal relief to avoid what has been called “an extinction event” for local papers. But as I wrote recently in The Fulcrum, the pandemic is also accelerating a “civic news” movement that envisions a more mission-driven model for the media industry.

What would happen, for example, if newsrooms asked communities what they would like to see covered, with an eye to placing the public interest first? That’s what’s happening at several new nonprofit ventures around the country, such as the American Journalism Project and Report for America, that have set out to revive and reinvent local news. Their aim in part is to tell the often-overlooked stories of rural, low-income or marginalized communities.

“I’m newly optimistic, even in the midst of this crisis, that there are these new political openings, new alliances forming,” Craig Aaron, co-CEO of Free Press, told me. Free Press has helped spearhead a publicly-funded Civic Information Consortium in New Jersey that has emerged as a model for other states.

Drawing government funding and mass audiences to nonprofit news outlets presents its own challenges, including questions about editorial independence. But this public health crisis does create an opening for advocates of public interest journalism who have set out to reimagine the media industry, with democracy front and center. Read the whole story here.

DEMOCRACY AS AN ACT OF FAITH: The word faith more often than not connotes religious belief. But faith is also an essential ingredient for democracy, whether citizens engage in spiritual worship or not.

Voters must have faith that their votes will be counted, and will impact the outcome of an election. Citizens must have faith that elected officials will respond to their needs and demands. Community members must have faith that their actions will make a difference.

In recent years, that faith has been lacking. Even before the coronavirus pandemic turned our worlds upside down, Americans had largely lost faith in virtually every institution of public life. The federal government, Congress, the news media, corporations, the scientific and academic communities–all have taken a beating amid steep declines in public trust. And yes, religious faith has cratered, too.

For some Americans, faith in the future has given way to outright nihilism. To the nihilist, things are so bad that nothing can be believed, changed, or even known. Nihilism helps explain the rise of Donald Trump, whose attacks on a corrupt establishment resonated with Americans this economy left behind. But nihilism also has surfaced on the left, among progressives overwhelmed by political chaos in a “post-truth” world.

But nihilism threatens democracy as surely as any autocrat. Too easily, disillusionment justifies disengagement. Discouraged Americans ought to turn not to Friedrich Nietzche, but to Henry David Thoreau, who saw calling the government to account as an expression of patriotism. These are challenging times, to be sure. But they call for action, and the faith to take it, not cynical paralysis.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOLERS TO THE RESCUE: Even as local newspaper struggle to stay afloat, a new breed of journalists is finding an audience: elementary school students. Take Hannah Colas, age 9, whose “Cuttermill Chronicle” contains hand-drawn and illustrated stories about a home haircut and kind acts. “In my next issue I would like to write about my neighbor Miss Judy who is also a nurse working with covid patients, planting nice flowers in her front yard,” Hannah told The Washington Post. In The Civic Circle’s own backyard, a group of eight- to ten-year-olds created “The Takoma Neighborhood News” because, as the masthead states, “The Small Stuff Matters.” Read the whole story here.

THE YOUTH VOTER EARTHQUAKE: Some worry that the pandemic will suppress youth voter turnout, but scholars Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremi Suri argue the opposite. The Covid-19 crisis “has provided a shared imperative for young people to elect representatives who will address their common educational, health, and employment needs,” the two recently wrote for CNN. “Young voters arguably have more motivation than any time since the Vietnam War.” …


By Eliza Newlin Carney

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Paul Weaver on Unsplash

Young voters have flocked to Bernie Sanders during the 2020 Democratic primary, but Joe Biden is now his party’s presumptive nominee. It’s been like that a lot for young voters this year, who had been hailed as an emerging powerhouse voting bloc, but who have failed to live up to that billing.

The latest blow comes from nationwide campus closures that have sent college and university students scattering, just as a budding movement to turn them out to vote was looking unstoppable. As I write in The Fulcrum this week: “Registration drives, absentee ballot parties, political forums and new voter trainings are all on hold. Students are scrambling to chase down absentee ballot forms that were mailed to campuses but must now be forwarded to a home or other address. …


By Eliza Newlin Carney

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Photo by Marcus Spiske on Unsplash

Youth activism is surging worldwide, as students join climate strikes and school walkouts by the millions, and young U.S. voters prepare to play a key role in the 2020 election. By some estimates, Millennials (Americans born between 1981 and 1996) now constitute the largest voting bloc in the country.

But youth civic engagement, like so many other areas of public life, remains hampered by inequities and by racial and income gaps. …


By Eliza Newlin Carney

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Roman Kraft on Unsplash

There’s a lot of disagreement over how to combat disinformation in the digital age, in part because First Amendment concerns can make it tricky to police political speech on the web.

But there’s one “upstream” solution that runs no risk of curbing free expression, and it may be the most effective in the long run in any case: train news consumers to spot fakery. …


By Eliza Newlin Carney

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Anthony Garand on Unsplash

It’s easy to say the nation needs more civic education, as policy makers on left and right increasingly seem to agree, but it’s a lot harder to define precisely what that means.

Do we need to bring the Constitution “back” to the classroom, as Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is arguing in Florida? Or do we need to take kids on field trips to climate rallies, as New York City teachers tried to do last week, only to be banned from the protests by the city’s Education Department?

Teachers have long been caught between traditionalists who argue students should stick to primary texts, and reformists who promote “action” or “living” civics. But as I write in The Fulcrum this month, the notion that students must choose between traditional history classes and hands-on democratic engagement presents a false choice.

Experts in the field have long agreed that the most effective civic learning combines both classes in government, history and law, and applied activities that give students the tools to actively engage in government. As I write: “Civic education must teach students the full American story — the good and the bad, the written and the unwritten. It must also help students understand how to vote, speak up and hold government to account.” Read the whole story here.

THE “QUEEN OF FIELD TRIPS.” One teacher who has found a way to make history relevant for her students is Alysha Butler, the first Washington, D.C., educator to be named National History Teacher of the Year. The award is given out by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which is celebrating its 25th year. As Butler told WAMU, she is “always searching for that missing voice to give a more complete picture” of American history.

AMERICANS ARE STILL FLUNKING CIVICS. That’s the conclusion of The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s recently-released 2019 Constitution Day Survey. The survey did contain one bright spot: Americans know a just tad more about the Constitution and the separation of powers than in the recent past. But that’s not saying much. Only 39 percent of American adults can correctly name the three (executive, legislative and judicial) branches of government. Not surprisingly, those who studied civics in high school knew the most, as did those who most closely follow the news.

PUBLIC EDUCTION’S CIVIC ROOTS. Americans aren’t just flunking civics, they’re “Flunking Democracy,” argues scholar Michael A. Rebell in his recent book by that title. Political scientist Danielle Allen cites Rebell’s book in a recent Washington Post column that joins the chorus of those calling for expanded civic education. …

About

The Civic Circle

The Civic Circle is a nonpartisan nonprofit that uses music and drama to teach young kids about democracy, including voting, voluntarism and public leadership.

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