What a new civics program for kids can teach adults about fixing democracy
By Eliza Newlin Carney
Civic education is back, and not for the first time. In recent decades, policy makers, educators and democracy advocates have launched one initiative after another with promises to finally make American government relevant and compelling to students.
Mostly, these have failed. We’ve had commissions, studies, federal funding. We’ve had debates over whether kids should learn the three branches of government and the Bill of Rights, or learn how to mobilize for equity and social justice. Nothing, it seems, has worked. Adults and kids alike remain appallingly ignorant of the most basic facts about American democracy, from which rights the First Amendment protects, to the three branches of government.
Part of the problem is that textbooks and curriculum materials tend to overemphasize things like the granular details of the War of 1812, while ignoring more compelling questions like: What is democracy? How can you make it work for you? Existing civic instruction also tends to focus almost exclusively on middle and upper schoolers. This misses a key window during elementary school, when kids are forming their views of what’s fair, where they fit in and what it takes to get along with others.
Our new civic education nonprofit The Civic Circle sets out to fill this gap, inviting kids as young as 3rd Grade to take seven “steps to democracy” — with catchy, original songs as the hook. Each “step” is boiled down to a single word that elementary school students can readily understand; they progress from the easiest (civil discourse is “Listen,” for example) to the hardest (running for office is “Lead.”)
Before you scream “Schoolhouse Rock!” — yes, there are parallels — here’s a key distinction: The seven steps are as relevant to adults as to kids, and also to the movement to revive democracy. Adults, too, are missing basic democracy tools — fed up with government, but often clueless how to engage with it. Democracy reform should focus not only on fixing institutions, but also on empowering voters to more effectively press the levers of power, and to work the existing system.
The steps have less to do with rote learning than with core Americans values. The “magical number seven” also has appeal, as a list short enough for any elementary school student to remember. What really matters, though, is that they cut across ideology, promoting civil discourse (Listen!), media literacy (Learn!), voting (Choose!), voluntarism (Join!), advocacy (Speak!), organizing (Act!), and running for office (Lead!).
Here’s why they also matter to adults, and to democracy:
Listen: At a time when the nation is more polarized than ever, some see the solution in electoral reforms. But an emerging “bridging divides” movement seeks to fix polarization from the bottom up. From Better Angels, which mediates cross-partisan conversations and workshops, to the National Institute for Civil Discourse, which promotes public and private bipartisanship, more than 200 groups have sprung up to promote “listening first.” Reviving democracy can start with simply practicing civil conversation.
Learn: While kids need a crash course in media literacy, adults may need even more help. Much of the debate over disinformation and “deep fakes” centers on policing social media and news platforms. But truth advocates should also give news consumers better tools to sniff out falsehoods. Apps like “Read Across the Aisle” can offer a more “balanced” media diet. The flagging news industry could regain credibility by publicizing the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics and the publications that follow it. Americans can help fix democracy by diversifying their news sources, and by paying to subscribe to a local or national paper — even if they read it online.
Choose: Though voter turnout was up in the last midterm, it remains dismally low, particularly in state and local elections. (Turnout in the recent Virginia legislative primary hovered just under a paltry 5 per cent.) Voting rights advocates place most of their focus, understandably, on removing barriers to the polls. But voters who simply opt out must also be drawn in. Stacey Abrams boosted turnout in Georgia’s governor’s race by reaching out to communities that had been ignored, and Democracy Works has registered more than 1 million voters with a TurboVote app.
Join: Some democracy reform advocates are looking beyond government to local communities, parks and libraries. Since he first wrote that Americans were “Bowling Alone” in 1995, Robert Putnam somewhat modified his views on social disengagement. In their book “Our Towns” and their subsequent writings, James and Deborah Fallows chronicle how local communities are succeeding where national leaders have failed. Initiatives like Weave, the “social fabric project” that writer David Brooks has launched at the Aspen Institute, and the American Civic Collaboration (“Civvys”) Awards, spotlight citizens’ power to shift social culture in a quintessentially American way: Voluntarism.
Speak: If American voters agree on one thing, it’s that politicians don’t listen to them. Yet the Congressional Management Foundation has found that, in fact, members of Congress who aren’t sure how to vote on an issue are more influenced by “in-person visits from constituents” than by any other advocacy strategy. It’s popular to blame the communications breakdown entirely on big money and special interests. But outmoded technologies and declining Hill staff budgets are also to blame. Efforts to help constituents speak, by groups like CMF and POPVOX, as well as by the special House committee on modernizing Congress, could help revive both public faith and government’s first branch.
Act: Proposals to rein the $3.4 billion lobbying industry abound, but these face First Amendment and other obstacles. Citizen lobby platforms like iLobby give average people crowdsourcing and other tools to fight fire with fire. The new CommonSense American, which is mobilizing citizens across party lines, mimics mass grassroots lobbying experiments like Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly and French President Emmanuel Macron’s national debate. Instead of silencing special interests, citizens may learn how to drown them out.
Lead: The ultimate recourse for citizens whose representatives ignore them is to run for office themselves. Our big money elections make that hard for newcomers. But low-dollar contributions — via public matching funds, vouchers, or candidate self-regulation — are opening new avenues. Self-imposed limits by candidates and even corporations hold out the intriguing possibility of campaign finance reform via culture shift. Nonprofits, for example, could be pressured to embrace voluntary disclosure, making it socially taboo to spend “dark” money. More transparent elections could help draw the disenchanted, particularly younger people, back to public service.
In one of the civic sermons in his new book “Become America,” Citizen University CEO Eric Liu exhorts Americans to act “as if you could change the course of American democracy just by showing up.” Civic education, and civic revival, must above all teach Americans how to enter the public square. That process can begin with seven simple steps. Those who figure out how to listen first, learn the facts, choose their representatives, take part in community, speak out, organize and assume public leadership — they’re the ones who will have the tools to transform democracy and civic life.
Eliza Newlin Carney is founder of The Civic Circle, a civics education nonprofit, and writes the Democracy Rules column for The American Prospect.
This story was also published on The Fulcrum.