Beyond the Vote
Among the solutions earning the highest support in a combined telephone and Internet survey of Americans were college tuition in exchange for a full year of college or community service, involving Americans in deliberation over a national issue and demanding Congress respond in kind, along with requiring service learning in America's high schools. A majority supported mandatory testing in civics or government for high schoolers, federal support for non-profit organizations serving the community, a shift back to local control over education, and expanding the Peace Corps and other service-oriented overseas programs.
These prescriptions are intended to address deficiencies identified through ten civic measures in the 2008 report. Each of these is highlighted in part below.
1. Connecting to civic and religious groups. 55% of those surveyed belong to any group or organization, while only 36% attend a group meeting on an annual basis, 33% work on a community project, and 48% go to religious services at least once a month.
2. Trusting other people. Only 36% generally believe in the honesty of most people, and 58% feel that most try to be helpful.
3. Connecting to others through family and friends. Higher marks proliferate in this area, as 53% report eating dinner regularly with their family and 69% spend ample time communicating with friends electronically. However, only 39% of partisans claim to have friends with opposing allegiances.
4. Citizen-centered engagement. Dismal results hamper these activities, with only a third attending local meetings where community affairs are discussed, 39% working with others in their community to "fix or improve something," and 21% performing both duties.
5. Giving and volunteering. 59% volunteer in some way, equaling 8.1 billion hours worth more than $158 billion to local communities.
6. Staying informed. Only 43% read a newspaper daily, while a little more than half, 54%, follow news about government and public affairs. The Internet is not the answer to a society generally tuned out from news consumption, as only 30% claim to use the web as a source for information about politics, social issues, and community problems.
7. Understanding civics and politics. Only a minority (49%) can identify the Republican Party as more conservative than the Democrats, and slightly more than half (51%) feel that they understand politics and government.
8. Participating in politics. A high percentage (84%) are registered to vote, and there was a significant uptick in turnout during last year's primary season (57%). Seven percent volunteered for a presidential campaign in 2008, while 13% attended a rally, and 15% donated money.
9. Trusting and feeling connected to major institutions. A high percentage (74%) feel that their vote matters, and a slim majority (52%) say people like themselves have a voice, but only 23% believes our national government does what is right, and 22% feel that the government is run for the benefit of all.
10. Expressing political views. There is a great deal of political discourse via electronic means (57% report to engage in these media), and 52% report face-to-face conversations of a similar nature. Twenty-six percent donned campaign buttons or placed a bumper sticker on their car or yard sign on their lawn, while 14% wrote a letter to the editor of a news publication.
In balance, there are several uplifting data points when measuring our nation's civic health, but much work remains. Deep cynicism and distrust prevails and serves as a deterrent to further civic participation. On top of this, lack of civic knowledge reduces related efficacy.
We can all play a part in this turnaround, and the McCormick Foundation and the Freedom Museum are committed to this end. The Foundation helped to underwrite the cost of this report, and also funded a conference last month where the fate of civic education in Illinois was discussed. Expect a civic blueprint by the end of May, and a renewed effort to prepare and certify Illinois High Schools through the Civic Mission Coalition as "Democracy Schools."
Through its revamped outreach programs, the Freedom Museum hopes to play a vital role in this effort, from a mobile museum, to enhanced professional development opportunities for teachers, to a classroom educator and assembly speaker program, our mission of using the First Amendment as a vehicle in improve civic engagement and health continues. Stay tuned for updates on our latest efforts toward this end.