|NOTE: This is part 1 of a multipart series. More to come over the next few days. See Part 2.
This series is a work in process. I’m counting on Contentious.com readers and others to help me sharpen this discussion so I can present it more formally for the Knight Commission to consider.
So please comment below or e-mail me to share your thoughts and questions. Thanks!
If you want to strengthen communities, it helps to ask: What defines a community, really? Is it mostly a matter of “where” (geography)?
Last week I got into an interesting discussion with some folks at the Knight Foundation and elsewhere about whether “local” is the only (or most important) defining characteristic of a community. This was sparked by an event held last week by the new Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy — an effort to recommend both public and private measures that would help US communities better meet their information needs.
From the time I first heard of this project, I thought it was an excellent idea. It bothers me deeply that many (perhaps most) Americans routinely “tune out” to issues of law, regulation, and government that not only affect them, but also that they can influence — at least to some extent. (I say this fully aware that I often fall into the “democratically tuned out” category on several fronts.)
The problem then becomes, of course, that when citizens don’t participate, their interests are easy to ignore or trample.
Why do so many Americans abdicate their power as citizens in a democracy? It seems to me that many are too quick to “blame the victim,” pointing to widespread apathy, ignorance, or a prevailing sense of helplessness as common democracy cop-outs.
I think there’s a different answer: The way our democracy attempts to engage citizens actively opposes human nature. That is, it just doesn’t mesh well with how human beings function cognitively or emotionally.
Fighting human nature is almost always a losing battle — especially if you want people to participate and cooperate….
Face it: It’s hard to stay motivated about participating in democracy when your attempts usually leave you feeling like you’ve been bashing your head against cloudy plexiglass, struggling to read documents written in Latin. In 5-point type. In bad lighting. With the pages lacking any discernible order or context. And you only have time to read a tiny fraction of them.
…I’m not kidding. As a journalist, I’ve covered energy and environmental policy at the federal, state, and local levels. So I’m intimately familiar with such civic info-inspired headaches. I’ve wrestled with obtuse legislative information systems. I’ve probably sacrificed years of my life to decoding cryptic legalese and bureaucratese, to learning the dialects and idiosyncratic processes of various governmental bodies, and to collating conflicting or seemingly unrelated information from disparate sources. I’ve sat through many, many mind-numbing public hearings and meetings. And I’ve interviewed public officials and employees who treat transparency primarily as a threat to their fiefdoms.
I expect would-be newcomers to the democratic political process (people who want to initiate ballot initiatives, or run for office) face even steeper learning and procedural hurdles.
My experience is why I suspect that apathy, ignorance, and helplessness are probably not root causes of US civic inaction. Rather, these inhibiting emotions are totally natural effects that occur when human beings repeatedly encounter overwhelming obstacles to participation.
As things currently stand, simply finding and staying informed about relevant issues brewing at all levels of government — as well as understanding the processes of, and forces at work in, a huge multilevel representative democracy — is damn hard work! I don’t expect it to be effortless, but it’s certainly much, much harder than it needs to be. Or should be. Or could be.
We could do much better by developing civic information systems that work with human nature — our abilities, our constraints, our preferences, how we relate to each other, and how our brains work.
In the rest of this series, I’ll sketch out some ways we might achieve this goal.
(NEXT: Part 2, Beyond Government…)