Insight: Measuring democracy in America

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Voting in America

As political pundits have begun to size up 2014, some continue to engage in anguished public handwringing over the health of democracy — at least as measured by voter turnout last month. Just 36 percent of Americans cast ballots in November, the lowest percentage since 1942. Fewer and fewer Americans have confidence in their government; approval of Congress is at historic lows.

Yet voting, while crucial, is not the only way in which citizens affirm commitment to the democratic process. Voting is the most obvious forms of engagement, the most easily measured, and so gets the most attention.

But if we look elsewhere, signs of life abound. People still care about their communities and their country, and voting is only one way of discerning that.

Take Mobile as an example. On a weeknight in September, while in town for a journalism conference, on impulse I attended a public conversation about race relations held at the University of South Alabama. It was the second of several such discussions, sparked by a civic organization’s survey showing that race topped the issues about which residents were concerned.

A mixed-race crowd of about 100 citizens attended; participants sat at randomly assigned tables of about eight — including me. Despite my protest that I was from out of town and had only attended out of curiosity, planning to listen, organizers ushered me to a table, assuring me that everyone was welcome. The 90-minute discussion at my table was spirited, and sometimes, painfully honest.

But that night was far from the only such example of Mobile grassroots democracy in action. More than a decade ago, faced with a school district riddled with low-performing schools, voters cast ballots for a large tax increase — the first in 43 years. The vote succeeded because Mobile residents, for years, had engaged in kitchen-table conversations in their own neighborhoods about the kind of community they wanted their city to become. As part of the discussion, citizens talked about what kind of schools they needed to get the community they wanted. Support for the schools — and an appetite for change — evolved from those discussions.

Those conversations helped turn around the public schools, many of which since that self-imposed tax hike have won awards for their innovations and academic achievements in teaching low-income students. A few years ago, Mobile residents reaffirmed that original vote by overwhelming margins, with more than 80 percent voting to keep the tax increase for the education system. Mobile’s conversations about schools, community and race continue today.

Yet to conventional appearances, democracy is struggling just as much in Mobile as anywhere else: just 32 percent of eligible Mobile residents voted this past November. Despite such a dismal statistic, I would argue that the city has remarkable political activism — just not the type to which journalists and others pay much attention. Mobile’s citizen participation are examples of the “political wetlands,” according to what author and Kettering Foundation president David Mathews writes in his book, The Ecology of Democracy: Finding Ways to Have a Stronger Hand in Shaping Our Future.

“Political wetlands” is an apt description. For many decades, most considered wetlands to be worthless swamps, good for nothing unless they were drained, filled in, and transformed into buildable land. And that’s largely what happened. We killed the teeming wildlife that filled the wetlands and destroyed the barrier islands that protected the coasts. With nothing to absorb heavy rains, the catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Katrina and other storms taught us the hard way just how crucial were those seemingly useless wetlands.

Conversations among neighbors and informal gatherings are the political equivalents of wetlands, Mathews argues, and they occur all around us. They may seem inconsequential when compared to legislative acts or citizens casting ballots; most will never be reported about in either conventional or online media. Yet they are important nonetheless. “Mulling over the meaning of day’s events at bus stops can be the wellspring of public decision making. Connections made in those informal gatherings can become the basis for civic networks, and ad hoc associations can morph into civic organizations.” Mathews writes.

Nearly 40 years ago, conversations in Mobile about the school system and other issues led to the founding of Mobile United, the community organization whose survey helped bring about the September conversation on race relations. More than 20 years ago, grassroots discussions about the schools led a Mobile resident named Carolyn Akers to found the nonprofit Mobile Area Education Foundation, which has both supported the school system and continued the public conversations that provide regular feedback.

Citizen deliberation takes place all over our country, at diners and over backyard fences, at church suppers and in supermarket aisles. It occurs whether or not participants from formal organizations take part, and whether or not those same citizens vote.

It would be better for all of us, of course, if voter participation were higher. But before giving into despair, perhaps we should take a moment to appreciate the life still going on in the political wetlands all around us that we so readily disregard.

Maura Casey is an associate of the Kettering Foundation and a former editorial writer for The New York Times.