The Importance of Civic Engagement

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By Leigh Crossett, NID Intern

On 25 May 2017, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and former President of the United States, Barack Obama, addressed the crowd at the German Protestant Kirchentag festival in Berlin. With the theme as, “Being Involved in Democracy: Taking on Responsibility Locally and Globally”, the two world leaders discussed the importance of civic engagement in accordance with global issues facing our modern world. The German Protestant Kirchentag is a movement “that reaches far beyond a regular church event” and annually hosts speakers to engage with discussions about questions that concern the international community (“My Kirchentag”). This year’s festival is of great significance, as it is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which was characterized by the layman taking control over their personal relationship with God (“Obama, Merkel to Discuss Civic Engagement”).

Germany’s top Protestant bishop, Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, moderated the discussion between the two world leaders. In an interview, Bedford-Strohm notes the relation between the symbolism of the Protestant Reformation and the concept of “an empowered global citizenry” (“Obama, Merkel to Discuss Civic Engagement”).  The Reformation resulted in the ordinary person taking control, and in this sense, the current need for greater civic engagement can be characterized as the need for the ‘ordinary’ person to take back control of their political system. Bedford-Strohm argues that this includes the need for an involved and engaged civil society, that is not fearful of speaking up and advocates “for the poor… and those who are marginalized” (“Obama, Merkel to Discuss Civic Engagement”).

Civic engagement can be defined as the “broad set of practices and attitudes of involvement in social and political life that converge to increase the health of a democratic society” (Banyan). Through practices such as voting, volunteering for a political campaign, and involvement in a non-governmental organisation (NGO), civic engagement can help to address public concerns and promote the quality of the community through both political and non-political processes (“Definition of Civic Engagement).

In the discussion between Merkel and Obama, each highlighted the essentiality of civic engagement in our tumultuous global political environment. Obama noted that the international community is now at a crossroads; the narrative of liberal democracy is now met with “a competing narrative of fear and xenophobia and nationalism… and anti-democratic trends” (“Barack Obama and German Chancellor Merkel Speech”). At present time in the international arena, we face the largest refugee crisis in human history, with over 11 million refugees and internally displaced people (“Syria Conflict”). This is being met with increasing nationalistic feelings around the world, a desire to limit immigration (particularly in the U.S. and Europe), and protect the so-called ‘national identity’.

In this sense, Obama and Merkel thus argue that civic engagement is necessary to ensure the proper functioning of a liberal democracy, where the rights and interests of the people are protected. Civic engagement is incredibly important because public participation increases the well being of everyone as the whole community is able to address their issues, rather than those of a select few. “Democracy cannot function properly without the active involvement of its citizens in public life” as democracy is “not the natural order of things” (Kucharczyk). Instead, “democracy requires constant renewal through the actions of an interested and informed citizenry” (Kucharczyk). This signifies that the public must be well informed and active in the political process in order for it to successfully serve the needs and desire of the general public, and not just the political elite. As the world is becoming more modernized and globalized, civic engagement should thus remain at the forefront, as it “reverses the balkanization of individual interests and the rapid disintegration of communal life” (Banyan). A vibrant civil society encourages communication, cooperation and compromise throughout the public sector.

Civic engagement has seen a decline in recent years as it is a “daunting task” for the public; it “requires time and resources, but modern society pulls individuals in conflicting directions” (Banyan). Reasons for a decline in civic engagement can include voter apathy from frequent elections, as well as the type of political system, as “proportional representation tends to attract more voters than… majoritarian systems” (Kucharczyk). This is because majoritarian systems are often characterized by a two-party system, and do not encourage the success of smaller parties.  Therefore, voters are forced to choose between candidates from the two major parties, which do not “represent a pluralistic modern society adequately” (“Voting Systems”). This contributes to voter apathy, as people don’t feel represented by either party and may abstain from voting. In contrast, proportional representative systems encourage more people to vote since, “voters are more likely to find a party that…represents their major political convictions”, among the many parties that are up for election (“Voting Systems”). Furthermore, a lack of trust in political institutions, anti-governmental populism, long-term weakening of political parties, and segmentation of the population are also potential causes of the decline in civic engagement (“Decline in Civic Participation”).

One indication of the decline in civic engagement can be seen in the global voter turnout. Although the global voter population and the number of countries that hold local and national elections has increased throughout the 20th century, “the global average voter turnout has decreased significantly since the early 1990s” (Solijonov). By 2015, the average global voter turnout had fallen to 66 percent, down from 76 percent in 1980 (Solijonov). Although voter turnout is only one measurement of civic engagement, it is an indicator of the apathy and disenchantment that the public feels towards their political system. Lower turnout “undermines the perceived legitimacy of elections” (Kucharczyk). This in turn can lead to a vicious cycle, which encourages low turnout as a result of reinforced mistrust of the political system (Kucharczyk).

The decline in civic engagement can particularly be seen in certain segments of society. Those with more resources and available time are therefore more likely to be involved in civil society, and those that do not have these abilities and are unable to participate are more likely to become disenchanted with their political system as they do not see their interests as represented.

In a study done by the IEA Civic Education, “the differences in civic knowledge and engagement (likelihood of voting) associated with education and home resources are substantial, especially in countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, and the United States” (Torney-Purta, 207). In this sense, the poorer segments of societies are less likely to be knowledgeable about the political process, and go out to vote. In 2012 U.S. presidential election for example, 80.2% of people making more than $150,000 voted, while only 46.9% of those making less than $10,000 voted (McElwee). This “creates a vicious circle of powerlessness and deprivation” as poorer voters are less likely to affect change in their interest, and thus more likely to become disenchanted with the political process (Kucharczyk).

Voter turnout for the youth vote also continues to fall globally. In the UK for example, turnout for people ages 18-24 has fallen to 43% in 2015, compared to 63% in 1992 (Shan). Furthermore, studies suggest that while young people may be just as enthusiastic about political and social issues, they do not necessarily “see established political parties as vehicles for achieving their goals” (Shan). Young voters are thus particularly susceptible to voter apathy as they “seek refuge from traditional politics in alternative ways of engagement” (Kucharczyk). Continuous generations of voters “thus fail to develop the habits…necessary for consistent engagement in public life” (Kucharczyk).

One arguable result of decline in civic engagement is the rise in populism. If there is full public participation, it “prevents right-wing populists from using their most important storyline of a political elite governing the country against the political will of the people” (Greven). If a large proportion of the general public participates in the political process, then it can no longer be argued that the elite are representing their own interests, but that of the people instead. “Populism’s central and permanent narrative is the juxtaposition of a (corrupt) political class, elite, or establishment, and the people, whose sole authentic voice the populist party bills itself” (Greven). In this sense, the decline in civic engagement has arguably contributed to the rise of populism, particularly throughout the U.S. and Europe.

In Europe, populist parties have been gaining much traction in recent years. For example, in Austria, the populist party, the Freedom Party of Austria, promising to decrease immigration, has gained an increase of 10.5% of the vote from 2002 to 2013 (“How Populism Could Shake Up Europe”). In France, the right-wing populist party, the National Front, which promises to remove France from the European Union, saw their voting percentage increase from 11.3% to 27.7% in 2015 (“How Populism Could Shake Up Europe”). These trends are also prevalent in Italy, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands and more.

With more people engaging in the political process and participating in discussion, compromise becomes a more likely result, as “increased engagement…pushes extreme interests to the periphery”, resolving problems before the “adversarial stage” (Banyan). Populism however, in particular right-wing populism, rejects “political compromise and demands radical solutions” (Greven). In order to lessen the influence of populism, the public must participate in civil society, which can only be achieved through “political and civic education, and through debate and struggle in the civil societies of the respective countries” (Greven).

Civic education, particularly starting at a young age in schools, is arguably one of the best methods for encouraging greater civic engagement. In researching how schools can affect civic engagement, scholar Judith Torney-Purta has concluded that “schools achieve the best results in fostering civic engagement when they rigorously teach civic content and skills, ensure an open classroom climate for discussing issues, emphasize the importance of the electoral process, and encourage a participative school culture” (Torney-Purta, 203).

By encouraging discussion, and emphasising the importance of involvement in the political process and civil society, students should be enabled “to acquire meaningful knowledge about the political and economic system, to recognize the strengths and challenges of democracy and the attributes of good citizenship” (Torney-Purta, 203). Schools remain the primary place where children and young adults spend the majority of their time; therefore it would be highly beneficial for civic education to be concentrated in this institution.

Barack Obama and Angela Merkel have highlighted the necessity to increase civic engagement in order to solve the global issues facing our modern world during their discussion at the German Protestant Kirchentag Festival. The lack of participation in the political process leads people to become more disillusioned with their governments, as they no longer feel represented. This in turn, leads to the rise of populist movements, as they feel better represented by these leaders than by the leaders of mainstream political parties. In order to combat the rise of modern populist parties, characterized by their nationalism and xenophobic nature, it is necessary to encourage everyone to engage in civil society, particularly the socially and economically marginalized.

Civic engagement is especially important now due to the crucial point we find ourselves in the international sphere. Although civic engagement is certainly not a requirement of the public, it is something that must be encouraged so that democracy is sure to thrive in the future. While many people do not have the opportunity or ability to resolve large problems, everyone “can work for small, incremental changes [which]… save lives and communities” (“The Merits of Civic Engagement”). In order to achieve the type of future that we want, and for democracy to thrive, the public must effectively and enthusiastically participate in their political systems.

 

References

Banyan, Margaret. “Civic Engagement.” Britannica.com. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.  Web.

Barack Obama and German Chancellor Merkel Speech in Germany’s ‘Kirchentag’ May  25, 2017. Perf. Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. Youtube.com. YouTube, 25 May 2017. Web.

“Decline in Civic Participation.” The Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human  Potential. Union of International Associations, 15 Oct. 2000. Web.

“Definition of Civic Engagement.” Civic Responsibility and Higher Education. Ed.  Thomas Ehrlich. Phoenix: Oryx, 2000. Vi-Xxvi. The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Web.

“Elections: Voting Systems.” Democracy Building. Democracy Building Info, 2004.  Web.

Greven, Thomas. The Rise of Right-wing Populism in Europe and in the United States.  Rep. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, May 2016. Web.

“How Populism Could Shake up Europe: A Visual Guide.” CNN.com. Cable News  Network/Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., 4 Dec. 2016. Web.

Kucharczyk, Jacek. Civic Participation in Europe – The Present Condition and Paths to  Renewal. Issue brief. Warsaw: Institute of Public Affairs, n.d. Web.

McElwee, Sean. “The Income Gap at the Polls.” Politico. Politico LLC, 7 Jan. 2015.  Web.

The Merits of Civic Engagement: Lee Hamilton Comments on Congress. Rec. 25 Oct.  2003. 2003. Indiana University Center on Representative Government. Web.

“My Kirchentag.” Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag. Deutscher Evangelischer  Kirchentag, n.d. Web.

“Obama, Merkel to Discuss Civic Engagement At Brandenburg Gate.” Interview by  Rachel Martin. NPR.com. NPR. 24 May 2017. Radio. Transcript.

Shan, Nafeesa. “Election 2017: Will the Decline in Young Voter Turnout  Continue?” BBC.com. BBC, 29 Apr. 2017. Web.

Solijonov, Abdurashid. Voter Turnout Trends around the World. Rep. Stockholm:  International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2016. Print.

“Syria Conflict at 5 Years: The Biggest Refugee and Displacement Crisis of Our Time  Demands a Huge Surge in Solidarity.” The UN Refugee Agency. UNHCR, 15 Mar. 2016. Web.

Torney-Purta, Judith. “The School’s Role in Developing Civic Engagement: A Study of  Adolescents in Twenty-Eight Countries.” Applied Developmental Science 6.4 (2002): 203-12. EBSCOhost Academic Search Premier. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Web.

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