Issue #44: Belonging and Civics

"It's in making decisions that we learn to decide." — Paulo Freire

It's not everyday that you wake up early to verify that your country has a peaceful transition of power, but that is the world that we live in if you're in the United States at least. After hearing the historic oaths, I could feel the four-year-old knot in my stomach release ever so slightly. We generally don't care about government until something goes wrong. Our political debates purport to debate values. I say purport because in our current political economy of corporate oligarchy increasingly inseparable from misinformation and disinformation, it was refreshing to hear truth cited as a key ingredient for democracy. However, truth and transparency are necessary but not sufficient to challenge false equivalences and misplaced beliefs. Absent action and accountability, truth alone will only entrench antisocial positions further.

For most of the QAnon believers watching the inauguration, watching that same peaceful transfer of power that brought joy to millions only more deeply entrenched those same beliefs among many QAnon followers even as others became despondent. Over-intellectualizing civic participation and engagement by relying on truth and education alone risks incurring backlash.

I fell down the Netflix rabbit hole over the holidays while setting up my bullet journal. I stumbled across a show called Madam Secretary starring Téa Leoni as the titular Secretary of State. I will admit it has moralistic overtones, but I appreciate the discussion of the moral dilemmas that arise when addressing the needs of the civic sphere. This speech from Season 5 captures what it means to center belonging when we focus on our civic beliefs.

Nationalism is not the same as patriotism. It’s a perversion of patriotism. Nationalism...promotes the idea that inclusion and diversity represent weakness, that the only way to succeed is to give blind allegiance to the supremacy of one race over all others. Nothing could be less American. Patriotism, on the other hand, is about building each other up and embracing our diversity as the source of our nation’s strength. “We the people” means all the people. America’s heroes didn’t die for race or region. They died for the ideals enshrined in our Constitution. Above all, freedom from tyranny, which requires our unwavering support of a free press; freedom of religion, all religions; the right to vote, and making sure nothing infringes on any of those rights, which belong to us all.

When you take a step back and think about belonging in the civic sphere, you can see that it provides sense making through a diversity of perspectives and voices as well as an outlet for meaning. At once an old and new attack on American democracy, white supremacy and white nationalism may never truly be in their "death throes." But the role of emotion connection is little discussed if at all in minimizing the poisonous effect on democracy. Emerging signs suggest that the popularity of QAnon is both values-driven and an avenue to overcome social isolation.

In many ways, the pace and scale of technological development has increased civic participation. Estonia leads the way in pioneering digital government, creating an ecosystem of services, resources and information. A democratic innovation from ancient Greece, "citizens' assemblies" provide alternatives to democratic representation that value inclusion with more direct connection to both residents and policymakers. With a direct stake in the democratic process, these assemblies remind people that they are connected to larger wholes rather than individuals wandering through a society alone.

Citizens’ assemblies are often promoted as a way to reverse the decline in trust in democracy, which has been precipitous in most of the developed world over the past decade or so....Citizens’ assemblies can help remedy that. They are not a substitute for the everyday business of legislating, but a way to break the deadlock when politicians have tried to deal with important issues and failed. Ordinary people, it turns out, are quite reasonable. A large four-day deliberative experiment in America softened Republicans’ views on immigration; Democrats became less eager to raise the minimum wage. Even more strikingly, two 18 month-long citizens’ assemblies in Ireland showed that the country, despite its deep Catholic roots, was far more socially liberal than politicians had realised. Assemblies overwhelmingly recommended the legalisation of both same-sex marriage and abortion.

We can also see the dawn of data-driven civic governance. Open data initiatives allows anyone with online access and Google Sheets to assess the efficacy of government services. The Code for America Brigade Network provides the social infrastructure for this civic hacking to occur at scale. Meanwhile, the growth of quantitative social sciences research has allowed researchers to expand beyond simpler to measure metrics like financials costs to include social costs.

...none of the studies we have clearly establish that police must play a central role in fighting crime, or that the amount we spend on policing is at all optimal. It seems quite likely that the studies we do have establish, at best, an exaggerated upper bound on the returns on policing investment. Given the overlooked social costs, the net return is most likely lower than what these studies suggest. So, the opportunity cost issue is all the more important to confront—especially since many of these studies suggest that much of the police’s “sentinel” efforts could be substantially performed by other actors.

Researchers recently created a prototype for online participatory budgeting that integrated game mechanics, harnessing the shift to greater direct civic participation and the increased use of and access to data. Uniquely, their platform leveraged the drive for basic human needs like belonging to inform the design of the prototype.

Civic tech platforms like Zencity aim to uncover the issues and concerns of residents for policymakers through passive data collection and analysis of channels such as social networks and news outlets. Although the desire to integrate community feedback in policy making is admirable, it comes with the cost of expanding surveillance. Peeps DAO elicits feedback and civic participation with a decentralized approach. By allowing anyone with a cause they care about to easily create a nonprofit or political decentralized autonomous organization to raise money, they have found a way to democratize civic engagement without the privacy concerns of added surveillance.

If we really hope to save democracy, we need to save ourselves from the pull of loneliness, disconnection, and disaffiliation. That will require reminding ourselves of what we hold in common — values, aspirations and hopes — while embracing the creative, but often uncomfortable friction that results from how we differ.