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- Revitalizing Citizenship in the Digital Age

The Commission Finds:

  • America’s current loss of faith in shared truth underlies a crisis of citizenship.
  • In a pluralist democracy, civic identity plays a crucial unifying role.
  • Americans must work together to establish shared civic narratives that support a sense of citizenship.
  • A shared identity that transcends politics could revive American citizenship.
  • Many Americans lack the necessary civic and new-media literacies to participate effectively in the democratic processes of the 21st century.
  • American citizens must exercise their right to participate in, and acknowledge their responsibility to maintain, their democracy.
  • Civic engagement and discourse will allow citizens to take pride in their democracy and identify the shared values that build a common understanding of citizenship.
  • This crisis of citizenship has created a moment comparable to when the Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik satellite in 1957, one that requires significant “moonshot” responses in attaining citizen literacy and engagement.

The Commission Recommends:

Recommendation 8 LITERACY
  • Revitalize education in civics and 21st century literacies for all citizens in order to better align the democratic process with America’s modern, highly connected culture.
    1. Revitalize civic education through rigorous civic literacy standards and a sustainable funding model for new educational initiatives.
    2. Provide 21st century literacies for all Americans.
    3. Develop sustainable funding models for civic and other new literacies.
Recommendation 9 ENGAGEMENT
  • Create local spaces for constructive civic dialogue bridging various communities, and encourage broader civic engagement.
    1. Create inclusive civic spaces for dialogue at local and online levels.
    2. Develop a campaign to rebuild support for civic institutions.
Recommendation 10 COMMITMENT
  • Encourage widespread commitment to a year of voluntary national service.

America does not simply face a deficit of trust in technology or the media or politics. Underlying the current loss of faith in shared truth and democratic processes is a crisis of citizenship.

“Citizenship,” said businessman and former Ambassador Walter Annenberg, “is every person’s highest calling.” It entails the freedom, right, ability and obligation to actively maintain one’s government. It is engagement with democratic governance and the many ways it interacts with the broader society. Citizenship is strengthened by civic knowledge, civic participation, the ability to access and use critical information resources, and ultimately by the unifying role that civic identity plays.

In the United States, civic participation has declined for nearly a half-century. Low levels of voting participation coincide with a larger civic disengagement. Normally only 50 to 60 percent of the eligible population votes for the U.S. presidency, and far fewer vote in off-year elections. Even the significant surge in voting in the 2018 midterm elections, while encouraging, still did not amount to half of eligible voters.

Low voter turnout is not the sole indicator of disengagement. Other factors, such as declining knowledge of civic matters and familiarity with American history and institutions, suggest that the problem could be structural as well as individual.

Basic civic knowledge in this country is dismal. A 2017 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that:

  • More than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) could not name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.
  • Only a quarter of Americans (26 percent) could name all three branches of government, while a third of the country could not name even one branch.
More ominous, American politics has become increasingly polarized and tribal. People lack the shared civic identity necessary to undergird the country’s sense of citizenship. And Americans are less willing to engage in productive dialogue with individuals who hold different points of view.

In the American system, citizens elect representatives at every level of government and rely on them to represent their interests. Yet attitudes toward the “other” in politics, including statements by elected officials themselves, have become so hostile that the public doubts its leaders’ abilities to lead.

This demonization has had the effect of over-politicizing solutions and increasing polarization, adding to the broader distrust of the democracy.

Instead of a broadly shared understanding of American citizens’ rights and responsibilities, there are now two competing conceptions of citizenship. Some understand citizenship in largely individualist, rights-based terms, though they disagree with one another about which rights to emphasize. Others understand citizenship in terms of virtue and obligation to others, even while disagreeing about what “virtue” entails and to whom obligations are owed.

Furthermore, what constitutes acts of citizenship—beyond traditional behaviors, such as voting or understanding how the government operates—is a question whose answer continues to evolve. The internet and social media platforms present opportunities for digital participation and activism through direct messaging, community engagement and coalition-building. Citizenship in the 21st century thus encompasses a wider array of skill sets, knowledge and experience that aligns with both our democratic process and our highly connected culture. Indeed, the Commissions believes that being literate in civics, news, media and digital technologies is a responsibility of the modern citizen.

To address these conflicting understandings of the rights and responsibilities of citizens, the Commission calls for a commitment to revitalize American citizenship through education, through constructive dialogue across political divides, and through a year of national service. By adopting the measures proposed below, Americans can begin to reconstruct a shared identity that transcends current political divisions.

Download the full chapter here.

 
 
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