Jan. 5, 2018
Hollie Russon Gilman and Elena Souris wrote about new, more inclusive models of civic engagement on the local level for Washington Monthly.
Doug Jones’s surprise victory in the special Senate election in Alabama wouldn’t have been possible without turnout that greatly exceeded the norm, especially among African Americans. Yet that “high” turnout still only represented about 40 percent of registered voters. When 40 percent counts as cause for celebration, there’s a major democratic participation problem.
In the United States, that problem is particularly concentrated among the young, minorities, and lower-income people. The crisis of democratic participation is arguably both a product of rising inequality and a contributor to it—when certain groups feel ignored by political institutions, they may become less likely to vote, which only guarantees that lawmakers ignore their interests even more, and on and on.
In 2017, we did research with Sabeel Rahman, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, which included conversations with nearly 50 community organizers working in civil society and public bureaucrats working within government, to understand how to build more civic participation in an era of inequality. These organizers and leaders are developing ways to give power to people who often feel that they are invisible to government.
Despite major, headline-making successes this year, traditional tactics like voting and marching are not enough to bring these voices into government. Solving our national democratic crisis has to begin at the local level, where the connection between participation and impact is most immediate—and where it’s easiest to experiment with new models of civic participation. Here are two such examples.