Today, our institutions are unable to generate solutions to pervasive public problems; they are too weak to hold politicians accountable and too easily subverted by interest groups' influence. In the face of these various forms of democratic distrust and dysfunction, it is no wonder that democratic institutions suffer from a “democratic deficit” of declining trust; the bond between these institutions and ordinary citizens has weakened precipitously.
In addition, recent history has seen the decline of intermediary institutions: the places that allowed citizens to connect to national life by participating at the local level. These included classic political organizations like local parties or trade unions, voluntary associations like churches or sports leagues, and a wide variety of mediating business and media organizations, like local newspapers. Today, many of those institutions have atrophied, gone out of business, or seen a decrease in participation. In such an era, then, how can civic engagement continue?
Despite these trends, we also live in a moment of surprisingly diverse and energetic efforts to revitalize our democracy. First, the rise of digital tools,—including nearly ubiquitous mobile penetration rates across all demographics in the United States—creates new opportunities for civic networks and collective action. Second, there is a small but growing cohort of bureaucrats who, whether in cities or agencies, are struggling to reinvent governance to include citizens in core state institutions and processes, from city planning to budgeting. Third, in civil society, we are seeing a burst of innovation and experimentation among organizers, as well as new modes of community organizing through online and offline strategies for mobilizing, organizing, and membership-building. In each of these areas of innovation, reformers are attempting to rebuild the civic capacity of our democratic system, expanding the role that citizens and communities play in shaping public policy, in the hopes that such civic engagement will in turn improve the responsiveness, accountability, and dynamism of our political institutions in responding to the complex and controversial public problems of the day.