Democratic Citizenship and Civic Engagement
Democracies draw both their legitimacy and effectiveness from a politically engaged electorate. This notwithstanding, skepticism about the capacity of most citizens to perform their democratic responsibilities has always been great. Particularly noteworthy have been concerns about the health of American democracy's popular base. Despite high levels of education, literacy, and income, the vast majority of U.S. citizens remain uninterested in and unknowledgeable about politics.
Developments in the last quarter of the 20th century have reinforced longstanding concerns about the American electorate and its role in democratic governance. As television assumed a major role in political campaigns, political operatives have developed "Madison Avenue" approaches to marketing candidates and issues. The capacity of these operatives to devise and air sophisticated political appeals provides political leaders with an unprecedented ability to manipulate the political views of citizens. The potential of this capacity to influence citizens turns on its head the notion of electoral accountability upon which representative democracy is premised.
Compounding the concerns about the competence and independence of U.S. citizens are recent research findings that show a disturbing increase in political cynicism and distrust among citizens. These findings reveal an alarming degree of political alienation that contributes to a general detachment from politics and civic affairs. One noteworthy study documents a 50 percent decline in civic engagement since the 1950s. In addition, voter turnout at the dawn of the 21st century is near historic lows reached in the 1920's. These declines have occurred despite rises in education, relaxed registration laws, and concerted "get out the vote" efforts.
These observations have implications for both the health of American democracy and the global appeal of democracy as a form of government. Consequently, the objective of the Program in Democratic Citizenship and Civic Engagement is to address citizenship issues through a combination of basic research and educational outreach. The program's activities will generate new knowledge that will (1) enhance our understanding of how citizens perform their democratic responsibilities, and (2) improve their capacity to perform those duties.
Intellectual leadership for this program is provided by Jeffery J. Mondak, the Center's James M. Benson Professor of Political Science.