By Carl Sims
The CSG Civic Health Subcommittee of the Healthy States National Task Force is exploring how states can improve civic discourse and participation through immediate-term actions by state leaders and long-term investments in civic education.
The subcommittee is part of a larger initiative — the 2021-22 CSG Healthy States National Task Force. A bipartisan working group of state leaders from all three branches of government, the task force is working to provide resources and recommendations for state governments on how to best address current state challenges, including those resulting from and intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Supported by CSG staff and other subject matter experts, the task force focuses on four key policy areas to provide states a holistic policy strategy for their shared challenges. In addition to civic health, the national task force is exploring infrastructures related to fiscal health, workforce and economic health and human health. Click here to learn more about the 2021-22 CSG Healthy States National Task Force.
Tennessee state Sen. Bo Watson and Delaware state Sen. Bryan Townsend, who co-chair the national task force, say civic health represents a basic building block of a free society. Without a minimum understanding of how government works, or their role in it, citizens will not be able to fulfill their obligations to each other — or to the future.
“A fundamental tenet of our democratic republic is that an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people; therefore, to be civically healthy it is imperative that our citizens understand how our system of government operates so they can best engage and hold accountable the government they elect,” Watson said.
For Townsend, civic health is built on the faith citizens have in one another and in their institutions of government. Consequently, he says it’s vitally important that people — elected leaders and citizens alike —learn ways to disagree without becoming “toxically disagreeable.”
“Civic health is the measure of how well we have adopted such an approach, building the necessary systems and culture of using them,” he said. “Without it, our disagreements will consume us and the potential of America.”
Considerations for Leaders
The Civic Health subcommittee addresses foundational questions around building healthy and resilient democratic institutions and advancing civic education. Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, who co-chairs the subcommittee with Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, says she is most excited by the subcommittee’s meaningful and civil engagement across party lines.
“The committee itself is comprised of elected officials with diverse roles representing both major political parties, and the diversity of political background and experience has deepened the conversations about what the health of our civic institutions can look like if we truly engage with one another,” she said. “It’s been fascinating to find that sometimes we agree on principles but not on word choices. Breaking through that initial resistance to try to find shared understanding is really important. We’re in a dangerous moment for our democracy, and finding a path forward is going to require dialogue, especially when it’s difficult.”
Subcommittee members have suggested that leaders can improve public trust in government institutions and improve civic discourse by utilizing the capacity and profile of their office. In particular, state leaders may consider the following:
• Proactively combatting misinformation and disinformation as it is occurring. Additionally, and to help in that effort, state leaders should have strong social media presences and post regularly, even outside of major events like elections, to build legitimacy and maintain a steady stream of reliable civic information.
• Working on one’s emotional intelligence to make bipartisan solutions more possible.
• Recognizing how humans respond organically to context, structure and signals and require a feeling of safety for difficult conversations.
• Creating discourse among differing groups by establishing values and a vision. Ask participants: “What do we want to be true of the place where we live?”
Subcommittee members say these actions can be complemented by long-term investments in K-12 civic education. Evidence suggests a connection between civic education and civic engagement. According to a 2011 report titled, “Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools,” students who receive high-quality education are more likely to “understand public issues, view political engagement as a means of addressing communal challenges, and participate in civic activities.”
Current challenges to a robust civic education framework include the following:
• A 2020 poll from the Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey found that only 51% of Americans polled could name all three branches of government.
• The federal government invests five cents per student for civics, but $54 per student for STEM.
• Student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Civics is stagnant, with civic knowledge and skills spread inequitably by race/ethnicity.
States can also consider how civic education must celebrate the country’s accomplishments while acknowledging the country’s difficult history and its difficult present. Improvements to a civic education framework may include greater funding for civic education, strengthening course requirements and assessments, reforming education standards and curriculum and enhancing accountability.
Civic health presents a number of areas where state leaders can come together to collaborate to build civic engagement. For Bellows, one of the most promising areas is election access and voting rights.
“I think it’s important that we continue to find ways to get back to a place where strengthening and protecting voting rights for all American citizens is a shared goal for all state leaders,” she said. “Civic health ultimately depends upon a healthy democracy where every citizen has equal access to exercise their constitutional rights to register to vote, cast their ballot and have their vote to be counted. Regardless of who we are or where we come from, everything else we care about depends upon that.”
Townsend and Watson both identify the unique opportunity — and responsibility — states have in advancing civic health.
“A principle of a democratic republican form of government is that the government that governs closest to the people, governs best; therefore, the states, in our federal system of government, have the primary duty and responsibility of providing civic education to their citizens since it is the states that have the most intimate relationship with their citizens,” Watson said. “In order for states to fully exercise the power afforded to them in the U.S. Constitution and to hold the federal government accountable, it is essential that states educate their citizens on how our government is structured, how it operates, how to engage it and how to hold it accountable.”
Townsend noted that, even though national government has become dominant in the federalist system, state governments must take the lead in advancing civic health.
“As our federalist system experiences tension from this preemption, the states still remain uniquely positioned to provide a renaissance in civic health by movingly nimbly to respond to individual state-level issues and evidencing to the electorate the ability of government to respond to the people. Such is the system design; we desperately need the states to fulfill this role.”
Learn more about the Civic Health subcommittee and explore resources at: web.csg.org/csghealthystates/civic-health.