“Civics” might make you think of high school, where you learned how our three branches of government interact, participated in a mock election or watched
“Schoolhouse Rock! I’m Just a Bill.” While important as that foundation may be, civics is so much more than that.
At its core, civics encompasses how to be a citizen, and a good one at that. As they both relate to our government, civics and politics are closely intertwined, which isn’t exactly positive PR for civics. Between antiquated policies, a seemingly irresistible desire to stymie political opponents, idealism adrift from reality and rampant tribalism, American politics is a mess. There’s a better way to view civics — as the vehicle that, when given the right attention, thought and effort, can start moving us in a better direction.
It’s all too easy to view our elections as competition between the lesser of two evils; the winner of which will almost inevitably be coerced into compromise with money or the promise of power. Especially in an age of hyper-polarity, it’s hard to see how this system can really be “for the people,” if it’s failed to actually be that way time and time again.
It’s so easy to give into apathetic mindsets like, “I’m just one person,” “my vote doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things,” or, “how can I make a difference?” I’ll admit, there’s a certain validity to those claims. Unless you’re of the 1% with the kind of outsized influence only money or connections can buy, you are
literally just one person.
Apathy is compounded by tribalism, the segmenting of society into subgroups that, in this case, share common political beliefs. America’s two-party system compounds our tribalistic society, causing it to devolve into a zero-sum competition that can bring out the worst in both parties.
Paradoxically, I’d argue that our society’s over-connectivity is the secondary reason we sort ourselves into opposing tribes. We can now engage with people almost anywhere in the world, follow news in real-time and share opinions with anyone who’ll listen. That’s amazing.
However, that same unlimited connectivity allows us to pick and choose who we want to hang out with online and IRL (in real life). Big issues like abortion and climate change are important and offer the perfect focal point to rally like-minded people to work towards policy change, that’s great.
What’s not quite so ideal is the segmenting of our society based on political affiliation, which can erode connections within our families and communities. By spending our waking hours scrolling our silos, we subconsciously begin to sort people into “my side” or the “other side” based on their stance on these national issues. Adults — and increasingly teens — are selecting their in-groups without thinking about the ramifications of such polarization.
So, how can we relearn to love civics in the face of apathy and tribalism?
Through lots of trial and error in the civic media space, here are a few strategies I’ve found that have helped me decrease my own tribalistic mindsets.
First, try getting a portion of your news through balanced media consumption, be it by news aggregators like AllSides
, newsletters like Tangle
, or (relatively) unbiased media sources like Axios
Next, talk about important issues to understand where someone else might be coming from. I believe the benefits of those conversions are maximized when held before
individuals become set in their ways. Read the news and have conversations with your children or bring these topics into the classroom.
If all you do is consume a more balanced news diet and talk politics with those outside of your tribe, you are already doing your part to make civics civil again. But, if you want to take a bigger action step, I’d like to suggest you think local because I believe local issues are where we can unearth not only a love of civics, but also lasting change.
In the context of your city, county or state, civics is the vehicle that takes us from “I’m not happy with the spending decisions city council has made over the past few years” to “I’m going to use my right as a citizen to attend a city council meeting, support certain initiatives or even run for city council myself.”
Not only that, but I’d argue that finding common ground is a lot easier on community issues than national ones. Whether a Democrat, Republican or otherwise, neighbors can come together around local issues like better roads, parks and schools. You might move the needle more on those local issues and they might even impact your life to a greater degree than acting on national issues.
Let’s say you do decide to settle on local civics but don’t know where to begin. I’ve found the best place to start is by identifying what you enjoy doing and what you’re good at. Then, do some research to unearth where your competencies may align with needs in your community. It can be as simple as volunteering in your neighborhood to serving on a city council.
Our country is messed up in a lot of ways. You probably hear that almost every day on Twitter, Facebook or wherever you get your news. While that messy reality is the one we exist in, it doesn’t have to be our sole reality.
There’s another, more appealing reality in which a groundswell of engagement in local civics begins to unite us as we work to create a more perfect union. If that happens, it’s not a stretch to also imagine that Americans will not only begin to believe
that civics is something worth loving, but confirm that love by acting on it.
Max Tendero graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in political science. A Grand Rapids entrepreneur, he runs Civil Media
, an education startup whose platform is built to make teaching current events easier for secondary education teachers. Ultimately, their mission is to reduce polarization and increase understanding by helping teachers facilitate civil conversations in the classroom.
If you’d like to contact Max directly, he can be reached at [email protected]