Civic Renewal Transcends Two Parties, Takes Root in Local Communities

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

At the conclusion of the most divisive midterm election in memory, “Blue America” is riding a state of ballot-driven euphoria, while “Red America” licks its wounds and prepares for its next battle in two years. Election 2018, like those of the previous quarter century, falls into the fractured paradigm framed by Mark Gerzon in his 2016 book The Reunited States of America, where “liberals are right, and if elected, will strengthen America.” The 1994, 2000, 2004, 2010, 2014, and 2016 elections reversed this tired narrative, substituting “conservative” for “liberal.”

These winner-solves-all mantras have instead produced policy paralysis and political polarization at levels unseen since the Civil War. For 2018 to represent a departure, Tuesday’s victors and all citizens must instead embrace the precept that “Americans can work together with people different than (them)selves to find common ground that can strengthen the country we all love.”

The Illinois #CivicsIsBack Campaign and our long-standing Democracy Schools Initiative have embraced this latter promise through offering students equitable exposure to best practices in civic learning, including current and controversial issues discussions and simulated democratic processes. Mary Ellen wrote just last week about civics classrooms as the local for conversations on how we live together.

Early returns for students taking the new required civics course offer strong evidence that students embrace Gerzon’s preferred third path. Across racial and ethnic groups, a strong majority of students surveyed last spring agreed or strongly agreed with the notion that by working with others in the community, they could affect positive change (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: By working with others in the community, we can help make things better 
(percent agree/ strongly agree)

While dysfunction and stalemate characterize the policy environment in Washington and many state capitals, Springfield included, signs of democratic revival spring eternal at the local level. James and Deborah Fallows penned a marvelous tome titled Our Towns that documents their four-year journey to cities across the fruited plain. In places as geographically and politically polar as Burlington, VT, and Greenville, SC, they find common elements of a better future that disavows our toxic national political discourse and instead embraces our founding creed of e pluribus unum.

These local revitalization efforts are led by local champions the Fallows label “patriots", a plethora of public-private partnerships that embody the best elements of progressive and conservative positions relative to these two sectors, and a common local narrative of civic revival. These cities have revitalized downtowns, are often home to research universities and/ or community colleges and innovative K-12 schools, are welcoming to new residents, and have big plans for continued evolution and growth. Deborah Fallows also surfaces the centrality of local libraries to these communities, modernized hubs of civic energy welcome to all residents.

Outside of Columbus, OH, Pittsburgh, PA, and Louisville, KY, the Fallows visited and profiled medium-to-small towns, so the translation of their findings to a city the size of Chicago may be more difficult, yet there are elements of universality. Moreover, although they did not touch down in the Land of Lincoln, they did mention both Batavia and Moline as future sites for exploration. I would add the Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana areas to their itinerary.

Are you a “patriot” for your local community? Do you know its civic narrative? And how can you and your students transcend the dueling zero sum national narratives of the left of right to contribute to democratic revival from the bottom up?

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