Five Obstacles to Civic Engagement

An Introduction to the Annette Strauss Institute Mission

Representative democracy can only work when citizens are well informed, actively engaged in voting and other civic activity, and equipped with the skills of advocacy, debate, compromise, and leadership.  Yet voting and many other forms of civic participation are in decline in the United States today.  Why?

Many obstacles have been shown to affect people’s willingness and ability to be politically and civically involved.  A complete list would have to include everything from poverty to voter suppression to complacency.  But there are several obstacles that the Annette Strauss Institute is uniquely positioned to address, including:

Lack of Civility.  For most citizens, yelling about politics is a turn-off.  But the political arena is fast becoming hostile territory, as politicians and their operatives rely on ad hominem attacks, name-calling, and innuendo over earnest efforts at persuasion.  The lack of reasoned discussion and debate introduces noise and distraction into the national conversation, and increasingly alienates the public.

Lack of Attention to Public Affairs:  Informed engagement is clearly preferable to uninformed.  The research is clear that voters make different choices and consider a wider range of perspectives when they are well informed. Yet sources of substantive news are in decline, and many citizens are losing the hard news habit—or never developing a taste for quality information at all.

Lack of Role Models: Citizens are made, not born.  But the forces that can help mold citizenship are in decline. Fewer parents follow the news or talk about public affairs over the dinner table.  Fewer politicians seem to exemplify leadership and devotion to public service.  Fewer media outlets tell stories that inspire faith in civil society and the political process.  Cynicism has become fashionable.

Lack of Civic and Political Skills.  Even an informed voter needs more tools to become a full participant in civic life.  To make communities better places to live, engaged citizens need to learn the skills of communication, networking, even running for public office.

Lack of Awareness.  Reversing the forces of incivility, misinformation, and the active marketing of cynicism will require concerted, collective efforts.  Yet many citizens are disillusioned and wary of political life, and so lack the motivation to engage.  And too often, our politics only reinforces that wariness.

The Annette Strauss Institute works to understand and overcome these obstacles to civic participation.  Through education and outreach, we provide opportunities for people—particularly at the crucial formative stages of civic engagement—to advance their skills, increase their knowledge, and engage in the difficult conversations of democracy.  And through high quality research, we stimulate new thinking and new advances in promoting civic engagement.