Creating Technology for Social Change

The Civic State of the Union

The is a liveblog of the “The Civic State of the Union” panel on March 7, 2017, part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series at Tufts University. The video is on YouTube. Note: this is not a transcript, any errors are mine.


* Robert D. Putnam, Harvard University
* Shirley Sagawa, Service Year Alliance
* Peter Levine, Tufts University
* Mara Liasson, NPR (moderator)

Is the Civic State of the Union strong, and if not how do we go about strengthening it?

Civic Engagement’s Evolution since the 1990s

Mara Liasson (ML): If Donald Trump is a stress test for democratic institutions, how are those democratic institutions doing? Tonight we are talking about the democratic institution of the citizenry. We’ve seen depressing indicators about civic engagement for years. However, people are filling town halls, many are promising to run for office, and well-attended demonstrations are proliferating. Citizens are getting a real education about what democracy is and isn’t in this moment.

Talk about what has happened since the late 1990s, since Bowling Alone, since Americorps launched, and since CIRCLE was founded? Where are we now?

Robert D. Putnam (RDP): The basic descriptions of trends in secular civics and associational life is down through 2017. This makes Putnam a secular pessimist. Second, the internet really caught on after Bowling Alone and parts of it are really good and some are really bad. What we need to find are “alloyed” networks that are partly online and partly face-to-face. Tahrir Square during the Egypt Revolution comprised three groups—and the folks who were only connected online did not have the network necessary to take power despite their best intentions. The Muslim Brotherhood did.

Putnam is not impressed with protest marches or tweetstorms. What really matters is people working together in close collaboration as civil society. He believes there is much more face-to-face organizing going on around the country than is currently being reported.

Allegheny County, where Putnam’s daughter is a professor and is organizing people in response to Trump, is hard territory—lots of Trump supporters. But how are they going to be connect into the Democratic Party? Because that is necessary to take back the reins of power.

Right now, it’s hard to capture all the interest in political engagement. But all of this makes Putnam generally optimistic about civic renewal in America.

Shirley Sagawa (SS): This was maybe the first election where people decided not to vote in protest—that being istelf a form of civic engagement. And that makes Sagawa sad. When Sagawa first started work on national service, there was a lot of anxiety about young people not voting.

She has a shift in the framing of service since the 90s. The first Americorps cohort in 1994 was about “getting things done.” This was how it was sold to Congress, as a way to get America’s problems solved efficiently. By 2009, with the Serve America Act, Sagawa and her collaborators had changed their frame to focus on what youth get out of service. That was and is still where young people are at. It needs to not be give and take and certainly not setback someone’s career.

On Service Year Alliance’s board is General Stanley McCrystal. He and others in the military are very worried about civics in America. They asee national service as a key response to it, in the same way military services binds people to a culture and lifestyle of service and civics.

When Sagawa was growing up in the 80s, people’s lives were bifurcated: there was work and family and then there was service. But the market research Service Year Alliance does to understand what motivates young people into service finds that everything in life is political of this generation: what you do, say, buy—says something about you and your ideology.

Peter Levine (PL): First off, Putnam in Bowling Alone was right. The last twenty years have shown that what he found was accurate in terms of a hallowing out of democratic institutions. Levine sees two things that haven’t come up ye tin discussion. First, the class divide is important because we see much bigger civic engagement gaps affecting lower classes. Second, there has been a turn toward more choice in every part of life and at every level. For instance, news is no longer about everyone getting the same newspaper everyone else gets; now it’s which paragraph do you forward to others online.

Echo filters are also a problem facing this genreation, but there is also more people turning awa completely from politics. And this helps explain the voting patterns, including protest votes among young people.

Isolation and Social Capital

ML: How do we get more connected?

RDP: Putnam is a fan of national service (sits on a leadership board for Service Year Alliance). We need to be more precise about where the problem is. His research for the book Our Kids showed that working class kids are increasingly disconnected from everything: their parents, their schools, sports and other expensive extracurriculars, and their neighbors. “Those kids are pissed.”

One interview subject had parents who aren’t working; she had been in prison; she was eighteen with several kids of her own; she was a white women without a high school diploma; and she voted for Trump. Combining two things—great economic disadvantage and social isolation—this is what created the space for authoritarian demagogues in post-WWI Europe. Putnam wrote this warning in the book before Trump was on the radar. He believes educated coastal elites have completely forgot about the middle of the country.

ML: So, the conspiracy theory about the DC pizza place might have been snuffed out if you went to your bowling league and shared it with your buddies who told you “you’re crazy!” (RDP: That’s right!)

SS: The Twitter algorithm change this week suggests how technology will make things worse. They are now ranking things based on what they think you will like. This is part of the large set of things that enable people to be isolated, including segregated schools. A well-implemented national service is one way to address this problem.

ML: The Tea Party did create some of this civic infrastructure, and it was successful. What will this look like on the Left? ML’s father used to go to workman parties for snacks, but he probably also gained some civic education while he was there.

RDP: There was a great period of creative organizing that came after the earlier social capital creation of barnraising, and this sorely needed now.

Stepping Up Against Authoritarianism

Audience Member: What do you think about the trends toward authoritarianism both in the United States and elsewhere? What should we be doing to change this course?

PL: I remember asking RDP about whether his next project would be international and comparative. A few years ago, I started working in Ukraine and thought it was going to be mostly one way in terms of democratic ideas, but now it feels like we are in similar places. If you look at the powerful male figures with macho agendas around the world, who represent a unified idea of their country without dissent… we haven’t seen anything like this since the 1930s.

ML: There is a global movement against globalization and all the ways it has not paid off for people. Both American parties concede that they haven’t paid enough attention to these people and their problems.

RDP: It turns out social capital does predict support for Trump: the least connected voted for him. But these are aggregate phenomenon in depressed regions; the people here feel that the rest of the world pays no attention to them.

PL: These are all sociological explanations. I also think there is an ideas gap. There has not been a vision articulated by any party that bridges this divide. Obama tried to articulate this vision but no one during the last election cycle did.

Digital Divides

Audience Member: What about the issue of our economy being digitized and yet America is still struggling with a digital divide? What is going to be the young generation’s role in taking digital experience and mixing it with service to address these problems locally and nationally?

SS: I think this is important growth area for service. The digital divide policy issues will not be addressed by service, but the ability to use technology is a great starting point for young people to bring into service. Sagawa has been intrigued by the idea of disruptive innovation articulated by Clay Christenson. Technology offers remote access and learning, but you still need someone there to serve as a mentor. If you can’t access these tools, then you can’t access these great services. This could create opportunities for providing professional services like lawyers remotely who are facilitated locally by a smart person—offering better access to these services for everyone.

RDP: The digital divide gaps are closing quickly. The poor kids Putnam studies have smartphones. The difference is whether there is someone that can help show you how to use these tools effectively to achieve personal and civic goals. It’s not just about software, it’s about peopleware. Do you have someone who can tell you how to use it well? It’s not about access to technology, it’s about access to people. Putnam is worried about the techno-optimism that works for those who are already rich socially and economically.

Maintaining Activism Levels

Audience Member: Earlier we spoke about the recent surge in activism and where it will go. How do we maintain that activism and civic engagement (it seems it is already waning)?

ML: So many women stayed with Liasson in DC for the women’s march, and they wanted to know what to do next. Talking to people I know that do this work, there is a real need for infrastructure for getting people in. Also, there is a need to make it routine—every day or week a few calls. It is up to you (speaking to audience member) to organize yourself?

RDP: Don’t just think about the politics: it’s about building real connections with real people. It’s also about leisure. People aren’t going to show up every week just to lick envelopes. It’s got to be fun. Good organizers are cognizant about this.

PL: What you need is SPUD: scale, pluralism, unity, and depth. You need a lot of people. You need different people, including those have different ideas and strategies. You need everyone to come together to do something big. And you need the ability to transform each other deep down. Levine’s reference is the Civil Rights Movement, which he claims achieved SPUD for about ten years.

Motivating for Service and Politics

Audience Member: I spend a lot of my time thinking about building a tech company, wondering how do we find a hybrid of human and social capital with technology? As a City Year alum, with the rising costs of urban development, how do you see national service as an option that is accessible to everyone? How do we inspire marginalized young people to civic engagement? Last, what about the issue of supporting capitalism in spite of these problems?

SS: A whole bill before the 2016 election was drafted to take care of living allowance and other costs for national service members. There is also an emerging opportunity for corporate sponsorship for service members. The government doesn’t just pay for service but needs to leverage and honor the service that is being offered by young people.

RDP: People in marginalized communities have real strengths, especially to survive in their situations, but often they are doing everything they can to survive. Politics is often furthest from their minds; they see no connection between their daily lives and politics.

Audience Member: It’s hard to focus on just civics when we Millennials see everything as connected. Chance the Rapper made that connection between culture and politics in his efforts to mobilize young people to vote.

ML: It seems like Chance the Rapper is following the principle of doing work as close as you can to your community and making that connection.

PL: A great example is YouthBuild, a social enterprise that takes in young people who are predominately working class and people of color and offers a path to GEDs and jobs. Once you are in the program, youth are embraced by adult mentors with love and provided with civil and leadership training.

Addressing Divisions in Society

Audience Member: How can the young generation be better than previous generations that have proven so divisive? How can we be more open even if we disagree?

ML: Getting out of your information silo is one thing. Talk to people in real life, rather than arguing in person.

RDP: The larger picture is that the current generation is coming of age after 30–40 years of class segregation, which is new. This affects whom you go to school with, whom you marry, etc. It’s partly about being an intelligent consumer of news, but it also means the younger generation simply needs to work harder to break out of their milieu. It’s harder for Millennials to socialize with people that are different from them. That plight affects this generation in a way it didn’t for Putnam’s generation.