A Great American Resurgence is rooted in civic engagement

Civic Engagement

The American experiment in self-governance relies heavily on an engaged and informed citizenry, who understand the philosophical foundations of individual liberty. This is why it is important to read philosophers like Frederic Bastiat, John Stuart Mill, John Locke, Adam Smith, and others, as well as the writings of our Founders. Without historical context, we cannot understand the foundation of liberty.

And without an understanding of the foundation of liberty, we cannot partake in civic engagement. As citizens, we are given rights from our Creator — but with those rights come certain responsibilities. These are civic duties.

Many conservatives believe that the preservation of liberty is rooted in both an understanding of the teachings of our intellectual forefathers and the practical application of these teachings. During the rise of the tea party movement, groups sprung up to educate average Americans on these constitutional principles. One such organization is called the Center for Self Governance. Another group that emphases the importance of one of our founding documents is the Bill of Rights Institute, which provides educational resources to teachers. There are likely dozens of other such organization that emphasize these elements.

Fortunately for these organizations, they have their work cut out for them.

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll reveals a steady decline in the American sense of duty, the foundation of what keeps our constitutional republic strong. ABC News reports:

An Associated Press-GfK poll repeated questions asked in 1984 about six civic-minded activities: voting, volunteering, serving on a jury, reporting crime, knowing English and keeping informed about news and public issues.

Of the six, only voting and volunteering were embraced about as strongly as three decades ago, when NORC at the University of Chicago posed those questions to Americans on the General Social Survey, but volunteering doesn’t rank very high on the list for many.

While just 28 percent say volunteering is “a very important obligation” that a citizen owes the country, three-fourths of Americans consider voting central to citizenship.

Nonetheless, only about 36 percent of eligible voters turned out for November’s midterms, according to University of Florida Associate Professor Michael P. McDonald’s analysis. That’s the lowest since World War II.

It’s not all bad news, though:

Despite some sliding, Americans still think U.S. citizenship carries some duties as well as rights.

About 9 out of 10 say that reporting a crime you witness, voting in elections, knowing English and serving on a jury when called are at least “somewhat important” obligations.

And each of those is still rated “very important” by a majority. It’s just that, except in the case of voting, those majorities have slipped by an average of about 13 percentage points.

“There are a lot of arguments about how our society has shifted toward a rights focus instead of an obligation focus,” said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center. But Keeter isn’t convinced there’s enough evidence to support that conclusion.

“It’s a little early to pull the alarm bells about the demise of our civic culture,” he said.

The tea party breathed new life into the idea of civic engagement and education about founding principles. And if there are two routes to political success — through political action and political education — this is a route that should not be ignored. Those interested in restoring America’s greatness have a lot of work to do among Millennials, who see volunteerism as important, but who aren’t as interested in the other aspects of civic engagement.

The poll found:

Young people are feeling less dutiful, or maybe just showing their libertarian streak.

In every category except volunteering, adults under 30 were less likely than their elders to see any obligation, and also felt less obliged than young people of the past.

In 2014 about a fourth of them said there’s no duty to keep informed, volunteer or speak English.

Today’s young people are more likely than their parents’ generation to consider giving their time for community service “very important.”

Nineteen percent said that three decades ago; 29 percent think so now.

“That’s partly the fact that we have built up our institutions for volunteering,” said Peter Levine, associate dean for research at Tufts’ Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. “Something like 30 percent of high schools have service learning programs. They didn’t have that in the 1980s.”

The age of Twitter and viral media has made it easier to read headlines without absorbing the substance of a given story.

So, what’s the solution? The decline of civics courses in America’s high schools has inevitably led to a diminished sense of civic duty. And if high schools aren’t going to emphasize the importances of being involved in one’s community, then we must find this information elsewhere. That’s why organizations like the Center for Self Governance and the Bill of Rights Institute are so important.

Certainly, the age of communicating in 140 characters or fewer makes it more difficult to communicate big, complex ideas; however, it also means this information is more readily accessible to more people. By downloading an app or watching a three-minute video on YouTube, you can learn about these important principles. The individual is truly empowered to seek out the information.

So while you’re perusing these stories and liking your Facebook friends’ statuses, seek out opportunities to learn more about your civic duty and understand the context of our constitutional republic. Our country depends on it.

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