Let's admit that we are pathetically apathetic when it comes to politics. Most of us don't vote, very few of us are civic participants, even some of us don't pay taxes. Let's embrace the fact that we don't have time for politics, even when its electing representatives. And by embracing our less than ideal civic state, we may change it.
But time with the right tools is on our side. I just skimmed (because I've been participating in the blog conversations) a fresh copy of Chris Anderson's The Long Tail. By now you may know this new economic for how the network changes business models for discovery and fulfillment. Chris has also written about social production, distributed across The Long Tail.
Building upon the Power Law of Participation, I'd like to suggest a model for civic engagement that embraces apathy.
The horizontal axis is time committed, the vertical axis ranges from apathy to civic engagement. Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics surveyed 9 categories of civic participation: voting, campaign work, campaign contributions, contacting an official, protests, informal community work, membership on a local board, affiliation with a political organization, and contribution to a political cause. This lead Thomas Ehrlich to opine: But unless voting is accompanied by the other political activities, it reduces citizenship to a superficial and relatively passive activity.
Not that Ehrlich is wrong, but my point is this -- few of us have time or interest in politics, but there is a way for us all to have civic engagement within our means. That way is though social software. As seen in the Power Law of Participation, effective communities can engage participants at their own level while functioning as an organization.
This of course, is a theory based upon what we see in open source and Wikipedia as an organization, or the Wealth of Networks. I was tempted to add in Asylum or Resignation as a high engagement activity, as it is the closest to the right to fork you find in these emergent models where checks and balances are more liquid.
If I have one request from readers, it is to suggest what order the categories should be, or to suggest new ones, as my views of time as money may be biased. I added Taxes, Civil Service and Elected Office, another approach would be to leverage Robert Putnam's 12 categories. For your remix (and while you are at it, help me draw a proper power law):
• Elected office -- representing the time and interest of a constituency.
• Civil service -- while a form of giving at the office, it's not an excuse, but a calling
• Campaign work -- this actually has multiple levels of engagement, but while paid staffers
• Membership on a local board -- the greatest opportunity for civic engagement most citizens don't realize
• Voting -- not enough, in my humble opinion, but our basic obligation for civic participation
• Contacting an official -- either directly or through petition
• Informal community work -- high social capital activities most significantly augmented by social software
• Protests -- political activism
• Affiliation with a political organization -- mass-membership organizations
• Contribution to a political cause -- issue or group specific spending as speech
• Campaign contributions -- directed towards vote, low engagement rank because of the campaign donation made accessible through the tax form
• Taxes -- you pay them, right?
• Death -- inevitable, yes, but also a proxy for doing nothing. Didn't put it in the image.
When I napkined this model for Kevin Fong of the Mayfield Fund (no relation except trademark dispute ;-) over lunch at Brainstorm, he suggested that without apathy you have revolution. I suggested that the 95% turnout for the first Ukrainian election, which was rather revolutionary, might support his theory. I would like to think that political participation overlaid upon Maslow's hierarchy of needs may be a well-curve with one end sparking rebellion, and the other being, well, an ideal.
Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone surveyed the decline of social capital in twelve categories One counter argument he acknowledges is the rise of mass-membership organizations like the Sierra Club or AARP. It should be noted that Affiliation with a Political Organization does not necessarily mean fostering social capital, as members can be only connected through proxy. However, you could view a successful political organization as mass, with it's own Long Tail of Apathy.
Time columnist Joe Klein, author of Politics Lost, suggested at Brainstorm that his vote for the next President would be decided by how much she asked of the citizenry. That's right -- don't ask for my vote, tell me how I should contribute. The WW II generation shared a common sacrifice and understanding for what it meant to be American -- which made them good citizens and leaders. Doing what you can for your country used to be a shared value.
But as the political season approaches, let's consider what has changed (as little in the political landscape has). The cost for personal publishing has fallen to zero. Its common for citizens to express a facet of their identity online. The cost for group forming has fallen to zero. Networked appeal has proven itself as a fundraising mechanism. A broad conversational network and common sense repository supports collective sense making. Today social software has gained use broad enough to support civic engagement.
During the last Presidential campaign we held hope that politics was changing. First we thought we could get someone elected from the grassroots, but restoring topsoil takes greater effort. Then we even hoped that political institutions could change how they engaged the public, but the elected culture isolated itself without precedent. Quite frankly, this barely happened. But this time around, groups are forming to take action.
One fascinating statistic thrown around at Brainstorm 2006 was that 10% of college students volunteered to join Americorps. Unfortunately I can't find a source, although Americorps has 75,000 members, with a significant track record:
- 92 percent of AmeriCorps sponsoring organizations say members helped them increase the number of persons the groups served to a large or moderate extent.
- 72 percent of AmeriCorps members continue to volunteer in their communities after their term of service ends.
- 87 percent of former AmeriCorps members accepted public service employment (including governmental and nonprofit work) with three years after completing their AmeriCorps service.
It is encouraging to think that NetGens have a latent demand for civic engagement, The children of the baby boom may not buy off on political messages, but they want to play a role, to give forth. Let's admit there is hope together, each in our own way.