By Rebecca Winthrop, Meg Huebeck
The year 1776 was an auspicious year for democracy. The idea that a people could govern themselves was radical at the time. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that followed are for most Americans revered documents and a cornerstone of our democracy. Over the years, this idea of democratic republicanism has become central to American identity, and yet without citizen participation, the government of, by, and for the people will not last. Ben Franklin famously said, “A republic, if you can keep it,” when asked what form of government the founders had created. He was charging “we the people” with the responsibility of protecting self-government.
Are we living up to the responsibility?
The mix of dysfunctional politics and lack of emphasis on civic education has, among other things, led many Americans to be highly skeptical about the very foundations of our democratic form of government. In the 1960s, amid civil rights protests and the Vietnam war, Americans were deeply divided politically, but according to the Pew Research Center, the vast majority—almost 80 percent—trusted the government to do the right thing always or most of the time. Today, less than 20 percent of the American public trusts the government. And for many young people, the idea of self-government is no longer sacrosanct. Almost one in four Americans thinks a dictator, namely a “strong leader that doesn’t have to deal with Congress or elections,” could be a good way to run our country.
The founding fathers would be deeply concerned about our state of affairs. Having just fought for independence from England, and deeply fearful of strong leaders like kings, they would be dismayed at the idea of removing power from the Congress to strengthen the presidency. They were fearful of placing too much power in any one branch of government. Protecting the rights of the minority as well as the majority would be infringed upon if power was not given to the People’s House, as the House of Representatives is commonly referred to.
But what can we do?
It isn’t too complicated. Civic engagement is the glue that holds self-government together. Yet civic participation and engagement has been on the decline for several decades. Therefore, each and every one of us must be as active and involved in our community and country as possible. Self-government is hard work and requires effort. Action is essential to maintaining the foundations of our democracy, no matter which political party happens to be in power.
To be a truly involved citizen, we must reconnect with our founding documents. We must learn and practice the skills of civic participation beginning with voting and moving onto legislating, speaking out, and building coalitions to solve problems on the local, state, and federal levels.
Remember 1776 and consider 76 ways to stay civically engaged
While by no means comprehensive, the “Democracy 76” list below provides specific and practical actions that we all can take to be an involved citizen. The list is broken into five actions that are essential components for engagement. It is expressly free from politics and partisanship and should be undertaken by all Americans—regardless of political perspectives or affiliation.
The list was generated drawing on the National Conference on Citizenship’s Civic Health Index and on a wide range of input from individuals dedicated to fostering improved civic engagement, including colleagues from the American Enterprise Institute, Arizona State University, CivXNow, Education International, DigCitCommit, Facing History and Ourselves, National Conference on Citizenship, National Council for the Social Studies, Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign, and University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. While we are grateful for everyone’s rich contributions, the list is ours and any mistakes within it are ours alone.
Finally, this list has contributed to the call to action of the newly launched Purple Project for Democracy, which has as its central mission to create a more active, engaged American citizenry, ultimately strengthening the very foundations of our democratic form of government. This is certainly something the founding fathers would support.
The “Democracy 76” checklist
1. Read and subscribe to daily local, regional, or national newspapers. Check out Allsides.com for news from conservative, liberal, and centrist points of view.
2. Facts matter: Is your news source trustworthy? Check out these non-partisan, nonprofits: factcheck.org and University of Virginia’s Center for Politics’ Youth Leadership Initiative’s media literacy tips.
3. Fill your pocket with democracy. Pick up pocket-sized constitutions for as little as $1.
4. Get the facts on any politician or political candidate at the nonpartisan Votesmart.org.
5. Talk with someone who doesn’t share your political views. BetterAngels.org is helping people do this all across the country.
6. Attend a discussion or event in your community or school about an issue you want to know more about.
7. Shadow a public servant for the day to learn how our institutions work.
8. Visit a museum. Learn about local, regional, and national history, and about those who have taken civic action in the past.
9. Visit a library. Librarians can point you to important books on our American democracy.
10. Deep dive into the constitution. The National Constitution Center has an interactive line-by-line breakdown.
11. Use a highlighter when reading news articles to note points of interest, subjects that you agree/disagree with, or questions that you would like to know more about.
12. Vote: Local, state, and national elections matter! Find out when elections are happening from U.S. Vote Foundation.
13. Make sure you’re registered to vote at Vote.gov or use Turbovote.org for quick and easy registration.
14. Make a voting pact with your friends or family. Collectively commit to register and vote. Remind each other regularly. Make a plan to go to the polls together!
15. Volunteer to register voters. League of Women Voters in your area is a great resource for running voter registration drives.
16. If you are a boss, give your employees time off to vote. If you are an employee, ask your boss to consider this.
17. Volunteer to work at a polling place. To find out how, go to the Election Assistance Commission’s website or contact your local registrar.
18. Offer to drive elderly voters or those without transportation to the polls.
19. If you own a business, offer discounts to people who provide proof of voting on election days. If you work at a business, ask your boss to consider this.
20. Prepare to vote by checking ahead of time what is on the ballot, your polling place, and what you need to bring. Many states require identification such as a license or passport.
21. If you are voting by absentee ballot, pay attention to deadlines and follow all the steps in the instructions.
22. Mark the date when voter registration ends on the calendar along with the dates for each election. Leave time in the day for getting to the polls.
23. Communicate with your elected officials to share your views on issues you care about. A letter, phone call, or visit are still the best ways to contact them.
24. Write an op-ed or letter to an editor.
25. Attend a city council or community board meeting. The National League of Cities can help describe its function.
26. Advocate for civic education in schools. Not all states require it, and you can join the CivXNow campaign to push for it.
27. Join a political campaign. Volunteer for your preferred candidate.
28. Become an ambassador supporting digital citizenship education by signing up with DigCitConnect.
29. Join the Parent-Teacher Association at your local school.
30. Get involved with the local school board. The National School Boards Association has good tips on how to engage.
31. Join a political party. Here is a list of all the political parties, what they stand for, and how to get involved.
32. Run for office. If you don’t like the candidates you are choosing from, put on your shoes and run for office.
33. Identify a problem in your community and work with your neighbors to fix it. Neighborhood street sweeps and playground refurbishment are just two examples.
34. Plant a tree or garden in your community.
35. Share the #WeThePurple Teacher Toolkit with teachers in your community for good ideas on civic engagement activities for young people.
36. Volunteer to serve as an officer or member of a group in your community. Volunteer Match can help you connect to groups in your area.
37. Visit someone else’s place of worship.
38. Keep watch on children who play in your neighborhood.
39. Paint a mural in a public space (with permission).
40. Pick up trash in your or someone else’s neighborhood.
41. Start a book club and invite your neighbors to participate.
42. Serve as a juror. If you are called for duty, remember our judicial system can’t work without citizen jurors.
43. Collect food for those in need.
44. Visit a nursing home or hospital.
45. Donate blood or plasma.
46. Take a first aid class. The American Red Cross can help prepare you to help those in need.
47. Clean up the local park.
48. Clean up a local river or lake.
49. Start a bowling league or another activity that you enjoy that might bring people together.
50. Help others in an emergency.
51. If you own a gun, participate in a gun safety course.
52. Host or be an exchange student. Rotary Youth Exchange is a good place to begin.
53. Shop local and support small businesses.
54. Contribute financially to a cause, even $5 can help. Charity Watch is a good place to start if you need help identifying organizations to support.
55. Support the teachers at your local school. Ask how you can help and consider starting with supporting classroom projects through DonorsChoose.org.
56. Volunteer at a museum.
57. Volunteer at a public library.
58. Volunteer at a pantry, soup kitchen, or food bank.
59. Volunteer at a community garden.
60. Volunteer to coach a youth sports team.
61. Volunteer to lead a youth group.
62. Volunteer at a community center.
63. Volunteer to help veterans. The USO is a good place to start.
64. Volunteer to help teachers. Chaperone school trips to the local city hall and share your experiences engaging with your community and government.
65. Do a year of service. Serviceyear.org can help you connect to thousands of opportunities to develop real-world skills while giving back to your community.
66. Choose to work at a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping others.
67. Become a substitute teacher.
68. Host or attend a debate watch party in your community or university.
69. Host a Purple Conversation with family, friends, or in your school or community to discuss ways to foster civic engagement. Use the tips on facilitating open dialogue from Living Room Conversations.
70. Follow and like #WeThePurple across social media.
71. Host a picnic or block party in your neighborhood and (respectfully) talk about your views.
72. Use your consumer power to support companies whose values you believe in.
73. Go out and talk to people, use your hands, and your time.
74. Invite friends and neighbors to watch a documentary on a topic affecting your community.
75. Use your social media accounts to post uplifting information relevant to making our society more civil. The University of Virginia has a helpful guide on civil discourse when talking about politics.
76. Recruit a friend and start checking off items in the “Democracy 76” checklist together!