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Hastings Center News

Report Addresses Breakdown in Civic Discourse That is Threatening U.S. Democracy

A new report released by The Hastings Center concludes that civic learning in the United States, or how citizens engage in collective problem solving and make informed decisions that reflect the common good, is breaking down, threatening democratic values. 

As policymakers and educators consider how to strengthen civic learning and democracy in the aftermath of challenges such as the assault on the U.S. Capitol, the report, “Democracy in Crisis: Civic Learning and the Reconstruction of Common Purpose,” proposes ways that Americans can help combat polarization and increase public engagement, including that we:   

  1. Address justice as a basis for civic participation: Develop solutions to the vast material inequalities in American life, encourage solidarity and care for one another, and a shared commitment to community life. 
  1. Understand the interplay of facts and values: Recover the ideas of critical thinking and scientific fact, along with the recognition that the public should weigh in on the values at stake in science policy. 
  1. Enhance schools’ commitments to advancing scientific literacy and preparing students for active civic engagement.  Schools should help students develop the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind, essential to self-governance and policy debate. 
  1. Talk to each other.  Boost participation in local government and nonviolent social movements and create opportunities for citizens to engage with each other in deliberative forums, especially at the community level, where the immediacy of shared concerns may offset national political polarization. 

The report’s authors say participating in civic life, conversation, debate, and consensus-building are keys for effective government, though these types of engagement are on the decline.  

Informed public debate has broken down because: 

  • Government has moved away from efforts to encourage civic participation;  
  • The rise of authoritarian, anti-democratic sentiments undercuts efforts to create innovative civic organizations that encourage and build democratic participation;  
  • Geographic clustering of citizens weakens citizens’ ability to see those who differ from them as legitimate equals, creating distrust and political polarization;  
  • Long-standing social, economic, and racial inequalities in American society undermine citizens’ concern for the common good;  
  • Collective reluctance to talk about class and race prevent citizens from understanding each other;  
  • Untrustworthy sources of information perpetuate misinformation and reinforce citizens in their pre-existing views, rather than exposing them to the views of others. 

“From vaccine policy to climate change, we are facing major challenges that require collective problem solving.  We can’t succeed unless we reinvigorate our ability to access trustworthy information, evaluate options, and deliberate together,” said Mildred Solomon, president of The Hastings Center, who was an editor of the report with Hastings senior advisor Bruce Jennings and Hastings research scholars Michael K. Gusmano, Gregory E. Kaebnick, and Carolyn P. Neuhaus.  

The report was funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.