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Civic engagement today is less about preserving democracy than it is about re-founding it. Democracy in the United States has always been an incomplete and aspirational project. And as anywhere, it has always been subject to both expansions and contractions in terms of representativeness, accountability, and participation. It is fair to say that the past decade has not been good to the democratic project in the U.S.—that it has been squeezed from all sides. We see an unprecedented amount and influence of money in politics; new restrictions that make it much harder for some citizens to vote than others; inequality in how votes translate into representation due to extreme partisan gerrymandering and the Electoral College; new norms of “data-driven” campaigning that other and exclude “unlikely voters” from the outreach pool; and related popular narratives that tell people they are not prepared to participate, or that they don’t belong.

These squeezes are reflected in the electoral system’s grades at the ballot box. Voter participation is not nearly the only marker of a healthy democracy, but it is a significant one. We know that turnout is not simply a function of individual choice, or degree of voter interest or “initiative.” It is about socio-political systems and structures, and whether and for whom they confer a sense of civic belonging. In any given electoral system, if voter turnout is consistently low, it raises questions. Where participation is differentially distributed across voter groups, those questions become pressing. But where the gaps consistently show those with greater access to resources and opportunity voting at higher rates than those who would seem to have the most to gain from policy change, it should set off alarm bells. This final scenario is what prevails in the United States—a voting electorate that is consistently older, whiter, and with a higher income and more formal education than the population of all eligible voters. And according to recent research, the racial “turnout gap” between voter participation of whites compared to all other groups has not been shrinking since the 1960s, but trending larger.1

This collection of papers offers lessons from civic-engagement and movement leaders meant to help organizers, strategists, donors, and others sharpen their efforts to reverse that trend. When the Othering & Belonging Institute launched the Civic Engagement Narrative Change project, the U.S. was coming off of two general elections in which turnout was weak and incredibly lopsided even by U.S. standards. In 2016, the presidency was decided by three states in which turnout fluctuations and third-party voting played a significant role in Donald Trump’s victory.2 Yet public discourse following the election was dominated by talk of who had “flipped” from Obama to Trump, and why. Debates about the magnitude and reason(s) for the shift among white voters without a college degree in particular drowned out a larger point: These “non-college whites” were a larger share of voters due in large part to voters of color who had cast ballots in 2012, but dropped out of the electorate in 2016.3 People of color became even more under-represented than in recent presidential elections, their growth in population outpacing their growth at the polls. 

In the previous national general election—the 2014 midterms—turnout was nothing short of abysmal. The best estimates place the overall participation rate that year under 37 percent of eligible voters—the lowest rate for a midterm since the height of World War II.4 As to differences in turnout across groups, the voting electorate always skews older and less ethno-racially diverse in midterm years even more than in presidential elections. But in 2014, the drops in Latinx, Asian American, African American, and especially young (18-29 year-old) voter participation rates relative to the previous presidential were even more dramatic than usual.5

The general elections of 2014 and 2016 were acute cases in a larger, persistent cycle in U.S. electoral politics. It is one in which campaigns, candidates, and elected officials invest the least in representing and responding to constituencies that their data and consultants tell them are “disengaged;” this othering and neglect further disillusion those constituencies from regarding elections as meaningful vehicles for improving their lives; and their justified pessimism leads higher rates of under-represented constituencies to refrain from voting, thereby reinforcing the self-fulfilling prophecy of their label as less likely to vote.

The authors of the papers included in this collection are on the frontlines of work to end this toxic cycle. They are leaders in organizations and movements whose electoral work closes participation gaps by centering people who are often pushed aside or counted out. They are re-founders of our democracy who equip those same people to effectively claim their rightful place in decision-making processes that affect their lives. As their papers make clear, their success relies upon approaching constituents as more than just prospective voters to be “turned out.” Instead, voter mobilization is but one piece of broader, year-round, and people-centered engagement efforts that strengthen identity and capacity for the full range of civic and political action.

This type of programming drew the attention of mainstream politicos in 2017 and 2018, in part thanks to the work of this collection’s authors and many other partners with whom the Othering & Belonging Institute has the privilege to collaborate. By Election Day 2018, voter participation reached a scale and spread that is truly without precedent in U.S. midterm history. The turnout rate nationally increased from 2014’s dismal 37 percent to just over 50 percent of eligible voters for the first time in a midterm in more than a century—since before women won the right to vote.6 Upticks in participation were consistent across ethno-racial groups, with voters of color even shrinking the turnout gap relative to 2014 and 2016.7 Concerted efforts to reach out to young people also led to a huge increase in participation among voters ages 18-29.8

Throughout 2019, the Institute commissioned papers on the lessons and persistent challenges coming out of the 2018 electoral cycle. We chose to turn to organizations and movement leaders dedicated to building the power of historically under-represented communities for best thinking on what works, what more is needed, and how those committed to expanding participation and growing the “we” in our civic life should move forward. Generations of scholars—especially in political science—have wrestled with questions about the drivers of voter participation;9 but this collection is unique in its vantage point. It brings to bear decades of frontline experience from authors who have worked across all levels and locations in civic and political engagement. The collection was designed to speak across—and to offer applicable lessons and recommendations to—readers from the diverse sectors in the Othering & Belonging Institute’s networks, including community organizing, strategic communications, philanthropy, and more.

Each of the papers offers rich contributions to ongoing dialogues in the country about how to combat the profound imbalances in political influence and power across U.S. society. Together, they also make clear that building the power of under-represented communities must involve multiple touchpoints, or be operationalized across different “layers,” in order to be effective. The remainder of this introduction gives a brief overview of some of the collection’s key lessons, organized around three engagement touchpoints or levels: that of individuals; of relations within and across groups; and of stable institutional structures people use to strategize, coordinate, communicate, and mobilize—often collectively referred to as “infrastructure.” These touchpoints are not discrete or mutually exclusive—quite the opposite. But we break them out in this way to stress how the collection as a whole shows the indispensability and interdependence of each touchpoint in the struggle to build power and belonging among those who have long been excluded from the U.S. democratic project.

Growing Constituencies, Elevating Leaders

Most election news coverage—and certainly campaign strategy—shows far less interest in the democratic problem of disparate turnout and representation than in the calculus of winning and losing. In those cases in which campaigns and pundits do consider how to bring new or inconsistent voters into the process, it is usually only with a view of them as atomized individuals who need convincing to vote. The papers in this collection agree that that approach is both mistaken in its individualism and multiply flawed in its execution. 

One of the lessons present across the papers is that effective engagement should begin not with a pre-set endpoint (e.g. voting), but with constituents approached on their own terms, and as whole persons. Alicia Garza’s paper, in fact, is not framed around voting at all, but a more open-ended project of individual and collective empowerment. She points out that far too often progressive agendas expect people situated at the intersections of multiple forms of oppression not to bring their own fight, but to join another’s fight—and one whose success will ultimately not be measured against their lived experiences. Efforts that “engage” on these terms are bound to fail; they are themselves oppressive, and the persons they attempt to recruit know it.

Michael McBride likewise stresses that organizing for a society in which everyone belongs requires going to wherever the people are, and writing no one off or out. His context is election outreach specifically, and one critique he puts forward is of the prevailing way voter data are used to steer resources and priorities. There is nothing wrong with using advances in individual voter data to target and tailor outreach; the problem is when this turns into triaging based on indices like “voter propensity scores” that say some voters are not worth the trouble. Campaigns, like other institutions, too easily read these types of simple, precise numerical scores as authoritative—as “data-driven” instructions.10 But when we step back, we can recognize the perversity of equating one’s (vote) history with one’s (vote) potential. McBride’s paper argues instead for engagement driven by a “new and principled math” that is fully inclusive.

Other papers emphasize the need to start from local issue and policy priorities as entry points for bringing under-represented communities into the political process. This requires deep rootedness in those communities, and concerted, methodical listening. As Leo Murrieta points out, often when national campaigns identify a “new” group for outreach, they bring a one-dimensional image of its members. Murrieta’s paper provides a systematic roadmap for how engagement efforts can learn the issues that most animate communities that are chronically “under-asked,” and do so through a process that itself activates and empowers them. 

A headline that connects all the papers’ lessons about reaching inconsistent voters, new voters, and non-voters is that the guiding question should not be how to persuade them, bring them in, or turn them out. It should be how to create genuine belonging in which they are seen and heard, and through which the work itself can be made something new—and for them—through their presence. Engagement must both make space for new constituents’ whole selves, and make them equal “co-owners” of the agenda and struggle. The former without the latter is inclusion without belonging.

A final common thread on engagement at the level of individuals is the papers’ emphasis on belonging and empowerment through concerted investment in elevating leaders from under-represented communities. The major takeaway here is that “investment” means investment. Even as year-round civic engagement programs tend to be committed to leadership development, this component of their work often gets short shrift due to funding fluctuations vividly described in Bob Fulkerson’s paper. Fulkerson connects the dots between reaching under-represented groups, elevating local leaders from those groups, and committed funding of organizations either through unrestricted or dedicated leadership-development giving. Murrieta’s and Blueprint NC’s papers provide concrete examples and lessons for organizations to incorporate development and advancement of members in their work.

Relations and Bridging

Several authors in this collection offer lessons on another intervention point for transforming democratic participation and civic life—our relations, or ways of relating across persons and communities. Blueprint NC’s and McBride’s papers in particular discuss the need for introspective and self-critical spaces for examining how well relational practices in civic engagement efforts live out their commitments to equity and belonging. Blueprint NC explains how it vigilantly monitors how racism and white supremacy—as powerfully engrained cultural features—might leach into even civic work committed to racial justice. The organization is intentional about removing these toxins from everyday interpersonal and cross-organizational interactions to change the ways people relate to one another.

The papers also reflect the importance of bridging. For the Othering & Belonging Institute, to “bridge” involves two or more people or groups coming together across acknowledged lines of difference in a way that both affirms their distinct identities and creates a new inclusive “we” identity. The new “we” that results need not agree on everything, or even very much; but its members should have a shared empathy and lasting stake in one another. While bridging’s power for civic engagement is often overlooked, authors in this collection point to ways in which developing relations that bridge across difference can heal some of what alienates people from political participation.

Garza’s paper underscores that real bridging could not happen without a politics in which people bring the whole of their identities and experiences to the table. After all, how could people share empathy and find connective similarities if their relationships are predicated on suppressing critical parts of who they are? McBride’s description of Black faith and civil-rights leaders’ learning and engagement with Black youth after the Ferguson uprising is also about bridging. It reminds us that not all bridges are long,11 but that we must bring just as much care where seemingly “shorter” bridges are needed to renew or re-make a “we” whose ties are fraying or frayed.

Finally, Marleine Bastien provides numerous lessons about bridging through her critique of the failure of environmentalists to reach out to communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis as civic partners with a shared cause and concerns. She describes the toll of the crisis in low-income communities as slow-moving, persistent, and largely invisible to the established environmental movement. Her paper calls on that movement to step up, but she is clear about the relations adversely impacted communities expect. They are not asking for charity or leadership, but for others who are active on climate issues to recognize themselves in the struggles that those living the climate crisis daily are already leading, and to connect these struggles to their wider networks and resources.

Institutions as Infrastructure

A final critical set of lessons in this collection deal with the building and maintenance of institutions as an ongoing civic engagement “infrastructure.” Many lessons noted in the sections above have implications for institutions as well, of course. For example, much of Blueprint NC’s discussion of creating new relations calls for instilling those relations at the organizational level—in institutions’ muscles and tissues. But the papers offer some distinct lessons about developing and cultivating institutions as infrastructure—which is to say, as built systems and resources that serve as stable conduits of civic education, organizing, mobilization, narrative, and memory. 

The Blueprint NC paper is invaluable for its reflections on what it takes to build a statewide civic engagement “backbone” organization like itself as an infrastructure that holds equity and belonging at the center of a wide network. The Blueprint story is essential reading for other existing or prospective coordinating bodies or “tables” looking to build alignment and durable civic infrastructure across diverse organizations.

But because proper financing is so critical to developing solid infrastructure, most of the collection’s lessons on this theme are for the funding community. Fulkerson lays out a systematic argument for why civic engagement funding must change, built around a history of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) that is also the story of dozens and dozens more year-round organizing and civic engagement groups across the country. It is a story of the status quo boom-and-bust funding cycle as a form of underdevelopment of the civic-engagement infrastructure—and in particular infrastructure serving under-represented constituencies. We should recall that “underdevelopment” does not mean an absence of development, or just “too little” development. Rather, it refers specifically to a form of development that is lopsided in its focus, where investment flows dependably only to those metaphorical roads and tunnels that serve narrow, immediate goals.12 The routes and byways towards more far-reaching objectives—especially those whose impact is difficult to quantify in the immediate—go largely unattended. Fulkerson’s paper deftly explains how this uneven and short-sighted funding pattern not only stunts collective power building, but is also less effective for the narrower objective of mobilizing inconsistent voters.

Finally, McBride’s paper points out that many of the right civic “conduits” are already up and running, but have gone under-recognized and under-leveraged relative to their potential. McBride brilliantly moves across a number of scales at which funders are overlooking the most effective institutions and messengers for engaging voters of color—from networks of religious congregations, universities, and social organizations to culture makers and young people savvy in digital media to community leaders at the grassroots. His and Fulkerson’s paper together provide as clear, sharp, and timely a call to the pro-democracy funding community as we have seen in print.

This brief synopsis and set of reflections in no way captures all of the critical lessons and recommendations contained in this unique set of papers. We hope that readers will take the time to read each one, and consider how each speaks to their own respective roles in changing practices and narratives around civic engagement. There is truly no time to wait in taking the steps needed to re-found our democracy—to make it one that belongs equally to everyone in our country, and in which all and each belong.

  • 1Bernard L. Fraga, The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity, and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America, Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  • 2  The states were Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In all three, Trump got fewer votes than President Barack Obama had in 2012. In Wisconsin, fewer total votes were cast in 2016 than in 2012. In Michigan, fewer combined votes were cast for the two major-party candidates in 2016 than in 2012, as 250,000 voters cast ballots for third-party candidates and an estimated 75,000 left the presidential portion of their ballots blank. See Joshua Clark, “What Didn’t Happen? Breaking Down the Results of the 2016 Presidential Election,” Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, University of California, Berkeley, CA, November 2017.
  • 3  Ibid. Analyses using proprietary voter file data suggest that Black turnout rates lost ground to white rates by 6 to over 10 percentage points in five of the six states that flipped from Obama to Trump. According to these estimates, in 2016, Black turnout in Florida went down by 4.2 percentage points relative to 2012, and white turnout went up by 3.5; Black turnout in Michigan went down by 12.4 points, and white turnout went down by 2.6; Black turnout in Ohio went down by 7.5 points, and white turnout went down by 1.3; Black turnout in Pennsylvania went down by 2.1 points, and white turnout went up by 5.2; and in Wisconsin, Black turnout dropped by 12.3 points, and white turnout dipped by just 1.6 points. Bernard L. Fraga, Sean McElwee, Jesse Rhodes, and Brian F. Schaffner, “Why did Trump win? More whites—and fewer blacks—actually voted,” The Washington Post/The Monkey Cage, May 8, 2017.
  • 4  United States Election Project, “National General Election VEP Turnout Rates, 1789-Present,” http://www.electproject.org/national-1789-present.
  • 5  Joshua Clark, “Realizing a More Inclusive Electorate: Identity, Knowledge, Mobilization,” Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, University of California, Berkeley, CA, August 2018, p. 11.
  • 6  United States Election Project, “National General Election VEP Turnout Rates, 1789-Present.”
  • 7  United States Election Project, “Voter Turnout Demographics,” http://www.electproject.org/home/voter-turnout/demographics.
  • 8  The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), “New National Youth Turnout Estimate: 28% of Young People Voted in 2018,” May 30, 2019, https://civicyouth.org/new-national-youth-turnout-estimate-28-of-young-people-voted-in-2018; and Nancy Thomas, Adam Gismondi, Prabhat Gautam, and David Brinker, “Democracy Counts 2018: Increased Student and Institutional Engagement,” Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, Tufts University, Medford, MA, 2019.
  • 9  Turnout variance across time and place has proven stubbornly resistant to political science’s favored grand theories, as discussed, for example, in André Blais, To Vote or Not to Vote?: The Merits and Limits of Rational Choice Theory, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. Some of the more innovative and empirically rigorous recent work on the topic calls for combining insights from across contending schools of thought. See Fraga, The Turnout Gap, p. 16.
  • 10  On numbers’ boundedness and precision as sources of authoritativeness, see for example, Mary Poovey, A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society, The University of Chicago Press, 1998; and Susan Greenhalgh, “Science, Modernity, and the Making of China’s One-Child Policy,” Population and Development Review 29(2): 163-196 (2003).
  • 11  john a. powell, “Bridging or Breaking?: The Stories We Tell Will Create the Future We Inhabit,” The Nonprofit Quarterly 26(4): 46-50 (2020).
  • 12  For a classic statement on underdevelopment, see Michael Parenti, Against Empire, City Lights Books, 1995, Chapter 1.