When Civic Degradation Tops Civic Engagement

The next president faces the difficult but essential task of restoring a sense of common purpose.

According to every poll, we are a nation divided. Certainly the tenor and tone of the current election cycle has done nothing but amplify those divisions. Thus, one of the next president’s most immediate and critical challenges will be finding ways in which to overcome the anger and vitriol that has engulfed us and, in so doing, restore a sense of common purpose and belief. It will not be easy, but it will be essential.

It was in that vein that recently I thought about a night almost exactly eight years ago, when Barack Obama and John McCain took a night off of the campaign trail and the often harsh rhetoric of the election, to come together at Columbia University in New York for a nationally televised forum on civic engagement and service. I had the privilege of attending that remarkable event and, like the hundreds of others in the packed hall and the millions watching on television, was inspired by how both men’s lives and contributions were shaped by an ethic of service and civic engagement. I was, and remain, inspired by the fact that they would take time away from a heated campaign entering its final days to remind us all of that which binds us.

Today, that narrative is glaringly absent. That is no accident. Campaign professionals say the message doesn’t resonate; that positive themes of service, civic engagement and volunteerism, as manifestations of our commitment to the common good, have no effect. Civic degradation has topped civic engagement. How frightening is that?

Sadly, that is no great surprise. Think about it. On that night in 2008, Barack Obama declared his intention to “make public service cool again.” Instead, in the years since, we have witnessed, on a bipartisan basis, an almost ceaseless assault on all segments of the of the whole of government—the public, private and not-for-profit institutions and people that are so essential to the functioning of government and service to the citizenry. We are enmeshed in a system with little tolerance for error or risk and a seemingly endless appetite for blame.  Indeed, public service is seen as anything but “cool” by the very public it serves. And since the bipartisan passage of the landmark Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, we have witnessed continuing efforts to eviscerate that law’s very essence—enhancing the government’s role as a leader and enabler of broader national and community service and civic engagement.

That this downward spiral exists and that this message doesn’t show up in political polls almost certainly points to a failure on the part of our leaders. Political polling data doesn’t capture the spirit of service that manifests itself every day across the nation. It doesn’t capture the fact that one in four Americans continue to volunteer in any number of ways. It doesn't capture the fact that an ever increasing number of companies are expanding the community service opportunities available to their employees because employees are demanding such. And it doesn’t capture the reasons we see new models of service, from social investing to crowdfunding, and more.

There is a lesson here that our next president should heed. The problem is not that the spirit of service and civic engagement no longer exists; the problem is that it has been overwhelmed by an environment that rewards negativity and blame and continually forces our attention away from the positive. Overcoming that destructive dynamic starts with the next president and administration re-igniting the core values founded in service and civic engagement—be it local or national. It starts with the next president demonstrating, through words and action, and as a core organizing principle, the importance and value of service and civic engagement to the nation’s economic and social health.

The next president needs to continually reiterate and aggressively support the government’s role as a leader in enabling and supporting service of all kinds. In order to capitalize on the innovation and creativity that can dramatically improve the management and delivery of services, the next president’s agenda needs to be driven by an unbreakable commitment to creating an environment of empowerment and collaboration among diverse stakeholders.

The next President of the United States faces many challenges; the most daunting of which may be to bring the nation back together. Civic engagement is critical to achieving that goal. It is part of our DNA, despite the dynamics of recent years. As Robert Pitman showed in his seminal work Bowling Alone, there is a direct and documentable correlation between service and civic engagement. That was the message of that night in New York eight years ago. Today, it is the missing narrative.