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The language of democracy

By Kristen Cambell
September 23, 2019

Survey question from the PACE Language Project: “If you were to say one word or very short phrase to describe the act of participating in your community, what would it be?”

Guest post

I saw a T-shirt recently that said, “The story we tell becomes the world we live in.” (I later learned it was the tagline to the Op Ed Project.) It resonated with me because I’ve always known—but am increasingly realizing—that almost everything we do in this work is predicated on the ability to talk about what we believe and why it matters. And when your work is as grand and complex as democracy—and as dependent on shared understanding and commitment—effective communication becomes even more crucial.

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is a community of funders that invest in the sustaining elements of democracy and civic life in the United States. Earlier this year, a PACE-led research effort set out to gain a deeper understanding of the way everyday Americans understand the language that we as practitioners use to describe this work. In other words, when we say words such as civic engagement, activism, justice, and even democracy, what do most Americans hear, and what—if anything—do they mean to them?

The results both challenged and affirmed our understanding.

Our research included a nationally representative online survey (led by Dr. Parissa Ballard at Wake Forest School of Medicine) as well as a series of small focus groups (led by the communications firm Topos Partnership) The data illuminated some patterns across the methods:

1. Americans do not think or talk in the terms our field uses to describe democracy and civic engagement

The words and phrases practitioners like us use to describe this work—such as civic engagement, activism, civility, and advocacy—don’t crop up in the everyday language of most Americans. But the themes beneath the surface of civic engagement—participation and community, getting involved, helping others—surfaced often. Participants overwhelmingly agreed that personal involvement and connecting with others is emotionally rewarding and indicated a moral obligation to be of service. At the same time, they rarely connected their personal behaviors and activities with the institutional concepts of civic engagement and democracy. In other words, the values that underlie democracy are alive among Americans but seem disconnected from the more formal frameworks of engagement used by civic practitioners.

Americans also don’t seem to view their behaviors and activities as connected to government per se, but rather as ways they voluntarily choose to show up for their neighbors and communities. This dynamic sparks the question: what language did people use to describe what we as professionals might call civic engagement? The word cloud at the beginning of this post reflects the survey questions and responses that speak to this question.

2. There is a disconnect between individual experiences and a collective big picture of democracy

When focus group participants were invited to think about the concept of civic engagement, themes of being a good person, neighbor, or community member, and the idea of helping others emerged consistently. Similarly, when survey respondents were asked to state a word or short phrase to describe the act of participating in their communities, some responded with adjectives, most of which (73 percent) were positive: fulfilling, helpful, and important. Others described types of actions. Some 90 percent of these responses focused on direct service activities that strive to alleviate social issues: recycle, do good deeds, be neighborly, and serve others.

Although participants agreed that being of service to others was important, the majority’s visions of civic participation focused on the individual, person-to-person level. They did not necessarily connect civic participation to visions for broader, institutional, or cultural change. This disconnect between individual and collective ideals around civic engagement and democracy prompts questions about how to connect the moral imperative respondents felt to be in service to others on an individual basis to broader themes of civic engagement in service of a greater whole.

3. Context matters—but so do the words themselves

Although one of the inspirations for this project was a shared concern by many funders and practitioners that particular words and phrases feel politicized today, focus group respondents indicated they didn’t put a lot of stock into the meaning of words as much as what they perceived to be their intent. A common refrain we heard was “They’re just words.” On the other hand, survey results revealed implicit associations people may hold, and those associations tended to vary based on respondents’ backgrounds. For example, whether people like certain words, have emotional reactions to them, or report hearing or using certain phrases, differs by background characteristics such as political affiliation, age, race, and gender.

In other words, although focus group participants dismissed questions about connotations of particular words as relatively inconsequential, survey results indicated that perceptions did vary by demographic factors, indicating that some reactions to specific words and phrases may be unconscious. For example, Republicans were more likely to use and think the word citizen is important than Democrats, whereas Democrats were more likely to like and feel the term racial equity is important. Non-white people were more likely to like, use, hear, and have an emotional reaction to the term racial equity. White respondents were more likely to like and feel the terms patriotism and liberty were important.

Finally, survey respondents age 24 and younger were more likely to hear and use the words diversity and racial equity, whereas people age 25 and older were more likely to like and feel familiar with the words patriotism, citizen, and civility. Interestingly, this finding echoes recent research from the Wall Street Journal, which indicates a significant value shift in Millennial and Z generations from previous generations; among other findings, today’s young people are significantly less likely to rate patriotism as a central value.

4. Americans lack a shared vision for a healthy democracy

Earlier this year, Topos Partners found, “It seems Americans have no strong, clear sense of what a healthy, civically engaged democracy or society entails. This appears to be an important reason why they have so little shared vocabulary in this domain.” This theme surfaced throughout focus group discussions and was supported by survey data: when respondents were asked how they would describe civically engaged people and actions, answers were scattered and lacked a central focus that might be understood as civic engagement in the ways our field commonly understands the concept.

But there were some common threads. Despite some partisan divergence in language use, we also saw that Americans consistently feel drawn to ideas such as more civility in political discourse, more connected communities, and people having their voices heard in decisions that shape their lives. Participants also conveyed a belief that America needs to do better in terms of fostering and improving civility, dialogue, education, and engagement.

But that shared sense of importance is not matched by optimism or understanding of how this goal can be achieved. In other words, although Americans overwhelmingly agree that more productive civil discourse is important, they are pessimistic about whether and how we could achieve it. And that pessimism persisted with relation to aspirations for democracy and the possibility of their voices being heard in political processes.

A central question guiding our reflections on this work is “How can language—and the shared values that surfaced throughout these conversations—begin to bridge the social and political divides that challenge us today, and serve as a foundation to build a common vision of a healthy democracy?” We saw respondents resoundingly agree on the fundamental tenets of social cohesion: helping one another, being of service to others, and getting involved. Although they faltered in translating these individual-level actions to communal power and change, there are clear shared values to build upon in shaping the narrative of broader community engagement.

Although a shared vision for a healthy democracy was notably absent, a clear sense of shared priorities—around civility, connection, voice, and dialogue—did surface, and could serve as building blocks for a broader democratic vision. Furthermore, democracy itself was one of the most highly rated terms, which could speak to a grounding in shared values that could orient future communications and bridge-building efforts.

What now? What’s next?

To learn more about PACE’s Civic Language Perceptions Project and read our final report, visit: PACEfunders.org/language. There, you’ll also find a suite of resources, including memos from our research teams analyzing both the qualitative and quantitative data sets and a discussion guide for future conversations.

We see this exploration as a first step in what we hope will become an ongoing arc of research. There is a trove of data and lots to be uncovered and understood, and as a part of this effort, we want to democratize the research process as much as possible. So today, we are releasing our quantitative survey data to the public in hopes it will inspire ongoing analysis and discussion. We invite you to play with it, analyze it, and share what you find as a contribution to a collective effort to talk about this work in resonate and compelling ways with the communities we seek to engage and inspire. Access the data

Not only do we welcome feedback from and engagement with our colleagues in the field, we hope that this feedback will drive the effort.

Finally, if you’re interested in talking more about the research, join PACE communications director Adiel Suarez-Murias for a session at Independent Sector’s upcoming Upswell convening on November 13.

To learn about philanthropy's role in U.S. democracy, visit Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy.