Writing the Future of Citizenship: Remarks at the Conference on Citizenship

The following are remarks from Matt Leighninger during the Conference on Citizenship, November 30, 2023. Matt was introducing the lunch plenary, ‘Structural Reforms for the Future of Democracy,’  featuring Maureen O’Connor, Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio, David Pepper, Former Chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, and moderated by Sharon L. Davies, President and CEO, Kettering Foundation.

This conference is focused on the “Future of Citizenship.” We’ve already heard about some of the stories of civic innovation that could be part of that future – in civic learning, investing in democracy, and measuring engagement. This afternoon we’ll hear about innovations in journalism, safeguarding elections, digital engagement, citizen’s assemblies.

We also looked at the Healthy Democracy map showing the work happening all over the country. The daunting question before us is how to move from waves of innovation to lasting structural changes.

But we’ve actually done this before. When Valerie started us off this morning, we saw on the screen some of the early images from the beginnings of the National Civic League. That period from about 1900 to 1920 brought enormous, structural changes to our democracy – the Model City Charter, the ballot initiative, public-facing professions like social work, planning, policing, city management. Many waves of innovation led to that redesign of democracy, 100 years ago. Facing threats like corruption, illiteracy, and inequity, that redesign elevated expert intelligence and the role of elected officials.

The waves we see today seem to feature collective intelligence, not just expert intelligence. The first essay in the series we released for this conference included a big chart naming all these innovations from the last 20 years or so, and the key people driving them. They include waves like small-group deliberation on race and equity in the 90s, digital tools in the 2000s, threads that started in other countries like participatory budgeting.

The waves look a little different at the local level. I saw this at the All-America City Award event, which the Civic League has been hosting for 75 years. The event brings teams from 20 cities together – some of those teams are represented here today. These teams include young people, senior citizens, businesspeople, police officers, elected officials, encompassing a wide range of ages, cultural backgrounds, political beliefs.

At the event this year I met Miss Black San Antonio, the head librarian of Redwood City, California, and the major general in charge of Fort Liberty in North Carolina. The cities compete by sharing all the data and accomplishments of their civic projects, but they present it all with music, chanting, dance routines, and comedy sketches.

The All-America City Award event is inspiring because you see all these diverse people working together to solve local problems, and sobering, because they don’t know about many of the tools, strategies, and innovations that are evident in this room. AAC is a look at civic life as it really is in communities – and as Nick Vlahos and I wrote in one of the pre-conference essays, they have some of the answers to problems like polarization – and they are missing lots of other answers.

Locally and nationally, these waves of democracy innovation show that collective intelligence can be a tremendous resource. They also exist because – just like 100 years ago – they are developing in reaction to common threats and in response to what people want. People today want choices, connections, information, they want respect, they want a say.

I don’t think that either the Democratic or Republican parties have figured out the incredible electoral power behind that shift. The politicians of the early 1900s – both Republicans and Democrats – figured out that large numbers of voters would vote for genuine, structural changes in democracy. I think we’re still waiting for the wave of candidates who will give voters the choices and connections they want.

Some of the threats we’re dealing with now have to do with new technologies, as Cameron described, and as we wrote about in the essay series. The biggest threat posed by AI is that, collectively, we don’t really know how it works or how to direct it. We aren’t yet setting the terms for AI in ways that would help ensure equity, justice, liberty – we don’t even know what that would look like. This is why Cameron Hickey’s vision for NCoC, as a facilitator, convener, and safeguard of civic data, is so important.

Other threats are related to the fact that those early 20th Century reforms – the ballot initiative, the public meeting – are showing their age. One of the sessions later, moderated by Clarence Anthony of the National League of Cities, includes officials from cities who are upgrading official public meetings as part of a project supported by the AAA-ICDR Foundation.

We need better public meetings, and other democracy reforms, because right now, the official interactions between citizens and institutions continue to damage trust, and fewer and fewer people have any kind of positive experience of democracy. These are weaknesses that authoritarians can and do exploit.

At the Congressional Exchange we held last year on Capitol Hill, we had 12 members of Congress meeting with legislators from Argentina, Brazil, and Germany to talk about democracy innovations. We talked about deliberative townhalls, participatory budgeting, citizen’s assemblies in Germany, the Open Law Portal in Argentina, e-cidadania in Brazil – but I don’t think the Members of Congress understood their full significance. Finally, Senator Humberto Costa from Brazil put in a way that moved them: “The reason why we haven’t had a successful coup in Brazil is because so many Brazilians have a daily experience of democracy, and they know what they’re defending.” That made the members of Congress sit up. In America too, we need to know what we’re defending.

So we are facing threats, and to achieve the structural reforms we need, we need to learn from, bring together, and capitalize on these waves of innovation. This is a job for our collective intelligence. While ChatGPT has enormous, superhuman powers of summarization, articulation, and categorization, it will not write the next chapter of democracy for us – we have to do that.

Under the new leadership of Sharon L. Davies, the Kettering Foundation is moving into an exciting new role of supporting, learning from, and championing structural reforms that will defend against the threats to democracy – and we’re going to hear more about that in this next panel.

You can watch the lunch plenary below, and catch all of the conference plenaries on the National Conference on Citizenship’s YouTube page.




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