Civic engagement needs a boost

By Katy J. Harriger

We have recently passed the one-year anniversary of the Katrina disaster and the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

The anniversaries have reminded me of an issue I’ve been chewing on for some time now and that I think bears discussion in the nonprofit, philanthropic and leadership communities.

That issue is the lack of citizen engagement with our political system and the resulting ineffectiveness and weakness of our government when it comes to dealing with the difficult policy issues that we face in this country.

As someone who teaches politics, but who has also served on boards for a foundation and several nonprofits, I have become increasingly convinced that the weakness of our public sector threatens the effectiveness of the private foundation and nonprofit sectors as well.

The relationship between the public, private and nonprofit sectors is often characterized as a three-legged stool — an image that conjures up the notion that for the seat to be functional, each of the legs of the stool must be of equal strength.

But when we review the aftermath of Katrina and the 9/11 attacks, we are hard-pressed to find much admirable in the way the government either prepared for or responded to the disasters.

Instead, the stories that move us and seem to offer hope are stories about the generosity and work of private and nonprofit groups.

I don’t have room to document all the reasons our political system has become so ineffective, but I would argue that citizen disengagement is part of the explanation, and that disengagement is in turn caused by a combination of factors like the role of money in campaigns, the generally poor coverage of the political process by the media, especially television, the gerrymandering of electoral districts, the bitter partisanship that divides us, and the decline of serious civic education in the schools.

There are some who think this lop-sided stool is the way things should be: They dislike government and often contend that such ineffectiveness is inevitable.

But I disagree. In fact, I believe that philanthropic foundations and nonprofits will be, and have been overwhelmed and, consequently, less effective themselves, when government and citizen engagement in politics is weak.

However much these private efforts accomplish, they cannot build the infrastructure that ensures that levees hold, communications systems work, and effective evacuation plans exist.

They cannot educate every child, rich or poor. They cannot replace a functioning, accountable, democratic government.

Katy J. Harriger is a professor of political science at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and was a 1995-97 William C. Friday Fellow for the Wildacres Leadership Initiative in Durham, N.C.

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