A prescription for closing the democracy gap

To bolster participation, citizens need to know how government works

AMERICA is facing a democracy gap.

With just a few months until the mid-term elections, only three in five registered voters can correctly answer whether there is an election for US Senate taking place in their state. A similar number knows their state has two elected senators. However, when asked, just over half can name them both.

 At the same time, nearly three in four American voters—Republican, Democrat, and Independent—express dissatisfaction with both the US House and Senate. When asked the single biggest problem with the Senate specifically, voters noted elected leaders’ unwillingness to compromise in order to get things done.

These are just some of the findings from the Kennedy’s Institute’s latest national survey released last week and they expose a growing disconnect within our American democracy.

A functioning democracy depends on participation. To participate effectively, all of us must understand how government works. Without increasing Americans’ knowledge of politics and public policymaking, the democracy gap will persist and undermine the ability of voters and leaders alike to address the issues affecting our nation.

Today, we’re considering yet another lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, our communities and schools continue to grapple with the threat of gun violence, affordable health care is still out of reach for so many across our nation, and America’s standing in the world is being called into question.

Now more than ever, we need an informed electorate that understands how our government works and feels empowered to affect change within it. The answer to frustration must be to engage, not to withdraw.

Sen. Ted Kennedy spent decades as a public servant, and believed that to preserve our vibrant democracy for future generations, citizens would need a place where they can go to learn first-hand about our system of government. And today, the Kennedy Institute engages visitors, families, students, and a wide range of community members in educational programs and conversations with elected officials about the essential role ordinary Americans and political leaders play in making a difference in our communities across the nation.

Across the country, and right here in Massachusetts, schools are renewing and reinvigorating a commitment to civics education and our state legislature and governor have made it a priority. While engaging youth is paramount, efforts to increase civic education need to include people of all ages and diverse backgrounds. There are multiple generations of registered voters operating without the essential facts to help them make decisions about who is representing them and in what direction our country is headed.

We must redouble our engagement at all levels of our communities, broadening the conversation and the coverage from talk of elections to talk of the issues of the day, and convening a diversity of participants around the table: students with teachers, elected officials with constituents, parents with children, neighbors with neighbors, and colleagues with colleagues, both within and across party lines.

Meet the Author

Mary K. Grant

President, Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate
While we must hold our elected officials accountable, we must also hold ourselves accountable by being informed on the issues, by understanding how the legislative process works, and by doing more than being dissatisfied. We have a shared responsibility to learn, to engage, to participate, and to make an informed difference.

The work is urgent and important and we must not shy away from the responsibility. We must close the democracy gap.

Mary K. Grant is the president of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston.