David Holwerk is the director of communications at the Kettering Foundation, a non-profit organization in Dayton, Ohio, that is dedicated to citizen engagement in the political process. Before joining Kettering, he worked for more than 30 years in print journalism.
Grant Reeher (GR): According to just about whatever poll you look at, Americans’ trust in government and political institutions are at all-time low points. What do you see as the biggest challenges to American democracy?
David Holwerk (DH): It’s not just that citizens don’t trust the government; government doesn’t trust citizens, either. So there is a mutual distrust that just sort of feeds on itself and amplifies itself. Not just government, but a lot of institutions, want citizens to be recipients of information and then do whatever they are told to do. And so when you have a lot of people who aren’t really doing anything in relation to self-governance, not just in terms of government but in terms of the basic kinds of decisions that go into being a citizen of a democracy, let’s just say people get cranky.
If you talk to people in national politics around Washington, it is an article of faith that Social Security is the third rail of American politics. Simply can’t talk about it, people won’t talk about it. It’s going to be like death to even talk about changing Social Security. When you get citizens together across age groups to talk about Social Security, they are much more likely to say, “Well, you know, I am not sure if the current situation is sustainable.” Young people are worried about their parents and grandparents not having Social Security; older people worry about the younger people paying the burden of keeping Social Security alive.
So when you do that, it doesn’t very much look like a third rail. But the national politics, the national conversation is so often framed in a (simple) choice: yes, no. Keep it as it is, privatize it. So it becomes a black-white, red-blue, head-butting yes-or-no conversation, when people are actually willing to consider a broader range of options than that.
When you think about it that way, the notion that citizens aren’t engaged looks a little different. In fact, frequently citizens are engaged in stuff; it is just not on the same terms. I mean, there are a lot of people who are worried about health care costs, there are lots of people who are worried about the future of Social Security, and when you get citizens together and get them to talking about it, it is very clear that they are engaged and are willing to be engaged, but there is no entrée for engagement into the national conversation, into the conversation that is dominated by interest groups and think tanks and policy makers.
GR: It seems like the media is a big player in that problem, because you get these situations where, if there was a potential space for an elected official to say, “Look, it’s more complicated than this. It’s not this red-blue, black-and-white kind of thing, and we need to be able to talk about it. Let’s start that conversation.” Immediately you know that you are going to get a story saying that Representative X is saying they are willing to tax; Representative Y is saying they are willing to cut, and so we get into that kind of dialogue.
DH: The question of how journalists cover that sort of thing, what kind of stories they can write about, is interesting, and it’s what I do my work on at the Kettering Foundation. All journalists, myself included, work from a framework or menu of story frames that you impose, and they tend to be framed in terms of conflict, hero-villain, villain-victim, great man, great woman, triumph and tragedy, difficulties and rebirth. There is this whole set of clichéd frames, and rarely do you see a story that can capture the nuance, the indecision and the willingness to consider things differently. And part of that is because when that happens with citizens, there is no story that immediately comes to mind. I know that if I had been an editor or a reporter and I had gone on to my assigning editor, I would say, here’s a good story: people talking about Social Security in a way that is different than it sounds in the national dialogue. The editor’s response, or my response when I was an editor, would have been, “Well, that’s just people talking.”
But you know what citizens actually do in a democracy is centered around the way they talk, and talking to each other. Civic discourse is one of the fundamental building blocks of a democracy.
GR: If you were to take these story lines, which one as an editor would you be wanting to apply to print media itself in recent years?
DH: Well, it would be difficult not to apply the story frame of obituary to it, but I hope that is not the case. I think it is important to understand what is happening in the newspaper business, in journalism; it is a failure of the business model, not a failure of journalism. And, in fact, in some ways there is more readership of newspaper content now than there ever was; it’s just that people aren’t paying for it. When you go to Google News and you look at it, it’s mostly newspaper content. It’s just free. So the newspaper publishing companies aren’t making any money, and they can’t figure how to make money off of their websites. So it is a business model crisis, it is not a crisis of the craft.
GR: Can you give me a brief overview of the work that the Kettering Foundation does?
DH: Kettering is an independent, non-partisan research foundation, and we study the work of citizens, communities and institutions in a democracy — people who are in communities around the United States and the world who are working on democracy or democratic practitioners in the places they call home. We work through what we call joint learning; that is, we know some stuff and we are learning some stuff constantly, and we work basically on exchange with these people: Here’s what we have figured out and here’s what we are puzzling over; tell us what you are working on, what is happening in your communities, and let’s see how these two things fit together and what we can learn from each other.
GR: The organization is big on the more substantive conversations that citizens will have and try to have not only about Social Security but about other pressing issues.
DH: I think one of our principal insights is that the critical ingredient in that is a civic discourse of a particular type. You try to frame the conversation in terms of all the things that people hold valuable. This doesn’t mean that you are going to have an easy conversation, or that the truth will suddenly be revealed. Or that the conversation will even necessarily be civil. But it does mean that you then are actually making choices, that you are aware that you are making the tradeoffs and the choices. And the tradeoffs are around — they may be about money, they may be about safety — but they are around things that people hold valuable. That’s a citizen-centered conversation, not an expert- or technocrat- or politician-centered kind of conversation.
GR: What can ordinary citizens do if their political officials and the political system as they are experiencing it won’t engage with them? And particularly what can they do if at an individual level, voting for someone in a different party is not acceptable to them politically? They are in a situation where they don’t feel like they are being engaged, but there is not an alternative that really makes sense. Where does that leave them?
DH: Increasingly, that’s not even an option because elected officials are choosing their voters by manipulating the lines of legislative districts and city council districts, through a series of techniques and technologies in electoral politics that drive voters away and keep the decision in the hands actually of a fairly small number of voters.
So what citizens do in most situations is either to become disengaged or to figure out how to be a citizen in a way that doesn’t involve the government. And that means that the citizens act as citizens at the most basic level, which is they see some problem they can work on with somebody in their neighborhood or their school or their church or their civic club, and they work on that problem with them. And when that happens, then you’ve got a pretty good chance of making some progress, and eventually maybe getting something to happen in the electoral system, as well.
GR: That’s something that takes a long time for people to do. Most people have lawns to mow, they have children to taxi around. You are talking about something that I think is able to be done by only a very small number of activists. Where does that leave the rest of the folks?
DH: I don’t exactly agree with you. It does take time, but people are more engaged in that stuff than it appears to be. The problem is that the engagement is itemized. It doesn’t produce results that are visible at the legislative level or district level. I do think that there is more of that going on than many people who are in professions that implicate themselves in public life see. I certainly see more of that going on than journalists see, and there is more of it going on than elected officials see. There is no quick answer to it. There is no quick solution to this problem. It does take time. It takes time for citizens, it takes time for these changes to take effect.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.