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    Op-Ed
    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Make this your year for civic resolutions

    If you failed to visit the gym, cut back on sweets or start a new hobby in January, never fear. Experts say it's best to make resolutions a little later in any case. And the most important resolutions you make in 2024 may be less about self-help than about the nation as a whole.

    There’s never been a better year, in fact, for civic resolutions. You may not believe, in these dark times, that your civic pledges can make much difference. But civic life is a muscle, and you can resolve to strengthen it every day — just as you might set out to practice a sport or a musical instrument.

    At The Civic Circle, the nonprofit where I teach civic skills to young students, we’ve identified seven simple “steps to democracy” and boiled each one down to a single word: listen, learn, choose, join, speak, act and lead. In other words, be civil, inform yourself, vote, help someone, speak up, take action and be your best self.

    I’ll share more about these seven steps, but first, a word about why civic resolutions matter so much this year. Americans are despairing about the future. Whether it’s because of war, global warming, disunity, inequity, or all of the above, many feel lost and overwhelmed.

    This poses a bigger threat to democracy than any one politician, party or trend. When people lose hope, and the faith that their actions can make a difference, they retreat into cynicism, nihilism, and isolation. Better to circle the wagons, tune out the news and escape into family or work, the thinking goes, than to join the fray.

    Yet democracy depends on public participation, and the bad actors know that. A leading objective of Russia-style disinformation is to foment what Jonathan Rauch has called “ the firehose of falsehood.” The purpose is not to forward any one particular untruth, but to throw out so many conflicting and crazy claims that people no longer know what to believe, or what they might do about it.

    So what’s the solution? With civic resolutions, you can take practical steps to improve democracy right here, today, as an average citizen in your daily life. The point is to make a habit of building your civic muscles in the same way you might practice any other daily discipline. Here’s how:

    Listen. Listening doesn’t simply mean stop talking and open your ears. It means practicing civility and respect, even when you disagree. From Braver Angels to Living Room Conversations, there are more than 500 groups hosting cross-partisan events around the country every day. These are easy to find and sign up for. As Mother Teresa put it, “If we truly want peace in the world, let us begin by loving one another in our own families.”

    Learn. If you’re one of the 50% of adult Americans who get their news “often” or “sometimes” from social media, resolve to branch out. Social media channels are rife with falsehoods and disinformation, and artificial intelligence is twisting the facts even further. Seek out reliable news sources, and subscribe to a local (or mainstream) newspaper. You’ll be doing your part to reverse the demise of media institutions that help keep public officials accountable.

    Choose. Voting is the most direct expression of civic power in democracy, yet in the 2022 election fewer than half (46.6%) of voting-eligible Americans turned out. In a year when more than half of Americans (62%) believe democracy in the United States could be at risk depending on the outcome of the election, voting should be civic resolution No. 1.

    Join. Amid a national mental health and loneliness crisis, experts say surprisingly little about the health value of volunteering and helping others. Yet the physical and mental health benefits of volunteering are well established. Whatever your interests, there are dozens of sites that can get you started.

    Speak. When was the last time you went to a candidate forum or a town council or school board meeting? If you don’t know who your local and national elected officials are, resolve to find out — and write, call or connect with them in person.

    Act. Whether you care about traffic, earthworms or pickleball, there is an association for you. Advocacy and trade groups get a bad rap in a culture where the term “lobbyist” is an insult. But one person’s special interest is another person’s passion. Resolve to join with others who share your interests and concerns.

    Lead. If elected officials are ignoring you, your ultimate recourse is to run for office yourself. But it’s not the only way to be a leader. When asked what it means to lead, Civic Circle students sometimes reply: It means to listen. This takes them full circle, right back to the first step to democracy. It’s not a bad place to begin.

    Democracy is not some far-off realm presided over by experts, politicians and activists. It is something we practice every day, in our ongoing interactions with those around us, in the choices we make about what to read or watch, and how we spend our time.

    When you resolve to be a participant, not a spoiler, in civic life, you focus on solutions, not problems. You spend less time wallowing in despair, and more time taking actions, however small, that help pull democracy back from the brink. Whatever your civic resolutions, don’t procrastinate, as you may have in getting to the gym last month. By this time next year, it may be too late.

    Eliza Newlin Carney runs The Civic Circle, which uses music and the arts to empower young students to understand and participate in democracy.

    The Fulcrum covers what's making democracy dysfunctional and efforts to fix our governing systems. It is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news platform.

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