Why focus on increasing civic engagement and reinvigorating local media
Philanthropic support for civic engagement and local media emerged as especially promising avenues for multiple reasons. In our interviews with scholars, the declines of civic engagement and local media were the most-cited drivers of the distrust and polarization that characterize contemporary politics. Reviews of academic literature confirmed the importance of civic engagement and local media to all five elements of a well-functioning democracy in addition to highlighting their connection to each other. Interviews with funders also revealed significant philanthropic interest in these topics.
A decades-long decline in both participation in voluntary associations and local news readership has weakened citizens’ attachment to their local communities. Stronger local communities engender trust, facilitate information flows, and moderate extreme voices, greasing the wheels for effective governance. Daniel Hopkins’s 2018 book “The Increasingly United States” demonstrates how political behavior has nationalized in the absence of local institutions.[i] Municipal and congressional elections, once contested on the candidates’ abilities to deliver tangible benefits to local communities, have become referenda on national issues, injecting the partisan tone of Washington politics into other facets of civic life.
Increasing civic engagement and filling the information gaps left by traditional local media offer two ways to boost democracy. Citizen-led initiatives have won meaningful reforms at the state and local level, and partisan distrust of media is substantially lower when it comes to local news outlets.[ii] [iii] To be sure, refocusing civic life on the local level may not solve all of society’s problems. But it allows for citizens to be more engaged with one another, making politics less a spectator sport and more of a common project that allows for greater understanding between people with diverse backgrounds and sensibilities.
In this section, we discuss how philanthropy can increase civic engagement and reinvigorate local media. For funders interested in more information on specific nonprofit organizations doing exemplary work to boost civic engagement and local media, see “We the People: Nonprofits Making an Impact” at www.impact.upenn.edu/democracy.
[i] Daniel Hopkins. “The Increasingly United States.” 2018.
[ii] Andrew Guess, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler. “All Media Trust is Local?” 2018. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bnyhan/media-trust-report-2018.pdf
[iii] Elena Nunez and Jay Riestenberg. “Democracy on the Ballot.” Common Cause. 2018. https://www.commoncause.org/resource/democracy-on-the-ballot/