Who killed representation and why do we think Represently can revive it? At Represently, we believe that disillusionment with American democracy is a disease with many causes, and to reinvigorate civic engagement, we need to understand the system-level dynamics of U.S. civil life. In our scan of the civic engagement space, we have identified four crucial factors that are damaging the state of representation:
- The disempowering belief that individual action does not make a difference
- The inability of advocacy groups to reverse the decline of social capital
- The tendency for hyper-partisanship to crowd out other views from reaching political representatives
- The ineffectiveness of technologies and tools in making representation more accessible
Mapping neatly onto four crucial actors in the civic ecosystem – individuals, advocacy groups, lawmakers, and technology – these trends are killing representation. In these areas, we think Represently makes a unique contribution toward starting the healing process.
- Represently will ACTIVATE interested bystanders to engage in civic life
In 2014, a Google Civic Innovation study found that nearly half of Americans are “interested bystanders,” people who are interested and aware of political currents in the world but are not motivated to fully active their engagement with these issues. From over 100 in-person interviews and more than 2000 digital surveys, researchers identified three key reasons for why individuals were failing to translate awareness into action, summarized succinctly as: no time, no direction, and no impact.
President Trump was able to appeal to a certain subsection of the interested bystanders in the 2016 election, as more than half of his supporters were civically disengaged, per a PRRI/The Atlantic poll that defines civic disengagement as lack of participation in neighborhood associations and other non-religious social activities. But the interested bystanders are a diverse group that ranges from disaffected residents in Midwest, industrial towns to coastal urbanites who never vote. They share a belief that their individual actions do not make a difference in the larger scope of politics.
Represently aims to fully activate the potential of individuals to make an impact on politics at all levels. We hope to address the wide-ranging concerns of the diverse group of interested bystanders by the three “Nays” identified by the Google Civic Innovation team into “Ayes.” In streamlining the ability of individuals to move along the civic ladder from initial interest to full-scale organizing, Represently enables potential advocates to make the most of their time on our platform. By connecting people to causes that align with their professional and personal ambitions, we direct them toward sustainable engagement. Finally, we allow individuals to see their own impact through their influence on others and the larger community.
- Represently will GROW social capital and accountability in advocacy groups
In the decade and a half before the new millennium, there has been an increase in the number of bowlers but a decrease in the number of bowling leagues in America. Why are more Americans bowling alone? In his landmark text, Harvard political scientist, Robert Putnam attributes this puzzle to the decline of America’s social capital, which he defines as “networks and norms of civic engagement.” Putnam’s version of social capital is measured by participation rates in certain mass membership organizations – the League of Women Voters, Rotary, the Boy Scouts to name a few – but it misses out on the growth of new advocacy groups (think the Sierra Club or the National Association of Gun Rights). These citizen groups have quadrupled from 6000 in 1959 to almost 24,000 in the mid-1990s, per research by political scientist William Hudson.
At Represently, we think the route to rebuilding America’s social capital runs through these new advocacy groups. Lacking the depth of engagement of Putnam’s favored mass membership organizations, these new groups are often obligated to serve special interests. But they also have comparative advantages rooted in specialization on a few issues and interoperability with social media networks. Represently builds on those advantages and remedies the gaps. Recognizing that too many advocacy groups govern from the top-down, our platform promotes a bottoms-up, grassroots model of civic engagement. As more and more individuals are activated into action, they will take initiative to shape the direction and governance of the advocacy groups in which they claim membership. Advocates are no longer just another email in a constituent relationship management database; rather, they are changing, multi-dimensional agents operating in a network, cultivating social capital and accountability in advocacy groups along the way.
- Represently will REBUILD the capacity of lawmakers to represent their constituents
In 2014, a federal report on civic health found striking declines in 16 out of 20 indicators, including falling rates of volunteerism, engagement with community organizations, and trust in public institutions, such as Congress. In fact, trust in Congress has cratered to record lows. Per a Gallup poll which has been fielded for the past 43 years, the percentage of respondents who had “Very Little” confidence in Congress reached an all-time high at 52% in 2016. A systems map created by our friends at Democracy Fund tells three core stories behind this crisis of confidence: first, changes in political parties have led to a hyper-partisan Congress; second, the institution has weakened its own capacity for dealing with constituent concerns; third, the public has falling satisfaction with Congressional performance.
These are not new stories. Polarization, stagnation, and poor performance have plagued people’s faith in their representatives throughout history. Yet these stories are also not one-sided. We think representation is a two-way street. So, as we build tools for lawmakers to better understand the concerns of their constituents through district verification and direct channels, we are also aiding constituents in becoming the best representatives for themselves. One concrete channel to fight both increasing polarization and decreasing performance legitimacy in Congress is to focus on issues independent of party identification. We have built platforms centered around these issues that matter the most to individuals, ranging from opposition to seismic gun testing, to programs for preventing opioid overdose, to support for easing gun silencer restrictions for recreational hunting and shooting. Regardless of where individuals stand on these specific issues, the deliberative debate cultivated by our platform will serve as an important gateway to rebuilding lawmakers’ capacity to fully represent their constituents.
- Represently will CONNECT online communities to offline political participation
Many critics of the civic tech community have rightly pointed out that some technology users do not extend their civic engagement beyond the virtual domain, settling for slactivism and hashtag activism. In fact, we should note that political social networking sites are often vibrant communities, which cultivate serendipitous connections between people who would have never met in person and moderate the prominence of class differences in political engagement.
Furthermore, we argue that civic engagement on online platforms reinforces civic life in the offline world. A Pew Research Center study on “Civic Engagement in the Digital Age” agrees with us. The study’s authors argue that “the world of politics on social networking sites is — for most users — not a separate domain of political activity. ‘Political social networking site users’ are frequently (but not universally) active in other aspects of civic life.” Indeed, over 80 percent of political social networking site users also get involved in political and social issues outside the bounds of social networking sites themselves. At Represently, we see ourselves as a connection point for these users to find advocacy groups that best align with their interests, and as a portal for civically disengaged individuals to connect with both online and offline civic communities.
True representation is dying but it’s not too late to save it. Represently believes that our systems-level approach of activating individuals, growing advocacy groups, rebuilding lawmaker capacity, and connecting technology will play a crucial role. Don’t call it a revolution. True representation is an ideal that traces its roots to the assembly debates of Ancient Greece and the republican elections of Ancient Rome. Call it a revival.