To the Point: Professor discusses Pennsylvania's civic engagement

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Despite Pennsylvania’s celebrated role as the birthplace of American democracy, the Commonwealth ranked next-to-last among U.S. states in the percentage of residents who said they “talked frequently about politics,” in the recently published 2011 Pennsylvania Civic Health Index. Its authors, J. Michael Hogan and Mark Hlavacik of Penn State’s Center for Democratic Deliberation, examined a number of measures of social connectedness, community engagement and political deliberation and action, based on data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau.

At a time when health care reform is being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court and Pennsylvania itself is considering a bill mandating ultrasounds before women can receive abortions, as well as the upcoming state primary on April 24, it would seem political discussion wouldn’t rank so low in the Commonwealth. Hogan explains their findings.
 
What criteria are considered when ranking a state's population, like Pennsylvania's, for its level of civic engagement?
 
Hogan: The data we used is part of a supplementary survey done by the Census Bureau, and includes many questions that we categorized in three groups: 1. Social connectedness, which included lots of questions about family life and interactions with neighbors, 2. Community engagement, which included questions about volunteering and working with others in the community to solve problems, 3. Political action and deliberation, which included questions about the usual political activities, like voting, writing one’s elected representatives, participating in political meetings and so on. It’s a lot of data, and it allows us to draw a pretty complete picture of how folks in particular places and with particular demographic characteristics are involved in civic life.
 
What do you think Pennsylvania's low ranking says about its citizens -- and are the Commonwealth's citizens really that much different and more disinterested than those in other states?
 
Hogan: Pennsylvania does not rank low on all of the measures, particularly those measuring involvement with nonpolitical community groups, and the state is about average in many respects. Also, there are not big differences across states on many measures, so the rankings can be a bit misleading on those. But one or two measures jumped out at us, most notably the question about “talking frequently about politics” with one’s friends and neighbors. There Pennsylvania did rank low, and the difference between Pennsylvania and the states that ranked highly seem quite significant.
 
What kind of role do a state's demographics play, such as Pennsylvania's aging population and the issue of "brain drain," where young people leave the Commonwealth for more attractive, high-paying jobs, not to mention cultural and socioeconomic factors?
 
Hogan: A state’s demographics certainly play a role in how they rank on some of these measures, but they don’t explain many of the findings. Older people tend to be more engaged than younger people, so one might expect higher levels of civic engagement in a state with more older people. Education also correlates strongly with civic engagement, of course, so a “brain drain” might help to account for lower levels of engagement in Pennsylvania. But it’s hard to sort all those potential causal factors out and draw those sorts of simple conclusions. 
 
What is "civic infrastructure," and what recommendations would you make to it to improve Pennsylvania's civic health?
 
By civic infrastructure, we mean the institutions and traditions of civic involvement, such as the structures of local government, the availability of outlets and forums for citizen involvement and deliberation. We think Pennsylvania could both do a better job educating young people with the habits and skills of democratic citizenship and provide easier access and more opportunities for citizen participation in civic affairs.
 
Penn State's Center for Democratic Deliberation focuses on two nonpartisan priorities -- "a citizenry with the knowledge and communication skills for engaged democratic citizenship, and a culture of vibrant, informed deliberation, where citizens discuss, debate and render collective decisions on matters of public importance." How do those priorities influence a factor such as voter apathy?
 
Hogan: We believe that the priorities of the Center for Democratic Deliberation focus on what is needed to combat civic apathy -- not just voter apathy, but the broader unwillingness of some people to get involved in any way in the civic life of their communities and nation. A culture of vibrant, informed deliberation is the opposite of a culture of civic apathy.
 
What characteristics of a state positively affect its level of civic engagement?
 
Hogan: Educational programs that teach young people what it means to be a “good citizen” and equip them with the historical, civic and information literacy, along with the skills of critical thinking and communication, they need to participate in civic life. And, as we’ve already discussed, a civic infrastructure that provides encouragement and opportunities for citizen engagement.
 
Pennsylvania's voter primary is April 24, and most people will expect a barrage of political attack ads on the airwaves soon. In an age of what seems to be extreme partisanship, where compromise seems to be off the table, and where political action committees, or PACs, hire "opposition researchers" to scrutinize every aspect of candidates' lives to dig up dirt -- how can thoughtful civic discourse compete?
 
Hogan: It is a myth that ordinary citizens are polarized, highly partisan and unwilling to work together and compromise to solve problems. That’s precisely the problem: we have a highly partisan and polarized “political class” that has hijacked our political system, disempowering and discouraging ordinary citizens who want to see our elected representatives tone down the rhetoric and work together to solve problems. That is why we’re working to convince ordinary citizens that they can have a voice and they can make a difference. Of course, it doesn’t help that the news media pays more attention to the loud, angry voices on the extremes, but we’re working to reform the media as well. And the educational system. We need everybody to become more critical consumers in the “marketplace of ideas” and “just say no” to the highly partisan, polarizing rhetoric of the political class. 
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Last Updated April 06, 2012