Selling civic engagement: A unique role for the private sector?

Rebecca Winthrop at Brookings: “Much has been written on the worrisome trends in Americans’ faith and participation in our nation’s democracy. According to the World Values Survey, almost 20 percent of millennials in the U.S. think that military rule or an authoritarian dictator is a “fairly good” form of government, and only 29 percent believe that living in a country that is governed democratically is “absolutely important.” In the last year, trust in American democratic institutions has dropped—only 53 percent of Americans view American democracy positively. This decline in faith and participation in our democracy has been ongoing for some time, as noted in the 2005 collection of essays, “Democracy At Risk: How Political Choices Undermine Citizen Participation, and What We Can Do About It.” The essays chart the “erosion of the activities and capacities of citizenship” from voting to broad civic engagement over the past several decades.

While civil society and government have been the actors most commonly addressing this worrisome trend, is there also a constructive role for the private sector to play? After all, compared to other options like military or authoritarian rule, a functioning democracy is much more likely to provide the conditions for free enterprise that business desires. One only has to look to the current events in Venezuela for a quick reminder of this.

Many companies do engage in a range of activities that broadly support civic engagement, from dedicating corporate social responsibility (CSR) dollars to civically-minded community activities to supporting employee volunteerism. These are worthy activities and should certainly continue, but given the crisis of faith in the foundations of our democratic process, the private sector could play a much bigger role in helping support a movement for renewed understanding of and participation in our political process. Many of the private sector’s most powerful tools for doing this lie not inside companies’ CSR portfolios but in their unique expertise in selling things. Every day companies leverage their expertise in influence—from branding to market-segmentation—to get Americans to use their products and services. What if this expertise were harnessed toward promoting civic understanding and engagement?

Companies could play a particularly useful role by tapping new resources to amplify existing good work and build increasing interest in civic engagement. Two ways of doing this could include the below….(More)”