Pete Peterson is dean of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Daniel K. Inouye Institute “Pau Hana” event titled “If We Love Hawaii So Much, Why Don’t We Vote?” in Honolulu, he chatted in the green room about why more Americans bowled and went to PTA meetings after World War II, and why all politics today is national, not local.
Has there ever been a golden age of U.S. civic participation?
I think there’s something to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone thesis, that there was a time, going back to the late ’50s, early ’60s, when you saw significant levels of civic participation, from the voting booth, to volunteering, to membership in clubs, and so forth. Now, there were downsides to that, too: When you look at minority representation and minority participation, we didn’t see that. As far as a broad base of people across races and ethnicities, I don’t think we’ve yet found that sweet spot.
What fostered more participation during the mid-20th century—patriotic residue from World War II? Cold War competitiveness?
I’m much more Tocquevillian on this: De Tocqueville would say that Americans were associative because they had to be. There wasn’t something that people genetically came out and said, “I’m going to engage.” There was a time when many people felt that they should do certain things themselves if government wasn’t going to be available to do them— ranging from support for homeless, or the prison reform movement, or the Alcoholics Anonymous movement.
Some commentators contend that one reason that we don’t have more civic participation today is that we no longer teach civics.
Well, I think that the studies all show—and this is across the United States, it’s not just a Hawaiian issue—that the level of civic awareness is at historically low levels. So if we’re asking questions about how the forms of government work, and what the branches of government do, and American history, we’re not very much engaged.
Surveys have shown that many Americans can’t name a single branch of the federal government.
Right. So you see numbers like that, or whether people can name their own mayor or their own congressional representative or Senator and so on, those numbers are at historically low levels. From my reading of it, I think what we need to be able to strike is a balance between a type of civics education that maybe in the past was jingoistic, and a kind of education that really does develop a sense of civic responsibility. Because I think that, in fostering greater levels of civic engagement, you have to love what you’re engaged in, whether it’s your local community or, on a broader scale, your country. We need to find that balance, to understand that America really is an exceptional place, with its faults to be sure. I think if we develop that sense of what we’re participating in, together, I think that kind of education can really promote greater civic engagement.
You co-created and teach a seminar called “Public Engagement: The Vital Leadership Skill In Difficult Times.” In what way is public engagement a skill that leaders need?
The participants in this training are all local and state government officials. Our view from the policy school’s perspective is that we’re about preparing future leaders in the classroom, but we also want to engage those who are already working in cities, counties, and states. These are people that can be mayors or city managers or county administrative officials. And we believe that we’ve entered this era in which there are such declining levels of trust in our governing institutions that actually a greater level of responsibility is now put on our public leaders to reach out to the public.
Is there a direct relationship between our growing partisanship and our declining civic engagement?
I think there is, in part. I think we’re in a very interesting time in American history—I call it “civic schizophrenia”—where we’re either seeing people becoming hyper-partisan and hyper-engaged, or they’re becoming completely apathetic and stepping away from any civic responsibility. It’s very hard to find a middle ground there. The work that we’re trying to do at Pepperdine is about preparing public leaders to host public conversations in a way that people from both sides of the aisle feel heard and feel welcomed.
In the past, were Americans less likely to be concerned with members of their bowling league or their PTA or whatever were Democrats or Republicans? Was partisanship as much of an issue?
Not nearly as much. I think the data really shows that the levels of partisanship in our state legislatures and certainly in Washington, D.C. are at levels that we’ve not seen in over a century. And so when you go back to that period when the differences between the two parties were not great to start with, then you’re having people who are quite frankly more engaged at a local level than they are thinking about national issues. I think one of the other things that’s happened as well is many of our political issues that used to be understood much more on a state and local level have become nationalized. And when that happens, people are thinking much more from a partisan perspective. We’re seeing that now in California, where even in local city council races people want to know whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, even though that’s not even on the ballot.
And wanting to require our judges to identify themselves with a particular party.
Exactly. And so even these offices that don’t even carry a partisan label, people want to know. I think that’s a terrible trickle-down that’s happening from our national politics down to a local level.
You could imagine it spreading to, say, the head of the California university system, or State Librarian, or any kind of public office. You would have to declare your allegiances or be outed.
Yes. We’re in this era when every public official is seen through a partisan lens. I think there does need to be a sense of higher purpose, to get through the challenges that Putnam elicits in Bowling Alone and that we find in our politics.