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UMaine Today Magazine

Civic Involvement
Back to Election 2008-]

Amy Fried, Associate Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Amy Fried
Amy Fried

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Despite having the longest continually operating democracy on Earth,
it is hardly uncommon to hear concerns with Americans' civic life. Every decade or so, a major book comes out that holds that Americans have lost their connection to each other and their interest in the common good. Robert Putnam made this case in his 2000 book, "Bowling Alone," as did the best-selling multi-authored 1985, "Habits of the Heart." Indeed, these two works comprise but a recent pair in a long train of complaints and lamentations. 

Even as writers kvetch about their fellow citizens, these authors rarely offer detailed, practical plans for increasing and deepening involvement. At times, their proposals are maddeningly vague, from democratic theorist John Dewey's call that "Communication can alone create a great community" to Putnam's exhortations for people to get to know their neighbors.

Yet the 2008 election brings with it the prospect that a new age of civic involvement is at hand. During the nominating period, particularly in the very lengthy, competitive, and emotionally engaging Democratic contest, voting and caucusing were at record levels. In virtually every state (with the unsanctioned Michigan and Florida primaries as prominent exceptions), turnout among Democrats compared to Republicans was higher than the percentage of the vote received by John Kerry in the November 2004 election. Overall, the numbers of primary and caucus participants were extraordinary by any historical standard.

With clear issue differences between the candidates, and high interest in the campaigns and the state of the nation, turnout should be extremely high in the fall. Campaign operatives are using new communications tools –social networking sites, self-organized groups within each campaign's Web site, e-mails, and blogs – to get prospective voters to volunteer, donate, and vote. Still, voting or caucusing does not an engaged citizenry make. That requires an on-going commitment.

Looking beyond the fall election, both candidates have suggested their interest in a civic agenda. Speaking in Indiana in late April, Senator Obama spoke of the internet-fueled elements of his organization as "a structure that can sustain itself beyond this campaign." Saying that, "The more we can enlist the American people to pay attention and be involved, that's the only way we can move the agenda forward," Obama contended his governing style and success would depend on Americans "paying attention." Obama promised to revamp the White House Web site to provide a central location for information on policy issues, the congressional leaders and groups concerned with that policy, and the means to contact appropriate elected officials. Furthermore, Senators McCain and Obama have each spoken about decreasing the power of special interests, of increasing transparency in government. Since the belief that one's voice matters is correlated with political involvement, reforms may encourage more activity.

To be sure, these candidates' biographies present different models of civic concern – military service and community organizing. But both candidates have demonstrated their commitment to a life of public service and have heralded the importance of care and sacrifice for the common good, a value that may inspire citizens to act.


UMaine Today Magazine
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