Informed and Engaged

No subversive forces can ever conquer a nation that has not first been conquered by ‘subversive inactivity’ on the part of the citizenry, who have failed in their civic duty and service to their country.J. Howard Pew, 1953

Conquering a great nation may seem impossible today. But when Mr. Pew, one of the four founders of The Pew Charitable Trusts, called for civic duty and service, America had descended into the Cold War and feared nuclear attack and communist subversion. The nation felt at great risk.  

Times have changed, and risks to our country are far different. But the concern about citizens fulfilling the duties of democracy is no less relevant. Although the digital age offers phenomenal tools to help them be informed, engaged and active participants in the democratic process, voting turnout continues to flag. We have constant—and instant—access to news through online and mobile technology, but in-depth, objective journalism that bolsters thoughtful civic discussion and decisions is dwindling. Failure to harness today’s technology to give citizens broader access to information could very well subvert the promise of our democracy.  

Consider the duty to vote. The 2008 U.S. election had the largest turnout in four decades—but even so, just over half of eligible voters cast ballots and turnout in 2010 was below 40 percent. Many complex factors are at play. But improving public involvement should begin with nonpartisan measures to repair the electoral system while protecting the integrity of the process. As an important step, Congress in 2009—with the help of Pew’s Election Initiatives—ensured that U.S. military personnel and other Americans living overseas could have their ballots counted in time.  

Also problematic is the nation’s outdated and inefficient voter registration system, which surprisingly still relies in large part on handwritten paper forms and manual data entry. Because election administrators are failing to embrace the digital age, the process is often hindered by errors and inefficiencies, wasting taxpayer dollars and undermining voter confidence. As a Pew report finds, one in four citizens is not registered to vote and one in eight registrations is no longer valid or is significantly inaccurate. Fortunately, eight states, with Pew’s help, are beginning to harness technology to develop better, more accurate and less costly databases for voter registration.

Once registered, citizens need basic information on candidates’ issue positions, polling places and voting times, which Pew’s Voting Information Project is working to provide. “Whenever the people are well-informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.” 

The nation’s founders also believed that an unfettered and robust press is indispensable to a well-informed populace. The choices and access we have to news today would have astonished Jefferson. With the burgeoning use of smartphones and other mobile Web devices, powered by new platforms and social media channels, news is available everywhere, all the time. Unfortunately, Mark Twain’s warning that “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” is rendered quaint when misinformation goes viral. On the other hand, mobile devices are increasing the public’s news consumption and even boosting interest in newspapers and quality, long-form journalism, according to analysis by the Pew Research Center. Newspapers are still the primary source of information about government and civic affairs. But as the print media continue to lose ad revenue to online news sites and struggle to survive, their challenge is to harness the demand for strong, objective reporting and analysis and to pursue new, sustainable models for delivery.

Cynics may scoff that even an informed and voting citizenry cannot move government—especially Washington—in response to the people’s will. But every day we see citizen action, organized and communicating via the Web, informing our elected officials and driving change. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued new, science-based nutrition standards for school lunches, requiring the use of more fruits, vegetables and whole grains along with leaner protein foods and less saturated fat and sodium. This first update to school lunch standards in 17 years came after the Agriculture Department received nearly 130,000 public comments, the vast majority of them urging healthier foods in schools. It was among the largest number of public comments the agency had ever received on a single subject, and was largely the result of collaboration by Pew and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to raise public awareness of the importance of diet on health, especially for children.

The topics covered in this issue of Trust magazine—improving school lunches, modernizing voter registration and informing the public in the digital age—directly address J. Howard Pew’s concern and caution and demonstrate our power to conquer “subversive inactivity.” Indeed, the efforts these stories describe reveal that democracy is being well-served by informed and engaged citizens when they are provided—and seize—the means to fulfill their civic duty in service to our country.