Skips to main content

David B. Magleby

Civic Engagement: Making a Difference in Our Communities, Countries and World

I am honored by the invitation to speak to you today. I have titled my remarks: Civic Engagement: Making a Difference in our Communities, Countries and World. The First Presidency has said, “We urge members of the Church to be full participants in political, governmental, and community affairs. Members of the Church are under special obligations to seek out and then uphold those leaders who are wise, good and honest.”(See D & C 98:10). The letter from the First Presidency continues, “We strongly urge men and women to be willing to serve on school boards, city and county councils, state legislatures, and other high offices of either election or appointment, including involvement in the political party of their choice.”[i] As a result of what I will share with you today I hope you will sense a greater need to make a difference in your communities, nations and the world and also develop a personal strategy for how you might do that.

For most people most of the time politics, voting and more generally civic engagement are of secondary importance. Earning a living, raising a family and dealing with life is more than enough to keep most of us busy. How then can we effectively participate?  The ultimate responsibility for the future of a democracy is in us the citizens and the choices we make in free and open elections, as well as in our active participation in our communities.

Voting is the form of participation engaged in by more people than any other activity. Elections can and do result in gradual and perceptible change. Persons at both extremes will often be dissatisfied with the direction of American politics, but ours is a system of moderation and accommodation. As such, change will be less dramatic, and rarely will any one point of view get everything it wants. But in a world where so few ever have a meaningful voice in choosing leaders, the U.S. experience is, by any measure, remarkably successful.

But voting is important for more reasons than selecting officials and deciding ballot propositions. It is an affirmation of our citizenship and an expression of our commitment to the democratic process. Children raised in families where parents vote and take an interest in public affairs are likely to vote and be politically active as adults. For these reasons alone it is important to treat elections seriously and work to make them meaningful.

One of the remarkable parts of the American heritage is our commitment to free political speech and our willingness to accept political defeat. The maintenance of these values is even more important than the outcome of any single election. As the quadrennial sweepstakes for the presidency unfold this year and next we should not forget that the last two elections were very close. The 2000 election was decided by one state, Florida, where a mere 527 votes separated George W. Bush and Al Gore in a contested outcome ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2004 the presidential election came down to a two percent difference in the vote in Ohio. We should also remember than our personal involvement in our communities directly impacts our lives. Salt Lake City, where your college is located, will have a mayoral and city council election this year in which your involvement can make a difference.

But civic engagement can and should be more than voting in elections. We have been urged to be [D&C 58:27] “anxiously engaged in [all] good cause[s], [doing] many things of [our] own free will, [bringing] to pass much righteousness.”

Knowledge: The Foundation of Influence

Knowledge is the foundation of civic engagement and influence. Whatever your national origin, you are studying in a college in a free country governed by a divinely inspired constitution. Central to your foundation of political knowledge should be an understanding and an appreciation of the U.S. Constitution. In the bicentennial year of the writing of the Constitution the First Presidency counseled members to study the Constitution.[ii] There are many important elements of constitutional democracy in the United States but for our topic today the critical point is this document through such means as checks and balances, separation of powers, popular sovereignty, and a written bill of rights establishes a framework for what Lincoln called “government by the people.”

As members of the church we are enjoined to learn “of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms…”[iii]

For most people, politics are complicated and difficult to understand. Take for instance the Electoral College, the institution designed by the founding fathers to elect the president. Fewer than one-third of Americans can correctly identify the primary task of the Electoral College, and fewer still know how it works, who serves as electors or how the state-by-state, winner-take-all rule works. Many will be surprised if a president is again elected who comes in second in total popular votes but has a majority in the Electoral College (as happened in 1876, 1888 and 2000).

Less than half of the American public can recall the name of their member of Congress, and only 60 percent can name even one of their U.S. senators. With so few knowing their congressman or senator, it is not surprising therefore that very few voters know how their representatives voted on even one issue in the past Congress.

Although the public’s knowledge of institutional and candidate issues is poor, their knowledge of important public policy issues is worse. A recent study of college seniors found that even after four years of war in Iraq, fewer than half (45.2%) could identify the Baath party as the main source of Saddam Hussein’s political support. Over 12 percent believed Hussein found his most reliable supporters in the Communist Party and nearly 6 percent chose Israel as Hussein’s most reliable supporter.[iv] This same study measured knowledge about U.S. History and the Constitution among college seniors. Less than half correctly recognized that the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all mean are created equal,” come from the Declaration of Independence and more than half of college seniors did not know that the Bill of Rights prohibits the establishment of an official religion for the United States.[v]

Fortunately, not all Americans are uninformed. The general public can be divided into three groups: the attentive public, part-time citizens and nonvoters. Approximately 20 to 25 percent of the public know and understand how the government works, vote in most all elections, read a daily newspaper and will “talk politics” with their families, friends and associates, and consciously or unconsciously influence others’ actions and opinions. The attentive public tends to be better educated and more committed to democratic values.

In most respects nonvoters are polar opposites of the attentive public. They are rarely interested in politics or public affairs, and only very rarely will they vote. Different estimates exist on the size of this group, ranging from a low of 30 percent to a high of nearly half of those over age 18. A subset of this group could be called chronic political know-nothings. These individuals not only avoid political activity but have very little interest in government and very limited knowledge about it.

As many as half of the American public are part-time citizens. These individuals selectively participate in elections, voting in presidential elections but typically staying home for all others. Politics and government in general are of little interest, they pay minimal attention to the news and they rarely discuss candidates or elections.

The U.S. experience has shown that large numbers of citizens can be passive about politics and lack knowledge about their government as long as there is an attentive public. This latter group has been called “opinion leaders”—people who are interested and informed enough to persuade others. Where so many choose not to become involved, those who are involved have a disproportionate influence. You should be a part of the attentive public.

What can you do to become informed about your community, state, nation and world?  We live in the information age where with the internet we can access news media more readily than any earlier generation. Reduce your time on the computer playing Halo and increase your time reading a good newspaper with national and international coverage. Reading such a paper on a regular basis will have the additional benefit of increasing your vocabulary, knowledge of geography, and other worthwhile skills. It is important to also become knowledgeable about your community. You can do this by reading a good local newspaper.

One strategy for effective civic engagement is to build on this broad foundation gathered from wise use of the local and national media and specialize in an issue that matters to you. Some of you in this room are interested in the issue of immigration, others in literacy, and still others in soccer stadiums. Build upon your interest and read even more about the topic that interests you and then become involved in that issue. Write a letter to your elected officials expressing your point of view. Attend public meetings on the subject. Join an organization that has views consistent with your own to seek to influence policy. As you become involved you will learn that knowledge plus participation equals power. Individuals make the most difference when they are knowledgeable and have found the right places to express their opinions. Organizing into a group generally amplifies your voice.

Participation: Why Vote?  

Why vote?  Your participation in elections and in community affairs can make a difference. There are instances where a shift of a few thousand votes could have spelled the difference. I have already referred to the close elections in 2000 and 2004 for the presidency. The presidential elections of 1960 and 1976 were also elections in which shifting a few votes in a couple of states could have led to a different outcome. There are also local elections where a single vote could have reversed the outcome. For example in a 1994 contest for a seat in the Wyoming House of Representatives the vote, even after a recount. was tied. The winner was determined by a drawing in which the names of both candidates were written on ping-pong balls and placed in a cowboy hat with the winner of the election determined by a neutral party drawing one ball from that hat.

In addition, political cynics often argue that it makes little difference who wins because the two parties are basically the same. It is true that in general elections candidates attempt to appeal to the largest possible pool of votes, prompting, for example, George W. Bush to describe himself as a “compassionate conservative,” and a “uniter and not a divider.” For the same reasons the Democrats emphasize their patriotic values and commitment to family in their campaigns. Our system encourages candidates and parties to be centrist and mainstream. While some see this as a failing of our system, I see it as a strength.

Successful candidates must move to the center because that is where the voters are. Most Americans are neither liberal nor conservative, they are middle of the road or they have not thought much about ideology. In addition, few Americans consider themselves to be extreme conservatives or extreme liberals. Because so few persons are ideologically committed and so many persons are moderate or non- ideological in their thinking, it is no surprise that our politics discourage extreme or ideological candidates. That does not mean, however that all candidates or parties are the same.

The evidence is clear that elections make a difference. The aim of elections is governing. If George Bush had not become president in 2000 and been reelected in 2004 the political agenda would have been different.

Elections for president are also important because of the appointive power of the president. All told, the next president can expect to appoint hundreds of persons to positions in federal departments, agencies, as ambassadors, and to his personal staff. Most of these appointees will only serve while the President serves, but one select group of appointees, judges, have life terms and can profoundly influence politics and government. On the average a president can expect to appoint one Supreme Court justice about every three years. In 2005 in the course of three months President Bush appointed two Supreme Court Justices. Over the course of his first term he appointed 211 federal judges. President Bush’s nominees for these positions are very different from those that a President Gore would have nominated. For those who thought there was little difference between George Bush and John Kerry in 2004, this alone demonstrates the fallacy of such views. In the same sense, whoever wins the 2008 presidential election could stand to appoint two or more Supreme Court justices in their first tem in office. .

Political Parties: Essential to Democracy 

Political parties organize the “game of politics.” They form, equip and train the teams that make constitutional democracy work. Without parties, voters would face the daunting task of choosing form among scores of candidates. 

Regardless of how well- or ill- informed voters are, most adamantly maintain that they “vote for the candidate, not the party.” Individuals may explain their vote in terms of the candidates or the issues, but it is more than coincidence that the man or woman we voted for is from our party. Neither is the partisan choice made anew in each contest but instead reflects a standing decision or preference. Political scientists have identified three important elements of voting choice: partisanship, issues and candidate appeal. Of the three, partisanship is the most enduring.

Partisanship is typically acquired in childhood from parents and then reinforced by peers. About once every 40 years a major event or issue leads to a realignment of the parties, and large numbers of citizens adopt new party preferences or new voters entering the electorate tend to adopt one party over the other.

Political parties are malleable organizations. They are what we make them and they can and do change gradually over time. They are organized around the units of competition and so in effect we have more than one hundred parties in the United States since most political competition in the United Stats is organized at the state level. In this sense the Oregon Republican party is very different than the Utah Republican Party and the same is true for the Democrats. One arena where you can have a substantial influence is by becoming active in a political party.

Knowledge + Participation = Power. 

I have previously referred to the formula that Knowledge + Participation = Power. Why should we want power?  We seek power or influence because we know that government can be a force for good but also for evil. The checks and balances of our Constitution are only words on a piece of parchment if good people do not take these provisions seriously and actively defend them through civic engagement.

Elder Robert S. Wood of the Seventy explains why we should be active politically as follows:

We need to be vigorously engaged in the world. If our schools are inadequate or destructive of moral values, we must work with fellow members of the community to bring about change. If your neighborhoods are unsafe or unhealthy, we must join with the civic minded to devise solutions. If our cities and towns are polluted, not only with noxious gases but soul-destroying addictions and smut, we must labor to find legitimate ways to eliminate such filth while respecting freedom of conscience. [vi]

Civic engagement need not be full time nor national or statewide in scope. Rather it begins with informing ourselves about civic matters which in this age of the internet has never been easier. We then need to select issues, concerns, political parties or candidates to become involved with. The scale can be small like a neighborhood concern, or it can be global like the Aids epidemic. You decide but be sure to include participation along with seeking knowledge. 

Elder Wood continues:

But what can one man or women or a handful of latter-day Saints accomplish?  Much. The dynamics of history are driven, on the one hand, by the few who are engaged, and on the other hand by the many who are apathetic. If we are not among the few engaged, we are, despite our concerns and voices of alarm, among the apathetic. [vii]

When we become involved in public affairs we must recognize and appreciate that we will not all agree. We must learn to disagree without becoming disagreeable. It is also important to remember that our side will not always prevail. One of the most noteworthy elements of a stable democracy is the peaceful transfer of power from a losing party to a different winning party. I will close with the words of President Hugh B. Brown delivered at a BYU commencement in 1968. This was a time of great political unrest. He said:

Strive to develop a maturity of mind and emotion, and a depth of spirit which will enable you to differ with others on matters of politics without calling into question the integrity of those with whom you differ. Allow within the bounds of your definition of religious orthodoxy a variation in political belief. Do not have the temerity to dogmatize on issues where the Lord has seen fit to be silent. [viii]

Thank you very much.


[i] Ensign, April 1998, p. 77.
[ii] First Presidency letter of 15 January 1987.  See also Dallin H., Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution” Ensign February 1992. 
[iii] D & C 88:78-79
[iv] “The Coming Crisis in Citizenship,” A report funded by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s National Civic Literacy Board.”  p. 6.
[v] “The Coming Crisis in Citizenship,”  Areport funded by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s National Civic Literacy Board, p. 5
[vi] Robert S. Wood, “On the Responsible Self” Ensign March 2002.
[vii] Robert S. Wood, “On the Responsible Self” Ensign March 2002.
[viii] Hugh B. Brown, BYU Commencement Exercises 1968.


Close Modal