Group Project

Civic engagement has gotten trickier. Which is exactly why we have to dig in—together.

March 2022

Reading time min

Illustration of two people on a ladder. One is steadying the ladder and the other is combing the hair of the Statue of Liberty.

Illustration: Eric Comstock

The first time I voted in a general election, the process took over my desk in Potter House. I not only read the text of all 28 of California’s ballot propositions, which ran the gamut from dueling alcohol taxes to an initiative on the initiative process itself, but scrutinized the arguments for and against each. Then I plowed through the candidate statements for everyone from the gubernatorial hopefuls to those vying for the District 2 seat on the State Board of Equalization.

That was almost certainly the last time I was so diligent. 

Don’t get me wrong: I vote consistently and lobby my representatives on issues I care about. But when it comes to becoming truly knowledgeable, I can’t quite get to the bottom of the ballot before my brain goes on the fritz. Unless there’s a compelling reason to oust someone from the hospital board—and I trust the local media will let me know if so—I’m checking the boxes for the incumbents and moving on.

Apparently that faith is kind of old-school, though, and Stanford scholars in our cover story say that’s a problem. In the early days of the American republic, people relied on their elected representatives to bolster their civic literacy. Later, we depended on the media. Now, both are the objects of widespread distrust, and we’re turning to influencers—“relatable” people we think we know from the internet.

It’s time, scholars say, for some new rules of engagement.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not thrilled about the idea of taking voting advice from anyone whose ulterior motive is to sell me beauty products—or worse.

It’s time, scholars say, for some new rules of engagement. One possible approach is to scale up deliberative polling—a method of providing neutral information to representative groups of citizens who then debate a proposal’s pros and cons, often modulating their views by the end. Another is to invest in civics education, making sure that our youngest learners understand what a government does and how to influence it, and that first-year college students can engage with ideas deeply while disagreeing respectfully. Still another is to participate in Democracy Day, an annual campuswide celebration of civic engagement held on Election Day. The concept has taken root at Stanford and a few other universities, and its organizers hope it’ll go national. 

All of which makes me think that my informal method of boosting my civic literacy—taking a walk with a longtime friend and sharing what we’ve gleaned about candidates and issues—may have something to it. We grew up in different regions; we come from different social classes. Her academic background is in economics and business; mine’s in American studies and law. We know we’ll disagree—sometimes fundamentally—but we have a bedrock level of trust that we will each approach issues with intellectual honesty and vigor. And we learned how to do that in the hallways of Potter House.

Kathy Zonana, ’93, JD ’96, is the editor of Stanford. Email her at

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.