Rethinking Civic Engagement in a Culture of Quid Pro Quo

Rethinking Civic Engagement in a Culture of Quid Pro Quo February 2, 2015

civic engagementRecently, Professor Zephyr Teachout of Fordham Law, wrote a piece in the NY Times titled “Legalized Bribery,” pointing out the dangers of the current campaign finance system. Teachout primarily emphasizes the ways in which campaign finance has corrupted our institutions and elected officials:

“Corruption exists when institutions and officials charged with serving the public serve their own ends. Under current law, campaign contributions are illegal if there is an explicit quid pro quo, and legal if there isn’t. But legal campaign contributions can be as bad as bribes in creating obligations. The corruption that hides in plain sight is the real threat to our democracy.”

Essentially, the Citizens United, case which purported to eliminate the quid pro quo exchange culture in our civic system, did so without abolishing expectations. Consequently, American society, particularly civil society, remains captive to a system that is collectively ignored.

The vitality of this issue leads me to wonder about the effects not only on elected officials and institutions, but on citizens—and non-citizens—seeking to be civically engaged. The expectations of exchange in quid pro quo explicitly lay out what is given and what is expected in return. This is the antithesis of civic engagement which is fundamentally grounded in the reality of giving, and not receiving any direct, personal benefit in return. In an American civic culture that seeks to monetize everything and everyone, how can the general populous be civically engaged?

Civic engagement, as a concept, has hosted deliberation by scholars and practitioners for decades. Definitions ebb and flow concurrently with our understanding of the concept. But more so than not, the term tends to be associated with buzzwords like service, common good, community, participation, etc.

But consider what current, valued practices of civic engagement reflect. Volunteerism and thought leadership are two traditional means of being civically engaged. The two primary goods associated with these practices—time and scholarship— are important elements of public discourse. However, both time and scholarship are monetized. If an individual can contribute profound knowledge, or work for free, they are valued. Giving extensive free time or providing accredited scholarship are practices only available to some.

And king of all, the most valued model of civic engagement is campaign finance. Regrettably, it has become an almost singular factor that defines civic life. This form of civic engagement is only available to a very few.

The effect on the overwhelming majority of individuals is a lessened civic activism. This system reinforces a very reasonable cynicism that assumes individual capabilities mean next to nothing when compared to the $889 million the Koch brothers plan to contribute to the next election. Return on investment is ever increasing and the return is only for the individual self. Increased political polarization is occurring, even more so for those considered civically engaged, because the system is pushing individuals into camps to win, instead of to participate and contribute. This corrodes the idea of civic engagement.

This issue has swayed politicians from being civic leaders, and in place, most are forced to become fundraisers, often times answering to the endless list of “legal bribes” that big funders implicitly demand. But we can’t let this failure in our system degrade the idea of civic engagement, or create mass parochialism regarding what counts and who counts.

This dilemma bolsters no clear resolutions, but there must be attempts to lessen the restrictions on persons who desire to be counted.

One lens to consider is a capabilities approach, stemming from the work of philosopher and economist Amartya Sen. The capabilities approach assesses justice or injustice “by a person’s capability to do things he or she has reason to value.” The focus here is not on a singular outcome, but on the freedom and comprehensive opportunity that an individual has to achieve what is reasonably valued—in this case—having the ability to be civically engaged. If our system doesn’t begin to consider the extent to which individuals can actually achieve—if one so chooses—then our democracy will continue to lose its footing and limit engagement to only a few.

Our civic leaders are not alone in their captivity to this system. The majority of the American population is currently sidelined, and has limited means to participate. Our hope should be a larger societal obligation to provide the conditions for which capabilities can be realized.


Zoey Kernodle works in development and constituent relations at Duke University, and serves as a remote fellow for Eleison. She earned a Master of Theological Studies from Emory University where she concentrated her work on the intersection of religion and public life. She currently resides in Chapel Hill, NC with her husband and little dog, Mozart.

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