Skip to main content

Exploring How We Use Civic Language

How aligned are we in our language choices in relation to our civic lives? Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) – a national partner in our sector – has released the second phase of its Civic Language Project, a synthesis of its most compelling insights on the words Americans use to describe, debate and examine their civic values, ideals and practices. We’re sharing key findings from their new report. 

How aligned are we in our language choices in relation to our civic lives? One of our national partners, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) has released a synthesis of its most compelling insights on the words Americans use to describe, debate and examine their civic values, ideals and practices.

America + Civic Language is a synthesis of PACE’s findings after six months of analysis of the Civic Language Perceptions Project data. 

In November 2021, PACE and Citizen Data surveyed a nationally representative sample of 5,000 American voters to understand their perceptions of 21 commonly used in democracy and civic engagement work, and whom they associate with using those terms. Fetzer Institute, a CMF member, supported the project to include oversampling data in Southwest Michigan.

The 21 terms that were surveyed included: activism, belonging, bridge builder, citizen, civic engagement, civic health, civic infrastructure, civil society, civility, common good, common ground, democracy, diversity, justice, liberty, patriotism, pluralism, privilege, racial equity, social justice and unity. 

As CMF reported, earlier this year PACE released the first phase of its Civic Language Project. At this time, the project was in phase one, data and exploration, and was guided by the question, “What disconnect(s) exist between the language of the civic philanthropy field and the rest of the world?”

After the first phase of data was released, PACE led an effort that invited many people and organizations to dig into the data. PACE designed, developed and implemented a variety of programs and activities including deep dive sessions, focus groups, focused analysis and an infographic series.

The new report combines the quantitative and qualitative analysis conducted to highlight key findings in three categories:

  • Assumptions we hear about civic language that the data affirms.
  • Assumptions we hear about civic language that the data complicates.
  • Findings about civic language that the civic field needs to face.

Affirmed Assumptions

  • Civic education makes a difference: Respondents who reported having civic education are 11% more familiar with and 7% more positive towards civic terms than their counterparts without civic education.
  • Civic terms code liberal and college educated: PACE detected an overarching narrative that the data signals a political and educational bias. The data did not show that conservatives and individuals without a college education were against civic language terms, only that liberals and college graduates tend to view the terms more positively.
  • Messengers matter: The data demonstrate that a person’s perception of a term is changed based on their feelings towards the people using it. The impact ranges between 7-36% across all terms. The terms social justice, privilege and patriotism matter the most.

Complicated Assumptions

  • Americans are divided and don’t aspire to unify: While some words (patriotism, activism) and identities (political, racial) tend to demonstrate different sentiments towards civic language, there are also major areas of alignment. Taken collectively, Americans’ positivity for civic terms far outpaces their negativity, with unity as a stand-out unifying term (70% positivity).
  • Words are ‘owned’ by certain people or groups: PACE identified a narrative that “certain words are permissible in certain audiences and are not welcomed in other audiences.” According to the report, “One key finding from the data is that people appear to feel less positively about terms which they feel belong to someone else; typically when a term has strong association with a group other than one’s own, that term becomes less appealing.”
  • Young people are negative about democracy: While young Americans have the lowest positive perception of the term democracy across all age groups, they are still significantly more positive than negative towards the term. Nearly half of 18-34 year olds have positive perceptions of democracy; they may just express it differently.

Findings We Need to Face

  • “Civic” is not landing: For the words in PACE’s survey that included “civic” or “civil” as adjectives–civic engagement, civic infrastructure, civic health and civil society–the data signal that Americans do not have much response, association or relationship to these words overall, and the words are not intuitively understood by many.
  • Civic terms are favored by historically “dominant” identities: Americans of historically “dominant” identities (such as White, Christian, male) are 6% more positive and 3% more familiar with the civic terms. According to PACE, the consistency of these identities outpacing other identities in positivity and familiarity of these terms is not something the civic field can overlook. 
  • The disconnect between professional usage and public perception of civic language is real: Respondents with characteristics similar to those who work in civic philanthropy professionally are, on average, 4 percentage points more familiar and 9 percentage points more positive towards the civic terms than everyone else.

The next phase of the project included five different conversations around five of the points lifted up in the report. In early November, the conversations engaged a group of 10-15 funders, practitioners and thought leaders to unpack how the issue impacts their work and share solutions.

PACE intends to release its findings from the conversations.

Want more?

Read the full report.