America + Civic Language

The words Americans use to describe, debate, and examine our civic values, ideals, and practices are also the words we use to connect, share, and co-create our community and national future. What can we know about how aligned we are on our language choices related to our civic lives? Perhaps another concern underlies this question: are we talking past each other about values we think we share?

This was the core inquiry that animated Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE)’s Civic Language Perceptions Project. In November 2021, PACE and Citizen Data surveyed a nationally representative sample of 5000 American voters to understand their perceptions of 21 terms that are commonly used in democracy and civic engagement work, and who they associate using those terms. In March 2022, we released the data to the public and embarked on an effort to analyze and disaggregate the data from multiple angles and perspectives. We now combine the quantitative and qualitative analysis to highlight key findings in our sense-making report, America + Civic Language.

This report is a synthesis of PACE’s most compelling insights after six months of analysis of the Civic Language Perceptions Project data. We present our findings in three categories:

Assumptions we hear about civic language that our data affirm

  • “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.” Liberals are 8% more positive on civic terms than conservatives and college graduates are 10% more positive than non-college graduates. Additionally, Americans are more likely to say liberals and people with college degrees use civic terms.
  • “Messengers matter.” The data demonstrate a person’s perception of a term is changed based on their feelings towards the people using it. The impact ranges between 7% and 36% across all terms. Who uses the term seems to matter the most for social justice, privilege, and patriotism.

Assumptions we hear about civic language that our data complicate

  • “Americans are divided and don’t aspire to unify.” While some words (patriotism, activism) and identities (political, racial) tend to demonstrate different sentiments towards our 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.” While some groups are more positive towards terms and other groups are associated with terms at higher rates, the range of association was 11-61% and the average was 31% across all terms, which means there is only a 1-in-3 chance overall that any group could be associated with any term. Even for groups that Americans associate with terms at higher rates, it does not mean they themselves are positive towards the term (for example, Black people and racial equity). Given these points, we believe it is hard to assert that any group “owns” a particular term.
  • “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. In fact, 47%–almost half–of 18-34 year olds have positive perceptions of democracy; they may just express it differently.

Findings about civic language that the civic field needs to face

  • “Civic” is not landing. For the words in our survey that included “civic” or “civil” as adjectives–civic engagement, civic infrastructure, civic health, and civil society–our 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. Which begs the question, are there better ways to talk about our work?
  • Civic terms are favored by historically “dominant” identities. Americans of historically “dominant” identities (such as White, Christian, college graduate, upper class, male) are 6% more positive and 3% more familiar with the civic terms. While those are not double digit numbers, the consistency of these identities outpacing other identities in positivity and familiarity of these terms is not something we 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 (such as income of >$100,000, college degree) are, on average, 4 percentage points more familiar and 9 percentage points more positive towards the civic terms than everyone else. Some words are at a higher risk for disconnection with the public (like pluralism and bridge builder) while others present potential for understanding and connection (like unity and justice).

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