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Young Activists

What is Civic Engagement? Understanding the Power of Active Citizenship

6 min read
Young Activists
Emily Dexter · Jul 1, 2023

What does it mean to be civically engaged? How can you be a more active citizen, and why does it matter? This guide will answer these questions and more, while giving you easy and practical tips for increasing your own civic participation.

What Is Civic Engagement?

Civic engagement describes a person’s active participation in the life of their community. Broadly speaking, civic engagement can encompass many activities. If you’ve ever donated to a charitable drive, volunteered at an event in your town or city, attended a school board meeting, or served your community in another way, you have been civically engaged.

Civic engagement has a similar meaning in the context of politics. Among other things, civic engagement in the political process can look like voting in elections, attending government-sponsored meetings, and voicing your political opinions. Civic engagement is essential for making sure that all residents have their voices heard and needs met. Civic engagement can also take place at both the local and national level.

Types of Civic Engagement

Many activities can fall under the umbrella of civic engagement. Here are some common ways to participate in the democratic process:

  • Voting and registering to vote

  • Contacting your elected officials

  • Signing petitions

  • Attending government meetings, such as school board and city council meetings

  • Donating to or volunteering for political campaigns and organizations

  • Running for office

  • Advocating for grassroots movements

  • Raising awareness for issues on social media or offline

  • Organizing or attending events such as sit-ins and protests

Different people will choose to engage with their local and national political processes in different ways. What matters is finding what works for you. However you participate, strong civic engagement can make a real impact while also benefiting and empowering you.

Why Is Civic Engagement Important? 

At the most basic level, civic engagement is important because it allows you to express your needs and opinions and to make a difference in your community. Civic engagement also has benefits for your personal well-being and fulfillment. 

The Importance of Civic Participation for Democracy

Public participation and active citizenship are key ingredients to a healthy democracy. Civic engagement affects who gets elected to office, what issues lawmakers see as priorities, and how communities respond to their unique circumstances. The more politically engaged citizens become, the more well-represented our democracy will be.

Most Americans realize the importance of civic engagement, especially when it comes to voting. Research from the Pew Research Center shows that 90 percent of Americans see voting as a somewhat or very important part of being a good member of society.  Meanwhile, 85 percent of Americans see following the news in American politics as somewhat or very important. And 54 percent said it was somewhat or very important to join demonstrations about issues you think are important.

This data shows that the majority of Americans think forms of civic engagement are important. But here’s what else is interesting about this data: on the importance of other issues, like getting a COVID-19 vaccine or attending religious services, Americans of different political affiliations were divided — but on the importance of voting and following U.S. political news, there was no statistically significant difference between those leaning toward the Democratic and Republican parties. Democrats and Republicans can agree on the importance of voting and engaging with political news. 

Political polarization has worsened in recent years, making areas of agreement like this one rarer and more important. This means that in addition to strengthening democracy, strong civic engagement has the potential to bring people from across the political spectrum together.

The Benefits of Active Citizenship for Individuals

While civic engagement is primarily important for helping democracy flourish and building social cohesion, public participation also has benefits on an individual level. Being an active part of public life can lead to personal growth. Whether you’re running for office or deciding who to vote for, it can be fulfilling to understand your values and stand up for causes that matter to you. 

Active citizenship can also expand your social network. You can form new ties as you connect to other members of your community. People who engage in campaigns and grassroots movements may gain a new sense of belonging and feel a greater responsibility to their communities.

The Importance of Civic Engagement for Young Adults

Civic engagement is especially important for young adults. Members of younger generations bring fresh ideas and energy to the civic table, bringing crucial insight to politics and public life. Young people also don’t always participate in politics as much as people of older generations, meaning their voices are often underrepresented. For Millennials and members of Generation Z, making your voice heard is crucial to maintaining an effective democratic system.

Levels of Civic Engagement in the United States

Overall, how civically engaged is the United States? One way to answer this question is to look at voter turnout. In the 2020 presidential election, 62.8 percent of voting-age Americans cast their ballots. In 2022, about 45.1 percent of voting-age Americans voted in the House midterm elections. Fewer Americans generally vote in midterms than presidential elections. 

U.S. Voter Turnout Compared to Other Countries

Let’s compare those numbers with the voter turnouts of other nations. The Pew Research Center reported that while the number of voters who turned out for the 2020 election was up from past election years, the United States still lags behind other developed countries in voter turnout. In a ranking of 50 developed nations, the United States ranked #31 for voter turnout. Uruguay, Turkey, and Peru made the top of the list. Countries including Sweden, South Korea, Australia, and Mexico also ranked higher than the United States.

What do these numbers mean practically? One important observation is that while more Americans have been voting in recent years, the United States still has room to grow toward fuller civic engagement.

U.S. Voter Turnout by Demographic

Certain demographics within the United States especially have room to grow toward more active civic participation. Some demographic groups tend to vote more often than others, meaning that some groups end up having more of a say in local and national politics. The Census Bureau reported that in the 2020 election, the following groups were overrepresented among voters:

  • People age 45 or older

  • Non-Hispanic white Americans

  • People with some college education, an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, or higher

This data means that these groups were underrepresented:

  • People younger than 45

  • People of color

  • People with only a high school education or lower

There was also a disparity in the 2020 election based on income. Only 47.1 percent of registered voters with family incomes of less than $10,000 voted. But 84.8 percent of voters with family incomes of $150,000 or more cast votes. 

We have already highlighted the importance of civic engagement for young people, and these findings only underline that importance. For Americans of color, those without a college education, and those with lower incomes, showing up to vote can also have a crucial impact. Democracy only functions well when members of all demographics are represented equitably. Americans deserve a government that represents all of us.


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U.S. Voter Turnout by Political Affiliation

One final way to analyze U.S. voter turnout is to compare which Americans are most likely to vote by political affiliation. The Pew Research Center sorted those who voted in the 2020 election into nine categories based on political leaning. The nine categories go from the most liberal to the most conservative.

In the 2020 election, the most liberal and most conservative groups had the highest percentages of voters. By contrast, the most moderate group had the lowest percentage of voters. The most conservative and most liberal Americans were also the most likely to show support for a political candidate or campaign on social media. They were also the most likely to donate to a candidate or attend a political rally or campaign event. 

It seems that the most liberal and the most conservative Americans were more civically engaged in 2020 than the rest of the population. Is this a cause for concern? It could be. As the United States becomes more politically polarized, it gets harder for moderate and centrist Americans to have their voices heard. It also gets more difficult for Americans who do not align with the two major political parties.

Case Study: Austin, Texas

To make the above numbers more concrete — and to focus on civic engagement at the local level — let’s look at a case study of political activism in one city: Austin, Texas.

The University of Texas at Austin and the National Conference on Citizenship released a civic health index for the greater Austin area in 2018. Similarly to national findings, the index found that “residents who are older, have more education, and higher incomes are more likely to vote in local elections.” In addition:

  • Those with more education and higher incomes were more likely to contact an elected official.

  • Those with higher incomes were generally more likely to participate in a political campaign.

  • Those between 55 and 64 years of age were most likely to attend government-sponsored meetings.

The index makes this statement: “Along many indicators of civic health, community members who are younger, have lower incomes and less education are less likely to be civically engaged.” So Austin, Texas seems to mirror the rest of the country.

This case study demonstrates that the disparities in civic participation go beyond national politics. They also impact whose voices get heard and whose needs get met at the local level. This makes it even more important for those who are underrepresented in politics to become more politically active.

Barriers and Challenges to Civic Engagement

Why do some groups participate in civics and politics more than others? Part of the answer involves the barriers and challenges to civic engagement. Here are some common barriers to political activism:

  • Time Constraints: For working adults and people with children, it can often be difficult to find time to get to the polls, volunteer, or attend events.

  • Lack of Awareness: Many Americans lack the resources to be fully informed about politics and government. Declining levels of trust in news sources also contribute to this lack of awareness.

  • Disempowerment: Especially as the nation becomes more politically polarized, it is easy to feel disillusioned with politics and government. It is also easy to feel like your voice doesn’t really matter.

  • Lack of Civility: Political polarization also contributes to a growing lack of civility in politics. Some Americans may choose to disengage from politics because of discomfort or a fear of conflict.

Steps can be taken to remove many of these barriers. For instance, electoral practices like early and absentee voting can make it easier for more citizens to participate in elections. News sources can seek to provide unbiased, trustworthy information. And Americans can advocate for more choices in the political system, ushering in alternatives to the polarized two-party system.

Impact of Civic Engagement

A first step toward increasing your civic engagement is to remember the positive impact your participation can have. Sustained civic engagement over a long period of time can have an especially large impact. By participating in elections, volunteering, and practicing active citizenship in other ways, you can help to influence policy decisions and ensure positive community development.

The Impact of Young Americans

In many ways, America’s young people can serve as an inspiration and example for the rest of the nation. Here are a few ways that young people have had an important impact on political life in recent years, according to the Brennan Center for Justice:

  • During the summer of 2020, young Americans spoke out against racial injustice in over 10,000 peaceful protests across the nation.

  • Half of Americans aged 18-29 voted in the 2020 presidential election, a significant increase from 2016. Their votes played a key role in contested states like Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.

  • Millennials and members of Generation Z have made donations, contacted elected officials, protested, and volunteered in response to climate change at higher rates than members of older generations.

Young Americans have also made an impact by speaking out about issues on social media, helping to raise awareness and voice their opinions.

How to Get Involved as an Active Citizen

There are plenty of ways to become a more active citizen. Here are some practical steps for engaging in civic life:

  • Register to vote! Every state besides North Dakota requires that you register to vote before you can participate in elections. To learn how to register in your state, visit

  • Vote! Once you’re registered, plan ahead and participate in the next election.

  • Stay informed. Keep up with unbiased, nonpartisan news sources. You can stay up to date with independent politics by subscribing to Good Party’s newsletter.

  • Attend local government meetings.

  • Get connected or volunteer with local organizations.

  • Contact your elected officials. To find out how to contact your senators and representatives, visit

  • Sign petitions to support issues that matter to you.

  • Get involved with a community! An easy way to get involved with Good Party’s community is to join our Party Starter Challenge.

  • Join a citizen’s academy to learn more about how your local government functions.

  • Run for office! This is one of the biggest ways you can make an impact. To learn more about running for office, check out Good Party Academy and our free tools for independent candidates.

From voting to running for office, you can get involved and be a more active citizen. You have the power to make a difference!


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Civic Engagement
Political Volunteering
Young Activists
By Emily Dexter
Emily Dexter is the content marketing coordinator at Good Party. Based in the Midwest, she brings a fresh perspective and editorial experience to the team.