Civic, Political, and Private Life

Standard 4.3: Civic, Political, and Private Life

Distinguish among civic, political, and private life. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T4.3]

Social distancing sign in Boston
"Social distancing sign in Boston" by Mayor Marty Walsh is licensed under CC BY 4.0

FOCUS QUESTION: What are the Differences and Interconnections Among Civic, Political, and Private lives?

In America's democratic society, people engage in three different types of social life: Civic, Political, and Private.  

What are the dimensions of civic, political, and private lives in the United States today? The modules for this standard explore this question by first examining whether the government can restrict personal freedoms (private life) in a public health emergency such as the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Other modules examine women's political participation (political life) around the world and whether the United States should adopt Universal Basic Income (civic life) as a national policy.

1. INVESTIGATE: People's Lives and Government Responses to COVID-19

Anti-Coronavirus Sign 2020

"Anti-Coronavirus Sign", 2020
by Lucbyhet is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The U.S. response to the 2020 COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic revealed the interconnections and tensions that exist between civic, public, and private life in this country's democratic society. The coronavirus outbreak began in the United States in late January 2020 - the first confirmed case was January 21st; the first reported death was in early February. The disease spread quickly. A national emergency was declared on March 13. By the beginning of April, there were COVID-19 cases in all 50 states with hotspots centered in Washington state and New York City. 

Governments at the national, state, and local level responded, although each had different powers to enact and enforce coronavirus policies. In an effort to limit the spread of the disease, the federal government issued recommendations for social distancing, wearing of masks, and closing of federal offices. Some state governments went further, closing public schools, colleges and non-essential businesses; shutting down parks, lakes and common spaces; and issuing stay-at-home orders for entire communities. Other states chose not to close businesses, restrict travel or issue stay-at-home orders. In every instance, local governments and their police departments were then expected to enforce COVID-19 rules, but lacked the resources to do so without high levels of public cooperation.

Unlike the United States, other nations in the world imposed much greater restrictions on people's freedoms in response to COVID-19. China locked down some 60 million people, many in isolation centers. India subsequently locked down 1.3 billion people, the largest quarantine in world history. In those nations, the national government used the pandemic to order draconian restrictions on people's private lives. 

What are the government's powers to intervene in people's lives in a national emergency? The question impacts people's civic, political, and private lives. The federal government does have public health powers and could issue a national federal quarantine order as was done during the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918-1919 (Legal Authorities for Isolation and Quarantine, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020).

However, long-standing constitutional law gives the states and their governors greater legal authority to act in public health emergencies (The Police Power of the States to Control a Pandemic, Explained). The ruling precedent, set by the Supreme Court in Gibbons v. Odgen (1824) is that the police power belongs to the states. Quarantine laws, Chief Justice John Marshall said, “form a portion of that immense mass of legislation which embraces everything within the territory of a State not surrendered to the General Government" (as cited in Bomboy, 2020, para. 7). 

Individual citizens also have rights in such situations. Under the 14th Amendment, public health laws cannot be “arbitrary, oppressive and unreasonable” (Constitutional Powers and Issues During a Quarantine, 2020, para. 11). According to the Human Rights Watch (2020), restrictions on people's rights during an emergency must be "lawful, necessary and proportionate" (para. 14). 

The COVID-19 pandemic blended civic, political, and private lives in unique ways. Government action is effective only if there are rules and people see it as their duty to obey them. People must believe it is everyone’s civic responsibility to ensure health and safety for all. At the same time, people have a right, within reason, to make their own choices about their personal lives and private conduct. Politically, people will be more likely to accept restrictions of personal freedoms if they believe they will not lose their jobs or homes and they will have access to needed health care, unemployment funding and essential services during a pandemic. Learn more: Why There Is No National Lockdown.

Finding ways to bring individuals’ civic, political, and private interests together is complicated by everyone's presumed right of privacy (see Patient Right to Privacy Called into Question During COVID-19 Pandemic). Although the right to privacy is not mentioned in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has interpreted several of the amendments to establish this right (Does the Constitution Protect the Right of Privacy?). Students in schools, however, do not have the same wide-ranging privacy rights as do adults in homes and communities (Students: Your Right to Privacy).

As a nation, we are still assessing how to effectively balance private and civic interests, a process that raises many political dimensions.

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Create an Infographic  
    • What are examples of issues that influence the civic, political, and private lives of students?
  • Research and State Your View
    • Should individuals' rights be restricted during a national emergency to protect the broader public?
    • What restrictions should a government be allowed to impose on individuals and businesses during a national public health emergency, like a pandemic, or a natural disaster, like a hurricane or earthquake?

Online Resources for Civic, Political, and Private Life and the Right of Privacy

2. UNCOVER: Women's Political Participation Around the World

New Zealand was the first country to grant women the right to vote in 1893. Today, Vatican City is the only country where women cannot vote (Saudi Arabia began allowing women to vote in 2015).

Even with the right to vote, women’s entry into positions of political leadership has been slow internationally. At the beginning of 2019, women were more than half of the lawmakers only in Rwanda (61.3%), Cuba (52.2%) and Bolivia (51.3%). According to the World Economic Forum, the United States ranked 75th on a “Women in Parliament” list with just 23.5% of female members of Congress (Thorton, 2019).

Empowering Women Poster from UNESCO

Empowering Women Poster from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)
"UNESCO's soft power"by UNESCO is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Internationally, 59 countries have elected a woman leader, beginning in 1960 with Simimavo Bandaranaike who was chosen Prime Minister in Ceylon/Sri Lanka (All the Countries (59) That Had a Woman Leader Before the U.S.). Angela Merkel (Germany), Sahle-Work Zewde (Zimbabwe), Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand), Katrin Jakobsdottir (Iceland), and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia) were among the women leading countries in 2019 (Female Heads of State and Government in 2019).

In 2016 in Iceland, women held 30 of 63 seats in Parliament making it the most gender equal political system in the world without a quota system (The Tiny Nation of Iceland is Crushing the U.S. in Electing Female Politicians).

"Do women leaders perform differently than men in similar positions?" is a fascinating research subject that has taken on new urgency in a time of a global pandemic and heightened international tensions. Asking the question "Why are women-led nations doing better with COVID-19?" a New York Times reporter suggested female leaders (like Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand and Angela Merkel of Germany) were more willing to consult a broader range of information sources than male leaders when deciding to implement virus testing, contract tracing, and social isolation measures (Taub, 2020). In the United States, however, that same report found female and male Republican governors were slower to implement virus control shut-down measures than their Democrat peers, suggesting political party affiliation was a stronger influence than gender-based dispositions. 

Suggested Learning Activities

  • State Your View
    • Why is the proportion of women leaders around the world so small?
    • Given the small number of women leaders, what are the barriers to expanding women’s political participation around the world? How can these barriers be overcome? 

Online Resources on Women's Political Participation Around the World

3. ENGAGE: Should the United States Adopt Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a National Policy?

Universal basic income (UBI) refers to regular cash payments (with minimal or no requirements for receiving the money) made to a given population in order to increase people’s income (International Monetary Fund). Debating Universal Basic Income from the Wharton Public Policy Initiative offers more information about this policy.

Image of Dollars
"money"by JCamargo | Public Domain

The economic dislocations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the idea of a guaranteed basic income into the wider political dialog. By mid-April 2020, with more than 22 million people out of work, members of Congress including Senator Kamala Harris and Representatives Maxine Waters, Ro Khanna, and Tim Ryan, among others, were calling for ongoing direct payments to unemployed workers. In his April 2020 Easter Sunday Address, Pope Francis called for governments to consider a universal basic wage.

The UBI idea gained publicity during the early stages of the 2020 Presidential campaign when Democratic candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang proposed giving $1000 a month to every American over the age of 18. Yang, as well as both Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, among others, believe UBI will help address the growing problem of workers being displaced from their jobs by automation. Other politicians see UBI as a way to help the large numbers of Americans who are living at or near the poverty level and must work multiple jobs just to get by. The Census Bureau has reported that about 13 million workers in the U.S. have more than one job (Beckhusen, 2019).

Income inequality also remains a persistent social problem because the rich are so much richer than everyone else. “Income disparities are so pronounced that America’s top 10 percent now average more than nine times as much income as the bottom 90 percent, according to data analyzed by UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez,” (as cited in Inequality.org, n.d., para. 3), while the top 1% average over 39 times more income than the bottom 90%. Providing people with a guaranteed income could make a huge difference for those struggling to survive on a monthly basis.

There are UBI programs in existence right now. Alaska gives every resident a yearly check from the state’s oil revenue called the Permanent Fund Dividend. In 2018, all residents received $1,600. For 18 months, since February 2019, the city of Stockton, California paid 125 low-income residents $500 a month through its SEED (Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration) program ("Will 'Basic Income' Become the California Norm?"). The mayor of the city declared that "unconditional cash provides people the agency to make the right decisions for themselves and their families" (Tubbs, 2020, para. 8).

As an alternative to UBI programs, 2020 Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has proposed a guaranteed government jobs program. Under his proposal, state and local governments would pay people to engage in public works projects related to areas of community need, such as construction of affordable housing, repair and replacement of aging infrastructure, and so on. Workers would be paid $15 an hour and receive paid family and medical leave.

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Envision a More Equitable Society 
    • Universal Basic Income and Guaranteed Government Jobs are proposed as ways to create a more equitable society where everyone has an economic and social foundation for personally productive and meaningful lives. 
    • What steps would you take to create a more equitable society for all?

Online Resources for Universal Basic Income

Standard 4.3 Conclusion

Civic life is where people exercise their responsibilities by being active members of their community and nation. Political life is where people actively participate in government at the local, state, and national level as voters, engaged community members who protest and lobby for change, and as candidates for and holders of political offices. Private life is where individuals conduct their own affairs in their own ways. INVESTIGATE looked at how the government's responses to the COVID-19 pandemic impacted people's personal lives and freedoms. From the perspective of political life, UNCOVER examined women's political participation around the world. ENGAGE asked if the United States should adopt Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a civic policy.

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