Our Common Purpose

Appendix A: Key Terms

To guide the work of the Commission, we have agreed to the following definitions of key terms:


In the twenty-first century, democracy refers to a political system in which legislative and chief executive decision-makers are elected by majority or plurality rule by eligible voters, with a presumption that the franchise approaches universal adult suffrage among legal citizens and that minority-protecting mechanisms are also in place. This definition refers to representative rather than direct democracy, reflecting that all existing democratic societies are representative. While we use both constitutional democracy and democracy in this report, we recognize these as synonyms to other terms in common usage in the United States, including “republic” and “democratic republic.” In traditions of American political thought, all these terms capture forms of rights-based representative government in which 1) elected government leadership is constrained by constitutionalism, the rule of law, the separation of powers, the free expression of the people, and the legal protection and moral affirmation of the rights of individuals; and 2) groups and parties that are not part of electoral majorities cannot easily be disenfranchised or suffer loss of rights of association, voice, and legal protection by the electorally determined leadership.


Citizenship can be understood broadly in two ways. One is a formal status within a state that affords political participation, including the vote, and implies certain obligations of engagement or participation in state activities. Over the course of U.S. history, the formal status of citizen has sometimes attached to membership in particular cities, sometimes to states, and sometimes to the nation as a whole; the different categories of formal membership have not always aligned. The second, broader conception of citizenship is an ethical notion of being a prosocial contributor to a self-governing community. This notion pertains regardless of legal documentation status. It centers on participation in common life, contribution to the common good, and a spirit of obligation to interests greater than one’s own. The colloquialism “a good citizen” captures this meaning. The work of the Commission is intended to include the first way of thinking about citizenship and extend to the second. This is contested territory. Not everyone thinks that the ethical category of citizenship should apply to those who do not have the formal status of citizens. In our work, however, we take the fact that anyone can contribute positively to their community as foundational to the development of all formal institutions of citizenship. We protect the idea of self-government for free and equal citizens by cultivating the values and practices of self-government in all members of a community.

Participation and Engagement

We believe there is a spectrum of citizen participation and engagement that stretches from social to civic to political, in any order. First, we offer the following definitions:

Social participation: Any activity that is mainly driven by the desire to work or socialize with members of an affinity group (whether defined by geography, identity, faith, club membership, Facebook group participation, and so on) or a more loosely knit community in common enjoyment of shared interests (such as a gardening or book club).

Civic engagement: Any activity that involves or is intended to affect not only the interests or work of a particular group of faith or affinity but those of a broader community (whether defined locally, nationally, or globally). Take as examples a gardening club that is working through civil society partnerships to eliminate food deserts, a book club that encourages members to do volunteer work on an issue they are reading about, a place of worship whose members collaborate to serve meals to the homeless, or a Facebook group that decides to advocate for the sale of fair trade chocolate in movie theaters.

Political participation: Any activity or set of activities driven by a desire to influence government, policy-making, and/or elections, such as participating in a protest, joining a party, volunteering in a campaign, running for office, testifying at public hearings, or advocating on public issues through social media. More specific examples include a gardening club that lobbies its city council for new rules to promote community gardens; a book club that organizes neighbors to support a public library levy; a place of worship whose members join in local organizing to change housing ordinances or policies around abortion provision; or a Facebook group that coordinates to call and write to legislators on behalf of a specific policy outcome.

Second, while civic and political engagement can be undertaken by an individual acting alone, all forms of engagement ultimately have a collective aspect: success requires getting others to join in the activity, or participating alongside others yourself. Even the hermit who goes to vote without speaking to anyone else has her votes counted alongside those of many others.

Third, and crucially, we note that it is often difficult to assess whether a given form of collective action is purely social or civic or political. Democratic practice is never this neat. Moreover, any participant can cycle through these activity types in any particular order: they form a variegated continuum of experience, not a ladder. Nor is the mere fact of participation in social life a guarantee that the engagement will be prosocial: the history of the Ku Klux Klan shows the power of associationalism deployed toward unacceptable goals. Nonetheless, this conceptual framework sharpens our thinking so that we can more clearly articulate to the public our theory of action and recommendations.

Democratic engagement: A broad term that encompasses both the activities associated with civic engagement and political participation and the attitudes and beliefs individuals express about the actors, institutions, organizations, and policies active within those two spheres.