“Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.” —Plato
Before entering the Bankers Hill lair of San Diego pollster John Nienstedt, visitors will notice a sheet of paper taped to his office door bearing a red-lettered quote from Oscar Wilde: “‘Public opinion' is an attempt to organize the ignorance of the community, and to elevate it to the dignity of physical force.”
Nienstedt's cozy office reflects an eclectic soul—baseball memorabilia mingles with political posters, including one featuring Ronald Reagan with a mocking “Bedtime for Brezhnev” theme, and framed newspapers (including a tabloid-esque CityBeat political cover from years back).
Nienstedt's firm, Competitive Edge Research, has tapped in to the pulse of San Diegans' political thinking patterns for nearly 24 years now, so he's no slouch when it comes to understanding local sentiment.
And yet, here he sits, staring at numbers he crunched months ago, still shaking his head.
Those numbers—a comparison of 51 U.S. metropolitan areas—tell a story that the San Diego native finds unfathomable: This county ranks near the bottom (43rd, precisely) in terms of “civic engagement.” It suggests that local residents suck at voting, group participation and working with neighbors to solve a problem.
Nienstedt wrote a commentary on the dilemma earlier this year, but he didn't submit it for publication until recently. The San Diego Union-Tribune ran it Nov. 6 under the headline, “San Diego, we have an engagement problem.”
“I've had a draft of that for six months,” Nienstedt tells Spin Cycle. “You have to realize that civic engagement does not roll off the tongue for John Q. Public.”
But as he talked to people, he concluded that San Diego, a city not typically comfortable talking about uncomfortable things, needed to hear this—and see the numbers that backed up his conclusion.
“The thing is, seeing it in print?” Nienstedt admits. “It still shocks me. It's still impressively bad. And there's no way around it.”
Those numbers—which he compiled from data available from the National Conference on Citizenship, a organization based in Washington, D.C., that promotes greater civic involvement—suggest that San Diego County lags far behind in three out of four metrics—voting (39th), working with neighbors to solve a problem (40th) and participating in groups (46th). The county fared better in volunteerism, ranking 26th.
Nienstedt found the Minneapolis-St. Paul region as the most civically engaged, ranking first in volunteering and voting and no worse than sixth in the other categories. Las Vegas nipped Miami as the worst in civic engagement. (San Francisco, ranked 15th, was tops in California.)
Breaking down San Diego's numbers—and Nienstedt is quick to note that the numbers are a couple years old—he found that 27.2 percent of county residents volunteered their time to a worthy cause, 55 percent voted, a paltry 6.4 percent worked with neighbors to solve a problem and only 28.7 percent were involved in community organizations.
In his commentary, Nienstedt suggested that the long delays in completing Petco Park, the pension underfunding and San Diego's ongoing love / hate relationship with its airport “indicate regionwide dysfunction.”
But he didn't lay blame on local leaders. “No,” he wrote, “a large part of San Diego's problem is us.”
Studying the list of 51 metro areas doesn't immediately answer why some cities are more engaged than others. It's a cold-weather thing, some say. (Well, how to explain New York's dismal 48thplace ranking?) And not everyone is buying Nienstedt's analysis. Tom Shepard, San Diego's reigning campaign strategist, said he works all over California and finds in San Diego a “level of involvement and participation here… as high and as intense as anywhere else in the state.” But Shepard does concede that San Diego “is a younger city with fewer well-developed networks of community and charitable organizations.”
Nienstedt argues the numbers don't lie but admits he's heard from folks who think his head is planted somewhere unpleasant. One letter writer suggested he'd never been to City Heights. He laughs because he grew up in Kensington, where his parents still live.
He's glad that philanthropist Malin burnham has helped fund a Center for Civic Engagement at the San Diego Foundation. Bob Dynes, the former UCSD chancellor overseeing the center, said his hope is to “break through that perception… that we are an unengaged community.”
But again, Nienstedt insists, the numbers tell the story. “We just need to figure out what our problem is,” he said. “Because if we don't, we're going to be running really fast in the wrong direction. And what's the point of that?”