In the hours after Election Day, as Donald Trump seemed on the point of losing the Presidency, he spiraled through emotions like Lear on the heath—raging at Fox News for calling Arizona for Joe Biden, fantasizing about “fraud,” vowing to seek salvation from his appointees to the Supreme Court.
Biden, in his campaign, had presented himself as a firebreak, a barrier against the inferno of another four years. But, to Democrats’ disappointment, Americans had not delivered a blunt repudiation of Trump and his values; instead, they had shown themselves to be intractably divided. A century and a half after the Civil War, America was again a cloven nation. Ending Trump’s Presidency would not solve the underlying problems that produced it, leaving Americans to face a haunting question of history: Can a country argue its way back from the abyss? . . .
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. . . Commissions, as a rule, are not known for dispensing vital reading. But, in June, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published the civic equivalent of the 9/11 Commission Report: a blueprint for avoiding another political catastrophe. The project began in 2018, with a bipartisan search for ways to revitalize modern democracy. The academy convened listening sessions across the country, and gathered a mountain of technical advice on ways to “birth for ourselves a sense of shared fate.” The result was “Our Common Purpose,” a set of thirty-one proposals, chosen with an eye for what could be plausibly achieved by 2026. Many of them sounded radical a few years ago but are increasingly mainstream, including a federal law to expand the House of Representatives (and, thus, the Electoral College) by at least fifty members; ranked-choice voting (which has been shown to reduce polarization) and multi-member districts; a term limit of eighteen years for Supreme Court Justices; and a universal mandate for voting, as exists in Australia and Belgium.
Some of the proposals would require moves by Congress or state legislatures, but others can be achieved with no legal changes. Remarkably, only one proposal—undoing parts of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision—would require a constitutional amendment, and even that is not as radical as it might sound. Historically, Americans maintained the agility of democracy by amending the Constitution, on average, at least once a decade, until the pace stalled, half a century ago. Other than a minor amendment in 1992, to adjust congressional salaries, the last major change to the Constitution was in 1971, when the voting age was lowered to eighteen. Danielle Allen, a Harvard political theorist who helped lead the project, told me, “The conversation about the health of our political institutions and political culture is really just beginning.”
Allen and her colleagues also identified techniques of reviving the habits of citizenship. To break down social segregation, they call for expanding AmeriCorps and similar programs, to foster “an expectation of national service,” and establishing a National Trust for Civic Infrastructure, seeded by private and philanthropic money, which could expand the occasions “where Americans can encounter people different from themselves.” The United States already has more public libraries than Starbucks locations, but many of them need a burst of new resources, as do parks, museums, and performance spaces.
It would be hard to look at the 2020 election and not question the real-world effect of earnest studies of political culture. But Allen was hardly disappointed. On the morning after the election, she said, “There is a part of me that just feels quite exuberant about the election results, because of the level of turnout”—the highest in a hundred and twenty years. “People without college degrees increased their turnout. Young people increased their turnout. Communities of color were actively engaged.”
Reviving democracy, Allen said, hardly guarantees a simple notion of unity. Rather, it provides a legitimate forum for the harsh clashes that may be necessary for progress—what Frederick Douglass called the “awful roar.” The goal of American politics should not be “a world where everybody agrees with you,” Allen said. “That will never be the reward of life in a constitutional democracy. The reward is the chance to participate in free self-government. If you love that, then you can tolerate the hard work of ongoing, routine contestation with people who disagree with you.” . . .