Autumn is here, and we are hard-pressed to feel encouraged about the future of democracy in America. If you are like me, even a quick survey of the day's news can induce various combinations of disbelief, anger, disdain, fear, and disillusionment. Some of us may be feeling all of the above. We need some hope and a sense of how we might regain our footing as citizens to renew the world’s oldest democracy.
We can find them in a recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Science's Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship entitled, "Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century." Danielle Allen of Harvard University, Stephen Heintz of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Eric Liu of Citizen University co-chaired the 35-member Commission. Its composition represented a suitable portion of the nation's political and demographic diversity. The 47 listening sessions the Commission hosted across the country further expanded and enriched the viewpoints informing its deliberations. The Commission's report won't help us resolve our immediate challenges. But whatever happens in the near-term, the report makes clear we will still have a long way to go to revitalize our democracy–and it shows us how we could get from here to there.
Two aspects of the report resonate with our core themes here at The Art of Association. The first is the emphasis the Commission places on the interplay between our political institutions and processes, on the one hand, and our civic culture, on the other. As the report observes, "a healthy constitutional democracy depends on a virtuous cycle in which responsive political institutions foster a healthy civic culture of participation and responsibility, while a healthy civic culture – a combination of values, norms, and narratives – keeps our political institutions responsive and inclusive."
At present, of course, we find ourselves experiencing not a virtuous cycle but a vicious one. Dysfunctional institutions, efforts to disenfranchise fellow Americans, and demagoguery in Washington sow distrust, cynicism, and contempt for fellow citizens in our civic culture. These reverberating signals are, in turn, picked up and amplified further by our elected officials.
How do we reverse this doom loop? Nineteen of the report's 31 recommendations deal with reforms in our political institutions and processes. I will touch on just a few here that would be salutary responses to some of our current challenges. They include several steps for making voting more accessible, e.g., automatic voter registration and turning election day into a national holiday. These steps are combined with a call to make voting mandatory, as it is in Australia and Belgium, and as jury duty is for all eligible citizens now. The report also calls for eighteen-year terms for Supreme Court justices. Presidents would get to fill one seat in each congress. Such a change would routinize Supreme Court nominations and reduce the temperature of our intensely polarizing and norm-busting fights over them.
In a departure for reports of this kind, Our Common Purpose goes beyond fixes for our political institutions and processes to propose several interventions to bolster our civic culture. One is establishing the norm and expectation that young people will dedicate a year of their lives to serve the nation in the military, government service programs, or nonprofit organizations. Others include a deep investment in civic education for all age groups and the development of new narratives to revitalize our commitment to constitutional democracy and citizenship. The report also recognizes the upcoming 250th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence presents a unique opportunity to mobilize and engage the nation toward these ends.
The Commission transcends the simplistic and divisive debate Donald Trump and the New York Times want us to have about whether the Declaration of Independence in 1776 or the initial importation of slaves in 1619 is the right starting point of our nation's exceptional history. The report observes that,
polarized depictions of American history—the triumphal and the genocidal – continue to divide us and impede productive civic collaboration. One of the great challenges facing the country is how to meld the good and the bad of U.S. history into shared narratives that a diverse population can broadly endorse. These narratives must do justice both to core democratic values and to our often egregious failures to live up to them. Enslavement and Native American genocide are part of American history. So, too, is the invention of modern rights-based constitutionalism. We must acknowledge all of these stories.
The second aspect of Our Common Purpose I want to highlight is its recognition that "institutions and culture intersect in the realm of civil society: the ecosystem of associations and groups in which people practice habits of participation and self-rule and reinforce norms of mutual obligation." We cannot bring about the changes needed in our politics and civic culture without tending to the health of our civic infrastructure and leadership in our associational life. And this work needs to happen in local communities where the lion's share of social capital formation and bridge-building occurs.
The report calls for two innovative interventions to strengthen our civic ecosystem. The first is the development of a "National Trust for Civic Infrastructure." It would support investment in spaces like parks, libraries, schools, faith-based institutions, museums, and community centers as well as programs and events "that have the capacity to connect disparate segments of our society." More human connections and shared experiences in our local communities can help countermand the adverse effects of nationalized and polarized politics. The Trust could start readily enough with philanthropic and private sector contributions. But the commissioners ultimately envision a publicly funded endowment along the lines of the National Endowment for Democracy. This year Congress appropriated $300,000,000 to underwrite the promotion of democracy in 90 countries abroad. Our Common Purpose rightly asks, "Why not fund democracy at home?"
The second intervention is to invest in and build upon the leadership of the group Peter Levine of Tufts University has termed "the civic one million" – the approximate number of Americans already leading civic groups, associations, and networks seeking to rebuild our democracy from the bottom-up. These leaders and their organizations will be the catalysts for civic renewal, provided they have the resources they need. Philanthropic foundations can and should step up to underwrite their leadership. The report does not touch on this it, but doing so would entail a substantial shift in how foundations make grants in this area. Instead of smaller, highly-specified, short-term project grants furthering their own strategies, funders need to provide larger, unrestricted, multi-year grants that keep civic leaders and their organizations in the driver's seat.
The period between now and the presidential inauguration on January 20 will test our democracy in a way it has not been for several generations. While Our Common Purpose will not help us resolve the looming crisis, it conveys an ethos of citizenship and vision of a shared patriotism we can draw upon to ground and gird ourselves in the weeks ahead. And once the clamor and uncertainty subside, assuming they will at some point, the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship has equipped us with an incisive playbook for the future.