When the Trump administration cleared a crowd of peaceful protesters, many of us felt we came right up to the brink. But to the brink of what exactly? I believe we stood at the edge of a fundamental rupture in our social contract: the agreement we citizens make to invest elected officials with power in order that they can do the job of securing our rights. We came face to face with a breach of the fundamental deal securing our political order.
We seek reforms to policing. Congress is taking action. But something even deeper, more foundational needs repair. We need a new social compact.
Of course, the breach of faith that we as a nation experienced in seeing peaceful protesters gassed is exactly the grievance that many communities, and particularly communities of color, have raised against U.S. practices of policing for many years — a violation of the commitment to protect and serve. Not only since the events of Ferguson, Mo., but especially since then, legal and political activists have petitioned for redress of grievances in the face of unaccountable police. Despite reform efforts in this city or that, our political institutions have been fundamentally nonresponsive. They failed to effect plainly needed change. Repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.
For this time to be different, we need not only the specific reforms to policing but also a bold and comprehensive project to constitute a healthy social contract. We need a project not so much of renewal but of reinvention so that we might at last build a full, inclusive social compact that empowers all and delivers effective and responsive governance to an empowered citizenry. We need a new social contract worthy of our recommitment to U.S. constitutional democracy and one another.
How can we achieve that? On Thursday, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report from a two-year bipartisan commission, which I co-chaired, on the practice of democratic citizenship. With 31 recommendations, across six strategies, the report, “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century,” proposes reform to political institutions; investment in bridge-building civil society organizations; and transformation of our civic culture.
Some key ideas:
- Expand the House of Representatives (and therefore the electoral college) by at least 50 members.
- Adopt ranked-choice voting and multi-member districts on many levels of our political system.
- Institute universal voting and instant voter registration for all eligible Americans.
- Establish an expectation of national service by all Americans.
- Limit Supreme Court justices to 18-year terms.
- Build civic media to counteract the challenges introduced by social media.
- Find ways to tell our nation’s story that are honest about the past without falling into cynicism and appreciative of the county’s accomplishments without spinning into deification.
- Increase resources and resolve for community leadership, civic education, and an American culture of shared commitment to constitutional democracy and one another.
Changes like these may sound like moving a mountain, but efforts on these fronts are mostly already underway. A criterion of their selection was that it be within the realm of the possible to make meaningful progress toward them by 2026, the 250th anniversary of this nation’s political birth.
For too long our national policy has been driven mainly by a concept of competitiveness — of economic and national security competitiveness. Those are things we need, but they do not suffice. When we compete on the world stage, or face a crisis like a pandemic, we want to succeed as a society of free and equal self-governing citizens. To accomplish this, we need not merely economic or military strength, but civic strength — a sturdy compact in which we are all committed to one another and where our political institutions are responsive to us, delivering effective governance.
When such a compact exists, it nourishes bonds of solidarity, and solidarity is the most valuable resource of free societies in moments of crisis. If we have been weak in the face of COVID-19, it has been because we had too little solidarity to draw on in developing a response. Right from the start of the conversations about responding to COVID-19, people began to consider who might be abandoned — perhaps the elderly, perhaps people in correctional facilities, perhaps people obliged to keep working while everyone else stayed at home. A healthy social compact begins from the proposition that we do not abandon anybody.
The massive, multiracial coalitions that have taken to the streets to raise their voices against police brutality are replenishing springs of solidarity, nourishing the roots of a future social compact that we must now all get on with the business of making. We will do that most effectively with a common purpose in mind.
A common purpose is not some airy-fairy thing. It is a practical tool that allows people to achieve something together. It is a map marked with a destination, a guide that permits collaborative navigation. A common purpose is perhaps the most powerful tool in the democratic tool kit, particularly in a crisis, because it can yield the solidarity that induces people to do hard things voluntarily rather than through authoritarian compulsion. Yet the tool has been disintegrating from disuse.
Our common purpose is liberty and justice for all. We have rediscovered it. It’s time to build on that discovery.