by Bert Emerson, Whitworth University
We are facing some tough times. Global pandemics, economic crises and racial strife dominate the headlines. Hyperpartisanship and diminishing faith in politics on the national scale only aggravate the difficulties of our present. In the midst of it all, there seem few directions out of this mess.
Amidst our crises, there is a new report that aims to have some impact on our collective future: a nationwide study that presents recommendations for improving our democracy as we approach the 250th anniversary of our national founding in 2026. This study has been sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an independent research center founded during the Revolutionary War by the likes of John Hancock, John Adams and 60 other “patriot-scholars” (as their website puts it).
The study draws upon research conducted on a massive scale over the past two years. They’ve scoured the history and philosophy books to think through big questions. They’ve raised new queries about the impact of the internet and social media on our capacity to come together as a people. And they’ve conducted nearly 50 “listening sessions” across the country, one of which took place in Spokane. Hosted at Whitworth University, this listening session brought together a diverse group of 30 participants from the community to share personal experiences as citizens.
The final report, titled “Our Common Purpose,” is now available after Thursday’s virtual launch on the academy’s website. It draws significantly upon the commentary taken from listening sessions. The assessment and recommendations gathered in the report are consistent with concerns brought up in the session in Spokane.
The report starts by noting commonly held views of multiple foundings in our nation’s history: the first in the late 1700s, the second in the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction, and the third in the Civil Rights movement. The report calls for a “fourth founding,” one that draws on the inspirational words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution while addressing the issues of a nation that looks little like the one invented centuries ago out of 13 backwater colonies on the edge of empire. While national in scope, it calls for folks like you and me to get back into the game. Together. Right where we are.
To be sure, some recommendations appear familiar and popular, like limiting the influence of money in campaigns and lobbying. Others are more outside-the-box: One recommends expanding the number of members of Congress so that each represents fewer people. The report shares plans for empowering voters, ensuring that democratic citizens are educated on issues while also raising expectations for participation. Combined, the recommendations are designed to make government officials more responsive to people, and to get people more engaged in asserting their individual and collective voices.
How far these recommendations go seems hard to predict. Many have lost faith in American democracy, if they had it to begin with. Whatever one’s take on today’s issues, the events of 2020 have only amplified divisiveness and increased distrust, not only in national unity but in the capacity of our democracy to pave the way going ahead.
Hence the need for a report that aspires to take all the political energy brewing over the past decade and channel it into a common purpose.
As a participant in the Spokane listening session, and one who got a sneak preview of the commission’s findings in February, what struck me most was listening to stories that were shared from everyday folks hailing from places like Athens, Tennessee, and Lincoln, Nebraska; St. Paul, Minnesota, and Lexington, Kentucky.
So many communities are already doing the work that promotes healthy engagement in democratic life.
And it’s happening here in Spokane. On that February day at the academy, Spokane’s Rob Bryceson shared one of the most compelling presentations of all, detailing the ways that his church has fostered community interests and created spaces for engagement and conversations among citizens at the Gathering House. It reminded me that the work of democracy starts right here in our community. And it makes me think how well Spokane might be primed for building more.
D. Berton Emerson is an assistant professor of English and director of the George F. Whitworth Honors Program at Whitworth University.