Our Common Purpose

A Letter from the President of the American Academy

Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, a report of the American Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, comes at a pivotal moment in the history of the American experiment.

As this report goes to press, our nation, already challenged by shifting political, economic, and social forces, is also in the early days of a serious public health and economic crisis. While it is impossible to predict today how the COVID-19 epidemic will impact the fabric of the United States and the world, the work done by the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship does allow one confident prediction: Americans will respond to the current challenge and its aftereffects with creative acts of generosity and innovative solutions borne of the recognition that we are all in this together. In the pages that follow, you will find this spirit expressed in Americans’ own words. Never before has the work of the Academy reflected the voices and experiences of such a broad and diverse group of Americans. In 2019, the Commission conducted forty-seven listening sessions in cities and towns around the country and solicited the stories and experiences with the democratic process of hundreds of Americans from different demographic and political backgrounds (for a full list, see Appendix B). Their wisdom and commitment not only inspired the Commission’s final recommendations but also demonstrate the potential for what the United States can become when all of its citizens are actively engaged in the civic and political life of their communities and the nation.

Throughout our country’s history, the American people have confronted moments of crisis with resilience and an openness to reinvention, enabling our nation to become a better version of itself. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the members of this Commission recognized that we found ourselves at a similar crossroads. The recommendations in this report touch all sectors of American life and offer a bold path that will require all of us to commit to reinventing aspects of our constitutional democracy. The realities of a disruptive media and information environment, outdated political institutions, economic and social inequality, and hyperpartisan political leadership have laid bare the urgency of this imperative. The Commission challenges us to achieve significant progress toward its recommendations by 2026, our nation’s 250th anniversary.

The Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship was established in the spring of 2018 at the initiative of then Academy President Jonathan Fanton and Stephen D. Bechtel, Jr., Chair of the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. Mr. Bechtel challenged the Academy to consider what it means to be a good citizen in the twenty-first century, and to ask how all of us might obtain the values, knowledge, and skills to become still better citizens. Since 1780, projects that work to bolster American citizens’ understanding of and engagement with the institutions of their government have been a hallmark of the Academy’s work. Our charter states that the Arts and Sciences “promote the honor and dignity of the government which patronizes them,” and that the “end and design” of the American Academy is to “cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.” Through its recommendations, the Commission has looked to increase citizens’ capacity to engage in their communities, counter rising threats to democratic self-government, and rebuild trust in political institutions. We are grateful for Mr. Bechtel’s vision and leadership and for the generous support of the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation for the work of the Commission.

This work would not have been possible without the knowledgeable, dedicated, and distinguished leadership of the Commission’s cochairs, who convened weekly for two years in support of this project. The Academy would like to express deep gratitude to Danielle Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics; Stephen Heintz, President and CEO of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and Eric Liu, Cofounder and CEO of Citizen University. The Academy is also grateful for the wise guidance and hard work of their fellow Commission members, who graciously shared their time and expertise and who ultimately put aside personal concerns with individual recommendations to offer their unanimous support for this report to better the common good (see Appendix D for a complete list of Commission members). In preparation for this final report, they published several occasional papers, including The Internet and Engaged Citizenship (2019), The Data Driving Democracy (2020), and The Political and Civic Engagement of Immigrants (2020). All Commission publications, detailed information about the recommendations, supporting data, and regular updates on the project are now available at www.amacad.org/ourcommonpurpose.

Thank you to the many Academy Fellows who have supported this project since its inception and especially to the members of the Board of Directors, Council, and Trust for their commitment to this Commission and to the ongoing work of the Academy on issues related to American institutions, society, and the public good. We are grateful, too, to Alan and Lauren Dachs and to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for supporting the ongoing outreach and implementation of the Commission’s work.

Thanks as well to the members of the Academy staff who ably served this Commission, preparing this report and planning its release: Darshan Goux, Paul Erickson, Gabriela Farrell, Katherine Gagen, Alison Franklin, Peter Robinson, Phyllis Bendell, Peter Walton, Heather Struntz, and Scott Raymond.

The Fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences have contributed to advancing the interests of this nation and its people for almost 250 years. As we approach that auspicious anniversary, we face new challenges that will once again require leadership and expertise. Many of you will be at the forefront of that work. I hope that as you do so, you will join me in supporting and advancing the vital work of this Commission, so that our country may emerge reinvented and made stronger by the engagement of all Americans to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

David W. Oxtoby
President, American Academy of Arts and Sciences