Our Common Purpose
Strategy 6: Inspire a Culture of Commitment to American Constitutional Democracy and One Another
Strategy 6: Inspire a Culture of Commitment to American Constitutional Democracy and One Another
“Citizenship is also a collective responsibility. It’s not just individual and family, but also that we have a stake in each other’s future . . . especially in a time where it is so fractured.”
—Los Angeles, California
We conclude with our civic culture.
The recommendations of Strategy 6 aim to inspire a culture of commitment to American constitutional democracy and to one another. They imagine a future in which every American is expected to perform national service and is paid for doing so. They envision national conversations to reconcile the noble aspects of our history with our greatest sins; a vibrant ecosystem of gatherings, rituals, ceremonies, and public debates in which Americans discuss what it means to be a citizen; and public media efforts that support grassroots engagement. They demand that we invest in civic education and educators for all ages.
Strategy 6 was perhaps the most challenging for the Commission. Despite a long tradition that recognizes the importance of civic culture in American democracy, far fewer efforts have gone toward reforming culture than toward reforming institutions or civil society. In moments of crisis, we have seen what is possible as Americans are inspired to serve the nation and each other, but that potential has too often faded with time. Culture is hard to measure: it cannot be fully captured with simple numbers like voter turnout. In 2020, “culture” is too often followed by “wars”—which we hope to avoid.
Culture does not exist in a vacuum. Our ailing civic culture reflects, in large part, the failures of our institutions. Reforming those institutions and strengthening civil society—the focus of Strategies 1–5—will do wonders for our civic culture. Indeed, there is no recommendation in the pages of this report that will not have a salutary effect on culture, since the best remedy for lack of commitment is creating a democracy that we can believe in.
Yet the importance of culture also demands that we treat it as its own starting point. That is what we have done with our Strategy 6 recommendations. We have designed each to foster a culture of commitment to constitutional democracy and one another, and we hope that together they will remind Americans of the value of our constitutional democracy and our bond to one another.
Establish a universal expectation of a year of national service and dramatically expand funding for service programs or fellowships that would offer young people paid service opportunities. Such opportunities should be made available not only in AmeriCorps or the military but also in local programs offered by municipal governments, local news outlets, and nonprofit organizations.
One way to inspire commitment to American constitutional democracy and to one another is through national service. Federal service programs, such as AmeriCorps, and numerous place-based programs administered by states and municipalities provide other opportunities for Americans of all ages to serve. These service programs carry benefits that extend beyond their ostensible purpose. In addition to serving communities, they benefit the people who participate in them. They offer participants a pathway to mobility, in part by allowing them to develop skills and networks and to explore career options, and in part by helping them build relationships and dismantle barriers: racial, religious, ideological, geographic, and more. As service becomes widespread, cohorts of service corps alumni will be created who represent diverse views and backgrounds but share a common experience of service to the nation.
One way to fund national service opportunities would be through “baby bonds.” For every child born in the United States, the government would put $10,000 into a tax-advantaged savings plan. Once children become adults, they would complete a year of national service, after which they would receive the funds in their accounts. The funds of those who do not complete a year of service would be returned to the government.
The Commission does not endorse making national service mandatory. A better approach, the Commission believes, is to establish a universal expectation of national service. A new culture of national service, based on the universal expectation that young people serve, would not only inspire young adults to take advantage of existing service opportunities but would also lead to a proliferation of new opportunities. Ensuring that employers and colleges value the service experience in their students and employees will help establish this culture of national service.
There are many ways to serve, from college gap year programs to community-based programs. Young people should not need to leave their communities to serve. With the exodus of baby boomers from the workforce, municipal governments will need new capacity and local expertise. Young people can help.
Whatever form service takes, it must be universally accessible. Service opportunities must be paid, otherwise they will become what too many service programs today already are: privileged opportunities limited to those who can afford them. Through dramatically expanding funding for service opportunities, Congress, community foundations, and municipal governments can ensure that these opportunities are accessible to everyone.
To coincide with the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, create a Telling Our Nation’s Story initiative to engage communities throughout the country in direct, open-ended, and inclusive conversations about the complex and always evolving American story. Led by civil society organizations, these conversations will allow participants at all points along the political spectrum to explore both their feelings about and hopes for this country.
“So, to me, it’s about history. And I think that’s a dimension that’s critical here. We are not telling ourselves the truth about our history.”
—New York, New York
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 these stories.
The 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States, in 2026, represents a unique opportunity to engage Americans throughout the country in conversations designed to help tell and understand our nation’s evolving story. At a time when we worry that only national tragedies bring us together, uncovering the stories and narratives that unite us—and reckoning with those that divide us—is integral to the practice of democratic citizenship. Let us build a new foundation to break through polarization, create space for collaboration, and seed the development of new narratives of American history.
To allow new narratives to develop, the Commission recommends the launch of a series of community conversations focused on a set of questions that would enable participants to explore their feelings about and hopes for the country, while surfacing and addressing the full range of stories that make up our complex history. These conversations should be conducted in partnership with organizations like the Federation of State Humanities Councils so they take place across all fifty states and various territories.
- Since 2015, the Federation of State Humanities Councils has led three major national initiatives that engaged communities across the states and territories in conversations about issues of pressing concern, such as the role that journalism and the humanities play in a democracy.
Whatever new narratives emerge from these conversations, they should be honest about the past without falling into cynicism, and should demonstrate appreciation of the country’s founding and transformative leaders without tipping into deification. They should acknowledge our faults and take pride in the progress we have made. They should grapple with the reasons we have routinely needed to reinvent our constitutional democracy and how we have done it. They should articulate aspirations for the elevation of our democracy to new heights in the twenty-first century. Working through how we tell ourselves stories about ourselves is a necessary part of renewing our capacity to work together for constitutional democracy.
Launch a philanthropic initiative to support the growing civil society ecosystem of civic gatherings, ceremonies, and rituals focused on ethical, moral, and spiritual dimensions of our civic values.
A certain spirit—what John Dewey called “democratic faith”—is essential to our system of self-rule. To put it simply: democracy works only if enough of us believe democracy works. When the democratic system is working for the many, that belief is both widely present and little noticed. When the system is faltering, mutual faith evaporates and we realize just how fragile and evanescent it truly is.
Democratic faith requires cultivation. It requires culture: shared rituals or ceremonies and intentional forms of play, work, reckoning, storytelling, conversation, and gathering that allow everyday citizens to make moral sense of our times in the company of others, and to try to close the gap between our high ideals as Americans and our persistently unjust realities.
In this time of declining trust and common purpose in the United States, groups and gatherings are emerging to cultivate anew the ethical beliefs and practices that animate inclusive self-government. This is a dynamic field, with new examples appearing frequently. (An updated list is available on the Commission’s website at www.amacad.org/ourcommonpurpose.) Just a few of the dozens of examples include:
- The #ListenFirst Coalition is bringing together dozens of initiatives around the country that teach habits of compassionate listening in civic life.
- Living Room Conversations has seeded hundreds of cross-ideological meetings in people’s homes that build empathy across difference. These conversations center on values and the origin stories of people’s values before getting to policy issues.
- The American Project at Pepperdine University has fostered new public conversations about what they call “a conservatism of connection” that are meant to counter the atomizing, morally corrosive power of both markets and the state.
- Weave, an initiative of the Aspen Institute founded by New York Times columnist David Brooks, a member of this Commission, is building a movement of “weavers of the social fabric” that invites people to work together across ideological, racial, and regional differences.
- Citizen University, a nonprofit led by Commission Cochair Eric Liu, organizes a regular gathering called Civic Saturday that is a civic analogue to a faith gathering. Citizen University also runs a Civic Seminary to train catalytic leaders from communities around the country to lead such gatherings. Now in more than seventy-five cities and towns throughout the country, Civic Saturdays are part of a spreading civic revival.
We believe these fledgling efforts require an infusion of coordinated support so they can develop together into a thriving ecosystem, support that comes not only from established organizations in the field of civic work, but also institutions and associations of every kind, at every scale, and in every sector. This initiative would activate funders and others with convening and storytelling power to help foster a culture of greater civic spirit.
Increase public and private funding for media campaigns and grassroots narratives about how to revitalize democracy and encourage commitment to our constitutional democracy and one another.
“What is our responsibility living in a democracy? I think it’s a great question, and I don’t know that I’ve ever been asked that question ever, you know? . . . I just wonder, you know, to what extent we all . . . understand what a democracy is.”
During every election cycle, billions of dollars are poured by candidates, political parties, political action committees, and others into advertising and advocacy efforts. This is done with precision: households and individual voters are targeted with finely tailored messages meant to turn them out or keep them home. Cable news devotes hours of airtime to the horse race. By comparison, almost no resources are directed at turning out Americans to engage in all the other practices that constitute democratic citizenship, especially at the local level. Not only that, but in the current media ecosystem, vast amounts of ink and airtime are devoted to polarizing issues. What if even a small portion of these efforts was devoted to encouraging grassroots conversations, and to reminding us why the practice of democratic citizenship is important? There are several good examples that we can build on:
- The Purple Project for Democracy launched a campaign in November 2019 to rebuild awareness of democracy, build community, and drive civic engagement. It seeks to disseminate nonpartisan messages about the importance of democracy through podcasts, social media, and influencer campaigns.
- The “I am a voter” public-awareness campaign, organized by the Creative Artists Agency, received over two billion social media impressions between June and November of 2018. This initiative and others sponsored by the Creative Artists Agency provide an example of how culture and brands can play a role in supporting the work of nonprofits focused on democracy.
Private and public capital can fund advocacy efforts that breathe new life into our democracy and inspire commitment to American constitutional democracy and one another. These efforts should offer more questions than answers; their messages should be ubiquitous; they should promote sustained participation and constructive deliberation; and they should seek to bridge partisan divides.
Invest in civic educators and civic education for all ages and in all communities through curricula, ongoing program evaluations, professional development for teachers, and a federal award program that recognizes civic-learning achievements. These measures should encompass lifelong (K–12 and adult) civic-learning experiences with the full community in mind.
For our final recommendation, we turn to the most basic element of all: education. In a 1787 letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”66 A constitutional democracy requires its citizens not just to be committed to its success and to one another, but also to develop the knowledge, skills, and habits that allow them to participate fully in the democratic process.
“We’re not really educated in our school systems, and in other community aspects about what it is to be engaged in democracy, and what democracy even means in more than just theory.”
—Charlotte, North Carolina
Recent legislation in Florida, Massachusetts, Colorado, Illinois, and Arizona is reinvigorating civic education in K–12 spaces and among young adults. The most promising new civics curricula do more than teach how a bill becomes a law; they integrate core civic knowledge with hands-on experience in democracy itself through programs that include civic projects, service learning, student government, debate training, and participatory budgeting. The most promising efforts should be funded and scaled by investing in civic education programs and professional development opportunities for educators in all our communities. Consistent evaluation programs—adopted as state standards across the United States—will help us establish best practices, and state and federal award programs will recognize and motivate civic-learning achievements for students and schools.
Yet the Commission recognizes the need to extend educational opportunities beyond the K–12 classroom. Whether they are new to the country, new to a state, or simply need refreshing, American adults would also benefit from improved access to civic education. Hosted in spaces such as public libraries, community colleges, universities, and community foundations, civic education programs can help American adults navigate the political system; evaluate different media sources and evidence; learn to debate and discuss contentious issues; and nurture the spiritual, moral, and intellectual foundations of democracy.
As we approach the 250th anniversary of our nation’s founding, civic education must do more than teach names and dates, or even impart hands-on experience. The American citizen today must be prepared to acknowledge our nation’s mistakes, to recognize that we have grappled over time to improve our imperfect union, to find pride in those struggles, and to recognize that at our best, everyone is included. We suggest that citizens today must be able to deal with ongoing debate and argument, be able to engage in that debate, find compromise, and from it all find their own love of country.
- 66“To James Madison from Thomas Jefferson, 20 December 1787,” Founders Online.