Our Common Purpose
Founded nearly 250 years ago, the United States of America is the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. Its infancy, under the Articles of Confederation, was turbulent. Its early prospects, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, were very much uncertain. At the Convention, Benjamin Franklin—catalyst of the Revolution, leading citizen of the republic, enslaver turned abolitionist—wondered as he observed the conflicts, compromises, and contradictions of the process: was the young nation’s sun rising or setting? With the signing of the Constitution, he concluded, the sun was rising.
Today, the question of rise or fall is more pertinent than ever. In this age of globalization, centralized power, economic inequality, deep demographic shifts, political polarization, pandemics and climate change, and radical disruption in the media and information environments, we face these converging trends in a constitutional democracy that feels to many increasingly unresponsive, nonadaptive, and even antiquated.
Consider the data. The public’s approval rate for Congress—our national legislature and the first branch of government established in the Constitution, charged with articulating the will of the people—hit a historic low of 9 percent in 2013.1 Now rates hover around a still-meager 25 percent. Income and wealth inequality levels have exceeded those on the eve of the Great Depression. Social mobility has stagnated. Inequities continue to track lines of race, gender, and ethnicity, revealing deep structural unfairness in our society. A surge in white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant vitriol has flooded our politics with sentiments corrosive to the ethic of a democratic society, while people of color continue to confront barriers to opportunity and participation. At all levels of our system, voter turnout remains low in comparison to other advanced democracies. Trust in institutions has collapsed while an online culture of gleeful, nihilistic cynicism thrives. Fewer than one-third of Millennials consider it essential to live in a democracy.2 Partisan rancor has not reached the intensity of Civil War–era America—but it is nonetheless very high. When Americans are asked what unites us across our differences, the increasingly common answer is nothing.
Yet this is not the whole story. It is not even the decisive chapter. As we have traveled the United States in recent months and listened to Americans from many walks of life, we have heard disappointment and frustration, but even more, we heard a yearning to believe again in the American story, to feel connected to one another. We heard stories of surging participation and innovation, of communities working to build new connections across long-standing divides, and of individual citizens suddenly awakening to the potential of their democratic responsibilities. Even as we survey the impact of COVID-19, we see incredible individual and collective efforts to sustain civic resilience. That is why we have come to believe a reinvention of our constitutional democracy remains entirely within reach—and urgently needed. After all, a superlative benefit of constitutional democracy, as articulated in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is that it is adaptable to new circumstances and unanticipated challenges. This report, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, lays out a case for renewed civic faith. It offers a set of recommendations for building a fresh collective commitment to democratic citizenship, to American constitutional democracy, and to one another. Our theory of action is the idea that improvement of our civic culture and of our institutions must go hand in hand. Each is necessary; neither on its own is sufficient.
A superlative benefit of constitutional democracy, as articulated in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is that it is adaptable to new circumstances and unanticipated challenges.
Our conversations about democratic civic life are now so polarized that we must pause to define our central terms. In the twenty-first century, democracy refers to a political system in which legislative and chief executive decision-makers are elected by majority or plurality rule by eligible voters, with a presumption that the franchise approaches universal adult suffrage among legal citizens and that mechanisms are in place to protect ideological, religious, ethnic, and other demographic minorities. This definition refers to representative rather than direct democracy, reflecting that all existing democratic societies are representative. While we use both constitutional democracy and democracy in this report, we recognize these as synonyms to other terms in common usage in the United States, including “republic” and “democratic republic” (see Appendix A for more key terms). In traditions of American political thought, all these terms capture forms of rights-based representative government in which 1) elected government leadership is constrained by constitutionalism, the rule of law, the separation of powers, the free expression of the people, and the legal protection and moral affirmation of the rights of individuals; and 2) groups and parties that are not part of electoral majorities cannot easily be disenfranchised or suffer loss of rights. We do not naively claim that more democracy simply in the form of more participation will solve our problems. We seek instead to achieve healthy connections between robust participation and political institutions worthy of participation. The beauty of constitutional democracy is that winners of an election are confined by the Constitution, a separation of powers, and a genuine institutionalized distrust of power, all democratically established.
Consequently, 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. 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. Throughout our proceedings and in this report, we use a meaning of citizenship that extends beyond legal status to express a broader ethical conception of engagement in community and contribution to the greater good.
Several scholars have argued that constitutional democracy in the United States experienced a “second founding” in the years immediately following the Civil War with the adoption of the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution that abolished slavery, guaranteed equal protection of the laws, and made black male citizens eligible to vote. The civil rights movement is, in turn, sometimes described as a “third founding.” We on this Commission believe that the profoundly challenging conditions of the twenty-first century pose an urgent threat to the future of our democratic way of life and thus require a “fourth founding”: rooted not only in the language of our Constitution and laws, but also in our expanded national creed of liberty and justice for all; not only in the actions of government, but also in the commitments of citizens; not only in the reinvention of federal structures, but also in devolution of power to local governance; not only in research and analysis, but also in love of country and one another.
We have identified six imperatives at the heart of this fourth founding: 1) to achieve equality of voice and representation through our political institutions; 2) to empower voters in a lasting way; 3) to ensure the responsiveness of our political institutions; 4) to dramatically expand the capacity of civil society organizations that foster “bridging” across lines of difference; 5) to build civic information architecture that supports common purpose; and 6) to inspire a culture of commitment to American constitutional democracy and one another.
These imperatives produce strategies for action. Below we detail those strategies and the specific recommendations to implement them. Together, they reflect the interplay between civic culture and institutions. They also reflect the interplay between national leadership and locally driven reform and between individual liberty and collective action. Finally, these strategies provide a framework for ensuring the resilience of our constitutional democracy, even in the face of crisis.
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.
The Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship is a two-year project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Its membership comprises thirty-five dynamic and thoughtful members: scholars, practitioners, business leaders, and civic catalysts who cross geographic, demographic, and ideological boundaries. Danielle Allen of Harvard University, Stephen Heintz of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Eric Liu of Citizen University serve as cochairs of the Commission. Over the last two years, the Commission has focused on the interaction in the United States specifically of political institutions and civic culture, on their nourishment by civil society, and on the individual practice of democratic citizenship. We consistently sought to activate the adaptability of our institutions and culture to equip ourselves to meet the hard challenges of our day, but we did not, as we worked, anticipate a near-term challenge as difficult as that presented by the novel infectious disease COVID-19. In the final stage of writing this report, we paused to reflect on its meaning for our work and came to the conclusion that it left our fundamental principles and recommendations unchanged. A constitutional democracy can meet challenges, even on this scale, provided that it maintains the health that gives it flexibility and agility. The form of health needed by a constitutional democracy, even in times of crisis, flows from exactly the areas of focus in this report: equality of voice and representation, empowerment of voters, responsiveness of political institutions, bridging ties across lines of difference, civic information architecture that supports common purpose, and a culture of commitment to American constitutional democracy and one another.
Through our work, we explored the factors that encourage and discourage people from becoming engaged in their communities; we shed light on the mechanisms that help people connect across demographic and ideological boundaries, and identified spaces that promote such interaction; and we examined how the changes in our media environment have altered what civic engagement and free expression look like in many communities. In order to develop recommendations and reflect the diversity of conditions and concerns in our nation, we conducted a comprehensive review of previous reform recommendations, we brought together and interviewed thought leaders, and, perhaps most formatively, we held nearly fifty deep listening sessions with Americans in diverse communities around the country: among them, first-year students of a military academy, self-identified conservatives and progressives, faith leaders, rural civic leaders, urban activists, and immigrants and refugees from around the world. (Appendix B lists these sessions.) Through this multipronged engagement process, we identified common barriers to civic participation as well as success stories of democratic engagement, and illuminated a possible path of reinvention. Many of our recommendations will be familiar, and the work of this Commission has benefited greatly from the hard work and hard-earned expertise of others who generously shared their experience, insights, and suggestions. Our innovation, we hope, lies in how we have combined these ideas and insights into a coherent vision for democratic reinvention.
This report contains four sections: First, we summarize the six strategies and thirty-one recommendations proposed by the Commission. Second, we step back to assess the crisis of democratic citizenship today. Third, we offer a case for reinvention, explain the theory of action behind each of our strategies, and offer more detail on our recommendations. Finally, we conclude with a call to action for Americans in multiple sectors and describe how every one of us can take on the task of fulfilling the promise of our constitutional democracy. Throughout, we weave in the voices of Americans who participated in our nationwide listening sessions.
Reaching consensus on this package of recommendations was not without challenges. Several members of the Commission do not personally support one or another of the individual recommendations, yet they were willing to relinquish those reservations in support of the potential benefits of the package taken as a whole. In short, we compromised; we sought to restore that faded art. The members of the Commission were ultimately inspired by the model set by Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention. As he cast his vote in favor of that imperfect instrument, Franklin reminded his colleagues of their lasting obligation:
Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die. If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects and great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity.
We on this Commission offer our report in the same spirit: a spirit of humility and higher responsibility for an American constitutional democracy fully worthy of our mutual commitment to it and to one another. We hope to inspire significant progress on all our recommendations by 2026, the 250th anniversary of the nation’s birth, and in our small way, to help speed and secure the fourth founding of the United States of America.