Our Common Purpose
A Prevailing Sense of Crisis
Few problems have only one cause. The challenges facing the nation’s constitutional democracy are not the result of single events, specific elections, or one set of decisions. Data about the state of political and civic life in the United States, along with the nearly fifty conversations that the Commission held with Americans across the country, reveal that there is a multitude of factors that impact how people interact with their neighbors, their civic institutions, and their government. These factors are the result of many forces, some of them entirely local in nature, while others are global and systemic. The major stressors of the twenty-first century—a fragmented media environment, profound demographic shifts, artificial intelligence and other technological advances, economic inequality, centralized power, and climate change—require a fundamental reassessment of U.S. political institutions, civil society ecosystems, and civic norms. If this was not already clear before COVID-19 revealed the strains on the body politic, it is painfully evident now.
No narrow set of recommendations can address all of these challenges, and no single institution has the reach to make an impact across all of these domains. Improving, building, and sustaining the practice of democratic citizenship requires that we recognize how these challenges overlap and identify the intersections of our political institutions, civic culture, and civil society where reform can have the widest impact. It requires too that we find our way back to love of country and one another. We emphasize the word love. What we need is as much about our motivations as about mechanisms of change.
The Commission did its fact-finding in three main ways. It reviewed the existing quantitative data and literature on political and civic engagement, demographic change, media shifts, and socioeconomic conditions; it consulted with numerous scholars and experts; and it held nearly fifty listening sessions with diverse groups of Americans around the country, in small towns, suburban areas, and some of the nation’s largest cities. This research, at both the quantitative and qualitative levels, allowed the Commission to identify a broad set of concerns in communities all over the country. But it also allowed the Commission to identify a set of common challenges that we face as a nation if we want to restore the functioning of America’s political institutions, civil society, and civic culture.
Throughout this Commission’s two years of work, new surveys, reports, projects, and working groups have seemed to appear almost weekly, each presenting a different explanation for current conditions in the political, media, and cultural environment. Some key points are consistent across virtually all of these data sources. One such point is that public trust in the federal government is stuck at historic lows. Overall distrust of the federal government has become a persistent marker of American politics across presidential administrations and congressional terms. According to the Pew Research Center, only 17 percent of Americans in 2019 said they can trust the federal government to do what is right “just about always” (3 percent) or “most of the time” (14 percent).3 Twenty years ago, more than twice as many Americans trusted the American government always or most of the time (40 percent). The federal government is not the only institution that has seen its level of trust drop over the past thirty years. Americans also trust business, the news media, and religious institutions less than they used to (although they still place a fair amount of trust in the military).4
More recently, our trust in one another has also begun to show signs of decline. While a significant majority of Americans trust their neighbors to report serious problems to the authorities (75 percent), to obey the law (73 percent), and to help those who are in need (69 percent), we have far less trust in one another when issues of politics come into play.5 As recently as 2007, a majority of Americans trusted in the political wisdom of their fellow Americans. But, since at least 2015, that confidence has turned to skepticism, and today, 59 percent of Americans have little or no confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions.6 Levels of personal trust in both institutions and neighbors increase with age, education, and income and are also higher with white than with Hispanic or African Americans.7
“Truth and trust. And there’s so much wrong with that right now in our so-called democratic society. . . . The basis of a democratic society is you have to be able to believe the people who are leading you. You have to believe that you have the opportunity to elect people who are the people you need speaking for you. And you have to trust them, and they have to trust you. And I think that’s really broken in our world right now.”
Yet the data also show that Americans do not accept this state of affairs. Survey respondents say that while low levels of trust in government and one another make it more difficult to solve problems, it is both possible and important to try to improve trust. Eighty-four percent of Americans think that the level of confidence that we have in the government can be improved, and 86 percent think that we can improve the level of trust we have in one another, particularly if we can reduce political partisanship, make the news more factual and less sensational, spend more time with people instead of on social media, and practice empathy.8 On the one hand, even before the COVID-19 pandemic there was a sense of crisis, a fear that we cannot count on one another or on our shared civic and political institutions to function in pursuit of our common interests. On the other hand, there is a sense of hopefulness that this situation can be changed, that our problems are not intractable, and that by working together in communities we can rebuild the shared trust and trustworthiness that are necessary to the healthy functioning of a constitutional democracy.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought many of the challenges we examine below into clear focus: social and economic inequality, distortions in representation, weak and poorly functioning institutions, and the disruptive information environment all limited our society’s capacity to respond to the crisis quickly and effectively. At the same time, even as government faltered, citizens across the country responded with selfless generosity, a spirit of mutual aid, a willingness to sacrifice for the common good, as well as unbounded bottom-up creativity and initiative. This experience underscores the need for an essential reinvention of American democracy—as well as the civic wealth that exists in a populace that is able to organize for action and willing to nurture bonds of community and love of country.
The recommendations we present here have been developed to address the urgent priorities we identified during nearly two years of inquiry.
Economic Inequality: A Central Contextual Factor
Economic conditions powerfully shape the context for conversations about civic participation, government, media, and trust. Historically high inequality in the United States not only gives some people a far louder voice than others in our political conversation, it also keeps some people from participating in democratic processes at all. In many of the listening sessions that the Commission held, participants talked about the impossibility of taking the time to attend city council meetings or vote in primary or general elections when they work multiple jobs while also caring for children and other family members. Family incomes of most Americans have been relatively stagnant for the past twenty-five years. From 1993 to 2017, the average real family incomes of the bottom 99 percent of the U.S. population grew by only 15.5 percent, while the incomes of the top 1 percent of American families grew by 95.5 percent.9 Prior to the economic crash sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. economic inequality was more extreme than at any time since 1929. This historic upward concentration of income and wealth in the United States has been both a cause and effect of political disengagement. Congressional priorities, studies have shown, now align with the preferences of the most affluent.10 Lower- and middle-income Americans correctly sense that the wishes of the wealthy are likely to prevail and they disengage in response. Their cynicism becomes self-fulfilling, empowering the affluent in a vicious circle.
The real and perceived influence of large donors on political campaigns is another issue that frequently arose in the listening sessions. The combined cost of the 2016 presidential and congressional elections in the United States has been estimated at $6.3 billion (this does not include any spending on local or state-level campaigns).11 Many Americans feel that in equating money with speech, we have diminished the equality of representation that is central to how our country should work. As one civic leader in Phoenix, Arizona, said, “It just seems like the money always speaks louder than the voices.” The listening sessions revealed clearly that many Americans believe that a shift has taken place in how our political system functions, and that as a result of this shift, many voices have been systematically drowned out in our political conversation. While the realities of the influence of money on politics are hard to untangle, Americans commonly articulate the view that political outcomes have been distorted by income and wealth inequality. This indicates an erosion of the legitimacy of our institutions. This report offers recommendations for policies that will change our political system in ways that would reduce the influence of money in our politics, give weight to a wider range of voices, and increase the legitimacy of our institutions in the eyes of citizens.
Democratic reform need not wait until economic remedies are implemented. Indeed, an underlying premise of this report is that achieving fuller and more equal political participation for all is necessary to achieve greater economic fairness in the United States. Feedback between economic and political inequality flows in both directions. So must the solutions.
Obstacles to Voting
In our most recent nationwide elections, the United States ranked twenty-sixth in voter turnout among the thirty-two OECD nations for which data are available.12 Voter turnout tends to be higher in the United States in presidential elections than in midterm elections. About 60 percent of eligible voters participated in the last four presidential elections, compared with the 40 percent who participated in most midterm elections from 1918 to 2014.13 At 50.3 percent, 2018 was an exceptional year for voter participation in a midterm election, though that turnout still did not reach presidential-year levels. We know much less about turnout in local elections, except that it is typically much lower, especially when those elections do not coincide with federal-level elections. In one study, turnout averaged less than 15 percent in elections for mayor and city council in the nation’s ten largest cities.14
“You have two jobs and children. . . . Time is an issue. Then you need money to go to the [polling] place, to get a babysitter or childcare if you have children. So there are many barriers and costs associated with participation. It’s a long list.”
In conversations around the country, Americans agreed that the dynamics of federal-level politics today diminish the power of ordinary people to influence election outcomes. From the influence of large donors in political campaigns to gerrymandering to the Electoral College to the role of the media, Americans across the United States said that political processes often seem designed to disenfranchise them. Those on the left and right placed different emphases on the causes of a sense of disfranchisement, but the concern was widely shared. Americans also broadly agreed that local government had much more of an impact on their everyday lives. We are faced with the paradox of more people choosing to participate in national elections, whose outcomes they feel only inconsistently represent their voices, while choosing not to participate in local elections, which are seen as more representative and more responsive.
Many of the people the Commission spoke to attributed low levels of turnout to numerous factors—some long-standing, some more recent—that make it difficult for eligible voters to register, to understand how to vote, and to cast their ballot. As one listening session participant in Farmville, Virginia, put it, the goal of all of our voting processes should be to “make it insanely easy to vote.” A local leader in Lowell, Massachusetts, observed that voting is the only “transactional place in the United States” where you have to “sign up way ahead of time, before the thing you’re actually going to do. . . . So then it’s really a barrier to first-time voters, which tend to be young people or new citizens or folks who just were never engaged in the system.” The Commission proposes several recommendations to make it easier for Americans to vote, and to elevate the importance of voting in everyone’s mind as central to life in a constitutional democracy.
As we have seen, policy outcomes track the preferences of the better-off. Historically high economic inequality distorts political repre-sentation by overweighting the voices of a subset of citizens. This is not the only way some citizens’ voices receive unequal weight. Some of today’s distortions are built into the rules of representation. The framers of the Constitution designed the Senate and other institutions so that they would check the power of simple numerical majorities. As the size, diversity, and distribution of the population have changed in ways that would have been unimaginable in 1787, the Senate’s power has grown disproportionately. This tension plays out in the growing urban-rural representation gap, which is also a nonwhite-white representation gap. In 2020, the twenty-six states with the smallest populations control the majority of votes in the Senate while representing only 18 percent of the U.S. population.
Other rules of representation—from single-member districts to winner-take-all election systems—are not required by the Constitution. But they are so ingrained in the voting systems of all the states of the Union that it often seems that they are the natural order of things. As we detail below, civic activists around the country are now reminding citizens that this order can be changed.
“The elections themselves in many ways are a foregone conclusion because of the way the districts have been drawn up.”
Some structural distortions are created and reinforced by self-dealing incumbents. Within states, gerrymandering for partisan advantage gives voters in some legislative districts a greater voice in their politics than their neighbors, and contributes to an atmosphere of polarization, even at the local level. A man in rural Virginia noted, “I don’t think we have a representative government reflective of the people. And one reason is because I think we live in a gerrymandered society. . . . You’ve got folks that are able to create boundaries that allow them to win elections.” Citizens are now organizing to enact ways to end gerrymandering. Inspired by such efforts, this report offers recommendations to help equalize representation and even out the weighting of citizen voice.
Giving more voice to voters is one thing, but making sure that somebody is listening to them is another. Many participants in the Commission’s listening sessions felt that the institutions of government do not respond to input from constituents at any time other than during election season. The data support this. Last year, only one in ten Americans attended a public meeting, such as a zoning or school board meeting in the last year.15 Regardless of racial background, fewer than 15 percent of Americans attended a local political meeting in 2018; fewer than 10 percent attended a political protest, march, or demonstration; and fewer than 5 percent worked for a candidate or campaign. White Americans were twice as likely as members of any other racial group to have contacted a public official, but even in that group, fewer than 30 percent had done so.16
From the inconvenient scheduling of local hearings and city council meetings to the alienating nature of many public spaces to the difficulty of contacting elected officials at higher levels, many factors work to discourage Americans from being actively engaged with their institutions of government. As one man in Bangor, Maine, told us about attending public hearings at the state level, “I have gone to so many public hearings and looked at the panel and [thought], ‘You don’t really care what I have to say.’ I just wasted two hours driving to Augusta in a snowstorm, and you have already made up your mind on what you’re going to do.”
Americans recognize the potential for better engagement between local officials and their constituents, especially in comparison with state or federal officials. A young philanthropic leader in Lexington, Kentucky, noted, “The national level is less tangible. You see less . . . tangible effects. But it’s the local candidates who don’t get as much of the spotlight who are actually changing your life on a day-to-day basis.” Local officials described the impact of social media on how local government functions, escalating levels of conversation around certain hot-button issues, but felt that it fails to drive meaningful interaction with constituents. A municipal official in Ventura County, California, noted, “People organize themselves on social media for a lot of issues, but then don’t take that action to the council chambers, don’t take that action to emailing their electeds. The conversation is happening, and they’re very organized, but virtually. . . . How [do you] engage those people to come forward?”
These frustrations, the Commission found, are widespread and discourage participation at multiple levels. This report offers suggestions for how to make political institutions at the local, state, and federal levels more responsive to citizens’ voices.
Fragmented Civil Society
Making changes to our political processes and institutions is an insufficient response to our current predicament. The institutions of our civil society bind our communities together. Libraries, houses of worship, parks, businesses, sports teams, fan clubs, philanthropic organizations, colleges and universities, museums, and performance spaces: all these institutions and more offer people ways to be involved in the lives of their communities that do not involve voting or attending public hearings or watching debates. They provide shared spaces, lots of them, where Americans can encounter people different from themselves: there are more public libraries in the United States (16,568), for example, than there are Starbucks coffee locations (14,300),17 and the number of libraries is dwarfed by the number of houses of worship (of all faiths) in the United States (over 350,000).18 Institutions of civil society together create a social infrastructure that supports vibrant and resilient communities.19 Often, they are the places where Americans first develop the practical skills and “habits of the heart” that are fundamental to democratic citizenship.20 They are where citizens from all walks of life come together to attend meetings, make budget decisions, and vote, and they are where these citizens can develop respect for diverse opinions and commit themselves to a common good.
Leaders of civil society institutions are aware of their important role in maintaining a healthy civic culture. As one faith leader in New York City told us, “The faith community has to help us all understand that if we don’t create opportunities for everybody to participate in this thing, then these institutions simply lose their legitimacy.” But in our conversations, we heard that many of these institutions are struggling to bridge polarization within their own memberships and are seriously under-resourced in terms of infrastructure, funding, and leadership. These institutions need to connect better with one another, to integrate their programs more fully into their communities, and to serve more effectively as bridges for people who might not otherwise find common ground. Without a set of civil society institutions that work together and build bridges across divides, no level of government intervention will be sufficient to restore cohesion to communities that are fragmented by demography, ideology, income, and suspicion.
As the director of a library in Maine said, “We don’t have a lot of in-person conversations. There’s a lot of, you know, chatter on Facebook . . . but there’s not a lot of interaction between people who think differently about politics. . . . Libraries can be uniquely positioned to bring people together . . . who come from different backgrounds, different perspectives, and start a dialogue.”
“A democratic society is a set of shared ideals, right? It only works as a group. That’s sort of its definition. . . . And that, I think, can become a vicious circle. The worse the system’s working, the less effort people are going to put into the system; it’s a potential vicious circle we get into.”
Disrupted Media Environment
In 2019, 72 percent of Americans were active on social media. Over 70 percent of Facebook users and 80 percent of YouTube users visited those sites at least once a day.21 The advent of social media has undoubtedly changed our civic culture, but because most of the data that would help us take stock of this situation is proprietary and not available for study, it is impossible to describe accurately how this has occurred and what the implications may be. Still, some change is plainly evident. Consider how the rise of social media has coincided with changing business models for news publications and a steady decline in the number of newspapers across the country: Since 2004, almost 1,800 newspapers, including more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies, have ceased publication.22 Six percent of all U.S. counties have no paper; 46 percent have only one paper, usually a weekly; and 64 percent have no daily paper.23
Many Americans who participated in Commission listening sessions talked about how the rise of social media has made it less likely that people will interact in person with members of their community. As one participant said, after describing how much time people now spend on social media, “If they would take some of that time and put it into action, and engagement with individuals, towards a common cause—that is actually a better use of people’s time.”
Some activists noted that social media can serve as a valuable tool for organizations to reach out to people and get them engaged in community efforts, from marches to political campaigns to fundraising efforts at local schools. They also noted that social media can provide a space where some people feel more free to express themselves on important issues. But many more people experience social media as an environment that undermines trust and trustworthiness and helps create a world where different groups have their own sets of facts, making deliberative discussion impossible and consensus elusive. From the spread of disinformation on Facebook and Twitter to the amount of time people spend online, Americans had a wide range of concerns about the impact of social media on the quality of public debate. They agreed that social media has polarized political debate and made political participation feel more socially risky, and they said that it made them less likely to speak up at public meetings, put up a yard sign, or even consider running for office. One woman in Maine explained that social media “has wonderful applications, but it also contributes to the degradation of our civil discourse, because people will say things online that they would never say to someone face to face. . . . It was like opening Pandora’s box, I think, in terms of its impact.” Comments like this led us to ask whether private social media companies, whose first priority is profit, are capable of also serving a civic purpose.
This report offers several policy suggestions rooted in the idea that social media, like broadcast media, can and should serve the public interest, rather than undermine it. We need not social media, but civic media.
Lack of a Shared Commitment to Constitutional Democracy
A 2017 international study by the Pew Research Center on people’s commitment to democracy revealed troubling news. Fifty-one percent of U.S. respondents described themselves as “dissatisfied” with how American democracy is working, and 46 percent said they were open to forms of government other than representative democracy, including rule by a strong leader or by groups of experts. This tendency was more pronounced among people aged eighteen to twenty-nine than among those over age fifty.24 In the context of fear and anxiety generated by COVID-19, it is all the more important that constitutional democracy rise to the challenges before us.
To commit ourselves to constitutional democracy, we must first commit ourselves to—and have faith in—our fellow citizens. To those citizens we heard from, this faith seems to flicker alive in moments of communal tragedy. In Calabasas, California, a region recovering from a tragic fire season, one municipal official described the impact of the fires on the feeling of shared purpose within the community: “I had a guy on my street who put houses out and stayed behind when there were no fire trucks, saved us all. And you had a lot of people stepping up to volunteer and people getting to know their neighbors for the first time. There was kind of a civic awakening. . . . That we are all, because of tragedy, responsible with each other. So I feel a new connectedness. I hope that stays. I don’t know.” Many expressed a worry that, beyond sporting events and communal responses to tragedies, Americans have no experiences that give them a sense of common purpose. They also noted—and lamented—how few opportunities Americans have today to work together to improve their communities and build trust across boundaries. Yet democracy depends on a more durable sense of connectedness, as well as opportunities to practice it. The arrival of the COVID-19 crisis made this exceedingly clear. The health and well-being of all of us depend on social solidarity that inspires commitment to the measures and investments necessary to beat back the pandemic.
Having faith in our fellow citizens also requires believing that they share some sense of common purpose, and that they seek to and are equipped to make ethical and informed decisions about our shared fate. Yet many people who participated in Commission listening sessions expressed the view that their fellow citizens are not well-informed: a belief that, naturally, weakens their commitment to the democratic system. Describing many of her fellow citizens, one independent voter in Greensboro, North Carolina, said, “They really just don’t even know what’s the first step to being civically engaged. . . . A lot of people talk now about civics and economics not really being taught in school, and I think that the first thing to having a healthy democracy is having the general population be educated about how to be engaged.”
Finally, many people with whom we spoke expressed the importance of a shared commitment to the “common good,” though when pressed, they struggled to articulate the common values that connect us. Relatedly, they underscored the absence of a genuinely shared narrative about who we are as Americans. A local leader in Lowell, Massachusetts, explained, “A shared story or a shared national narrative unites us, but I also think it’s dividing us. . . . You know, we were all longing for the days of Walter Cronkite . . . but if you were African American or gay or a woman, it probably wasn’t all that great. And so now as more groups that have been excluded from kind of the mainstream are included . . . it changes that shared narrative. And some of that unity that we felt, whether it was artificial or not, is kind of fractured a little bit.”
This report proposes a course of action that will help create these opportunities and thereby help people regain greater faith in their neighbors and themselves.
- 3Pew Research Center, “Public Trust in Government: 1958–2019,” April 11, 2019.
- 4Lee Rainie, Scott Ketter, and Andrew Perrin, “Trust and Distrust in America,” Pew Research Center, July 22, 2019.
- 6Pew Research Center, “Fewer Than Half of Americans Express Confidence in Public’s Political Wisdom,” April 11, 2019.
- 9Emmanuel Saez, “Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States” (Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley, 2019).
- 10Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics 12 (3) (2014): 564–581.
- 11Niv M. Sultan, “Election 2016: Trump’s Free Media Helped Keep Cost Down, but Fewer Donors Provided More of the Cash,” OpenSecrets.org, April 13, 2017.
- 12Drew DeSilver, “U.S. Trails Most Developed Countries in Voter Turnout,” Pew Research Center” May 21, 2018.
- 13United States Election Project, “Voter Turnout.”
- 14See “Who Votes for Mayor?”
- 15United States Bureau of the Census, United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, Corporation for National and Community Service, Current Population Survey, September 2017: Volunteering and Civic Life Supplement (ICPSR 37303) (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2019).
- 16Cooperative Congressional Election Study, 2018.
- 17“The State of America’s Libraries 2019,” America’s Libraries, April 2019; and Julie Jargon, “Too Much Coffee? Starbucks Shops Outnumber McDonald’s,” The Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2018.
- 18Rebecca Randall, “How Many Churches Does America Have? More Than Expected,” Christianity Today, September 14, 2017.
- 19For additional examples of how associational life in the United States has changed, see Social Capital Project, What We Do Together: The State of Associational Life in America (Washington, D.C.: United States Congress Joint Economic Committee, 2017).
- 20Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835).
- 21Pew Research Center, “Social Media Fact Sheet,” June 19, 2019.
- 22Around 7,112 newspapers remain (1,283 dailies and 5,829 weeklies). Penelope Muse Abernathy, The Expanding News Desert (Chapel Hill: Journalism Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, University of North Carolina, 2018), 10.
- 24Richard Wike, Katie Simmons, Bruce Stokes, and Janell Fetterolf, “Globally, Broad Support for Representative and Direct Democracy,” Pew Research Center, October 16, 2017.