Our Common Purpose

The Way Forward: Essential Reinvention of American Constitutional Democracy

We now turn to that course of action. The conditions described in this report—strained institutions, fragmented civil society, economic inequality, unequal representation, a changed media ecosystem, coarsening civic culture—affect everyone in America. To overcome these democratic deficits, we need to understand citizenship both as a matter of formal rights, such as voting and running for office, and also in broad, ethical terms that demand engagement from all who reside in the United States, whatever their legal citizenship status may be. A broad ethical definition of citizenship focuses on participation in common life, contributions to the common good, and efforts to serve common interests. When an individual makes such positive contributions to a self-governing society, that person is often regarded as “a good citizen.”

It used to be that only propertied white men enjoyed the entitlements of legal citizenship, but thanks to the progress of justice through our courts, to clashes in our town halls and legislatures, and to epic battles on our soil, those entitlements have been expanded, if still imperfectly, to women, to descendants of people once enslaved and members of indigenous communities once subject to destruction, and to immigrants once foreclosed from a path to legal status. Changes in formal citizenship have often resulted from ethical practices of citizenship from those without full access to formal political rights. This country’s active, contributory citizens have always included people without the formal status of “citizen.” Consequently, the Commission has focused on advancing both the formal and the ethical practice of citizenship.

Because these challenges are inherently intertwined, the Commission’s recommendations seek to renew the practice of democratic citizenship through reforms to three fundamental spheres of democratic life: political institutions and processes, civic culture, and civil society organizations and activities. While the United States has seen various efforts at reform over the past decade, most have focused on only one component of this dynamic ecosystem, whether on reforms to political institutions or wholly on civil society. Few of these efforts have directly addressed culture or values. Moreover, many proposals have focused on boosting the supply of civic organizations and experiences without attending to the reasons why demand for such experiences and organizations has waned.

Sagal Abdirahman (left) and Habon Abdulle (right)
Sagal Abdirahman (left) and Habon Abdulle (right) in Cambridge, MA, on February 7, 2020. They participated in a listening session with Somali refugee women in St. Louis Park, MN.

In our recommendations, we have identified a set of key reforms to political institutions and processes that we feel can do the most to achieve integrity of representation and equality of citizen voice. We have also selected reforms that will help us invigorate our civic culture, build trust, and inspire a resilient civic faith for the twenty-first century. We see civil society as the vital bridge between political institutions and that civic faith, and so in several of our recommendations, we have focused on how it can better connect these two domains.

The virtuous cycle of culture, institutions, and civil society has by definition no start point and no end point. Yet, to understand the linkages among the Commission’s six strategies for action, achieving equality of voice and representation (Strategy 1) is as good a place as any to begin. Equal voice and representation will help inspire commitment to American democracy and to one another (Strategy 6), since lack of representation is part of what is eroding our civic faith. The recommendations of this strategy, in turn, lean heavily on those of the next: as voters become effectively empowered (Strategy 2), more of them will vote, and representation will improve. Meanwhile, equal voice and representation will help ensure that institutions become more responsive (Strategy 3) as politicians respond to what their constituents want. And responsive institutions will be more representative.

Already there are abundant signs of the virtuous cycle of constitutional democracy—the interplay of institutions, culture, and civil society—at the local level in communities across the country. In dozens of the Commission’s grassroots conversations, citizens consistently pointed to local government as the locus of democracy that serves them best, and local communities as their preferred vehicles of civic attention and engagement. Across political ideologies, disparate geographies, and remarkably diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, citizens expressed commitment to the fundamental values that unite us, including equality, liberty, and justice. They also conveyed deep hope that Americans can learn to bridge the differences that now divide us. These attitudes represent the seeds of democratic reinvention, and they have already been planted. The question now is how to nourish them; how to spread them throughout the country; and how to grow them to a scale commensurate to the challenges of this century.

The recommendations that follow constitute the Commission’s response to this challenge. They reflect the experience and hard work of the many thought leaders, practitioners, and officials who shared their expertise with us. But perhaps more important, this set of recommendations is rooted in the shared stories, frustrations, and aspirations that emerged from the Commission’s grassroots conversations and the path to reinvention they helped to illuminate.

The Commission aspires to achieve significant progress on all recommendations by 2026, the 250th anniversary of the nation’s birth. Starting, as we do now, from the depths of a crisis, this is an expression of great ambition. Implementing the six strategies and thirty-one tactical recommendations will require support from policy-makers, private philanthropy, business, educators, civil society leaders, and, of course, individual Americans. Many of the details will need to be debated and explicated in the months and years ahead. Progress will depend on the hard work of the many organizations, advocates, public officials, and civic leaders already working on similar solutions at the local, state, and national levels. Shining a light on that existing work will inspire others. While only some of these initiatives appear as examples in the following pages, a more comprehensive working list, as well as a map of progress milestones on the way to 2026, can be found on the Commission’s website (www.amacad.org/ourcommonpurpose). Implementation will require a groundswell of new activity and commitment to reinventing American democracy. New leaders will have to step forward and many more of us will need to engage in advancing these ideas in our communities. Committed to one another, inspired by love of country, we can do it, and find joy in the process.