The Need for Reinvention

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.

Read the Introduction to the report.

of Americans say significant changes to the fundamental design and structure of government are needed to make it work for current times.

Source:  Pew Research

A prevailing sense of crisis

The challenges facing the nation’s constitutional democracy are not the result of single events, specific elections, or one set of decisions.

There are many factors that impact how people interact with their neighbors, their civic institutions, and their government. These factors are the result of different forces, some of them entirely local in nature, while others are global and systemic. The major stressors of the twenty-first century require fundamental reassessment. If this was not already clear before the coronavirus pandemic and the death of George Floyd and its aftermath revealed the strains on the body politic, it is painfully evident now.

For an exploration of crises facing the nation - including economic inequality, obstacles to voting, distorted representation, and fragmented civil society, among others - read the Challenges section of the report

“[Loss of shared values] has to do with a number of things; it has to do with demographic shifts; it has to do with the decline of religious participation and the sort of dissolution of institutions which used to provide a sort of a unifying edifice in American culture across political lives and across racial lives.”
—Los Angeles, California
“It’s really painful to be part of this democracy right now. Because we have let so much inequality exist… I know people who are losing their homes. I know people whose…parents have been deported. I know people who’ve been sprayed by pesticides that are causing health, serious health problems. And so it’s really painful to know that we can let this happen. At the same time, I’m also hopeful because there are people trying to fight for what is right…And people still have a voice.”
—Los Angeles, California
“The most important institution in society is the family…if the family is breaking down, the fabric of society breaks down.”
—Jackson, Mississippi
“I’m a black man who lived in America all my life, and I don’t call myself American, I’m just someone who was born here. I was born in Alabama, segregation was supposedly over but it wasn’t over…. I’ve never seen myself as African American, I’m not African, I’m not American, I’m just Black. I felt like an outlaw because this country never embraced me. It’s really hard for me to think that anything they do is done in goodwill for people like me.”
—New York, New York
of Americans are open to forms of government other than representative democracy, including rule by a strong leader or by groups of experts.

Source: Pew Research

Vicious Circle or Virtuous Cycle?

“A democratic society is a set of shared ideals, right? It only works as a group. That’s sort of its definition. . . And that…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.” - Ellsworth, ME

The conditions described in this report affect everyone in America and 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 focus on only one component of this dynamic ecosystem at a time.

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. The virtuous cycle has by definition no start point and no end point.

Danielle Allen, cochair of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, explains the “virtuous cycle.”

Why Reinvent?

“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.” – Lowell, MA

The goal of these recommendations is not to rebuild the republic as we knew it. Not to restore a golden age. Our public sphere is full of disagreement, in great measure because voices formerly excluded are now in the debate. The clamor and clash of our contests are in this sense a victory. We have made ourselves a bigger people, a more capacious and sometimes contradictory people, and therefore also a more resourceful people. The question now is whether we can find our way to accommodations with one another so that we can birth for ourselves a sense of shared fate.

Read the conclusion to the report.

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 Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century