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Report: Trust In American Institutions Has Been Dropping For Decades


We're going to begin today's program taking stock of the extraordinary few months we've faced as a nation, looking ahead to what that could mean for American democracy.

Trust in American institutions has been dropping over the past few decades, and that was before the coronavirus pandemic, the economic fallout from trying to contain it and the recent protests over racial injustice. But it seems clear just from the scale of the most recent protests that many Americans feel powerless, and many are saying they don't have faith in Congress, politics in general and increasingly polarized mass media.

A new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences addresses these failures and gives detailed suggestions on how to fix them. It's called "Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy For The 21st Century." And we're joined now by two people who worked on this report. Danielle Allen is the director of Harvard's Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics. She was one of the co-chairs.

Professor Allen, thank you so much for joining us.

DANIELLE ALLEN: Thank you. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: And Wallace Jefferson is a former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.

Your Honor, thank you so much for joining us.

WALLACE JEFFERSON: I'm happy to be with you.

MARTIN: Professor Allen, I'm going to start with you. You were one of the co-chairs of this commission. You obviously started this work well before people were taking to the streets to protests. What were some of the things that occasioned this massive project?

ALLEN: We were set off on it by various alarm bells that were already ringing about the state of American democracy. There is the very low commitment of young Americans to democracy. So fewer than 30% of people under the age of 40 consider it essential to live in a democracy, for example. There are Congress's low approval ratings - hit 9% in 2013. It's come back up to 30%. But Congress is the first branch. It's the people's voice. If the people don't approve its own voice, that tells you your democracy is broken in some fundamental way.

So we convened a broad, bipartisan, demographically diverse commission of people to really figure out, what are Americans experiencing, and try to come up with solutions.

MARTIN: The commission held listening sessions all over the country, including people from different backgrounds. Could you just briefly tell us some of the things that people said?

ALLEN: There are a few key takeaways. I mean, one of the first things was that, you know, when people were asked what do they think they share with other Americans, it's this sort of sad fact that what people think they share is that we no longer share anything.

Yet at the same time that that was true, everywhere we went, we also heard people actually telling the same story about what it meant to them to be in America, to be America. And so there's a strong love of country, even across all of those differences. And there was this kind of consistent invocation of the language of rights and responsibilities.

MARTIN: Chief Justice Jefferson, what did you hear? I know you're in a different part of the country from professor Allen and, you know, have a different background. What struck you from what you heard?

JEFFERSON: So you're right. I'm in a Republican state, very conservative. But I heard many of the same things that Danielle is talking about - a real hunger to engage and ideas and thoughts and progress that is larger than the individual themselves, and even in a conservative state like Texas.

MARTIN: So let's get to some of the suggestions in the report. They are bold - increasing the size of the House of Representatives, term limits for U.S. Supreme Court justices, universal voting and instant voter registration. I'm curious to know - when you all were discussing these things, did you say to yourselves - what did you say to yourselves?

ALLEN: Sure. We directly asked a question of, how bold should we be? Should we be incrementalist, or should we be bold? And we came down on the side of bold for a few different reasons. The first was the sense of urgency that across the whole commission - didn't matter what sort of side of the pile you were on - there's a strong sense of urgency everywhere.

The other important part of it was that we came to realize that democracy - a healthy constitutional democracy depends on a virtuous circle linking functional political institutions, a civil society with organizations that are capable of bridging and connecting people across differences and a civic culture that sustains commitment to constitutional democracy and the commitment of Americans to one another.

MARTIN: Chief Justice Jefferson, as a person who's actually had a run in election, I mean, could you see yourself running on a platform that said, you know what? The system is broken. It needs to be rethought.

JEFFERSON: I think I could. And I think I should. I think people who are in public office need to take advantage of this time of crisis to go back to the people and say, we hear you. We want to change things and change it in a way that will prioritize the voices of our diverse democracy. The last time I ran as an African American Republican in Texas was when Barack Obama was at the top of the ticket. I thought that was a pretty startling to think about the progress we've made.

I'm the descendant of a slave, and the slave was owned by a Texas judge. And years later, his descendent becomes chief justice of Texas. So you have this idea that we were at a moment of progress, and now we're seeing that that was perilous. The Black Lives movement and what's happening with the police forces really make us focus our attention on the deficits here in the United States.

MARTIN: Before we let each of you go, I'm just going to ask each of you to kind of think of a moment over the course of working on this that just sticks with you. Was there something that you just can't get out of your head, something that someone said or some data point or something that stuck with you that you just can't - that haunts you even now as you think about these issues?

ALLEN: I was fortunate to participate in a listening session here in Massachusetts - in Lowell, Mass., among a community of Cambodian immigrants. So they've been in the country for a long time, and there was a lot of weeping in our listening session. And the weeping was occasioned both by stories about the contrasts between the terror they lived through under persecution and the benefit and joy and wonder of freedom in this country.

MARTIN: What about you, Mr. Chief Justice?

JEFFERSON: So I'm just going to read you one sentence from the report that is very dramatic. In 2020, the 26 states with the smallest populations control the majority of votes in the Senate while representing only 18% of the U.S. population. That's one data point that shows why citizens feel like they're not being heard. And you can go beyond that. You look at economics, you look at racial differences in the political world, and that explains to me why many of us think that we are in a crisis situation that needs to be remedied.

MARTIN: Wallace Jefferson is a former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, and Danielle Allen is the director of Harvard's Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

JEFFERSON: Thank you for having us.

ALLEN: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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