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Reimagining Democracy For The 21st Century

Demonstrators protest at Lincoln Memorial near the Washington Monument (rear) during a protest against police brutality and racism, on June 6, 2020 in Washington, DC. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)
Demonstrators protest at Lincoln Memorial near the Washington Monument (rear) during a protest against police brutality and racism, on June 6, 2020 in Washington, DC. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

Read the ‘Our Common Purpose’ report here.

From political polarization, to rising inequality, to the immediate crisis of the pandemic and police violence, faith in our civic institutions is under fire. A new report takes a hard look at the state of American democracy and how to fix it.


Danielle Allen, political philosopher. Professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. (@dsallentess)

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Interview Highlights

When the American Academy of Arts and Sciences convened this panel of thinkers from across the spectrum, why did people feel that American democracy needed to be reimagined in some way?

Danielle Allen: “There were lots of flashing red alerts about our democracy, and have been already for years. So in 2013, for example, Congress’s approval rating hit 9%. The legislature is the first branch of government. It is the people’s voice. It has the job of articulating the will of the people. If the people doesn’t approve its own voice, then you know that your democracy is fundamentally broken. Congress’s approval ratings have, of course, come back up, but not to higher than about 30%. So that in itself is its own flashing alarm sign.

“There’s also the data on how young people think about democracy. So for people under 40, slightly under 30% consider it essential to live in a democracy. And again, I mean, it’s just very, very basic. You can’t have a democracy if people don’t want one. So if you have rising generations that do not consider democracy essential, you have a flashing red alert sign. So I could go down the list. There are the red alerts around polarization. There are the red alerts around levels of distrust in our national governments. So there’s so many different indicators that suggested that it’s time to dig deep and really consider how we organize our society and deliver on basic promises of constitutional democracy.”

So then how do you begin this exercise?

Danielle Allen: “Well it’s not that much of a mystery in the sense that this country has a habit of reconsidering its own situation. Just think back to the period between the revolution and the constitutional convention, where things were sort of obviously broken. The federal government couldn’t fund its debts. You had unrest across the new states of the new country. And a group of legislators sort of gathered quietly in Annapolis, Maryland, to say, ‘Hey, we think this thing’s really broken. Is it time for a deeper conversation?’ And the result of that was the constitutional convention. So in a similar spirit, we gathered people from across all sectors of society and said, ‘Hey, let’s consider this. Do you also have the sense that something’s really broken?’ And sure enough, everybody did.

“And so then we did the things that usually happen in a commission. That is we commissioned research, we did literature reviews and so forth. But in addition, we thought that the most important thing to do is to talk to Americans all over the country and get their take on what was working and what wasn’t working. So we organized listening and engagement conversations all over the country, seeking to understand why people weren’t participating in the government. Where they thought their frustrations lay, what the sources were. And so that gave us a chance to build out a diagnosis.”

There’s some interesting stories to be pulled out of that research you did in talking to Americans. For example, you did a session in Lowell, Massachusetts. Who did you talk to and what did you learn?

Danielle Allen: “So in Lowell, Massachusetts, we had incredible, powerful, moving conversations with a community organization of Cambodian refugees. Now, citizens. So people who have been in this country for a very long time. But came here in the wake of the terror of the Khmer Rouge and so forth. And it was really I mean, what are some of the most moving conversations I’ve ever had in my life, both in terms of the articulation of the kind of profound value they see and have experienced as members of this constitutional democracy. The protections of freedom, the opportunities to secure a life for themselves without terror, without the fear of terror. Yet they also expressed frustrations.

“They expressed efforts to connect with local government or with Congress and the difficulty of accessing the information that they needed. The difficulty of forming meaningful, effective relationships with elected officials. So there was simultaneously this recognition of the profound value of what constitutional democracy promises and the need for all of us to be committed to it, but also a sense that institutionally the institutions weren’t fully delivering. They weren’t providing responsiveness. They weren’t actually providing empowerment. They weren’t providing equal representation.”

And you also talked to nonvoters. What was that like?

Danielle Allen: “We didn’t want to just sort of talk to the people who are already civically engaged. We wanted to really find out what’s keeping people from engaging. And I mean, the stories even across really diverse contexts were very, very consistent. So in the first instance, if you asked folks, you know, what do they think that they shared with other Americans? The answer was nothing. So we had this paradoxical situation. We found that what we shared was the belief that we shared nothing. And yet at the same time that people were expressing that kind of disconnection from one another, they also across the board, all kinds of contexts, use a vocabulary of rights and responsibilities.

“They cared about their rights. They cared about having their rights protected, securing their rights. And they also recognize responsibilities. I was honestly quite surprised by how frequently we heard people invoked responsibly to pay taxes as core to their definition of what it means to be an American or be a civic participant, be a citizen. And so forth. So across the board, all kinds of contexts, people thought that we shared nothing but actually kept articulating the shared commitment to the package of rights and responsibilities that make the bedrock of constitutional democracy.”

From The Reading List

Foreign Affairs: “A More Resilient Union” — “When the novel coronavirus arrived in the United States, it hit an economy, a society, and a constitutional democracy that were fundamentally unprepared.”

Washington Post: “Opinion: The situation is dire. We need a better normal at the end of this — and peace.” — “The United States has been living through a slow-moving legitimacy crisis for some time now. There are things we can do about it.”

PBS NewsHour: “Policy recommendations to strengthen American democracy” — “Two years ago, the 240-year-old American Academy of Arts and Sciences created a bipartisan commission to analyze the state of American democracy.”

Washington Post: “Opinion: Contact tracing is the key weapon against covid-19” — “Years ago, while spending a summer in Los Angeles, I fell cripplingly ill.”

CBS News: “How Americans can hold government accountable to enact meaningful change” — “Calls are growing for meaningful change to address racial inequalities and reform the criminal justice system.”

Washington Post: “Opinion: We seek reforms to policing. But something even deeper needs repair.” — “When the Trump administration cleared a crowd of peaceful protesters, many of us felt we came right up to the brink.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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