Revitalizing Democracy: Our Common Purpose

A landmark report finds that civic life in America is dangerously polarized, and offers fresh ideas for revitalizing our democracy.

August 30, 2020

Illustration of U.S. flag. Image credit D. WilliamsLow trust in institutions. Cynical online discourse. Partisan animosity that sometimes spills over into violence. This is the backdrop for a recent report on how Americans feel about our democracy – and how we can rebuild it. The challenges are harrowing: only about a quarter of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, income and wealth inequality levels have exceeded those on the eve of the Great Depression, and Millennials are so disenchanted with our system that fewer than one-third of them say living in a democracy is essential.

The 35 authors of this report, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, traveled across the country, talking with all kinds of Americans, both voters and non-voters, and conclude that while the state of civic life here is dire, “a reinvention of our constitutional democracy remains entirely within reach – and urgently needed.”

This report goes beyond broadly encouraging Americans to be civil and work together. Instead, it lays out six strategies — bolstered by 31 specific recommendations — for how we can rebuild civic life so that it truly includes and represents all of us.

How did a group of 35 very diverse and opinionated people agree on such a comprehensive set of ideas? The faded art of compromise. Not all members of the commission supported every recommendation in the report, but they let go of their individual reservations because they saw the potential benefits of the whole. They explain their approach with the words Benjamin Franklin used at the Constitutional Convention:

“Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die. If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects and great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity.”

Here are the six strategies the report outlines:

  1. Achieve equality of voice and representation
  2. Empower voters
  3. Ensure the responsiveness of government institutions
  4. Dramatically expand civic bridging capacity
  5. Build new civic information frameworks that support common purpose
  6. Inspire a culture of commitment to American constitutional democracy and one another

For anyone looking to get to work, the report offers specific recommendations for implementing each strategy. Some are controversial, such as adding many more members to the House of Representatives, making voting mandatory, and establishing a universal national service program. Some build on ideas and practices already in use, such as ranked-choice voting. Others are so obvious that it’s hard to believe we haven’t done them already: investing more in civic education, helping people participate in public hearings and meetings at the state and local level, and establishing a voter pre-registration process for 16- and 17-year-olds and offering them voter education before they turn 18.

One recommendation close to our hearts is this: “Design structured and engaging mechanisms for every member of Congress to interact directly and regularly with a random sample of their constituents in an informed and substantive conversation about policy areas under consideration.”

That’s very much the spirit of our Citizen Panel Initiative, where a representative sample of Americans – whether nationally or in a particular state or congressional district – goes through a policymaking simulation and registers their opinions on measures under consideration in Congress. Our goal is to hold many more of these events in all kinds of districts, bringing the voices of people across the political spectrum to the forefront of our political discourse.

The next time you’re feeling despondent about the state of American democracy, take a look at this deep bench of ideas that could make things better. You may find one or more you can start work on right away. And stay tuned for tips from us on how to make each of these recommendations a reality.

Read the report here and learn more about the project here.

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This article originally appeared in the August 30, 2020 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and published articles — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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