The need for a commission on renewing democracy and seeking common ground

The need for a commission on renewing democracy and seeking common ground
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A specter is haunting our politics. Whether it is identified as “illiberal democracy” or as a looming prospect of democracy’s death, clearly we are not the first to notice.

For years, journalists and academics alike have noted the warning signs. Americans increasingly distrust the government, the news media, and our systems of education and law. Whether traced to declining credibility of persons in authority, the growing power of money and corporations throughout society, or feelings of powerlessness, a generalized lack of faith in our bedrock institutions has been deepening.

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The problem for democratic politics is not simply that we are disenchanted. Surveys of the electorate routinely show that the public believes the country is moving in the wrong direction. What matters more is that we have moved into our own social and intellectual enclaves. The demographic “big sort” has meant that liberals seem to congregate in urban centers, while conservatives tend to concentrate in more rural areas. Maps of election outcomes increasingly feature blue islands dotting vast red oceans.

 

The partisan polarization that began with politicians and pundits has seeped into the fabric of everyday life. A Pew Research Center poll last year found that Americans were likely to perceive conflicts along partisan lines to be more worrisome than conflicts along racial or economic lines.

Amid all the warnings and analyses of democratic decline, though, there have been some glimmers of hope. Many of the writers who worry about the state of democracy in the United States and elsewhere try to present suggestions for contending with the spooks that disturb us.

Let us identify those suggestions that we believe have some merit. Some of them focus on what individuals can do to help themselves and others counter the problematic tendencies at work in our world. Other suggestions aim to buttress the collective norms and institutions that sustain democratic life.

At the personal level, the goal has to be to promote openness and toleration. Breaking out of confining information bubbles by expanding one’s social media feed to include partisans of all kinds is certainly a good place to start. Seeking out new sources of information can begin to open one’s mind to ideas and perspectives that one usually does not encounter. Without solid training in media and information literacy, though, openness alone will produce little but gullibility and confusion.

Beyond that, people must embrace a larger variety of ideas regarding our social and political problems. Rather than entrenching fear or ignorance of the other, let us work to include diverse representation and multiple perspectives in all kinds of public forums — neighborhood meetings, religious congregations, town halls, and schools and colleges. In private conversations and public discussions, we need to frame our talk around common ground, around our shared values and mutual responsibilities.

Institutionally, as many commentators have noted, democratic revival will not be possible without first reinforcing democratic norms. One important initial step to take would be to embark on a national commitment to restore civic literacy. We do not mean that our schools and media should present an abstract and unrealistic approach to government processes. Instead, we hope for a deeper understanding of the spirit of the laws that might lead to elections in which candidates at all levels would run on a pro-democracy, common-ground agenda.

Finally, we see the best implementation of these and many other ideas is via a new government “Commission on Renewing Democracy and Seeking Common Ground” that would be composed of experts on promoting democracy and inclusiveness, finding common ground, and revitalizing institutions such as the media, education, and government itself. Many organizations and initiatives, such as the Bipartisan Policy Center or CivilPolitics.org, already work to promote such ideals. The advantage of a permanent commission is that it could recommend practices and help various constituencies with the materials, funding, advice, and training necessary to achieve desired results.

In other words, it could spur the kind of investment in democracy that we need. We hope that Congress will take up the call for such a commission.

Our agenda would encourage Americans to treat each other as adversaries, not enemies. It would use healthy partisan competition and a marketplace of ideas to improve social and political life, not undermine and destroy them. So much knowledge and research is available to us that we could begin to employ science and evidence-based policymaking in ways that would make our government work in fairer and more effective ways.

Neil Wollman is a Senior Fellow at Bentley University and has done research and commentary on political issues for many years.

Leonard Williams is professor of political science and dean of the College of Education and Social Sciences at Manchester University in Indiana. He researches political theory and American politics, and is the author of “American Liberalism and Ideological Change.”