America has to rebuild democracy amid recovery from national crisis

America has to rebuild democracy amid recovery from national crisis
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As protests continue to erupt in our cities and the coronavirus persists, a profound soul searching is taking place across our exhausted land. It first seizes us as confusion and anger, underscored with pain and mourning. Then it emerges as an understanding that the path forward cannot look like the one behind us, but it is unclear how to pave the new path. What is clear is that we are all aching to begin anew. It is time for a great reset.

But how does that reset start? Where do we begin rebuilding the nation? How do we include everyone in the process? When a house is collapsing, the first thing to do is shore up the floor joists, upon which everything rests. In our country, those joists are our democracy, the political system by which people have power, and policy is made on their behalf.

Indeed, those joists have been mercilessly hacked at in the last three decades. We have all seen it happen, and much of it has been intentional. The gerrymandering, which carves people, and often communities of color, out of districts so that those in power can continue to hoard it. The overwhelming dominance of money in politics, which hands the policy process to the wealthiest and leaves almost everyone else behind.


The intentional disenfranchisement of black and brown voters through dirty tricks and crafty laws that echo Jim Crow. The autocratic control of both chambers of Congress by the House speaker and the Senate majority leader. The executive branch aggregating power as the legislative branch loses its limbs. The decline of civic learning and the loss of our sense of common purpose as fellow Americans. The creation of two very different narratives about current events through the tribalization of the media.

The result, of course, is the situation we have all come to hate today. It is one marked by gridlock, division, resentment, and legislation crafted by special interests sailing through the legislative process while the public interest drowns in the wake. As hard as it might be to imagine today, there is a venn diagram overlap between certain supporters of President Trump and all those marching in the streets to protest on behalf of Black Lives Matter, a political system that keeps powerless people powerless.

Unless our leaders begin the process of reconstructing and reinventing that political system, we should not expect anything to fundamentally change in the coming years. That is why democracy reform is the most important precondition for national progress at this point in history.

Reverend William Barber, one of the great civil rights leaders of our time, spoke of the death of George Floyd over the weekend. Barber addressed not just the direct physical violence that had killed him, and kills so many like him every year, but also the violence of policy that undermines poor communities across the nation every day. They face a lack of health care, decent incomes, and affordable housing. Unless we fix the violence of policy, Barber said, then we will continue to be “a divided and a deadly and a distorted society.” Unless we fix the violence that has been done to our democracy, the violence of bad policies will not end.

About a year ago, the Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was asked what it will take to rebuild the middle class in the country. He said, “If we are going to actually achieve the kinds of changes that we need, we are going to have better politics. A concern which I raise is that we have been engaged in processes which entail disenfranchisement, weakening the power of ordinary individuals in the political process, both through gerrymandering and through the power of money, and then weakening some of those systems of checks and balances.”


What makes our nation great is, in large part, our grand experiment in government by the people. Getting that experiment right in a way that brings all to the table is the first step on the path to national recovery. It requires the passage of laws that strengthen voting rights, reduce the influence of political money on the policy process, end gerrymandering, and rebuild the institution of Congress. Skipping such an important step means we are bound to stumble with the subsequent ones.

The repercussion of stumbling again could be as high as the cost of losing our country to the darkest undercurrents of human history. But if we can muster the strength and the camaraderie to apply ourselves to the task of reforming and reinventing our democracy, we will have the tools needed as a people to begin fixing the many other problems we face.

Nick Penniman is the founder and chief executive officer of Issue One.