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The State of Reform
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We asked Americans how to fix democracy. Here's what they said.

Schleifer is research director and Leighninger is vice president of public engagement at Public Agenda, a nonpartisan nonprofit working "to strengthen democracy and expand opportunity for all Americans."

In study after study and poll after poll, Americans say they do not trust public officials, have little faith in government and are frustrated with the political process. This is reinforced by our latest Yankelovich Democracy Monitor research, which includes a nationally representative survey and is being released Tuesday.

It found 80 percent of Americans view our democracy as either "in crisis" or "facing serious challenges." Four in 10 say the design and structure of our nation's government need significant change no matter whom we elect to represent us. Half feel that racism makes it difficult for some people to participate in civic and political life, including two-thirds of Black Americans and about half of whites and Latinos.

The main question driving our research was: If this is the state of the nation, what kinds of democratic reforms do Americans want?

The new report, "Greater Voice, Greater Impact: Americans' Views on Making Democracy Work for Everyone," found that the democratic reforms Americans favor are the ones that give people the most direct power over decisions — specifically participatory budgeting, ballot initiatives and citizen juries. About half of the people want their local governments to implement each of these reforms, the most common reason being they put more control in the hands of the people.

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Though most of these new democratic practices and reforms are mainly local ones, changing the ways that citizens interact with local governments and other community institutions, they can be supported, funded, and encouraged by state and federal governments — and in many other countries, this is how democratic reforms are spreading. In the Democracy Monitor study, we asked whether people wanted similar supports from their federal government. About two-thirds of people who want their local government to implement each of these reforms say they would also support implementing them nationally — meaning that about a third of Americans would support national-scale participatory budgeting, ballot initiatives and citizen juries. While more people are open to trying these democratic reforms in their communities than nationwide, a substantial minority appears ready to try these reforms on a larger scale.

In addition to greater authority and voice, Americans say they want more equitable, deliberative and collaborative relationships with our governments.

For example, our Democracy Monitor study from one year ago found that most Americans think it would help their communities if residents could get together to discuss solutions to local problems with experts present to answer questions.

Obviously, these kinds of meetings are more difficult during a pandemic, but there are other digital engagement tools that serve these same purposes. Three-quarters of Americans say they would be more likely to participate in community problem-solving if public officials are listening to peoples' recommendations.

Above all, Americans are convinced that ordinary people have key roles to play in both solving public problems and fixing democracy itself. Over two-thirds of Americans, both this year and last year, say they believe it's mostly our responsibility to help find solutions – it's not enough to just vote and pay taxes.

Asking people what would compel them to get involved yielded more insights on how Americans think about their relationships with their communities and our governments.

People like solutions that produce more genuine give-and-take between officials and citizens, and that would encourage more volunteerism by citizens. About half say they would be much more likely to get involved in addressing an issue in their local communities if they and their fellow community members could make the final decision about how to address the problem; if elected leaders worked with them to address it; and if they could contribute their skills and experiences to addressing it.

The Yankelovich Democracy Monitor is a multi-year, solutions-focused survey of Americans conducted by our organization in partnership with the Kettering Foundation. For the survey, we contacted a nationally representative sample of 1,000 Americans in the fall of 2018 and a year later.

That means we took our most recent survey before the coronavirus pandemic began and before the death of George Floyd in police custody and the subsequent nationwide protests. While it may be too soon to tell whether and how those events will alter Americans' relationship to democracy in the long term, it is clear that in the short term they have accelerated and intensified the desire for new ways of thinking about public participation and the role of government.

"It takes more than just voting to make democracy work," Public Agenda's co-founder Dan Yankelovich, who died three years ago, once said. "All Americans should be conscious of how precious — and fragile — our democracy is. Participating in making it a more just and effective problem-solving institution is a privilege."

The challenge, of course, is how to build that democracy of equal voices in the midst of a pandemic, at a time of historically low trust in our government and during a highly polarized presidential campaign. Perhaps the first, fundamental, essential step we should take is to listen to what kind of democracy Americans want.

We’re all about the issues that have broken American democracy — and efforts to make governments work again for you, your family and your friends.
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