Organization: Common Ground Committee
Millions of students will soon graduate into a workforce radically altered by the pandemic and changes in technology and energy. What is government's role in this new economy? Tune in as former Gov. John Kasich and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro — recent Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, respectively — bring diverse perspectives to the search for common ground. Register now for this thought-provoking virtual conversation hosted by Common Ground Committee in partnership with BridgeND, the University of Notre Dame and The Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy.
This is the 10th installment of an ongoing Q&A series.
As Democrats take power in Washington, if only tenuously, many democracy reform groups see a potential path toward making the American political system work better. In this installment, Lawrence Lessig, founder of Equal Citizens and a Harvard Law School professor, answers our questions about 2020 accomplishments and plans for the year ahead. His organization promotes reforms aimed at fixing the political system so that all citizens are represented equally. Lessig's responses have been edited for clarity and length.
First, let's briefly recap 2020. What was your biggest triumph last year?
A bunch of us reform organizations were focused on getting every presidential candidate to commit to fundamental, HR 1-or-better-like reform. We organized a string of town halls to secure that commitment, beginning with Andrew Yang and ending with Bernie Sanders.
We also succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to clarify the power of presidential electors. That decision shut down any effort to get electors to vote contrary to their pledge and — more importantly in this election — provided a clear signal that the court would not tolerate any legislatures voting contrary to how the people had voted.
And your biggest setback?
It seems strangely narcissistic to think about individual setbacks in the middle of a pandemic. The setback we suffered was the setback the world suffered, the U.S. more than it had to — the pandemic.
What is one learning experience you took from 2020?
The profound wisdom in Margaret Mead's words: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Fundamental democratic reform has been elevated to the center of national political attention. We've been working with many others for more than a decade to make this happen. But "we" have not been millions; "we'' have just been those convinced and committed to making this happen.
Now let's look ahead. What issues will your organization prioritize in 2021?
We will continue to press HR 1 as hard as we can. But we're incredibly excited about a new project that we'll launch as a beta in the next few weeks: a massive virtual deliberation project. We hope it will enable hundreds of thousands to deliberate in small groups, first about the Electoral College, and then, if that's successful, about other issues of democracy as well.
How will Democratic control of the federal government change the ways you work toward your goals?
After HR 1, we're shifting our focus to people, not Congress. We want to demonstrate broad and deep understanding of issues of democratic reform across America.
What do you think will be your biggest challenge moving forward? And how do you plan to tackle it?
America has a media culture with a severe attention-span problem — easily distracted, not easily focused. But unlike an ADHD kid, there's no clear treatment. Somehow we need to figure out how to engage the public with seriousness and serious issues. Slow democracy, not democracy tweeted.
Finish this sentence. In two years, American democracy will ...
have begun in earnest. HR 1 will have suppressed gerrymandering, and all the techniques to suppress the vote; it will have empowered small-dollar donations to support campaigns; and the people will have the tools to engage in serious, informed deliberation about important issues facing our democracy (and if not, admit it — even just one of these will be incredible!).
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Kelly is a senior governance fellow at Georgetown University's Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation. Bland is a senior consultant at Stanford University's Center on International Conflict and Negotiation. Thompkins is CEO of the Justice and Peace Foundation, which works to combat poverty, war and racial injustice. Morrow is a lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster.
There comes a time when political leaders and ordinary citizens alike must choose to affirm and reinforce the institutions that make a democratic nation possible. The last four years have taught us that we cannot take for granted that our democratic processes will lead to compromise and reciprocity.
We are participants in an ongoing conversation about peace building among academics, community activists and international scholars who have studied intractable political conflicts and helped to develop strategies for overcoming political divisions. Our discussions have drawn heavily on our experiences in Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine and on our engagement in struggles to overcome racial injustice, wealth inequality and discriminatory policing here in the United States.
We believe the lessons we have learned offer important insights into how we could overcome the deep polarization poisoning American politics.
In our representative democracy, politics is a way of reconciling divergent interests. In this view, the core mechanisms of politics are debate and compromise. Today, these mechanisms are in serious need of repair. To restore viable democracy, we must first identify what makes political debate and compromise functional.
People live their political lives looking toward the future. Two ways of envisioning this future are important. They sound similar, but they are different: A shared vision of the future and a vision of a shared future.
The first? It implies broad agreement about how the future should unfold. It is the work of politics to define such a vision, including a consensus on how to bring it about. In the absence of a shared vision, the parties to a conflict may seek to impose the future they desire on their opponents. At this point, a vision of a shared future becomes important.
The second? Democracy does not demand that the citizens share a vision of the future. But democracy does demand that they commit themselves to a future that each would find bearable. This future must offer them security, dignity and the capacity to pursue the everyday goals virtually all of us have for ourselves and our families.
In other words, citizens have to commit to a vision of a shared future to have a democracy.
Such a vision recognizes that fundamental differences exist in what the parties seek and what they deem just. But each party also recognizes its vision must address the place of the other in that vision. If that place would be unbearable, political negotiations and citizen dialogue will be fruitless or even counterproductive.
Normal interest-based and value-based political compromise can take place, this means, only when both sides are sure that no political arrangement under consideration would afford them less than a bearable future. For democracy to function, citizens must feel that losing a political contest will not deny them the opportunity to live "normal" lives — to pursue their personal goals and dreams with some chance of success.
A deep sense of loss pervades our nation. Conservatives feel they are losing the heritage needed to build the future they want. Progressives feel they are losing the achievements of the past and also the momentum needed to build the more just and diverse future they want.
If political dialogue is to be constructive, progressives and conservatives must — first and foremost — acknowledge their respective senses of loss are legitimate and then address the fear that those Americans have of other Americans who hold opposing views.
Coming together to preserve American democracy starts with some common tasks. We must provide security for individuals, families and communities. We must safeguard livelihoods. And we must foster dignity and respect. Most politicians clearly understand the importance of these questions, but they treat them as by-products of the policies they advocate.
In the search for a shared future, We believe that these outcomes — especially the emphasis on dignity — should be paramount, intentional and visibly demonstrated.
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Kendall-Taylor is the CEO of the FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit research organization that helps build public sentiment for progressive policies.
With Donald Trump out of the Oval Office and the coup attempt a month behind us, the Republican Party has now turned to the business of saving its soul.
When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calls out a congressional colleague as a "cancer on the Republican Party," you know the leadership is concerned. But such statements about the QAnon-supporting Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia or any others in the growing ranks of dangerous elected officials from the fringes, without tangible punitive action, will do nothing to ensure the party is able to permanently renounce borderline authoritarianism and reclaim its more sensible and mainstream values. So what could?
The answer is that a good chunk of these fringe representatives must get voted out of Congress and state legislatures before the GOP can resume any semblance of functionality. Only then will the country get an actual shot at moving toward the sort of unity of purpose that a functional democracy requires.
That's an open invitation for younger Americans. More people from Generations X, Y, and Z need to run for office — Republicans, yes, but also Democrats and independents — in order to safeguard the two-party system and our governing system more generally.
Why younger people? More than any other age group, voters younger than 45 recognize that social systems — including educational structures, the economy and our justice system — need a fundamental reworking if they're to produce better outcomes, more equitable results and a sense of cohesion.
What younger Americans recognize, no matter their political affiliation, is that there's a connection between system failure and the many problems we live with today — from unmitigated forest fires, to the millions living with dead-end jobs, to the growing roster of unarmed Black men shot by police. Indeed, such recognition is what will ignite the fundamental systems change required to right the wrongs of American history and lead us all (conservative and liberal alike) to a better tomorrow.
This ignition is what's needed to push our legislators to implement solutions on such pressing matters as climate change, income inequality and systemic racism, plus a host of other issues. Legislative bodies are where we get this done. And those elected to them must use their posts to address systemic damage now. They must not use their offices as bully pulpits to call mass shootings "hoaxes" or incite crowds to ransack the Capitol, or declare war against and encourage the murder of opponents.
Can you believe we even have to say that?
My think tank uses social science to identify how people view, and ultimately change their minds about, today's most pressing issues. The work has convinced me that good ideas, ranging from better public education to smarter national security to more effective health care, should catch hold no matter who enjoys the majority. And this can be accomplished while leaving ample room for our inevitable political disagreements and pendulum swinging.
But what's deeply troubling, and dangerous, is when one party in a two-party system permits itself to get hijacked by a strongman, insurrectionists and an ever-growing league of fact-denying conspiracy theorists.
Research shows that polarization increases much faster in democracies led by an executive who creates (or, in Trump's case, recreated) a political party. It's less likely to happen when better-defined parties, with clearer sets of shared values, choose their heads. But allow a strongman to hijack the system, and the party doesn't just go under — the whole democratic experiment might well blow up.
So the point now isn't to save the GOP for its own sake, but to ensure continuity of two functioning parties for the sake of a flourishing system of government.
This isn't a push for conservative reform dressed in liberal's clothing. No one who's carefully considering how to save democracy thinks it's realistic for the GOP to adopt every last characteristic of the Democratic Party (which suffers from its own problems) in order to effectively reform.
Assuming we move toward a stronger democratic system, with a lower case "d," both parties will still quibble over policies, sometimes swapping them back and forth while calling each other out. Politics will never be dull. But younger conservatives have a distinct opportunity to push for things they care about, like balanced budgeting and tax reform, while still applying their systems-based thinking to our bigger issues — climate change and racism — that research tells us most of them care about.
Here's the thing: The GOP won't clean its own slate any time soon, or replace its current representatives with fresh new ones in the next election cycle. Systemic change, even the urgent kind, takes time. But younger Americans can become more involved in politics right now, without having to plan a run for office.
Whether by making the pledge to consistently vote, making those in power actually accountable to them, or actively engaging in policy creation at all levels of government, younger Americans can influence the country — and remedy systemic plagues — with their community-based mindsets. And we all better hope they do.
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