We live in a society in which civil discourse and political decision-making capacity are deteriorating quickly and uncomfortably. We experience this erosion in obvious ways through hyper-partisan politics, toxic media and social media, and even day-to-day interactions with colleagues, friends, and family. Civic Health Project aims to reduce polarization and foster healthier discourse and decision-making across citizenry, politics and media.
Talisse is a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt University.
Democracy is hard work. If it is to function well, citizens must do a lot of thinking and talking about politics. But democracy is demanding in another way as well. It requires us to maintain a peculiar moral posture toward our fellow citizens. We must acknowledge that they're our equals and thus entitled to an equal say, even when their views are severely misguided. It seems a lot to ask.
To appreciate the demand's weight, consider that a citizen's duty is to promote justice. Accordingly, we tend to regard our political opposition as being not merely on the wrong side of the issues, but on an unjust side. Citizens of a democracy must pursue justice while also affirming that their fellow citizens are entitled to equal power even when they favor injustice. What's more, citizens are obligated to acknowledge that, under certain conditions, it is right for government to enact their opposition's will. This looks like a requirement to be complicit with injustice. That's quite a burden.
Tracking the story of American democracy over the past decade has been a very complex undertaking, dominated by dispiriting accelerations of dysfunction but also punctuated by some developments meriting cautious optimism.
The Supreme Court opened the floodgates of money in politics, turned a blind eye to partisan gerrymandering and paved the way for dozens of measures making it harder to vote in places already marred by histories of political discrimination. Capitol Hill became more gridlocked by tribal partisan animus than ever, even when the topic was fixing the very system in which Congress is supposed to play a vibrant central role. And there's Donald Trump, who won the presidency in an election marked by unparalleled foreign interference and then took busting the norms of a democratic civil society to a whole new level.
At the same time, however, the ever more broken state of affairs in Washington was offset by successes in statehouses and city halls — and by the citizens themselves — at making democracy more equitable and productive for more people. Innovations in public financing of campaigns and election methods that reward consensus candidates were on the rise, while voting rights were returned to almost 2 million felons out of prison. Ballot initiatives and state courts moved against partisan power grabs in legislative mapmaking, allowing more people to pick their politicians, not the other way around.
Finally, the democracy reform movement itself built toward a critical mass of organizational muscle and funding strength. It even generated its own dedicated news site!
To get ready for the 2020s, when the debate over how to put the government more overtly back in the hands of the voters will be more urgent than ever, here's The Fulcrum's take on the top 10 stories about democracy's challenges from the decade now ending, in a somewhat rough chronological order.
Having organized last year's grassroots movement ending Michigan's politicized gerrymandering, Fahey is now executive director of The People, which is forming statewide networks to promote government accountability. She interviews a colleague in the world of democracy reform each month for our Opinion section.
Lisa Nash, a Democrat who lost a close state House race last year, and former Republican state Rep. Terry Wolf are the dynamic force behind The People's incredible New Hampshire leadership team. They just pulled off a three-day, five-city statewide kickoff tour where we heard from some incredible Granite Staters of all stripes.
As the tour ended, I spoke with Lisa about our time on the road and about what it's like to be one of those people who jumps into action and helps her community regardless of anyone's personal politics.