What I learned covering the democracy reform movement's evolution
Naming the thing turned out to be much more fraught than setting its course.
The prospectus dubbed us The Democracy Dispatch, straightforward and with catchy alliteration. But we quickly ditched that, heeding warnings that the right hears "democracy" as a dog whistle of allegiance to the left — meaning we might fatally undermine our plan to chronicle with nonpartisan rigor both the dysfunctions and potential fixes for American, well, democracy.
Fevered brainstorming led to our unveiling at the end of 2018 as The Firewall, because good journalism helps protect the republic and decode the fight for better government. But the word's association with computer network security, and its defensive connotation, prompted us to abandon that name within weeks.
Fortunately, the muse arrived in time for the launch. Our reporting, opinion essays and public engagement efforts were all about "supplying the capability for action" to citizens wanting to fix the system, paraphrasing Webster's definition. Our goal was encapsulated by the Archimedes aphorism, "Give me a fulcrum and a place to stand, and I can move the world." Plus, the tagline we'd settled on was to provide news coverage, an opinion forum and community-building that would be levers for achieving a better democracy.
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That process generated the first big lesson among the many packed into the past 30 months: While tussling with all the variables of a new venture, stick with your mission and your audience will stick by you.
So thank you, dear readers, for embracing in steadily growing numbers what our small but dedicated newsroom has sought to do: Impartially cover the sprawling and disjointed movement to restore faith in our government by making it more equitable and productive for more people.
We've kept our focus on the most important impediments: suppressed voting rights and confounding election laws, special-interest money and partisan gerrymandering, shoddy civic education and slipshod government ethics, the dysfunctions of Congress and the imbalance of federal powers. We've explained dozens of serious proposals for solving those problems — more and more of them the ideas of everyday citizens, not politicians — then reported dispassionately when and why some have gained steam while others have run aground.
Starting next week, The Fulcrum will have a new owner in the Bridge Alliance, which has made clear it plans to use this digital platform in alternate ways. A new focus will be working to "reach people where they are and help them connect to the reforming democracy movement," where the organization already acts as an umbrella over 90 good-government groups.
That's a worthy if very different aim, to be sure, so there's no reason not to root for success. And it's great that our nearly 2,500 original news stories, and several hundred smartly argued opinion pieces, will still be accessible in The Fulcrum's digital archive.
What won't live on, at least on this site, are the stories not yet written. There's more than ever to tackle on the democracy reform beat, which is only going to get more fascinating and vitally important in the years ahead.
Groups committed to fixing the political system's problems have proliferated rapidly in the past decade, and at first blush that's hopeful news. But their ability to achieve their goals is threatened by overlapping missions and narrowly targeted views about the best prescription.
Like a parable from the Indian subcontinent, about blind men allowed to learn what an elephant is by touching just one part, many groups assert their idea alone holds transformational promise. And these organizations often dismiss or denigrate those with an even subtly different priority. (Disputes among proponents of various alternative election systems, such as ranked-choice and approval voting, have been particularly intense.)
A head-spinning collection of similar names doesn't help.
The Civic Health Project, Civic Nation, Civic Spirit and Civics Unplugged are all vying for notice in the better-democracy-through-education niche. Then there's Civic Genius, formerly Common Ground Solutions, which like Common Good, Common Ground Committee and Common Power are all pushing the idea that talk therapy can make the system function again. Open Debates is not to be confused with Open the Debates, or with Open Primaries or the Open Government Hub. The missions of End Citizens United and Unite America are different. And Bridge Alliance gets confused often with Bridge the Divide and Bridge USA.
Their breakout opportunities are hardly made easier — and their rivalries tend to be fueled — by the modest number of activists for any democracy reform and the meager amounts getting donated to the cause.
Only a few groups have budgets above $3 million. Almost all are stretched financially thin, reliant on small-dollar gifts from their fans while competing to tap a pool of foundation money that isn't growing fast. Billionaires have not taken up the cause. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, notably, never followed through on his promise to spend $100 million fixing the system instead of running for president in 2020.
Mailing lists and social media data, meanwhile, suggest the number actively engaged in the democracy reform movement is still well below 12 million, or 3.5 percent of the population. Though surprisingly small, that's the magic number almost ensuring success for any nonviolent movement for political change, according to Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth's research into dozens of such crusades worldwide.
The heartening news, though, is that as many as 25 million Americans have participated in protests over racial injustice in the past year. That's a strong signal the campaign to protect and then enhance voting rights, the beating heart of a true democracy, has a solid shot at prevailing.
Not only that, but much of the credit for such a victory would go to advocates who are Black or young — an overdue breakthrough for the good-government world, which continues to be dominated by older white men.
Finally, there's the legacy of Donald Trump, who has single-handedly intensified democracy's precarious state. Rather than making it healthier by "draining the swamp," the previous president metastasized the system's problems with constant attacks on the rule of law, civil discourse, fact-based policymaking, government ethical standards, the independent judiciary, the free press — and, climatically, on the ultimate democratic norms of trustworthy elections and peaceful transfers of power.
A sitting president fomenting insurrection at the Capitol will be remembered forever as one of the darkest hours in American history. But there may be a silver lining. By illustrating how democracy is in an "existential crisis," as President Biden put it just this week, Trump has done a profound service:
His four years in power amounted to a final-chance warning for the country to repair its brokenness, fast, or else succumb soon enough to another autocrat taking dispositive advantage of the republic's fragility.
Chronicling what happens will be one of the great challenges for reporters in the next decade. Whatever the names of their news organizations, here's hoping their journalism is a fulcrum that leverages democracy away from the precipice.