Democratic Practice Guidelines

For democracy to flourish and deliver on its promises—including political participation, human rights, access to justice, a good education, an improved quality of life, a healthy environment, and personal security—its citizens must be informed, engaged, empowered, and assertive. Similarly, institutions of governance must be inclusive, transparent, accountable, and responsive.

The frequent failure of both new and established democracies to deliver on their promises undermines the commitment to democratic practices. Wealthy and powerful actors exercise undue influence, and voices that historically have been excluded remain unheard in decision-making processes.

The United States continues to face a number of democratic deficits: a decline in many traditional forms of civic engagement; reduced participation in the formal institutions of democracy, including but not limited to voting; and declining trust in all institutions, especially institutions of government. These deficits are being exacerbated by deeply rooted economic inequality, and American society is becoming increasingly polarized, socially, economically, and politically.

At the same time, the process of globalization has similarly produced democratic deficits in global governance. Global power and wealth inequities have deepened, while the significance of decisions made by transnational institutions such as multilateral organizations, multinational corporations, and international financial institutions has increased. In this patchwork of institutions and practices, global governance decisions are made with inadequate inclusiveness, accountability, and transparency, often pre-empting or distorting legitimate national and local decision-making processes.

The Fund's Democratic Practice program has two parts: advancing a vital and inclusive democracy in the United States and strengthening democratic practice in global governance. Based on a careful assessment of local needs and priorities, the Fund also pursues one or more of the democratic principles underlying the program in its "pivotal places." Recognizing that there is no single model of effective democratic practice, the Fund emphasizes flexibility and adaptability to different contexts in these pivotal places.

Democracy in the United States

Democracy in the United States is facing myriad challenges as persistent and deep divisions continue to undermine the nation’s social, economic, and political vitality. The current U.S. political system suffers from outsized influence of money in politics, extreme partisanship, retrenchment of voting rights, issues with outdated and inefficient election administration, and concentrations of power in narrow segments of society not reflective of the larger population. Alternatively, new opportunities for systemic reform are developing and gaining traction. The nation is seeing a resurgence of grassroots political activism, protest, and a democratization of both traditional and social media. Digital resources are fueling different kinds of engagement and activism that are reaching people in entirely new ways. Further, the ability to leverage creative investigative and solution-based journalism and broadly available government and election data to improve both democratic systems and grassroots civic engagement provides exciting opportunities to build a vital and inclusive 21st-century democracy.

The Fund recognizes that the gaps between rich and poor, and white and non-white, are widening, while the diversity of elected officials remains misaligned with the electorate, fundamentally undermining the quality of representative democracy. Exorbitant amounts of private money spent on political campaigns and lobbying by a very small percentage of the electorate profoundly distort the political system. Others without the financial resources to influence public policy are further marginalized, undermining the ability of voters and constituents to hold elected officials accountable and fostering public cynicism and distrust of elected officials and public institutions.

The quality of our political culture continues to deteriorate. Consequently, there are fewer and fewer examples of true bipartisanship and constructive compromise in state and federal legislatures. Additionally, partisan actors, with a goal of achieving partisan supremacy rather than ensuring democratic fairness, exert disproportionate control over voting rights, poll access, and redistricting. Participation in national elections remains below that of most advanced democracies, and turnout for local elections is persistently low. Moreover, fair, efficient, and effective election administration is undermined by inaccurate voter rolls and outdated processes and technology. In addition, eligible voters have been kept from the polls by restrictive voting laws, or worse, by overt voter-suppression efforts.

Meaningful and informed public participation in all phases of democracy in the United States provides the foundation for a truly vibrant democracy. The Fund believes that innovation in traditional grassroots organizing strategies, development of opportunities for underrepresented populations in civic leadership, and effective integration of digital media and communications into civic life are promising ways to improve public participation in governance. Authentic public participation in democracy lays the groundwork for substantive policy reforms that are a true reflection of our representative democracy.

Goal: Advance a Vital and Inclusive Democracy in the United States

In the United States, the Fund seeks to strengthen and broaden participation in the practices and institutions of democratic governance, foster greater transparency, accountability, and responsiveness of government institutions, and promote social, economic, and racial justice.

  • Combating the corrupting influence of money in politics by supporting the adoption of public financing of electoral campaigns, including judicial elections, and selected other reforms to enhance the integrity of representative democracy.
  • Increasing opportunities for meaningful citizen participation in democratic systems through election and voting reforms, including improvements in voting rights, election laws, redistricting processes, and election administration.
  • Supporting select innovations, such as the application of new technologies and advances in organizing methods that strengthen advocacy or expand opportunities for underrepresented populations to influence policy outcomes.

The Democratic Practice–U.S. program works to enhance the quality of American democracy through support for high leverage opportunities at the federal, state, and local levels (including New York City as the Fund’s home).

Global Governanace

Globalization—the dramatic increase in cross-border flows of capital, goods, and people and their values and ideas—is producing deeper interdependencies and changes in power relations. It is a defining process of the 21st century, offering both challenges and opportunities.

Global governance is an incomplete patchwork of institutions, rules, and processes that transcends the authority of individual nations. The elements of global governance are many, including formal agreements among nations; the architecture and practices of international and intergovernmental institutions and international courts; the policies, behaviors, and actions of states and multinational corporations; and the work and influence of civil society organizations.

Economic interests have largely overshadowed democratic practices, social equity, and environmental concerns in the evolution of global governance institutions and processes. Powerful international trade and financial institutions remain opaque and exclusive, while the power and reach of multinational corporations often escape oversight or effective regulation. Thus, while the impact of global governance on peoples’ lives is growing, democracy in global governance faces acute deficits. Transparency and accountability in global decision making are often critically deficient. Representation in global governance processes remains limited; underrepresented populations and weaker states have restricted voice and standing, curtailing their access and participation. Injustices persist, as rights are unevenly recognized and ad hoc coordination often substitutes for meaningful democratic processes. Together, these deficits challenge the ability of nations and groups to protect their commonwealth, ensure necessary social and environmental protections, and promote ethical and effective stewardship of common resources.

At the same time, globalization has opened up new opportunities for building cross-border coalitions that are finding innovative ways to address and resolve global problems. Novel combinations of public, private, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental organizations are asserting their concerns, forging new democratic practices, and advancing systemic changes in global processes, rules, and institutions.

Goal: Strengthen the Vitality of Democracy in Global Governance

In its work to strengthen democracy in global governance, the Fund focuses on the areas of climate change, development finance, and trade. The Fund is particularly interested in civil society organizations that represent and advance developing country concerns as they seek to increase equity and foster sustainability.

  • Enhance transparency and accountability of global governance institutions and decision-making processes.
  • Expand access to and participation in global governance institutions and decision-making processes. Priority is given to initiatives led by or in support of constituencies underrepresented in global governance.
  • Advance new ideas, advocacy approaches, and institutional arrangements aimed at more effective and democratic decision making in global governance and more just and sustainable outcomes.

For more background information, download the Democratic Practice–United States Program Memo (March 2015) [PDF]

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