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Our Common Purpose, Two Years Later
Two years ago, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published the Our Common Purpose report—a vision for reinventing American democracy through 31 recommendations across political institutions, civil society, and civic culture. The report reflected years of work and study, the insights of a diverse and cross-ideological Commission, and nearly fifty deep listening sessions with Americans across the country. Its diagnosis of American democracy’s failures and challenges was sobering. Yet its spirit was hopeful as it sought to chart a path to “birth for ourselves a shared sense of fate.” Two years later, what has changed?
Evidence is mounting against the thesis of hope. Writers on the left and right warn of civil war and states seceding from the Union, and 21 million American adults believe that violence is justified to restore the former president to the White House. After the January 6 insurrection, the Center for System Peace downgraded the United States from a democracy to an “anocracy”—a political system in which democratic and authoritarian features converge.
These visible and visceral storylines hardly represent the full story of American democracy over the past two years. Since the publication of the report, Our Common Purpose champions and other groups working to reimagine democratic systems have begun to shift paradigms, build powerful coalitions, and identify new sources of civic energy. They are playing the long game. The trends they have seeded may take a decade to bear fruit, but here are three worth paying attention to now:
An ambitious vision for voting reform takes root.
Even in a record-setting year for voter turnout, over a third of eligible U.S voters chose not to cast a ballot. Many don’t vote because they can’t or can’t easily. Since the beginning of 2021, 18 states have passed 34 bills that restrict access to the ballot. These bills overwhelmingly affect voters of color.
What if voting were remarkably easy, and showing up at the polls wasn’t an option? In their new book 100% Democracy, E.J. Dionne and Commission member Miles Rapoport make the case for “universal civic duty voting”—the system used in Australia. Colloquially known as “mandatory voting,” it requires attendance at the polls on pain of a small fine. The argument for universal civic duty voting explores historical precedents, legal and ethical arguments, and the technical solutions that would have to be in place within the U.S. context to ensure that mandatory voting is complemented by ease of access.
The book is one example of how the possibilities for voting reform are beginning to expand. Universal civic duty voting isn’t likely to be nationally adopted any time soon, but it could reasonably take root in cities and states—just as Ranked Choice Voting has expanded the reimagining of the U.S. electoral system.
Pluralism and bridgebuilding animate an emerging field.
Over fifty percent of Americans live in landslide counties where one party’s candidate or another consistently wins by 20 percent of the vote. Of the 435 Congressional districts, only 30 are expected to be competitive (“swing districts”) in the 2022 election—down from 100 a decade ago. Party affiliation and ideological beliefs increasingly determine where Americans live, work, and play.
One of the exciting developments in the democracy reform space has been the emergence of a field dedicated to understanding how to address the crisis of polarization and better engage with people different from ourselves. For example, the funders collaborative New Pluralists has begun to reimagine pluralism in the United States through its community of practitioners, storytellers, researchers, and civic entrepreneurs.
The rise of the hyperlocal.
Our Constitution prescribes a division of power between national and state political and government institutions, known as federalism. “Civic federalism” offers an analogy for U.S. political culture: the distribution of citizen energy, rather than institutional power, between national and local concerns.
Over the past two years, most major reform efforts on the national level have stalled. Frustration with national politics has led to renewed interest in civic engagement in local communities. Local organizations across the country—libraries, community centers, food banks, parks, and others—are joining a movement to build democracy from the bottom up. They are becoming more powerful and more visible.
National philanthropy, too, is taking note. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences convened a working group to design a Trust for Civic Infrastructure that would fund the hyperlocal people, places, programs, and information that bring citizens together across differences in community to solve problems and advance a shared good.
Sometimes progress is hard to see, touch, and feel. These trends don’t answer the short-term challenges presented by the coming elections, but they do suggest a reason to be hopeful over the long term. The upcoming 250th anniversary of the United States in 2026 is a reminder that our country has founded and re-founded itself in the past—and can do so again.