Our Common Purpose

By Don MacGillivray

The United States finds itself challenged by shifting political, economic and social conditions.

There is a prevailing sense of crisis in America and with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and our various political divisions, the next few years may provide a time to improve the practice of Democracy.

In early June, the Commission of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released its report titled Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century. This report seeks to increase citizens’ capacity to engage in their communities, address the rising threats to democratic self-government and to rebuild trust in America’s political institutions.

The 73-page report includes 31 recommendations within six fundamental strategies.

Strategy #1’s purpose is to expand the equality and representation of the public voice. The report states that, in the House of Representatives, there will be one representative for every 30,000 constituents. Today that figure has risen 23 times to approximately 700,000 citizens. Perhaps more representatives in Congress are needed?

Other reforms might be: ending the gerrymandering of legislative districts, regulation and transparency of campaign finance, smaller donations and term limits for Supreme Court justices. Citizens need to see elections as a means of improving their government and must feel good about voting.

Strategy #2 seeks to empower voters by making it easier to vote. History is full of efforts to bring more voters to the polls through movements such as women’s suffrage, civil rights and labor unions.

There are many ways to improve the ability of voters to participate in elections. These might include: reducing the age of majority, holding elections on a holiday, voting by mail or improving the voter registration process.

Voting is a right and a privilege of citizenship, but it is also a responsibility. Requiring voters to participate in national elections could be encouraged or even rewarded.

Strategy #3 seeks to ensure that our political institutions are responsive to the voters. Institutions function through the actions of elected and appointed officials. The day-to-day activity of these officials is critical to the functioning of government.

Members of Congress need to improve the ways they interact with their constituents. All levels of government should create more opportunities to involve new voices and perspectives.

Transparency is important because the public must be informed about governmental actions that affect their lives. Many new technologies are available that allow citizens and elected leaders to communicate together.

Strategy #4 talks about the need to expand our civic capacity and its infrastructure. In this era of profound polarization, Americans are hungry for opportunities to assemble, deliberate and converse. The art of association is an important function in everyday life and the beginning of all civic discussion and action.

Additional ways must be found for Americans to connect with one another and more opportunities are needed to learn and practice the habits of democracy.

With investment in civic infrastructure and the establishment of a greater variety of public minded organizations leaders can emerge.

Strategy #5 is about the civic information structures that both divide and support civic purposes.

Increasingly elections and politics are dividing people, causing fear and spreading apathy.

Social media and other digital platforms touch many aspects of public and private lives with enormous ramifications for voters. This feeds polarization, disinformation and diminishes the quality of public debate.

At the same time, it has also brought on social movements, facilitated political organizing and given voice to many underrepresented groups.

Much of the problematic parts of technology might be redesigned and improved to support positive communications. A civic information architecture is needed to support the “better nature” of our constitutional democracy.

Strategy #6 aims to inspire a commitment in America to build positive civic cultures. Citizenship in America’s constitutional democracy is a collective responsibility committed to the future. But our ailing civic culture reflects a lack of institutional success in a dynamic world.

America’s natural disasters have shown that citizens can be inspired to serve each other in times of crisis. Americans need to see that democracy depends on our social bonds.

We need to invest in civic education to reach out to the diversity within our citizenry. Reforming our institutions and strengthening civil society could do wonders to improve the culture within our communities.

The purpose of the American Academy is “…to invigorate the interest, honor, dignity and happiness of America’s free, independent and virtuous people.”

Over the last two years, their Commission of 35 dynamic members (that includes scholars, officials, business leaders, media experts and civic leaders) conducted 47 listening sessions to solicit stories and experiences about the democratic process from hundreds of Americans.

Their work is supported by the S. D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and many others.

Significant progress toward implementing these recommendations is expected before the 250th anniversary celebration of the United States in 2026.

The Commission’s full report is available at amacad.org/ourcommonpurpose.

Our Common Purpose

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