We need some hope and a sense of how we might regain our footing as citizens to renew the world’s oldest democracy.
We can find them in a recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Science’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship entitled, “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century.” Danielle Allen of Harvard University, Stephen Heintz of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Eric Liu of Citizen University co-chaired the 35-member Commission. Its composition represented a suitable portion of the nation’s political and demographic diversity. The 47 listening sessions the Commission hosted across the country further expanded and enriched the viewpoints informing its deliberations. The Commission’s report won’t help us resolve our immediate challenges. But whatever happens in the near-term, the report makes clear we will still have a long way to go to revitalize our democracy–and it shows us how we could get from here to there.
Two aspects of the report resonate with our core themes here at The Art of Association. The first is the emphasis the Commission places on the interplay between our political institutions and processes, on the one hand, and our civic culture, on the other. As the report observes, “a healthy constitutional democracy depends on a virtuous cycle in which responsive political institutions foster a healthy civic culture of participation and responsibility, while a healthy civic culture – a combination of values, norms, and narratives – keeps our political institutions responsive and inclusive.”
The second aspect of Our Common Purpose I want to highlight is its recognition that “institutions and culture intersect in the realm of civil society: the ecosystem of associations and groups in which people practice habits of participation and self-rule and reinforce norms of mutual obligation.” We cannot bring about the changes needed in our politics and civic culture without tending to the health of our civic infrastructure and leadership in our associational life. And this work needs to happen in local communities where the lion’s share of social capital formation and bridge-building occurs.