Daniel Stid interviews Kristen Cambell, CEO of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, or PACE
What do you see as the most important long-term challenge facing U.S. democracy, and what is the PACE community doing in response to it?
In my opinion, the conflation of democracy with politics is one of the biggest challenges to sustaining it. Democracy is so much larger than politics, and politics is so much larger than partisanship. I think we have to do a better job demarcating when we’re talking about what, otherwise we can create an idea or expectation that democracy is only working when we get the political wins we want, or that everything we don’t agree with is inherently anti-democratic.
That doesn’t mean political challenges we face aren’t real or serious threats to liberal democracy, or that policy outcomes don’t matter. But there is a lot of attention on that in our field right now. I worry we don’t focus enough on civil society—the parts of democracy, leadership, and active citizenship that may not involve government (or even institutions), but compel us toward a full spirit and vision of what it means to live in a self-governing society. Systems, processes, and institutions will only ever be as strong as the civic values, democratic culture, and social norms that surround them. Plus, we know that a strong civil society with a culture of problem solving provides an important bulwark against authoritarianism.