Last week we announced the formal launch of the Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative, our effort to help support and improve the health of representative democracy in the United States. You might be wondering: why Madison? Let me walk you through how we arrived at this name and why we feel it is especially fitting.
When we started planning this work a year ago, we referred to it as the Democracy Initiative, only to learn that several progressive organizations were already using that name to describe their collaboration on democracy reform. So we started calling it the Democratic Process Initiative. To this, some of our conservative friends pointed out that the phrasing could inadvertently suggest that our work was somehow aligned with the Democratic Party. As we prepared for our formal launch, it was clear that we needed to put some more thought into what we would call the effort.
All the while we were continuing to sharpen the focus of our plans, zeroing in on Congress and the central role it is called upon to play in our system of government: representing, aggregating, weighing, and reconciling different and often sharply opposed beliefs, ideas, and agendas. But as our former Communications Director Eric Brown pointed out, a name like “the Representative Government Initiative” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, much less leave people wanting to hear more.
In our brainstorming sessions, as we talked about the ideas, values, and dynamics we wanted to shore up, we kept invoking James Madison’s name. He famously spoke to the inevitability of faction and partisanship in a free society and the corresponding imperative to rein in their excesses; to the importance of a system of representation that would “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens;” and to the need to rely on ambition to check ambition, thereby “supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives.”
Most importantly, the extended sphere and institutional complexity of Madison’s system of government were meant to foster precisely the kind of deliberation, negotiation, and compromise that we believe are in increasingly short supply. As Jonathan Rauch observed recently in “Rescuing Compromise,” his must-read essay in National Affairs, “Madison understood something that many political commentators forget: Politicians, like other people, compromise because they have to, not because they want to. So he modeled a system that would compel them to bargain.”
We also observed how Madison’s own leadership exemplified this ethic of compromise. He entered the Constitutional Convention seeking to realize the Virginia Plan that he had worked out in advance. However, during the ensuing negotiations, he came to accept the need for a design that departed from it in ways he had profoundly opposed, a compromise solution for which he nevertheless became the leading advocate. Likewise, after initially arguing against the call for a separate bill of rights, Madison recognized that it would be required to secure the ratification of the Constitution and subsequently worked to shepherd the necessary amendments through the first Congress.
The more we talked about it, the more we collectively converged on the Madison Initiative as the name that, in a nutshell, best captured what we are trying to do. Having aimed high with our branding, we now have our work cut out for us to make good on it. Onward!
I was recently browsing in the stacks at Feldman’s, a used book store on the El Camino Real in Menlo Park, when to my good fortune I discovered an original edition of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defenders. I bought the book and read it that same evening. As I did so I found myself wondering what guidance Niebuhr, perhaps the most influential American theologian and religious leader of his time, might give to church leaders today with respect to their role in supporting democracy in the U.S.
The book contains a set of lectures that Niebuhr gave at Stanford University in 1944. He sought to come to democracy’s defense as it was fighting for its very existence around the globe. But, as he noted in his foreword, he felt obliged to offer, “a more realistic vindication” of this form of government in its time of extreme trial, one that was not unsteadily based on “the excessively optimistic estimates of human nature and of human history with which the democratic credo has been historically associated.”
Niebuhr was a realist, not a pessimist. He acknowledged that “a free society requires some confidence in the ability of men to reach tentative and tolerable adjustments between their competing interests and to arrive at some common notions of justice that transcend all partial interests.” Yet the case for democracy could not rest on optimism alone: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Fast forward to the present and we can see that Christians are increasingly bringing their faith into the public square of our democracy. Name the issue – immigration, health care, the environment, etc. – and you will almost invariably find Christian churches and advocates participating in the political debate, in many instances on opposing sides of it.
This heightened and diverse engagement helpfully underscores the plurality of political views that can be held and expressed within the Christian tradition. At the same time, such disagreements, which can be quite sharp given members of the same faith are arguing over what it entails, point to the depth of divisions among and even within churches. This has the unfortunate consequence of pulling them into the maw of the polarization that is exacerbating rather than reconciling the divisions in our society.
This leads me to wonder: over and above any particular policy they feel compelled to advance, might some Christian churches and their leaders rally to the defense of representative democracy itself, as a form of government that merits and needs their support? As part of our philanthropic efforts to address the problem of polarization, we are beginning to explore this question with religious and lay leaders.
Note that I am not talking here simply about encouraging more respectful and civil discourse, undergirded by the humbling recognition that all people and parties see through a glass darkly. To be sure, if this way of participating in politics was consistently practiced by the seven of ten Americans who profess to be Christians, it would make a huge difference in the tenor of our public debate.
But this may be insufficient. Given the accelerating polarization, and the resulting decline in the legitimacy of our representative institutions, the real question is whether Christian churches and their leaders will actively support those institutions as good things in and of themselves, irrespective of the particular policy outcomes they are producing, much as Niebuhr felt obliged to do in World War II. If he was right, and human nature makes democracy both possible and necessary, it would seem that such a defense would be just as warranted and timely today.
What is your take on this issue? What might I be missing or misconstruing? I’d welcome your feedback on how we should proceed with this line of inquiry.
We were pleased to help support the work of the Commission. It was a diverse, carefully balanced, bipartisan group comprised of former members of Congress (including Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott), officials who served at the highest levels of the Clinton and Bush administrations, former state and local government officials, journalists, academics, and leaders from business and civil society.
Through a series of public town halls and private discussions over the past 18 months, the Commission developed 65 recommendations on a wide array of topics, covering campaign and election reforms, changes in how Congress operates, and ways to engage more citizens in public service.
I plan to take up the specifics of the report in future posts. What I do want to do here is to acknowledge—and respond to, if not pre-empt—any frustration on the part of those idealists who, after scanning the report, might be inclined to think it falls short of the sweeping changes that would seem to be necessary if we are going to quell the political convulsions in Washington.
As Tom Daschle observed in introducing the report at an event in Washington this week, “our goal from the very beginning was to take the ideal and the practical and to strike the best balance that we could between them.” The practical end of the spectrum was defined by what experienced leaders from across the political spectrum could and would agree upon. Hence some of the zoology that can be observed in the report—some dogs not barking, some horses being traded, perhaps even an ostrich or two putting its head in the sand.
Welcome to politics. This is a deeply and evenly divided country. Control over our government institutions is continually and intensely contested. The electoral and institutional processes that are the landscape for this contest inevitably become caught up in it. Any changes that stand a chance of being enacted and sustained have to work for both parties. Those of us who are partisans on one side or the other may not like that reality, but we need to accept it or we can expect to accomplish nothing.
Others may object to the report for a different reason: namely, that for all of the apparent compromises embodied in the recommendations, many of them still face very long odds of being realized. Here too we need to temper our expectations. The recommendations in this report have the sturdy and practical virtues characteristic of hard-won agreements. Success on even a few of them would amount to real progress. Let’s say only a third of the recommendations get translated into actual changes. In political reform, as in baseball, hitting .333, failing twice as often as you succeed, is a still very good batting average. Those looking for better odds need to take up a different game.
Our friend and grantee Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution recently offered the telling observation that “congressional primaries are the neglected stepchildren of American elections.” She noted that, for the most part, journalists don’t cover congressional primaries and scholars don’t research them. Most citizens can’t be bothered with them: historically, turnout rates among potential voters hover around 5% in mid-term primary elections.
Moreover, we know that the voters who do turn out for primaries are much more partisan and ideological than the vast majority who don’t, giving rise to the reasonable conjecture that congressional primary dynamics are linked to polarization. For those of us concerned about the health of Congress, you can see how congressional primaries are a problem.
The dynamics around California’s new “top two” primary election, which was held Tuesday, may help move questions about congressional primaries—how they are structured, which candidates run in them, how they run, and, not least, how voters participate in them—more onto the center stage of American politics.
In the top two system, which was first used in California in 2012, all candidates from all parties standing for a particular office run against each other. Voters can vote for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation (or lack thereof)—either their own or their preferred candidate’s. The two candidates getting the most votes (and only those two) advance to the general election in November.
Can the top two primary reverse or at least alleviate polarization? Last fall, at the height of the government shut down, pundits pointed to California’s primary innovation as a model for the nation. Meanwhile, leading political scientists have found little evidence that the extent to which primaries are open or closed has much to do with polarization, and California should be no exception to this rule.
I think the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Certainly the dynamics are shifting in some districts. Based on Tuesday’s results, at least seven out of California’s 53 House races will have candidates of the same party running against each other in November. For example, in CA-17, in the heart of Silicon Valley, two Democrats will be facing off, with the liberal incumbent Mike Honda defending his seat against a well-funded centrist challenger, Ro Khanna. To take another example, in CA-4, in the rural central Sierra, the incumbent Tea Party Republican Tom McClintock will have to fend off Art Moore, a West Pointer and Iraq War veteran running as a more moderate (though still conservative) Republican. In each instance, the challenger will be able to appeal not only to his wing of the party but also to the independents and voters from the other party.
I have also been struck by what I have heard in conversations with several California political hands, people running for office, anticipating running, or managing and funding the candidacies of others. To a person they see the top two primary as a big deal, one that will drive central tendencies in the state’s politics. They haven’t thought much about the idealism of the reformers or the analytical skepticism of the political scientists; they simply recognize that the rules of the game they are playing have shifted and they are preparing new strategies accordingly.
It is also too soon to tell what difference the top two will make. It remains a relatively new electoral institution. We should expect it will take a few electoral cycles for parties and their networks, candidates for office, their advisors and funders, and voters to get the hang of it.
As a grant maker endeavoring to be strategic, it is all too tempting for us to use engineering and mechanical metaphors in assessing systems change—e.g., if this component is adjusted, the machine will begin working in a different way. We have to keep reminding ourselves that gardening might be a better source of metaphors for how we think about and assess changes in the political system—they need to be seeded, well cared for, and then, depending on weather conditions, may or may not bear fruit. We also need to emulate the gardener’s patience—because none of this happens overnight.
How can philanthropy support work that leads to better public policy when longstanding mechanisms for creating that policy have broken down? That’s the question Steven Teles, Heather Hurlburt and Mark Schmitt tackled last week in the Stanford Social Innovation Review article titled “Philanthropy in a time of Polarization.” The authors had helped us organize a conference on this topic in January 2013; their article is an elaboration of the issues that surfaced in that discussion and their ongoing reflection about whether, when, and how philanthropy can shape public policy. They offer a bracing assessment that should give most foundations plenty to think about—it certainly has in our case.
Their premise is that the traditional operating model for philanthropy—funding development of fact-based, apolitical solutions, which can then be advanced by bipartisan coalitions—no longer works. “Partisan politics and ideology have become much more closely aligned, leaving less room for maneuver between the two parties and greater opportunity for an ideologically unified party to block change. Science, disinterested analysis, and establishment institutions can no longer close the partisan divide.”
Teles, Hurlburt, and Schmitt note that the traditional operating model developed in what was, in retrospect, an anomalously depolarized “golden age” in the mid-20th Century. After tracing the rise and fall of this outlying period, they observe that we have now returned to the type of polarization that has characterized the U.S. for much of its history—and that it “is now at a level comparable to that of other advanced democracies.”
If they have their history and comparative politics right, and I think they do, then polarization is neither a trend that can be reversed nor a problem that can be solved; rather, it is a predicament with which we need to learn how to cope.
I have been particularly intrigued with the authors’ proposed alternative to the bipartisan problem-solving that philanthropy has long focused on supporting:
Some of the most creative advocacy work currently underway builds cross-party coalitions that are anchored not by centrists, but by figures with unquestioned ideological credibility. We call this style of advocacy ‘transpartisan,’ because it recognizes that the critical political gatekeepers are no longer ideologically neutral actors at the center, but the authorizers of ideological orthodoxy at the poles.
Examples of transpartisan coalitions that have been able to impact public policy in notable ways include the efforts of conservative fiscal hanwks, evangelicals, and libertarians to join forces with progressive critics of the racial inequities of mass incarceration to advance criminal justice reform. A similar coalition of strange bedfellows from left and right has come together to check defense spending. And Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, the bête noire of so many on the left for his determination to shrink government to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub, is proving to be a shrewd ally in their collective and ongoing push for immigration reform.
In talking with fellow funders, grantees, and observers in the field about the idea of transpartisanship, I’ve often heard “that’s nothing new” or “we are already doing that,” responses that suggest this is a jargoned-up reprise of the perennial quest for bipartisanship. But these dismissals gloss over the brute fact right in front of us—the complete erosion of the ideological overlap between the Democratic and Republican delegations in Congress, i.e., the middle ground that once served as the seedbed for bipartisan compromise. Such responses also fail to come to grips with the issue-specific, time-limited, and thereby fleeting if not fickle nature of transpartisan coalitions.
To be sure, it remains an open question whether transpartisanship can really suffice as an alternative to bipartisan problem-solving when it comes to aligning politics and policy in the U.S., especially when the institutions of government continue to be controlled by party leaders and majorities actively seeking to prevent any form of productive work across the aisle.
We will continue to explore the possibilities (and limits) of transpartisanship, not least because we want to understand if there is something foundations can do to underwrite new forms of infrastructure and networks that might be needed to support this emergent way of making policy.
In the meantime—and to help inform this inquiry—what do you make of transpartisanship as an alternative framework for solving our nation’s collective action problem? What is its potential, and what questions does it raise for you?
In last week’s post I described the premortem that our team had worked through with some key outside colleagues and partners. The goal of the exercise was to surface potential blind spots and shortcomings in our strategy at the outset of the democracy initiative so that we could address them before they became big issues.
In this week’s post, to give you a feel for what the premortem revealed about “what went wrong” with our strategy, I wanted to share some verbatim comments written on post-it notes during the session.
Here for example are some observations regarding challenging dynamics in the political system:
“Even when enacted, reforms make no difference. It’s the [Steve] Teles thesis: so long as the mobilized political elite is polarized, they can (and do) capture or co-opt any reform to preserve their advantages.”
“Mobilizing moderates pushes them further to the poles”
“Polarization has continued to spread from Congress down to the states, making it unrealistic to think we can attain state-level reform”
“Citizenry is becoming polarized but our work fails to address; approach is too elite”
“Millennials drop out / civic engagement collapses”
“Journalism biz model collapses = no watchdog function and decreased citizen engagement”
There is clearly a lot here for us to chew on, especially with respect to the relationship between the civic engagement (or lack thereof) of citizens at the grassroots level and the quality of representation in Congress.
Even more telling were the challenges the group flagged regarding capacity—of our grantees, the philanthropic sector, and ourselves:
“Spread bet approach will not lead to sufficient grantee or strategy cohesion so that the sum is greater than the parts”
“Even if experimental grants show something works, the pathways and infrastructure needed for scaling them enough to gain traction are not plausible”
“Funding (writ large) has increased, but it is not aligned and is exacerbating polarization”
“Funders can’t agree on anything!”
“The Initiative lacked the flexibility to pivot to new priorities and missed an opportunity to support the ‘true’ solution to polarization”
“No anchor grantees emerge b/c we are too busy to proactively help build the field”
What was interesting about this bundle of capacity issues was that the sub-set of the group we had charged with developing the positive, high impact scenario had identified several developments that were effectively mirror images of the “failure“ group on this dimension, e.g.:
“Marshaled political scientists at leading academic centers to focus work on solving key problems of democracy and they have firmed up what is possible”
“Strong evidence for success in building capacity and creating ‘fields’ in current ‘gap’ areas”
“Successful grants that strengthen and grow early stage orgs / programs”
“Developed productive alliances with foundations on right and left concerned about health of democracy”
“Initiative brings and creates more collaboration w/in phil. sector in the same strategic directions; goal of shared tools, taxonomy, spirit is met with enthusiasm.”
“Took advantage of blue chip developmental evaluators to learn and course correct our strategy (and inform field along the way)”
I thus came away from this exercise determined to focus more clearly on questions of institutional capacity—for current and potential grantees, to be sure, but also for the community of funders and, not least, ourselves.
I cannot begin to fully summarize a half-day’s work in a few bullets, but I wanted to give you a sense for at least some of the issues we are talking about. Feel free to refer back to this post in three years to review what we got right and what we may have missed or over-emphasized. I know I will! In the meantime, please add your input to our premortem in the comments box below.
Yesterday I holed up with 14 colleagues in a non-descript conference room here at the foundation to conduct what ended up being a very messy but nonetheless illuminating autopsy. We performed it on our initiative to support the health of democracy in the U.S. Now I know what you may be thinking: “Wait, you guys were just getting started with that line of grantmaking, and you’ve killed it off already?”
Well, not exactly. The autopsy we performed was a prospective one, a philanthropic “premortem,” if you will, that had us looking back to assess what happened with our work from a vantage point in the future; in this case, March of 2017. That is when we are scheduled to go back to our Board with an assessment of how our initial plans have unfolded.
The point of a premortem is to break through the bias of unwarranted optimism. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has observed that, “most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be. We also tend to exaggerate our ability to forecast the future, which fosters overconfidence.”
If the “optimistic bias” is true for most people, it is especially the case for those of us working in philanthropy. Our grand strategies may have us walking around naked, but nobody is inclined to tell us we are not wearing any clothes.
As described by decision scientist Gary Klein, a premortem is “done at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the ‘patient’ has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members' task is to generate plausible reasons for the project's failure.”
By stipulating that something has already failed, you free people up to express doubts and critiques they have been harboring but did not feel at liberty to express. You unleash the devil’s advocates.
We did our pre-mortem with a bit of a positive twist, as recommended by Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao in their new book Scaling up Excellence. Half of our group was charged with telling our board in three years that “this Initiative is proving to be a disappointing failure, and we should wind it down.” They had to develop a concrete and plausible scenario for what went wrong—and why—between now and then.
At the same time, in order to stimulate debate, and to identify where failure or success might hinge on the same considerations, we charged the other half of the group with fleshing out the details of an alternative scenario, one that had them telling the board that “we have made exciting progress with this Initiative, and we should extend and expand our investment.”
By the end of the day, these two teams had wallpapered the conference room with their post-it notes and summaries on sheets of butcher paper. We are now in the process of reviewing and digesting these artifacts and our notes from the ensuing discussion. I’ll come back in next week’s post with the key findings of the premortem and the implications for our plans.
A recurring lament among reformers is that the basic structural features of our constitutional system get in the way of needed change. For example, many believe that our federal system decentralizes policy-making and gives rise to partisan feuds in ways that thwart the adoption of positive reforms and enable bad situations to persist. This is certainly a common refrain with respect to our decentralized system for administering elections and the chronic problems associated with it.
But there is a silver lining sewn into our federal system—namely, the potential for experimentation, innovation, and—not least—productive competition among what Justice Brandeis called our “laboratories of democracy.” State and local governments are free in many domains to tackle common problems differently, as they might see fit. Superior approaches developed in one state or locality can thus be adopted in places where performance is subpar. If not, the onus is on the underperforming policy-makers and administrators to explain themselves to their underserved citizens.
That onus just got much heavier for state elections officials that are lagging their peers. Last month the Pew Charitable Trusts launched a revamped Elections Performance Index that, on 17 concrete performance measures, identifies states in which election administration is going relatively well, states where it is not, and the trend lines in recent elections. This data will make it harder for officials to preside over abysmal performance; at the same time, it will make it easier for officials who want to improve to identify where and how they can do so.
This idea originated with Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken, who in 2009 wrote a book proposing just such a “Democracy Index.” Her call was based on her underlying philosophy that reformers need to “harness politics to fix politics.” That is, rather than throwing up our hands in the face of the localism and partisanship that can stand as barriers to reform, we need to find ways to put those same forces, and the ambitions and conflicts underlying them, to work in bringing about needed changes.
Gerken’s powerful idea, carried out with Pew’s characteristic blue-chip execution and sustained engagement with state officials, already appears to be making a difference. Gerken has noted that officials in at least nine states have responded to the most recent ratings with new pushes for improvements relative to their peers on different dimensions of the index.
That said, the work is really just beginning. It is now up to the watchdogs, journalists, advocates, organizers, civil servants and—not least—ambitious politicians and determined partisans to capitalize on this treasure trove of information. Whether prompted by high or low motives (or something in between, as is usually the case), their use of the information that is now at their disposal should ratchet up the visibility of, expectations about, and performance on election administration.
Last week the Supreme Court, in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, struck down aggregate limits on contributions to candidates for federal office, political parties, and political action committees. Given how much ink has been spilled already, I won’t presume to say something new about the decision here. Let me instead admit to an ambivalence that the Court’s decision has surfaced for me with respect to the Hewlett Foundation’s developing plans for grantmaking in the democracy area.
As I worked through the laments and diatribes from reformers that flooded my inbox and Twitter feed after the decision, I kept coming back to an old Henny Youngman joke. When someone asked him, “How’s your wife?” he’d quip, “Compared to what?”
Compared to the lofty if increasingly beleaguered ideals of campaign finance regulation envisioned by the reform community, the McCutcheon decision was an outrage. That said, I found myself agreeing with Nate Persily and David Brooks as they argued that, compared to the realities of the post-Citizens United status quo, McCutcheon should be seen as an improvement. It will be, insofar as it brings more money back into the disclosure system and strengthens the hand of electorally-accountable political parties vis-à-vis more single-minded and irresponsible outside interests and ideologues.
A basic premise undergirding our grantmaking in support of democracy is that healthy political parties are an essential component of representative government. One of the things healthy parties do is seek to rally elected officials, party activists, and voters behind a political vision capable of winning and sustaining majority coalitions. Human nature being what it is, party leaders are better able to catalyze such collective action when they have ample funds at their disposal – especially relative to outsiders seeking to pull the party’s aggregate vision and coalition in one particular direction or another.
The McCutcheon decision and the subsequent commentaries brought home to me the extent to which our strategy in this area embodies a core tension. On the one hand, we would like to see party leaders with access to the resources they need to build majority coalitions. On the other hand, we would also like to see the disclosure of, if not limits on, the contributions from what political scientists call the “intense policy demanders,” i.e., the interests and individuals lined up behind each party, threatening them and / or egging them on with increasing amounts of so-called “dark money.”
Our disposition thus finds us with one foot in the strengthen parties camp and one foot in regulate campaign finance camp. Some of our friends and advisors who are active in party politics have looked at our grants to campaign finance reform groups and have asked, in effect, what are you guys thinking? Conversely, many of our reform-minded thought partners and grantees (at least the more candid ones) have openly worried that we are becoming apologists for corruption with our belief in routing more campaign finance through the parties in order to strengthen their influence.
F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Of course I’d like to think that is what we are doing here. But I also appreciate that we could be naively if not foolishly wrong.
What is your take? Can we hold onto both of these “opposed ideas?” Should we try to do so? We’d welcome your input on these issues.
I recently participated in a workshop on electoral systems reform sponsored by Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) and its new Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective. This session brought together scholars and advocates of electoral reform from the US and abroad to consider the potential of electoral innovations like proportional representation, ranked-choice voting, and mandatory voting to address political dysfunction in the US. I subsequently caught up with Larry Diamond, who leads the CDDRL, to pose a few questions on his aspirations for this new program and what he's taking away from its initial workshop. Daniel Stid: The mission of the CDDRL is to “understand how countries can overcome poverty, instability, and abusive rule to become prosperous, just, democratic, and well-governed states.” It traditionally has focused on problems of democracy and governance in the developing world. What prompted you to create the Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective?
Larry Diamond: We often take for granted that the United States is a country with well-established rule of law, effective governance, and free and fair elections. American democracy is not under threat the way that it is in many places around the world. That said, the United States fares poorer on many democratic outcomes, including inequality, political participation, and trust in government institutions, relative to its democratic counterparts. Additionally, American democracy seems increasingly dysfunctional, and unable to address the core policy challenges confronting the country.
We created the Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective to investigate problems that have gained increasing public and scholarly attention. These include polarization, gridlock, income inequality, capture of the policymaking process by special interests, and prohibitively costly elections. We are looking to the experience of other advanced democracies for insight into the contemporary American experience. This comparative approach allows us to move beyond the fixity that many American organizations adopt. Ultimately, the Program on American Democracy will produce policy-relevant research that offers ways to improve the quality of democracy in the United States.
Daniel Stid: You have been working to advance democracy around the world throughout your career. A recent Economist cover story on the problems facing this form of government observed that “The United States has become a byword for gridlock, so obsessed with partisan point-scoring….that America’s image – and by extension that of democracy itself – has taken a terrible battering.” Would you agree with that claim? Are the problems of democracy in the US materially undermining its progress elsewhere in the world?
Larry Diamond: Citizens around the world who are fighting for liberal democracy still see the United States as a model; our civil liberties protections are sorely lacking in many other countries. However, we are not immune from democratic backsliding. Gridlock, partisan discord, and problematic election administration have gotten particularly worse in recent years. This calls into question whether or not democratic institutions are better for governance, and over time could affect our credibility in promoting democratic values.
However, I do think that a coherent reform agenda can improve the quality and functionality of American democracy. There is a groundswell of public opinion showing that American voters are fed up with status quo politics. The frustrations of the engaged public can be channeled into reforms that foster compromise, coalition-building, and improved democratic performance. I am hopeful that the democratic process itself can be used to improve American government, and to help restore democracy's public image around the world.
Daniel Stid: What struck you as the most important themes coming out of the workshop on electoral systems and the challenges and opportunities facing reformers in the US?
Larry Diamond: One of the reasons we focused on electoral systems—that is, the rules and methods by which we elect political representatives -- is that they are relatively easy to change. Many longstanding democracies, including Australia, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, and Italy, have reformed their electoral systems in response to political crises. In the United States, we have "winner-take-all" elections which are actually quite rare among advanced democracies. In the workshop, we discussed alternatives such as ranked-choice voting, proportional representation, and compulsory voting. We also considered reforms to primary elections and the electoral college.
One of the most important themes coming out of the workshop was that different electoral systems can produce quite different outcomes. By changing the rules, you change politicians' incentives—they might be less likely to attack their opponents, to spend exorbitant campaign sums, and to advocate extreme ideological positions. These reforms may therefore well be worth seeking. However, another important theme was that electoral systems reforms might have a limited impact. Institutional change can only go so far in reducing polarization and gridlock among the national parties. So these reforms need to be seen as part of a larger agenda to make institutions more effective.