How to Reignite Democracy

June 13, 2018  • Jane Wales

Trust is a democracy’s most valuable asset. It provides the societal glue on which self government relies. Without it, we cannot manage the dangers we face nor steward the resources we share. Without it, we cannot solve large problems together.

Yet trust is at an all-time low. Most Americans report that they do not trust the institutions of national and international governance, and—even more concerning—they do not trust one another. Moreover, the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that the trust deficit is a global problem. Citizens living in democracies are among the disaffected; nearly 50 percent of citizens across the United States and Europe believe their governance systems are failing.

The United States has a singular asset to bring to bear: a robust civil society and a tradition of citizens banding together to solve shared problems. In the process, they can build social capital and citizen agency—the antidotes to distrust and dysfunction.

Seized by the danger posed by the decline in trust, several Institute policy programs have worked to build consensus among key participants on an aspect of the problem and their role in its solution. While they launched their efforts independently, the programs now see an opportunity to bring together their respective communities for a conversation that crosses disciplines and ideologies. And they have drawn clear conclusions. First, success requires a citizenry that is engaged, informed, and effective—willing to embrace its responsibilities and exercise its rights. Second, to succeed, citizens will need to operate in the context of an open society.

Most Americans report that they do not trust the institutions of governance, and—even more concerning—they do not trust one another.

Yet Americans’ commitment to pluralism appears to have waned in the face of economic, social, and demographic change. Eric Liu’s Citizenship and American Identity Program focuses on the “challenge of sustaining a coherent national identity.” Through workshops, forums, and seminars, the program explores the values, systems, and skills needed for effective citizenship and seeks to instill the “spirit of common cause, mutual responsibility, and reciprocity vital to a republic.” The program argues that citizens not only have rights but responsibilities: it is their obligation to wield their citizen power effectively.

Meryl Chertoff, who leads the Institute’s Justice and Society Program, notes that trust “along the poles of religious diversity” are essential aspects of American pluralism. Yet fears of the other are often experienced and expressed in terms of religious differences, resulting in Islamophobia, resurgent anti-Semitism, or the stigmatization of different strains of Christianity. Justice and Society’s Inclusive America Project has convened a cross-disciplinary panel to explore threats to religious pluralism (see “Religious Inclusion,” page 78).

The independent media has been an authoritative source of information on which to base shared decision-making and a sense of common purpose. Yet the authority of the traditional media—an essential civil-society actor—has been diminished by the advent of the information age. In response, Charlie Firestone’s Communications and Society Program has partnered with the Knight Foundation to form the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy. At its two meetings over the past year, a diverse number of experts and leaders have pointed out that the media’s loss of authority is in part a function of the proliferation of news sources. And now that more Americans get their news from platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which aggregate stories from multiple sources, the relationship of trust that existed between the consumer and the producer of news is severed. When algorithms drive the dissemination and consumption of news, bias is both refl ected and reinforced, hardening views and deepening divides. The solution, the experts and leaders say, lies in the responsibilities and social obligations that producers, distributors, and consumers of information will undertake—and the commission will make recommendations for each.

The charitable, or voluntary, sector—civil-society organizations and the philanthropies that support them—has long been a vehicle for knowledge-sharing, consensus-building, and collective action. The majority of Americans regularly interact with at least one nonprofi t; almost a third volunteer in a given year. These experiences have a bonding effect. When citizens come together around a problem at the community level, they build social capital, reinfcorce citizen agency, and establish the basis for trust. As a result, the charitable sector is the most trusted of those covered in recent surveys. It remains a recognized mainstay of liberal democracy.

The Institute’s Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation hosts the Aspen Philanthropy Group, foundation CEOs who share a commitment to enhancing the efficacy of nonprofits and the philanthropies that support them. In recent meetings, the group has explored the underlying causes of the trust deficit and strategies for contributing to its solution. Some members advocate strengthening the mechanics of democratic decisionmaking, without prescribing the policy outcome. Others identify issues on which to build bipartisan consensus and pool resources, even if philanthropies agree only on those issues. These grantors and their grantees see transparency as a value in its own right in an open society—and a means to accelerate learning and impact.

The program also includes a working group of data aggregators that has successfully advocated for making available US government data on the charitable sector in real time , at no cost, and in machine-readable form. The information not only provides evidence of social impact. It reveals the signifi cant role the nonprofi t sector plays as a job creator and community builder. Finally, the program offers leadership initiatives for emerging nonprofi t leaders and creates neutral forums for philanthropists to fi nd solutions to societal problems.

Such collaborative problem-solving is a hallmark of Institute policy programs. It is also a hallmark of a well-functioning democracy.