America’s Next Chapter

December 1, 2020  • Jane Wales

The tumult of 2020 suggests that US society will not return to status quo ante. Americans are likely to rethink the relationship of the individual to the larger, diverse society; the efficacy and resilience of our democracy; the structure and fairness of the economy; and the nature of US obligations to the rest of the world. As an organization dedicated to the advancement of the Good Society, the Aspen Institute has a role to play.

In the two years leading up to this moment, Institute CEO Dan Porterfield encouraged Institute programs to organize their work around clear and compelling social goals—and to pursue those goals in collaboration for greater impact. The first out of the gate was the Aspen Partnership for an Inclusive Economy, a multi-program initiative that promotes an inclusive economy and reimagines capitalism in the process. The initiative offers analysis and puts forth sophisticated strategies to address the global economy’s fault line: searing inequality.

More recently, 12 Institute programs came together under the name “Pillars of Society” with the common goal of creating a more inclusive society in which all actors can contribute to and benefit from a robust liberal democracy. Understanding that the responsibility for self-governance is a shared one, each of these programs strengthens the capacity of key democratic actors to contribute to the common good.

In August, the program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation, led by the author, hosted its Aspen Philanthropy Group, comprising 25 foundation CEOs, to share forward-looking strategies for reimagining democracy, capitalism, and how to approach community. The program strengthens the capacity of civil society actors and the philanthropies that support them to solve societal problems large and small, and to build social capital and citizen agency in the process. These attributes of a healthy democracy will play a central role in building back better and achieving a just recovery. The foundation leaders and their grantees had already been working to rebuild. With the pandemic and the recession—and the disproportionate burden of both on people of color—the boldest of these leaders’ efforts are even more salient, more urgent, and perhaps more achievable.

The Pillars of Society group also includes the Congressional Program, led by Dan Glickman, and the Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership, led by John Kroger, which both build community and bipartisan problemsolving capability among policymakers at the national and state levels. They each provide a venue for leaders to discuss policy innovations that may be ripe for bipartisan action. Going forward, Congress and state legislatures will not only have hefty agendas of their own but they will play key roles when it comes evaluating the swirl of proposals being put forth to reform democratic institutions.

Eric Liu’s Citizenship and American Identity Program focuses on sustaining a strong sense of citizenship and a coherent national identity at a time of change. In its new “Who Is Us?” project, the program engages people from many walks of life to explore what it means to be an American now, and who gets to define the nation’s history, character, and future. The program’s “What Every American Should Know” project dives into cultural literacy and the common knowledge and associations Americans share. And its “Better Arguments” project trains people from across the country to have more productive civic arguments.

Perhaps the most disruptive force when it comes to the practice of democracy is the information revolution. Social media platforms are challenging the business model of traditional media, authoritative sources of independent information. Under Vivian Schiller’s leadership, Aspen Digital explores the impact of new technologies on democracy, including how they have expanded democratic participation. In the run-up to the election, Aspen Digital hosted webinars covering concerns about digital disinformation, voter intimidation, and possible interference in the voting process itself. The program focuses on the question of who is responsible for moderating harmful online content while also protecting free speech—the answer to which lies at the heart of many proposals for reform.

The Education and Society Program, directed by Ross Wiener, improves public education by informing and influencing education leaders, policymakers, and practitioners. Its emphasis on children of color and children from low-income families allows it to address searing divides along racial, educational, and economic lines— divides that the shift to remote learning has exacerbated. In recent years, Education and Society hosted a Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development, and the program’s report, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation of Hope, offers a roadmap for “whole learners” to contribute to democratic society over their lifetimes.

The Business and Society Program, directed by Judy Samuelson, promotes the idea that US businesses are obliged to create value not only for shareholders but also for stakeholders, including employees, customers, and the communities they touch along their value chains. The program offers five principles for executive pay that align purpose and rewards, define fairness, simplify pay structures, and make room for non-financial contributors of real value. Business and Society also advances change from within corporations by identifying and convening first movers—leaders who take on projects in their companies to help solve societal problems.

In recent years, the Justice and Society Program created two initiatives important to any democracy-strengthening effort. The Inclusive America project, led by Zeenat Rahman, focuses on religious pluralism through published primers, essays, and research as well as workshops for religious leaders, civic leaders, and donors across the country. The recently launched the Criminal Justice Reform Initiative, led by former Ford Foundation program officer and educator Douglas Wood, aims to transform both policy and practice on the national and state levels. Among the reforms the initiative promotes is the restoration of federal and state voting rights to formerly incarcerated persons.

Within Pillars of Society are two programs that specifically nurture cultural and creative—as well as political—expression: Aspen Words, led by Adrianne Brodeur, and the Arts Program, led by Erika Mallin. Arts and literature allow people to explore and deepen their understanding of vital issues, whether they are evergreen or contemporary topics. Each program is focusing on race relations. Aspen Words features books on racial injustice and offers webinars on questions like, Can authors write with authenticity about experiences and identities that are not their own? The Arts Program has been addressing the pandemic and structural racism and white privilege within cultural institutions, and the need for the arts to be more inclusive.

Aspen Seminars, led by Todd Breyfogle, helps ground the Institute community in the ideas and ideals that first formed the basis of US democracy. It is in Aspen Seminars where one reads and discusses the origins of the social contract that so many now argue about. Seminar curricula—including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Henri Rousseau, the originators of the social contract, and many others—provide the intellectual and moral grounding for so much else that the Institute programs do. Skilled facilitators challenge participants to rethink their assumptions and reevaluate their choices by introducing them to philosophies that differ from their own. Both Breyfogle and Cordell Carter, the leader of the Institute’s Socrates Program, create powerful bespoke seminars to help participants grapple with contemporary societal problems. Carter’s most recent curriculum focuses on the role of race in a democracy. While policy programs focus on society as the unit of change, it is in the seminar room that individual transformation occurs.

Members of Pillars of Society are not alone in strengthening democracy. The Aspen Strategy Group advances bipartisan problem-solving. The Stronger & Healthier Communities Group, led by Monique Miles of the Forum for Community Solutions, advances democratic decision-making in communities across the country.

Taken together, these programs pursue strategies that are bottom-up and top-down, focus on policy and practice, andpersuade and motivate through art and argument. Their networks are grassroots and elite. The diversity of their strategies reflects the multiple ways change happens.