The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Here are a whole bunch of good ideas to reform our democracy

People enter Citizenship and Immigration Services in Fairfax, Va., on April 22, 2019. (Pete Marovich For The Washington Post)

The Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, put together by the Academy of Arts & Sciences, released the results of its two-year project to find ways to “respond to the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in our political and civic life and to enable more Americans to participate as effective citizens in a diverse 21st-century democracy.” After 50 listening sessions around the country, the commission — made up of academics, media figures, business leaders and philanthropists from a wide ideological spectrum — came up with 31 recommendations.

The recommendations fit into six broad strategies (e.g., “achieve equality of voice and representation,” “ensure the responsiveness of our political institutions”) that incorporate many of the good ideas circulating for years. This includes ranked choice voting, expanding the size of the House of Representatives, instituting independent redistricting commissions, making voting easier (e.g., expand early voting and vote by mail), restoring voting rights to ex-felons who have paid their debt to society, enhancing civic education and expanding national service.

Others are new and intriguing, such as subsidizing and supporting the creation of a “civic one million” — a group of people who can “lead the community organizations that are vital avenues for the practice of democratic citizenship. They are the catalysts of bottom-up change and renewal. By supporting them, we support the communities they serve.” Likewise, the commission seeks to persuade foundations and other philanthropic groups to reallocate their funding. “Currently, philanthropic foundations spend only 1.5 percent of their collective grantmaking dollars on efforts to improve and reform democracy, and they allocate only a sliver of that meager slice of their money to supporting civic leaders. Foundations can and must do better to foster the civic one million and ensure that it is a cohort that captures the full breadth of American social diversity.”

Likewise, “a philanthropic initiative to support the growing civil society ecosystem of civic gatherings, ceremonies, and rituals focused on ethical, moral, and spiritual dimensions of our civic values” seems like a no-brainer.

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In addition, without amending the Constitution, the panel has a reasonable suggestion for reconfiguring the Supreme Court based on the understanding that the Constitution requires lifetime appointments for Article III judges, but does not guarantee them lifetime tenure on a specific court:

Establish, through federal legislation, eighteen-year terms for Supreme Court justices with appointments staggered such that one nomination comes up during each term of Congress. At the end of their term, justices will transition to an appeals court or, if they choose, to senior status for the remainder of their life tenure, which would allow them to determine how much time they spend hearing cases on an appeals court.

Some are impractical (e.g., amending the Constitution to roll back Citizens United). It is doubtful, for example, that Americans will ever embrace mandatory voting. And while noble, a “public-interest mandate for for-profit social media platforms . . . to support the development of designated public-friendly digital spaces on their own platforms” would likely not be constitutional.

That said, the vast majority of these suggestions are not only attainable but require modest federal expenditures. The commission’s work overall is a useful addition to a growing body of work from a variety of nonpartisan or bipartisan groups that both recognize our democratic institutions need reform and reconstruction, as well as provide potential solutions.

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The problem all these proposals face is that one major political party is no longer interested in expanding voting, making government more responsive or, frankly, enhancing our democracy. The Republican Party in its current incarnation is about maximizing power for a diminishing share of the electorate: whites. The problems the commission identifies (e.g., gerrymandering, inaccessibility of voting) are not bugs as far as Republicans are concerned; they are features of a strategy designed to conserve power and limit the influence of those voters it believes are unreachable.

The nonpartisan commission certainly would not say this, but I will: Before we can reform democracy, we need to deliver an electoral shellacking to a party that has become authoritarian, exclusionary and hostile to the rule of law.

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