How Can We Build a Democracy That We All Believe In?

Harvard Ash Center
Jan 12 · 4 min read

Written by Archon Fung, Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government

Stop the Steal rioters who broke into the Capitol on Wednesday shocked the nation by desecrating one of American democracy’s hallowed spaces. The rioters assaulted our democracy even as many of them believed they were defending it.

But the deeper ugly truth is that American democracy has few friends these days. Many — and not just on the left — correctly criticize that Americans vote at very low rates compared to most democracies, Gerrymandering distorts representation in many states, and that the six senators from California, Texas, and New York represent the same number of people as 62 senators from the 31 smallest states. Democratic presidential candidates have won the popular vote in seven out of the last eight contests, but due to Electoral College distortions, the Republican candidate won three of those elections. Without evidence, nearly seventy million Americans evidently believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. Congress’s unresponsiveness to the views of most citizens for many decades, while being quite attentive to the priorities of the wealthy and presiding over the escalation of hyperbolic inequality, should dismay Americans of every persuasion. In both 2016 and 2020, more Americans may have voted from fear of the opponent rather than from enthusiasm about their champion.

“We need to imagine ambitious new ways for all Americans to generate a new birth of democracy.”

Scholars, advocates, and reformers have offered many good ideas about what a better — more participatory, responsive, and legitimate — American democracy would look like. But, as David Runciman recently argued, figuring out what a good democracy looks like is much easier than figuring out how to create a democracy that all Americans believe in. Suppose Democrats and good government advocates came up with a fantastic set of reforms that would make American democracy great again (like some of those in House Resolution 1) and rallied 55% of the House and Senate, and 55% of the American people, to support them. Because the levels of political polarization in our country are at levels not seen since the Civil War, the other 45% percent of legislators, and perhaps Americans, would likely feel that this package was a “Democrat power grab” — as Senate Leader Mitch McConnell put it — that had been shoved down their throats. Conventional politics cannot produce a democracy we all believe in.

Instead, we need to imagine ambitious new ways for all Americans to generate a new birth of democracy. For example, we might put democracy questions directly to voters in referendums. Republican and Democratic voters alike have often supported pro-small “d” democracy reforms in large numbers: such as when Florida voters re-enfranchised former prisoners in 2018; or when voters in Michigan, California, and Utah voted for independent redistricting commissions; or when they approved ranked-choice voting in Maine, Alaska, and New York City. Along a different path, we might convene Citizen Assemblies — composed of ordinary Americans just like juries are — to figure out how to create a democracy that we all believe in. Imagine convening groups of 100 citizens, chosen at random with representative proportions of Republican, Democratic, Independent voters, non-voters, women, men, youth, PhDs, people who didn’t go to college, and people of different races and ethnicities. Charge one group with making recommendations about election security to make sure that no one can steal an election, another to assure that every American can vote, a third to deal with money and politics, a fourth to tackle Gerrymandering, and so on.

Though this idea of putting citizens in charge of democracy would be new to the United States, the experience of Citizen Assemblies from countries such Canada, Ireland, and Iceland shows that they can generate very sensible recommendations that many other citizens like and accept as legitimate. Most of our political leaders will reject the idea that citizens should have a powerful role in improving our democracy, not least because they won their positions according to the current rules of democracy. But if the Stop the Steal riots last week mobilize us to be more ambitious and innovative about our republic, to be curiously searching for better ways from all around the world rather than congratulating ourselves about our exceptional system of government, we can build together a democracy that we all believe in.

About the Author

Archon Fung is the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. His research explores policies, practices, and institutional designs that deepen the quality of democratic governance. He focuses upon public participation, deliberation, and transparency. He co-directs the Transparency Policy Project and leads democratic governance programs of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Kennedy School. His books include Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency (Cambridge University Press, with Mary Graham and David Weil) and Empowered Participation: Reinventing Urban Democracy (Princeton University Press). He has authored five books, four edited collections, and over fifty articles appearing in professional journals. He received two S.B.s — in philosophy and physics — and his Ph.D. in political science from MIT.

Challenges to Democracy

Challenges to Democracy is the blog of the Democratic…

Challenges to Democracy

Challenges to Democracy is the blog of the Democratic Governance Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School.

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Research center and think tank at Harvard Kennedy School. Here to talk about democracy, government innovation, and Asia public policy.

Challenges to Democracy

Challenges to Democracy is the blog of the Democratic Governance Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School.