American Democracy and the Common Good

In a recent Washington Post column titled, "Political dysfunction spells trouble for democracies," EJ Dionne quotes from a new report from the Transatlantic Academy called "The Democratic Disconnect." "Democracy is in trouble," the report starts. "The collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good--the bedrock of a healthy democracy--is eroding."

The report is about democracies throughout the West. But the political dysfunction singled out by Dionne is acute here in the United States, something Tom Mann and I focused on in our book It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. Political dysfunction is bad enough, but in the US, problems like ideological and partisan polarization and political tribalism are metastasizing to states and localities, and to the population as a whole.

Despite the impressive history of societal functionality and political stability over two-and-a-quarter centuries, the United States is not immune from problems that can strain its capacity to respond to problems, and to cause citizens to lose faith enough in their system that sectarianism can crowd out that engagement of the citizenry for the common good. And the problem becomes especially worrisome if the fundamental building blocks of our civil society--private and public institutions--lose some of their leadership capacity and broad legitimacy in the country as a whole.

This set of challenges motivated the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the oldest learned society in America (going back to John Adams and its founding in 1780), to undertake a major project on American institutions and the common good, which I helped to direct. A distinguished collection of scholars and practitioners explored the roots of a range of institutions and their concern for the common good, and looked at their performance in today's America.

The results, encapsulated in a double issue of Daedalus, the Academy's journal, are both inspiring and troubling. Inspiring because in a basic way, the underlying fabric of American civil society is durable and strong; institutions ranging from labor to business, the military to the media, the courts to the philanthropic community, have long histories of putting their own interests into the context of the larger society and the common good. But the troubling parts are beginning to outweigh the inspirational ones. Few institutions now are concerned in a larger sense with the societal greater good. Many of these institutions are now held in relatively low esteem by the country, with few leaders emerging in a transcendent way that enables them to shape and cushion public views to focus on common needs and the solving of urgent public problems.

In some cases, like the corporate community, the new culture focused relentlessly on shareholder value and the next quarter's profits has created a kind of tunnel vision where longer term societal needs are pushed aside. In other instances, from the religious community to universities, scandals have eroded basic confidence in leaders and institutions. And in a broader sense, the tribal politics and tribal media that dominate our times have begun to shape previously insulated institutions like the judiciary, potentially eroding their fundamental legitimacy. The one institution left that still harbors high levels of respect in the society is the military--and the fall from grace of leaders like David Petraeus, along with the spate of scandals, especially the outrageous tales of sexual misconduct and coverup, threaten its high perch in American esteem.

To be sure, a part of the decline in respect for institutions, along with the vacuum in universally respected opinion leadership, is because of the financial crisis and the economic turmoil and stagnation that followed. Populist disrespect for institutions and leaders is an almost inevitable consequence of bad economic times. But the degradation of our politics and political culture, the erosion of a problem solving culture in Congress, the corruption that has flowed from a political money system made much worse by the disastrous Citizens United decision, and the growing radicalization of the Republican Party, undergird many of the challenges we have to stay focused on the common good.

Structural reforms, from redistricting to more accessible voting to enlarge the electorate, to meaningful campaign finance reform to filibuster reform, can help. But the problems also require changes in culture--and every institution in America needs to contribute to that, changing themselves from within and looking more broadly without.