Reinventing American Democracy

In June, an honorary society with roots that go back to the Revolutionary War era, unveiled an agenda of dramatic political reforms and civic innovations for the 21st Century.

Last month, the American Academy of Arts & Science released Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, the product of a two-year effort that involved data collection, analyzing past reform proposals, and conducting 47 listening sessions with diverse groups of Americans from around the country.

The report outlines a shortlist of “imperatives” for making American democracy more equitable and resilient. That list includes:

  • Equality of voice and representation
  • Empowerment of voters
  • Responsiveness of political institutions
  • Connectedness in and among communities
  • Civic information architecture that supports common purpose
  • A culture of commitment to American constitutional democracy and one another

Among the “stress factors” calling out for bold action: “a fragmented media environment, profound demographic shifts, artificial intelligence and other technological advances, economic inequality, centralized power, and climate change.” If it was not clear that we needed dramatic change before COVID-19, the report’s authors suggest, “it is painfully evident now.”

The 73-page document was compiled by the Academy’s Commission on Democratic Citizenship, a group of “scholars, thought leaders, former and current officials, practitioners, journalists and media experts, and philanthropists” chaired by Danielle Allen, a Harvard University science professor and author, Eric Liu, founder and CEO of the Citizen University, and Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brother Fund.

Among the top recommendations of the report was the goal of passing a “28th Amendment” to “authorize the regulation of election contributions and spending to eliminate undue influence of money in our political system and to protect the rights of all Americans to free speech, political participation, and meaningful representation in government.”

Amending the U.S. Constitution would be a heavy lift. The last amendment was 1992, a restriction on the timing of congressional pay raises first proposed in 1789. But a 28th amendment is only one item on a long list of recommendations that includes enlarging the U.S. House of Representatives, ranked-choice voting, nonpartisan redistricting commissions, and 18-year terms for the Supreme Court justices.

The commission did not limit its scope to structural reforms. The report also listed proposals for enriching civic life, promoting national service and holding public meetings that were more engaging and participatory, including the use of facilitated, small group breakout sessions.

Though more comprehensive in scope, the recommendations in the commissions report is in the same spirit of democratic governance and civic engagement that has inspired League programs since the late 1970s. For instance, one of its recommendations is to expand “the breadth of participatory opportunities at municipal and state levels for citizens to shape decision-making, budgeting, and other policy-making processes.”

The National Civic League has a long history of promoting cutting edge political reforms and good government innovations, though mostly at the local (and at times, the state) levels. Through its award programs, publications, and community services work, the League has been promoting strategies and ideas that are very similar to those of the commission’s report.

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences was founded in 1780 by leaders such as John Adams and John Hancock to “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

To learn more about the report, visit

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