Rob Baker, Ph.D.
Our nation faces perhaps its most difficult inflection point. The American ideal seems dreadfully bent, and seriously in danger of breaking. Challenges that formerly came at us hard, but mostly serially,—a pandemic, massive unemployment, economic dislocation, civil protests and unrest, economic and wealth inequality, severe political division—are now bearing down on us simultaneously. Previously, meeting and overcoming each of these was arduous enough, but all of them coming at once can feel overwhelming.
Compounding the crises are a number of impediments to successful solutions. These include a Congress that has been dysfunctional for years, an unorthodox President who has flouted traditional governing conventions and weakened institutional guardrails, a diminished standing in the world, a corporate mentality that prioritizes profits over employee and community interests, and a media characterized by silos and echo chambers. Are we watching the demise of our democratic experiment? Scholars have sounded warnings to this effect, inclining us to throw up our hands in demoralized frustration. Yet, I would like us to think about fundamental principles as an initial step away from the looming abyss–principles imbued in the first three words of our constitution’s Preamble: “We the People.”
Belief in the consent of the governed motivated our country’s founding. Over time, however, laws such as single-member district elections that allow for a minority of voters to choose our legislators, policies such as government-sanctioned redlining by banks that segregated cities by race and class, and judicial decisions such as Citizens United v. FEC that gave corporations outsized control over our elections, have steered us away from rule by the people and toward a system plausibly described as minority tyranny. Even the constitution itself enshrined structures, e.g., the U.S. Senate and Electoral College, that can work against the consent of the governed by promoting rule by the few to the detriment of the many, even when supermajorities of voters favor certain policies.
To unite and confront the multifaceted challenges we face, we must all have a stake in the game. Right now, though, too many feel disenfranchised and unheard. To uphold the fundamental principles embodied in “We the People” real transformations are needed. Here is where hope emerges. Recently, the bipartisan Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship convened with the goal of recommending reforms aimed at pulling us together as a nation. Significantly, they didn’t just hand down platitudes, but conducted listening forums in 22 locales across the country. These sessions culminated in recommendations designed to promote equal representation, empower voters, enhance government responsiveness, strengthen communities, reconfigure social media as civic media, and encourage shared commitment. In the coming weeks, I will discuss the mechanics and implications of several of the proposals. Meanwhile, I urge you to go to the Commission’s website (https://www.amacad.org/ourcommonpurpose), read the report, and commit to doing your part as one of “we the people” to advocate for changes that will help get us back to our very first principle—consent of the governed.