State of American Democracy Project

The goal of the State of American Democracy Project is to help deepen and broaden the present conversation about democracy and connect it to effective action to repair and strengthen democratic institutions. It is neither conservative nor liberal, but aims rather to advance the restoration of respect for the rules of tolerance, fairness, and equality before the law that are the sine qua nonof democracy. Much of the work ahead requires repairing institutions, “habits of heart,” and political culture that have atrophied over many decades. Important parts of the work ahead, however, will require new thinking about governance, politics, and policy to meet the challenges of the “long emergency” posed by a destabilizing climate, loss of species, and the cascading effects of ecological systems failure that will threaten food and energy systems and thereby governments, economies, and domestic tranquility.

Today, the project includes the March 2020 publication of Unchained Democracy, and a conversation series of the same name, that launched in September 2020. The project also brings together partners from across the country, in a variety of disciplines, all focused on rebuilding the American government for the People.

American democracy, such as it was, is unraveling. The reasons are rooted in our history of exclusion beginning with the eviction of native peoples, slavery and racism, persistent and growing economic inequality, violence and militarization, voter suppression, widespread corruption, and the breakdown of democratic institutions. The Trump presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic, however, are symptoms, not root causes of our present troubles. We were always better, or thought we were, when confronting a foreign adversary as in World War II but now we are our own worst enemy fighting among ourselves while things fall apart. The great and urgent work of our generation is to repair and rebuild democratic institutions toward to goal of achieving the full promise of democracy. It won’t be easy.

The successor to the 45th president will inherit monumental problems: an office in disgrace, weakened and demoralized Federal agencies, unqualified personnel in key positions, political corruption, a politicized judicial system, huge deficits, a battered and shrunken economy, a grieving and fractured public with little trust in government, a tangle of Constitutional issues, a reputation for national leadership in tatters, a porous defense against cyber attacks, and a growing list of unsolved domestic and international problems. Compared to the chasm ahead, however, someday these will be regarded as pothole-scale problems.

As the temperature of the Earth continues to rise, beyond some unknown threshold our systems of governance, such as they are, will suffer the equivalent of cardiac arrest. Rising heat and its uncountable collateral effects will overwhelm the systems by which societies preserve public order, maintain viable economies, and supply the public with food, energy, clean water, and security. Many functions of government and corporations will deteriorate and then cease altogether. Designed for different challenges, our political system and laws are unsuited to those posed by complex systems of biology, ecology, epidemiology, atmosphere, and the infinite ways they affect humans. The present pandemic and rapidly de-stabilizing climate ahead, however, will force us to reckon with a more recalcitrant and complex reality that punishes self-deception and overreach.

In other words, we are in not a crisis but in a crisis of crises and not a single emergency but a “long emergency” that will extend far into the future. No patchwork reforms will be adequate to the scale and duration of the problems. No change in consumer behavior or market response will suffice unless it is part of larger changes in the structures of politics, law, governance, education, and economics and what legal scholar Jedediah Purdy describes as “the technosphere of roads, rails, utility lines, farmland, and housing” and more.[1] We must learn to think and act politically as parts of an interconnected whole, what Donella Meadows called “thinking in systems.” An ecologically and scientifically literate, thoughtful, empowered and engaged public will be essential to that transition. If ever there was a time to talk about democracy, justice, fairness, accountable government, and how we conduct the public business it is now.