May 19, 2016


Fixing What Ails Democracy 

What does it mean, this chaotic, disturbing, unpredictable electoral season? We'll know more after the dust has settled, but we can't afford to wait to make our best guess. We need a working theory to orient ourselves as we seek to minimize damage and prescribe a path that will move our democracy in a healthier direction.

One thesis has been powerfully articulated in an insightful and beautifully written essay by Andrew Sullivan for New York magazine. I agree with practically everything Sullivan had to say in this fascinating read -- with the exception of his central thesis and conclusion!  

Sullivan does not bury his lede -- it's all there in the title: "Democracies end when they are too democratic, and right now America is a breeding ground for tyranny." His argument leads, ultimately, to a call for elites to assert themselves and save the people from themselves.  

Yet it is the very non-responsiveness of elites to the needs and problems of great swaths of the public that is profoundly frustrating people in the first place. Asking political and economic elites to control rather than engage the public would only exacerbate that frustration.
In an analysis from the Rand Corporation, the factor best predicting support for Donald Trump was agreement with the statement, "people like me don't have any say."  

Certainly elites have a role to play in fixing what's broken in our public life, but if they assert themselves by disempowering people, they risk worsening the problem rather than solving it.

In a recent piece for The New York Times, Michael Lind counters Sullivan's thesis, arguing for more democracy, not less. He describes the ways in which decisions that affect people's lives are being made in increasingly distant and unapproachable ways:

Majorities need to be constrained when it comes to essential rights. But removing too many decisions from local to remote governments and from legislators answerable to voters to unelected judges, executive officials and treaty negotiators, is likely to create a democratic deficit that provokes a backlash against the system.

If we want to avert the sense of powerlessness among voters that fuels demagogy, the answer is not less democracy in America, but more.

In defining "more democracy," Lind focuses squarely on political institutions and legal structures that enable citizens to have more influence on the decisions that affect their lives. Expanding citizen influence is crucially important; it can attenuate the public powerlessness and marginalization that fuel the antagonistic temper of the times. This expansion can emerge not only through traditional political reforms like decentralizing certain decisions and resources to the local level, but also through innovative experiments in community democracy like participatory budgeting. 

But Lind's appraisal is also an incomplete prescription in one important respect. Citizens now operate in an environment that inflames rather than informs public opinion.

We have a political culture and fractured media environment saturated with increasingly sophisticated spin, the cult of celebrity, and the conflation of incivility and authenticity.

We have access to more information than ever before, but that information often serves to reinforce our prejudices and assumptions. It's never been easier to avoid alternative views and disconfirming data.

We have more ways of expressing ourselves than ever before, but it's too easy to sound off irresponsibly, even anonymously, and avoid challenge and intellectual accountability.

Rather than a political culture of listening to and engaging people with different views, we have too much of a culture of dismissal, disdain and groupthink. As a result, we end up with a politics full of magic bullets, scapegoats, and focus-group-tested slogans.

To counter these inflammatory forces, we need a democratic culture and set of practices that help people encounter and weigh competing ideas and the choices we need to make as we face the future. Such structures will enable people to transform gut-level opinions and assumptions into what Dan Yankelovich calls "public judgment" -- views that people have won, not received, through the hard work of thinking for themselves and talking with others.

What we truly need, then, is not just more democracy, but better quality democracy, with better resources for public conversation and judgment.

If there's an upside to the current turmoil it's that, despite the demagogic excess, important questions are swirling to the surface.

Why is the economy working so well for a small number of Americans and so poorly for so many? Is the disappearance of middle class jobs, and along with them the American Dream, inevitable or can we do something about it? If so, what? How can we better address our entrenched issues around race and ethnicity, and best adapt to our rapidly changing demographics? How can we work to make gridlock the exception rather than the norm?

We need more robust democratic conversation on questions like these -- not just to "save the people from themselves" but to renew America's democratic promise and set the nation on a better path.

Will Friedman
President, Public Agenda

New Resources

This report provides the first-ever comprehensive analysis of participatory budgeting in the U.S. and Canada. 

The Transfer Playbook serves as a detailed guide for two- and four-year colleges to help more students transfer and earn a bachelor's degree.This report is part of a larger project with from the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program and the Community College Research Center (CCRC). Other publications include "Tracking Transfer", a report that assesses institutional effectiveness in transfer student outcomes nationwide and at the state level, a slide presentation and an infographic.

This report summarizes major activities and outcomes of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) between March 2015 and March 2016. C-BEN recently hosted a conference in Santa Fe, NM. 

Questions Financial Aid Professionals Should Ask About Competency-Based Education Programs: A Resource Guide
Developed by the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), this resource helps financial aid professionals address these questions and best support competency-based innovations. 

The questions raised in this document will ensure institutions have the technological systems needed to launch and scale sustainable competency-based education (CBE) programs on their campuses. 

Also developed by the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), this resource helps higher-education professionals better understand definitions and terms related to the academic calendar. 

News and Commentary


Our higher education team details their work with the Competency-Based Education Network at the network's recent meeting in Santa Fe.

 A falsified study is revisited and finds what we've seen in our own learning-curve research -- that dialogue accelerates shifts in opinion.

A recent neighborhood association meeting in Austin reinforced key principles of public engagement efforts and provided lessons to bring back to our work on housing in NYC.

PA in the News
Health Care Shopping Tools Often Go Unused (Society for Human Resources Management)

Playbook for Transfer (Inside Higher Ed, Tuesday, May 17th, 2016)

Public Spending, By the People: Participatory Budgeting (Great Cities, Monday, May 16th, 2016)

Public Spending, by the People (GovLab Digest, Wednesday, May 11th, 2016)

Forging a Path (Community College Week, Monday, May 9th, 2016)

Most Americans Do Not Believe Price Is Linked to Quality in Healthcare (American Journal of Managed Care, Tuesday, April 26th, 2016)


Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on K-12 and higher education reform, health care, federal and local budgets, energy and immigration. Find Public Agenda online at

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