Too often, the people working to strengthen democracy have been caught flat-footed by the pace of new trends and innovations. All kinds of changes, many of them driven by technology, are affecting how we live, work, vote, interact, and get information. It has always been difficult to understand the implications of trends in the moment, but it is even harder today because knowledge is so vast and specialized: the experts on each individual trend are often isolated from one another, and there is no overarching map for everyone to see.

Furthermore, transformative moments often seem to happen when trends come together—when the wires of innovation cross. Think, for example, of how the combination of personal computers, credit cards, and the internet transformed how we shop, leading in turn to dramatic changes in fields like journalism, as newspapers lost the revenue that classified ads used to bring. Well-known, slowly progressing changes like the rise in literacy rates or in economic inequality might interact with new developments like blockchain or the rapidly growing capacities of artificial intelligence (AI). There are great challenges and potential catastrophes at these intersections, but there can also be great benefits. The intent of this paper is to begin identifying how these trends present significant dangers, as well as opportunities, for democracy.

Many of these dangers and opportunities have to do with the growing sophistication of what we are calling “subconscious technologies” and the increasing determination among citizens to make their actions and opinions matter in public life, an impulse we are calling “conscious engagement.” These two forces are rampant, and the ways in which they conflict with or complement one another may be critical to the future of politics and democracy.

We also hope that this paper serves as an antidote for what seems to be the prevailing sentiment about the fate of democracy: deepening frustration and even resignation that our political system is ineffective and unpopular, without serious attention to how that system could be changed. Collectively, we have been doing a lot of hand-wringing about democracy, as if we were standing at the bedside of a slowly declining patient. We know that frustration with American politics is higher than ever before. Trust in government and other public institutions has been ebbing for decades, and it has now reached unprecedented lows. Election after election, voters of both parties are attracted to “outsider” candidates who promise to “change the system.” The trends we describe in this paper bring with them tremendous implications, and they should prompt us to think more carefully about how people interact with government, how they work with one another, and how we might redesign democracy so that it fits the new expectations and capacities of citizens.

This paper uses expert interviews, conceptual mapping, and a broad-based systemic analysis to gauge the force of different trends, understand their potential implications, and show how they connect and build on one another. By mapping and comparing these insights, we can better anticipate the path of democratic evolution and decide how to support positive changes in governance.

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