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Amid inequality and polarization, how can we strengthen American democracy?

Two years ago, the 240-year-old American Academy of Arts and Sciences created a bipartisan commission to analyze the state of American democracy. The group is now issuing a report detailing 31 recommendations for how to strengthen it. Two of the three commission chairs, Harvard University’s Danielle Allen and Stephen Heintz of the Philanthropic Foundation, join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was two years ago when the 240-year-old American Academy of Arts and Sciences put together a bipartisan commission to take a hard look at the state of our democracy.

    The commission is today issuing a report detailing 31 recommendations on how to strengthen it. Full disclosure: I'm a member of this commission. And while I'm very much for a stronger democracy, I do not advocate for any specific policy changes.

    Here's a look now at what the commission found.

    These recommendations are meant to take a fresh look at our founding ideals and documents. The commission first defined the challenges our democracy is facing, rising inequality, political polarization, a surge of white nationalism, a lack of trust in our nation's institutions, a fragmented media environment.

    To those challenges, it offers solutions, broken down into broader themes. One theme is aimed at equality of representation, changes that would address governance.

    The report recommends substantially enlarging the U.S. House of Representatives, establishing 18-year term limits for Supreme Court justices, and big changes to campaign finance laws.

    It also calls for so-called ranked-choice voting, where voters rank candidates in order of their preference for elections at the federal and state level. And it sees room for improvement in how we vote.

    The commission recommends switching to universal automatic voter registration. It says federal Election Day should be a holiday. And it recommends making voting a requirement of citizenship, much like jury duty.

    It also wants changes in how we get information, like a tax on digital advertising that would go to a public media fund. And it calls for a culture change towards service, with Americans putting in a year to serve in programs like AmeriCorps, the military, or other nonprofit work.

    All this is just a starting point. The commission says it wants this report to be a call to action and for the recommendations to inspire debate.

    To discuss the report, I'm joined now by two of the three chairs of the commission.

    Danielle Allen, she's a political theorist and a professor at Harvard University. And Stephen Heintz, he's president and CEO of the philanthropic foundation The Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

    Welcome, both of you, to the "NewsHour."

    Stephen Heintz, let me start with you.

    Why did the commission think now is the time to overhaul our democracy?

  • Stephen Heintz:

    You know, many Americans, we have discovered, feel that our representative democracy is neither truly representative or very democratic.

    They don't think their (AUDIO GAP). They don't think their votes count. They think the system is stacked against them. And so the American Academy, which sponsored this commission, felt it was time to listen to Americans, to study the questions and the issues that confront us, and to try to develop a comprehensive plan for how we could reinvent our democracy for the challenges we're facing in this century.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you bring up inequality.

    Danielle Allen, this report is issued at a moment when the nation is feeling the cause of racial injustice in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd.

    How much is that woven into the fabric of what you're proposing here?

  • Danielle Allen:

    We have been working on this report for two years, it must be said, and with a sense of urgency the entire time.

    That urgency has been fueled by the sense that the social compact in this country has cracked, it's fractured. Just as Stephen said, people feel disempowered. People feel that our political institutions have not been responsive. We also feel separate and apart from each other, divided and polarized.

    So, these things have been the truth for some time. This moment has brought out, clearly, just how urgent the problems are.

    And if one focuses simply on the question of policing and racial justice, it's, in some sense, the perfect example. People have been pursuing change for a long time, but certainly with renewed energy since 2014 with the death of Michael Brown and others.

    And although there have been some successes for reform here and there, fundamentally, what we have had to take away is that our political institutions have been nonresponsive.

    So, at the end of the day, what we are watching now, as people come together, is a rediscovery of common purpose, a rediscovery of the goal of securing liberty and justice for all, and a recognition that achieving that does require knitting together responsive institutions, genuine opportunities for empowerment, civil society organizations that connect people across lines of difference, and healthy information ecosystems that help us all do our work as civic participants.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stephen Heintz, it's such a polarized moment in American history. How are people to believe that this is truly a set of bipartisan ideas?

  • Stephen Heintz:

    Well, from the very beginning of our work back in 2017, we were committed to recruiting a very diverse group of commissioners from all across the country, and people with different backgrounds, different experiences, different political perspectives, and partisan ideologies.

    The one thing we all shared was a love of country and a concern about our democracy. And we worked together for two years. We (AUDIO GAP) data. We did the analysis. But the most important thing was that we listened Americans all across the country. And we benefited from their experiences of how our democracy has enduring strengths, but how it is also leaving us with unmet promises.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Danielle Allen, audacious, bold ideas, increasing the size of the House of Representatives by 50 more members, putting an 18-year term limit on Supreme Court justices.

    Many people are going to look at this and say, can this really happen? What are you trying to accomplish here?

  • Danielle Allen:

    It really can happen.

    The first thing for people to recognize is that a healthy democracy depends on a virtuous circle linking effective, functional political institutions, civil society organizations that bridge differences and that connect people to their institutions, and a civic culture that cultivates a commitment of Americans to one another and to our constitutional democracy.

    So, our — our recommendations are not just a sort of hodgepodge, a sort of grab bag of policy ideas. They're very considered things that interact with each other.

    So, yes, a requirement for universal voting, but, at the same time, a recommendation to make voting easier. And across the slate of our recommendations, there are champions for all of them, people are already working hard on these things.

    We spent a lot of time, actually, evaluating feasibility. We also sought to make sure that the actions could be moved forward on many levels of our system.

    So, there are some things that municipal leaders can move forward, some that state leaders can move forward, some that require actions by Congress, only one constitutional amendment. That was our goal, was to try to avoid constitutional amendments whenever possible. So, that one, we do think we need with regard to issues of campaign finance.

    But, for example, even the change with the Supreme Court, term limits, that is a change that can be made within our existing constitutional parameters.

    And across the board, we saw a pathway to implementation that was highly aligned with usability, taking 2026, the 250th anniversary of the nation's political birth, as our target.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Stephen Heintz, 31 recommendations.

    Priority? What do you start with here? What you say to the American people, these are our priorities?

  • Stephen Heintz:

    Well, I think what we're saying to the American people is that we're issuing an invitation to them to pick the recommendations that mean the most to them and to begin to work together on them.

    We're not establishing priorities for them. That's the work of the citizens of our country. We're offering them a comprehensive plan. We think all the recommendations should be carefully debated and expanded on and developed in the years ahead.

    But I want to stress one thing about the challenge here. We are at a moment, I think, where there is greater receptivity to change and a greater need for change.

    Both this pandemic that we have been living through and the racial justice crisis make the flaws in our democracy all the more vivid and the need for reinvention all the more urgent.

    And I think people in America understand this and want the change. And they want to believe in this democracy. They want to be connected to each other. And they want it to work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Danielle Allen, finally, that was going to be my question.

    Do you believe American — the American people are receptive to these kinds of ideas right now?

  • Danielle Allen:


    This country is full of brilliance and full of can-do energy. The most inspiring part of our work was listening sessions all over the country, and the opportunity to see the ways in which people are already rebuilding political institutions, rebuilding trust in their own community, inventing forms of civic media that can be antidotes to the corrosive effects of social media, for example.

    So, yes, the American people is hungry for this. The American people is full of ideas, full of can-do energy. I am 100 percent confident that we can bring about the transformation that we all desperately aspire to.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Danielle Allen, finally, where do the — where do people go if they want to read this?

  • Danielle Allen:

    The Web site is Amacad — that's short for American Academy — /ourcommonpurpose.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, we are going to leave it there.

    But we thank you both so much for joining us, two of the co-chairs of this commission on strengthening American democracy.

    Danielle Allen, Stephen Heintz, we thank you both.

  • Danielle Allen:

    Thank you so much, Judy.

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