PRESIDENT'S ESSAY

A portrait of Robert L. Gallucci

MacArthur Foundation President, Robert L. Gallucci

Contributing to a Stronger American Democracy

The Current Crisis

Observers from across the political spectrum have decried the current state of America’s politics. Strident and partisan discourse, a deadlocked Congress, and short-term thinking are among the common complaints.

What would the ideal representative democracy look like in contrast? Begin with better elections in which well-informed voters are motivated and equipped by their education to think critically and make informed decisions. They would not base their votes on 15-second negative advertisements or the politics of personal attacks. They would be capable of separating evidence-based analysis from emotionally charged claims. The electoral process in which they participated would be transparent and efficient. There would be genuine choices among candidates. Elected representatives would interact with civility and work toward bipartisan consensus. The policies they adopted would deal with issues of the highest concern, reflect the best contemporary thinking, and aim for concrete results. And the nation would prosper.

Voters do not have good-enough information about national issues. Far too many have been poorly prepared by our educational system to fulfill their role as informed citizens, or are simply not engaged.

The real world is not so simple – but we need not, and should not, accept the present state of affairs.

MacArthur has some working assumptions about what brought America to this present impasse.

The first is that there is a deep problem with our political culture. We live in a federal republic characterized by devolved responsibilities and separated powers. For this system to function, political leaders have to make deals and compromises. But, at present, many of our leaders (and their supporters) see compromise as an unacceptable betrayal of principle or party loyalty. The result is polarization, wrangling, and paralysis. Many individuals and organizations think there must be ways to improve this culture and get the business of politics moving once more; MacArthur is among them.

The trouble goes beyond politicians. Voters do not have good-enough information about national issues. Far too many have been poorly prepared by our educational system to fulfill their role as informed citizens, or are simply not engaged. With all the ideological battles, there is far too little attention to what works in practice and not enough policymaking that focuses squarely on empirically verifiable evidence of success or failure. 

Finally, there are long-term trends that are changing American society in significant ways. Our demographic profile – race, ethnicity, and age – is shifting. But we are also becoming a less equal country, and one that may offer less opportunity.