Making government work, and work for all.

The piece was written by Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the Founding Executive Director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse and a NAPA Fellow.

A woman asked Benjamin Franklin as he exited Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787: “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”  

Franklin’s reply: “A republic, if you can keep it.” 

On January 6, millions across the country and around the world watched as a mob stormed the United States Capitol as Congress attempted to certify the presidential electoral vote. Since then, hundreds of state bills have been introduced to suppress voting access and replace nonpartisan election professionals with partisan politicians. We have lost trust in many of our institutions, and we are deeply divided. We have also lost a commitment to truth and facts, from who won the election to the safety of covid vaccines. For the first time since the Civil War, we are faced with a real threat from within to our system of government and a danger that our republic may not, indeed, survive.  

This moment arrived after decades of ignoring structural deficiencies in our politics, increasing income and wealth inequality, and, more recently, direct attacks on our democratic institutions and our cultural norms of respect, civility and trust. Since a high of 75 percent in the 1960s, fewer than 25 percent of Americans now say that they can trust the federal government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.” A July 2021 Gallup poll showed that only 12 percent of Americans had confidence in Congress, the lowest of any institution polled. But Americans have lost trust in other major institutions as well – only 16 percent of adults expressed confidence in mainstream media, and only 18 percent trusted big business. This lack of trust has serious consequences for our democracy, for citizens’ willingness to engage and for our ability to solve pressing national problems.   

Distrust: Loss of Connection 

While the hyper-polarization of our current politics is one significant reason for our distrust, there is a second equally important cause — the loss of connection to other people. Today, approximately 34 percent of Americans report living in communities where they lack a sense of connection outside their own families. When encountering different people and attitudes, they quickly judge and demonize “the other.” Since the 1970s we have seen an increasing disintegration of the traditional networks that connected people (block clubs, volunteerism, unions, women’s and fraternal organizations), leading to millions of Americans feeling disconnected. At the same time, we’ve seen a loss of a shared American national narrative – a sense of common purpose or larger sense of belonging as an American — which in turn has profound implications for our belief in democratic institutions and our ability to enact public policies for the common good. 

Most Americans agree we’re in an unhealthy place, and they’re hungry to get past our political and social divides. But too often, they lack the strategies and skills to do so. As the first executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse created at the University of Arizona after the mass shooting in which six people died and 13 were wounded, including former Rep. Gabby Giffords, one of the first things we did was to create the community conversations that would enable people to safely experience contact with people who hold different views. In 2017 and ‘18, NICD engaged more than 60,000 Americans in discussions across the divide. More than 95 percent of participants discovered that there was more that united them than divided them, even on core issues. For example, they may still have disagreed on whether to expand the wall on our southern border, but they left the conversation feeling connected to one another and respectful of their differences.   

If we create the civic infrastructure necessary to support these conversations in communities all across the country, we can go a long way to reducing the profound divisions among us. The infrastructure would include safe places to engage in conversations, facilitate the citizen engagement processes, and win the support of leadership from all sectors of society — education, faith-based organizations, business, non-profits and government itself.  

As we commit to providing the opportunities that will rebuild our mutual trust in each other, it is imperative that we commit to strategies that will begin to rebuild the public’s trust in our government. 

Rebuilding Trust through the Public’s Voice in Policy 

Strategies to rebuild trust in government require our elected officials to engage the public in meaningful ways beyond elections. What made the American experiment extraordinary was the belief that people are capable of self-governing. And yet nearly 250 years later we have not evolved our democratic institutions to make this belief a core part of how our government works. 

The good news is that the models and processes exist and have been utilized and evaluated at local, state and national levels. The field of deliberate democracy, both in the academy and in practice, has developed many effective methods of bringing citizen voices into policymaking.  

In the U.S., the fastest-growing example is participatory budgeting, where a percent of a local budget is set aside for priorities to be determined by citizens. Groups of residents gather at a neighborhood institution (museums, libraries, local community centers, basketball courts) over an extended period – often several weeks – to discuss priorities. Each group of participants can review the priorities of prior groups and fold previous ideas into newer ones.   

Mayors in some cities have already made this commitment. For example, Mayor Anthony Williams of Washington, D.C., held citizen summits every year of his eight-year tenure, where thousands of residents debated and developed their collective priorities. In the first year, D.C. shifted almost 65 percent of its discretionary budget based on the public’s priorities. The Citizen Summits not only helped re-establish the public’s trust in their local government, but also re-engaged citizens in their neighborhoods. After seeing this work on a city-wide level, thousands of Washingtonians engaged in civic activity in their own neighborhoods, rebuilding parks, participating in community policing events and starting local food banks. 

Citizen assemblies – first created more than two decades ago in British Columbia, Canada – have also proven effective. A large panel of citizens is randomly selected reflecting the public’s demographics and is presented with a complex public policy issue. The panel gathers evidence and considers a variety of alternatives, ultimately making a recommendation to policymakers. The process has been used on a national level by the U.K. and France to identify solutions to the climate crisis and by Ireland to develop a successful referendum on gay rights.   

To date, the U.S. has not had the political will to apply such strategies to national issues, even though there are many nonprofits across the country with experts in these methods. For example, the Bridge Alliance identifies 100 nonprofit organizations across the ideological spectrum that can facilitate such processes. Local and state governments have training institutes for public officials to learn how to hold such public discussions. Public policy schools also train public administrators on how to set up meetings and manage meaningful conversations.  

A Path Forward 

If we’re serious about restoring trust in government, we need to deal with the cultural issue of “living in place” and recreate the connectivity that has been lost. We need to change the public dialogue to be more about public engagement and to think about what has meaning for that community in that place in this time.  We need to develop national strategies to build a sense of connection by allowing citizens to have an impact on how they are governed. We need to create the stories and the connections that can convince people to try something new. Most importantly, the public must demand that their representatives bring their constituents to the table. 

On January 6, we witnessed an unthinkable assault on our democratic processes. That threat is continuing in the actions being taken by state legislatures to make it more difficult for people of color and young people to vote and by changing the rules of who determines the electoral vote of their state.   

We are at a point in history when we must consider Franklin’s response back in 1787 more carefully than ever. Can we keep our republic? To do so, we, the people, must reverse our loss of trust in each other. And we must hold our elected officials accountable for re-establishing trust in our democratic institutions by engaging people in the policies that impact their lives. Fortunately, the methods and models for how to do this exist and have been proven effective. Can we muster the political will necessary to use them? 


The piece was written by Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the Founding Executive Director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse and a NAPA Fellow.

By No Comment October 4, 2021