Democracy Fund

The Democracy Fund invests in organizations working to ensure that our political system is able to withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people.

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Our Approach to Polarization and Gridlock

By Joe Goldman / 2013 February 1st

I thought it would be useful to dedicate a few early posts on our new blog to explaining a bit more about our priorities and the organizations in which we have invested. With this post, I’ll start by talking about our grantees working to encourage greater bipartisan problem solving. Future posts will discuss informed participation and creating a more responsive political system. There is no shortage of data supporting the observation that our system has become more polarized and less productive in recent years. While it used to be the case that there were dozens of Congressmen who ideologically fell between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat, that number has essentially fallen to zero. Certainly, it is no coincidence that our most recent Congress produced the fewest laws in modern history.

Senate Gridlock Explained in One Chart, The Atlantic Wire, March 8, 2012
Senate Gridlock Explained in One Chart,
The Atlantic Wire, March 8, 2012

While polarization is not necessarily a bad thing (it clarifies choices and motivates participation), the checks and balances of the American political system require our two parties to work together in order for our system to function. Standard and Poors’ explanation for why it downgraded our nation’s credit rating provides a good example for what happens when the ability of Members of Congress to reach principled agreements breaks down. The polarized state of our political system is the result of major political trends that have emerged over several decades, like the regional realignment of southern conservatives to the Republican party and the increased competitiveness for control of Congress since 1994 that has resulted in a permanent campaign environment. At the Democracy Fund, we our under no illusion that there is an easy fix to the situation, but we believe that the current status quo is untenable. To that end, we have been inspired by the work of many organizations trying to make the system work better. Five organizations in particular have received initial grants from the Democracy Fund in order to work on this issue.

  • The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Democracy Program has marshaled its considerable research and convening capacity to analyze procedural and electoral reforms that have the potential to make a modest difference and reshape political incentives. For example, BPC is currently evaluating reforms that have been enacted by states to improve their redistricting processes and primary elections. They have also produced recommendations about how Congressional rules should change to make the institution work better.
  • The National Institute for Civil Discourse is a new institution created after Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and 18 others were shot in Tucson in 2011. While no one believes that simply being polite will solve our problems (or that such a goal is even desirable), the basic ability to have conversations about important challenges is a prerequisite to governing in a system like ours. When each side sees the other as the enemy or control by the other side as illegitimate, then the ability to solve problems becomes impossible. NICD and its high profile national board have launched several initiatives to work with members of Congress, state legislatures, media leaders, and others to foster greater trust, civility, and collaboration in our political system.
  • The Democracy Fund has also supported the Faith & Politics Institute in convening an ideologically diverse group of high profile faith leaders in order to explore the role that they may play in improving the state of our political discourse. Faith leaders hold a unique moral authority in our society and represent millions of Americans. We have been impressed by the genuine and sincere concern that these leaders have brought to the conversation and their personal commitments to contribute to making things better. The group is currently developing a plan for how faith leaders can make an impact over the long-term.
  • All too often, Americans live in echo chambers in which their assumptions about the world are reaffirmed by the media that they consume. The New America Foundation is working with Professor Talia Stroud at the University of Texas to conduct a series of experiments that seek to understand how media can better expose their readers to other points of view. New America is also supporting research to understand how media can more effectively correct misperceptions and deceptions in ways that overcome cognitive barriers.
  • Finally, Bloggingheads.tv has launched a unique program, called The Good Fight, which exposes the readers of ideological media sites to civil discussions between pairs of leading thinkers from both sides of the aisle. We’re eager to learn from this program about the degree to which exposure to thoughtful, civil dialogue can impact viewers when they know and trust at least one of the people participating in the dialogue. For example, this dialogue between Brad Smith and Heather Gerken on campaign finance reform shows that advocates from the Left and Right can find some areas of common ground on a highly polarized topic.

The Democracy Fund is still very much in learning mode on this issue and look forward to exploring different strategies for addressing it. While we do not believe there is any silver bullet for reducing hyper-partisanship, we are committed to finding ways that we can make a positive contribution to shifting the political incentives that are driving today’s political behavior. We hope you’ll join us in this important endeavors.

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