If anyone was surprised this summer when Gallup announced that only one in ten Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, it was only because they expected the number to be lower. While many honorable, talented men and women represent us in Washington, it is hard to find anyone who feels proud about how our political system is working today.
With good reason, Americans fear that our voices are not being heard in the halls of Congress above the din of big donors and lobbyists. We watch with dismay as our governing institutions have ground to a halt, unable to agree to a budget for the federal government or to pass legislation necessary to meet our greatest challenges. And who can blame Americans for being turned off by a political discourse that is so dominated by the demonization of opponents and deceptive political rhetoric?
When I founded eBay many critics did not believe that “strangers” would buy and sell from other “strangers” over the web. I believed then (as I do now) that the critics were wrong – that people are basically good and would generally operate with trust and goodwill if given the chance. Seventeen years later, eBay still thrives as a community forged by trust and open, transparent communication.
I have seen firsthand technology’s incredible ability to break down barriers and empower individuals to improve the world around them. Technological innovations offer us a powerful tool to overcome many vexing problems. But technology is often not enough. I have also witnessed the vital role that a healthy political system can play in harnessing the energy of the public and building the political will necessary to achieve our greatest goals as a society. While technological innovation and private enterprise are essential ingredients to unleashing the ability of individuals to create change, I believe they must be complemented by good governance and ethical leadership to be truly effective.
Over the last decade, a significant portion of my philanthropy has focused on leveraging technology in ways that can increase the transparency and effectiveness of our government. Omidyar Network grantees like the Sunlight Foundation and Code for America have transformed how we think about the openness of government and the ability of citizens to both hold government accountable and contribute to its ability to solve problems. More recently, I have experimented with new models for how the media can more effectively inform and involve the public through the creation of Honolulu Civil Beat in my home state of Hawaii.
The Democracy Fund will build upon this ongoing work as a new and distinct initiative. The fund will support social entrepreneurs and others working to directly address the conditions that threaten the ability of our government to represent the public’s highest interests, to retain the public’s trust, and to meet the many great challenges that we face. While technology and innovation will remain important to its approach, the initiative will also apply other strategies, like advocacy and policy reform, as well as facilitating communication and collaboration across differences to solve problems.
Specifically, the Democracy Fund is driven by three core beliefs:
- First, we believe that our democracy must put the public first in the governance process. We will support efforts to strengthen the public’s voice so that leaders respond to their constituents over large donors and special interests.
- Second, we believe that a healthy political system requires a better informed and more active electorate. We will support efforts to equip Americans with tools that allow their voices to be heard and gain easier and better access to the information they need to become engaged and hold our legislators accountable.
- Finally, we believe that our government must have the capacity to solve problems constructively if it is to retain the trust of the public. We will support those working to increase dialogue across partisan divides and increase the ability of our system to function through procedural and electoral reforms.
The Democracy Fund will prioritize bipartisan approaches that reflect these principles because we believe sustainable solutions to our problems are only possible with the support of people from all sides.
I am under no illusion that there was a “golden age” in which our politics were pure and unfolded as they have been described in classroom textbooks. Indeed, American democracy is - and always has been - imperfect. We have vigorously (and sometimes violently) disagreed with each other. We have seen egregious corruption and incivility in our campaigns and our governance. And all too frequently, prejudice and fear mongering have produced leaders and policies of which we are now ashamed.
But despite our many limitations, the American republic has often worked quite well. Over time, we have become increasingly more representative, tolerant, and inclusive. Our leaders have risen above their differences to overcome historic challenges. And millions of Americans have rolled up their sleeves to contribute to a robust and dynamic civic experiment that has been the envy of the world.
As a first generation American who came to this country when I was still young, I continue to be inspired by the founding vision of the American republic and believe that through innovation, dialogue, and bipartisan reform we can take steps that will help us realize that vision.
Together, I believe that we can bring our country closer to Abraham Lincoln’s ideal of a government that is truly of, by, and for the people. It is my hope that the Democracy Fund can make significant contributions to reaching this goal.