Editor’s Note: Stephen Heintz is president and CEO of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and co-chair of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
The final ballots are still being counted and recounted in some states, but the outcome is already clear: Americans have voted for democracy.
Not even the threat of constitutional crisis can diminish the heroism of the local election officials, mail carriers and poll workers who made this possible; the election that many feared might collapse was in fact the most secure in American history. In the middle of a pandemic, Americans turned out in record numbers to exercise “the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society,” to quote the late Congressman John Lewis.
America’s next president must now heed their voices with conviction – and answer them with a commitment to reforms that will enliven, reimagine and reinvent our democratic culture and institutions. President-elect Biden will take office on January 20, 2021, confronting a daunting set of challenges.
Gaining control of a resurgent pandemic that has cost nearly a quarter-million lives while keeping the economy from sailing off a cliff is just the beginning. Then there is climate change. There is the ongoing crisis of systemic racism. There is repairing America’s deeply injured relationships with its global allies. The list of urgent priorities that require action – or more accurately, required action months ago, years ago, decades ago – staggers the imagination.
The overlapping crises that the Biden administration will inherit are, to a large extent, symptoms of a disastrous practice of deferred maintenance on democracy itself. To confront them, President-elect Biden must simultaneously address the structural failures most responsible for our inability to solve the immediate challenges.
Our system of democratic self-government is failing us. Americans no longer feel represented by their elected officials. Money overpowers citizen voices. Trust in Congress is at an all-time low.
There is no more important action that President-elect Biden could take in his first 100 days than to establish a White House Office for Democracy to launch a series of overdue reforms. “special offices” like these provide a dedicated team of people with direct executive access as they work with Congress, state and local officials, and experts to achieve progress on a long-term, strategic priority and keep it top of mind as the commander-in-chief’s attention is pulled from crisis to crisis.
Despite the uncertainty created by the Trump administration’s refusal to accept the result of the election and commit to a peaceful transfer of power, the Biden team is already moving quickly to appoint key White House staff positions and vet potential Cabinet members. The staffing architecture put in place over the coming weeks and months will shape the next administration’s policies and priorities. Now is the time to make sure that democracy reform is high on the agenda through the establishment of a White House Office focused on the vitality of our democracy led by a Special Assistant reporting directly to the president.
In addition to experience with policymaking on the federal level, staff appointed to manage the office should bring deep relationships with the nonprofit sector and state legislatures. They must be as diverse as the country itself.
George W. Bush set up such an office in 2002 to create a culture of service “to prepare for crises at home, to strengthen our communities, to help people in need, and to extend American compassion throughout the world” following the September 11 attacks. The USA Freedom Corps, directed by John Bridgeland, assistant to the president, created the infrastructure for American volunteerism and proliferated national service opportunities throughout the country. Bridgeland’s direct access to the President was essential to keeping service on the agenda despite two wars in the Middle East. “I learned that if I didn’t have access to the President and I wasn’t on that priority list, we wouldn’t have gotten those things done at all,” said Bridgeland in an oral history interview.
Biden knows better than most how hard it is to keep democracy reform on the agenda when so many other priorities compete. In 2008, President Barack Obama was elected with a mandate to fix not only our policies, but our politics. Then, as now, Americans were tired of ineffectual institutions and hyperpolarization. But Obama, too, assumed office in the middle of a crisis. Democracy reform took a backseat to putting out the fires of the Great Recession and delivering on an ambitious health care agenda.
Twelve years later, our ineffectual institutions have become even more ineffective; our hyper-partisanship has reached an ever more fevered pitch; and our democratic system itself seems to many to be on the brink of collapse. The window for change has narrowed and threatens to close. If there is one lesson that Biden should take away from his previous time in the White House, let it be this: Fix democracy first.
But to fix is not enough. The challenge is imagination and innovation. We can reform our voting systems to empower voters and ensure equal representation. We can amend the Constitution to allow for Congressional regulation of campaign finance. We can expand the size of the House to make it more representative and establish term limits for Supreme Court justices. We can invest in civic education, national service and bridge building in local communities.
All of these recommendations are featured in a recent report, “Our Common Purpose,” authored by an ideologically diverse commission convened by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an independent research center and honorary society of scholars founded during the American Revolution to foster knowledge and learning in support of the public good. The report’s 31 recommendations, spanning political institutions, political culture, and civil society, provide a comprehensive roadmap for democratic reinvention. The recommendations of the report were written by traditional conservatives, libertarians, progressives, and centrists from both political parties who are united in their belief that democracy reform is not a partisan issue but an existential one.
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One of the report’s recommendations envisions a National Trust for Civic Infrastructure, seeded by private philanthropy, to support bridge building on the local level. Biden won the election, but 70 million Americans cast their ballots for his opponent. Now that the campaign signs have come down, the conversations must begin – neighbor to neighbor, citizen to citizen, American to American. We cannot hope to solve the greatest challenges of our times if we are not even on speaking terms with ourselves as a country. Libraries, parks, and community centers provide spaces for Americans to come together across difference and begin to heal.
If Biden truly wants to be a transformational president – and the times demand that he is – he must recognize that reinventing democracy is the issue that could define his legacy. Establishing a White House Office for Democracy would be a historic first step.