Credit: Nina Masters Originals, 2010

Innovation Can Reboot American Democracy

Suzette Brooks Masters
6 min readJul 17, 2023

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Our Future Depends on Democracy Entrepreneurs

A thriving multiracial pluralist democracy is an aspiration that many people share for America. Far from being inevitable, the path to such a future is uncertain.

To stretch how we think about American democracy’s future iterations and begin to imagine the contours of the new, we need to learn from what’s emergent. So I’m going to take you on a whirlwind tour of some experiments taking place here and abroad that are the bright spots illuminating possible futures ahead.

My comments are informed by a research report I wrote last year called Imagining Better Futures for American Democracy. I interviewed dozens of visionaries in a range of fields and with diverse perspectives about the future of our democracy and the role positive visioning and futures thinking could play in reinvigorating it.

As I discuss these bright spots, I want to emphasize that what is most certain now is the accelerating and destabilizing change we are experiencing. It’s critical therefore to develop systems, institutions, norms and mindsets to navigate that change boldly and responsibly, not pretend that tomorrow will continue to look like today.

Yet when paradigms shift, as they inevitably do and I would argue are right now, that’s a messy and confusing time that can cause lots of anxiety and disorientation. During these critical periods of transition, we must set aside or ‘hospice” some assumptions, mindsets, practices, and institutions, while midwifing, or welcoming in, new ones.

This is difficult to do in the best of times but can be especially so when, collectively, we suffer from a lack of imagination and vision about what American democracy could and should become.

It’s not all our fault — inertia, fear, distrust, cynicism, diagnosis paralysis, polarization, exceptionalism, parochialism, and a pervasive, dystopian media environment are dragging us down. They create very strong headwinds weakening both our appetite and our ability to dream bigger and imagine better futures ahead.

However, focusing on and amplifying promising innovations can change that dysfunctional dynamic by inspiring us and providing blueprints to act upon when the time is right.

Below I discuss two main types of innovations in the political sphere: election-related structural reforms and governance reforms, including new forms of civic engagement and government decision-making.

Structural reforms are designed to improve on the current system. The four types I discuss below aim to reduce polarization, weaken extremism, and improve representation.

· Ranked Choice Voting, where you vote for a few top candidates, is used for state primary, congressional, and presidential elections in Alaska and Maine and for local elections in more than 20 US cities.

· Open Primaries do not require voters to be affiliated with a political party in order to vote for partisan candidates, giving voters more flexibility to vote their preferences. State law determines how primaries function. Currently, states align on a wide spectrum from fully open to fully closed.

· Citizen redistricting committees, created by ballot initiatives and legislation, give the power to draw districts to ordinary Americans rather than to legislators and are used to fight partisan gerrymandering. Most commissions are designed for partisan balance and give commissioners authority to approve districts. Fewer than 10 states now use these committees, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, and Washington.

· Campaign finance reform measures like Democracy Dollars (recently adopted in Seattle and Oakland) give money to citizens to allocate to candidates running for office. These voucher programs amplify the voices of local and underrepresented donors, allow ordinary community members to mount effective campaigns, decrease election costs, and make elected officials more responsive.

While all of these measures are designed to improve the functioning and fairness of American elections, they are slow to spread and take the current system as a given. Moreover, elections in general, and the way the media covers them in particular, tend to highlight and exacerbate the differences among candidates and their adherents, rather than what they agree on.

Very different in nature are a wide range of governance innovations that give voice to the public outside of polarizing elections and that allow the government to behave in ways that take a longer view, build in the interests of future generations, and grapple with high levels of uncertainty and change.

Most notable among these innovations are citizen assemblies, which can provide the civic space for citizens to work together to solve important problems. They help surface recommendations where there is broad agreement and help rebuild civic engagement and trust.

Here’s how they work: a randomly selected group of people mirroring the population at large is invited to participate in a series of meetings to represent their fellow citizens and develop policy recommendations on topics as varied — and as contentious — as end of life (France, 2022), abortion (Ireland, 2016), and climate (France, 2020; first permanent one set up in Brussels in 2023). They work with experts, review wide-ranging research, and make recommendations to their governments. While the recommendations often result in policy changes, the process typically does not mandate their adoption.

Despite growing interest in and experience with citizen assemblies abroad, in the U.S. there have been very few experiments with citizen assemblies. Fortunately, the tide may finally be starting to turn with innovation hubs and burgeoning interest in a few cities large — like Los Angeles and New York City — and small — like Petaluma, California and Bend, Oregon.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are also efforts to improve upon public meetings so they can bring neighbors together in common purpose, transform election day and tax day into joyful civic holidays, use technology to give government officials the ability to take the pulse of their constituents in real time and easily, and create mutual aid networks to promote fairness and sustainability at the local level.

These ideas have promise but none go far enough in reducing short term thinking.

Are there ways to embed that longer term thinking through governance and institutional changes? Can we accelerate the adoption of frameworks and tools that are better suited to policymaking in a time of great uncertainty and accelerating change? Fortunately, there are and we can, but the United States currently lags behind other countries.

In response to the numerous challenges facing nations and the planet, a growing international movement is institutionalizing governance that adopts an intergenerational fairness lens, emphasizes imagining and preparing for alternative futures, and uses “futures thinking” tools and techniques to inform action in the present.

New oversight roles and practices in policy, governance and budgeting, often called ministers or ombudspersons for the future (e.g., the UK and Portugal), are emerging to protect future generations’ interests. In addition, a growing number of nations and intergovernmental organizations are using strategic foresight techniques (e.g. Finland and Canada) to anticipate different possible futures and make better decisions under uncertainty. In the coming years, I expect more future-oriented organizations and capacities to emerge and flex new powers on behalf of future generations and more countries to adopt strategic foresight and anticipatory governance skills to navigate this period of flux.

There are also new efforts to rate legislative and policy proposals based on these intergenerational fairness criteria, led by UK-based School of International Futures, mostly in Europe, and to socialize the use of longer term policy horizons. In Japan, they’re experimenting with future design, using role play to allow citizens to think like responsible ancestors so they make decisions today that will leave better futures to successive generations. This could build intergenerational empathy and should be tested rigorously in the U.S. and elsewhere.

So where does that leave us? American democracy is under great strain now, which perversely may not encourage enough innovation and experimentation.

With greater appreciation of its fragility, more reinforcements are shoring it up, including preparing for worst-case scenarios that until recently would have seemed unimaginable. But being overprotective of the status quo without balancing that out with some offensive bets is like investing 100% of a portfolio in municipal bonds or cash — seemingly very safe but actually very risky.

It’s imperative to nurture the seeds of positive transformation for a restless and anxious 21st century public and mobilize that public and its representatives to solve 21st century-sized problems. To do so we need to identify the ideas, pilots and demonstration projects that point the way forward — the start ups, positive deviants and disruptors manifesting, testing and exploring the boundaries of what’s next. And then we need to support them, building a vibrant ecosystem of democratic innovation that will unlock better futures.

Calling all American democracy entrepreneurs and angel investors. The time is now.

This piece is adapted from a talk I gave at Princeton University on May 26, 2023 as part of a panel discussion titled “The Future of Everything.”

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Suzette Brooks Masters

Let’s reimagine + strengthen our pluralistic democracy, make it truly inclusive + ensure it leaves nobody behind. I want to imagine better futures ahead!