Our representative democracy is in peril
Lincoln’s eloquent encapsulation of our system of government as one “of the people, by the people, for the people” highlights what undergirds its continued health. America’s democratic republic maintains its legitimacy (the consent “of the people” to be governed) by living up to two promises: citizens select their representatives (“by the people”); and the resulting representative government effectively responds to the needs and interests of the public (“for the people”).
In 2022, the system is failing to fulfill either promise – and hamstringing our collective response is the assumed link between the two. Political scientists have repeatedly debunked the persistent folk theories that citizens vote based on informed policy preferences, that elected representatives significantly adapt to the preferences of their constituents, and that either leads to a government responsive to the public. If these were true, strengthening voting rights and access alone might be sufficient for achieving responsive government and maintaining the legitimacy of our system. In light of the January 6th insurrection, the flood of legislation to curtail voting rights, and the push to politicize election administration, the work to reinforce our democratic guardrails is essential. But, unless complemented with equal effort to shape governance, outcomes and the perception of outcomes will deteriorate, breeding cynicism, damaging the will of people to participate, and making the defense of our rights even harder.
The alarms are already sounding! People’s confidence in their governments’ ability to solve problems is near an all-time low – not just at the federal level, but at the state and local levels as well (NYTimes, Gallup, Deloitte). And as seen in recent years, when apathy towards government grows into fatigue or even hostility, it opens the door for authoritarian candidates who promise to “shake up the system” by breaking norms and ignoring the checks and balances on their power.
Effective representation is essential for a strong representative democracy
To reverse this trend, we need our representative governments to effectively respond to the needs and interests of their communities and be perceived as doing so.
This is a large-scale, fundamental challenge. The over 90,000 federal, state, and local governments nationwide are led by over 520,000 ever-changing elected representatives. These representatives are the arbiters of inquiry and debate. They shape which constituents and policy developers are listened to and who is hired to implement the emerging policies. Their ability to come to informed conclusions and effectively manage the policymaking process makes or breaks the result. Elected leaders who reflect the diversity of their communities and are motivated to serve are best positioned to deliver responsive government. But they must be prepared to navigate policy, politics, and government and adapt to changes in our VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous). Only then can we achieve government “for the people”.
What we need to do to increase effective representation
We must train those who would lead government to not just run successfully, but govern effectively. To have the most tangible and enduring impact, the place to focus is down-ballot—state legislative, county, and municipal seats— where the vast majority of first time candidates will anchor their perspective of “how to be a politician” for the rest of their political careers. (80% of congressional members held a down-ballot office prior to Congress.) This means helping up to hundreds of thousands of Americans every election cycle develop the skills, local knowledge, and narratives that give them a political edge and prepare them to be innovative policymakers. That requires a quantum leap from the weekend workshops and webinars offered in typical candidate trainings.
Our answer: localized university-level professional programs delivered online at scale. We are building a pedagogically strong course catalog that solves immediate critical needs for candidates, while also advancing the longer-term effective representation / responsive government mission. We have completed Phase 1: field research, curriculum design, and course pilots. This has derisked and set us up for Phase 2: scaling – expanding access to our training to more candidates in more places on more subjects. Over the next 500 days, we will prioritize our training along three areas of impact:
- + Thoughtful leaders: We will increase the number of thoughtful leaders starting their candidate journey.
- + Community: We will improve candidates’ connection with their communities.
- + Local expertise: We will guide more candidates to the data and expertise that can help them understand the local context around the biggest issues affecting their communities and how they can use the levers of government to make positive change.
This work enables Phase 3: growing our virtuous circle of learning. As we achieve nationwide coverage, we will build on and cross pollinate the best campaign and policymaking ideas of members of our community. (Want to discuss our three phase plan in greater detail? Send us a note below!)
What you can do today
This is where you come in. You have the opportunity to strengthen elected representation nationwide at every level. Democratizing access to university-level political and policy expertise is critical, urgent, and sophisticated work – and no other organization is set up for it. We are proud to have developed and proven our training model on a shoestring. This is the moment to scale up course production and delivery.
The vitally important 2024 campaign season is upon us. With your help today, we will develop 10 new courses, including 6 state policy & governance programs, and train more than 4,500 candidates ahead of the elections. (That will impact over 12M constituents!) To get there, we need to increase awareness of our work; develop new friends and partners; and raise additional resources. The faster we do this, the more candidates will be prepared to advance government for the people this cycle. Can we count on you to support this work?
- Champion Empowered To Run in your circles
- Invite others to engage with us
- Invest with financial resources
Would you like to discuss how you can best help? We’d love to hear from you: