Strengthening U.S. Democracy

Monday, October 19, 2020
Henryk Sadura/Getty Images

Principal, Vocero LLC; Former U.S. Representative from Florida (R), U.S. House of Representatives 

President and CEO, Rockefeller Brothers Fund; Co-chair, Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; CFR Member

Associate Director for Research and Senior Research Scholar, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies


Anchor and Correspondent, BBC World News America; CFR Member

Panelists discuss U.S. democracy, including current challenges, possible reforms, and lessons learned from other democracies. 

TREVELYAN: Well, welcome everybody to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting, "Strengthening U.S. Democracy." I'm Laura Trevelyan, anchor and correspondent for BBC World News, and I'm talking to you here from our radio studio in downtown Manhattan and I'll be presiding over today's discussion. Just a quick word on the format—we'll have a panel discussion until 11:30 followed by a question and answer session for members. So it's fifteen days to go until the presidential election and already Americans are voting. 28.4 million have already voted according to the U.S. Elections Project by absentee ballot or early in-person voting, and there are predictions that we could see a record turnout. But there's also of course a dizzying amount of election litigation with more than 350 cases playing out in our courts. The president has denounced what he calls mail-in voting, suggesting it's fraudulent. All of this is playing out against the backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed 219,000 in the U.S. and left millions unemployed. So our discussion today is about how to strengthen U.S. democracy including possible reforms and lessons learned from other democracies. A resource that we'll be looking at, which I recommend to all of you, is the report from the Commission on Democratic Citizenship, Our Common Purpose, and we're lucky enough to have one of the co-authors with us today.


So without further ado, let me introduce our three distinguished panelists. We have with us today, Carlos L. Curbelo, the principal of Vocera LLC and of course a former U.S. representative from Florida who represented Florida in the U.S. House of Representatives. We also have Stephen B. Heintz; Stephen is the president and CEO of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, co-chair of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship that I was mentioning there, that report produced by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Stephen is also a CFR member. And we have Didi Kuo, associate director for research and senior research scholar at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. So I'm going to start by asking all three of our panelists just to give us their overview on this topic of strengthening U.S. democracy, and who better to start with than former representative Carlos Curbelo—over to you.


CURBELO: Laura, thank you so much and many thanks to the Council for this opportunity. This is actually my first formal event with the Council, so it's an honor for me and I'm grateful to all the members, especially to Carlos de la Cruz, a good friend who's hosting this event today. So having spent four years in Congress and a lot of my adult life involved in American politics, I do have some ideas and I think some will be very obvious, but it is important to highlight them and state them so close to this critical presidential election. When thinking about the health of our democracy, I think there are three main areas of focus. And certainly American democracy is in a very fragile state. Certainly the trust and confidence in our institutions is at a low point historically. And certainly just in thinking anecdotally, a lot of our fellow Americans are dismayed and disappointed, especially younger voters feel disenfranchised. So what are the solutions? What are the antidotes to all of this? I think number one of the most obvious is electing candidates who will not further stress our institutions. So I'm thinking about members of Congress who work diligently to make sure that government gets shut down and in doing so create controversy and crisis and deflate and dismay voters. I'm thinking of politicians who transparently and blatantly use government institutions for their personal benefit and are unapologetic about it. Our system is certainly designed to deal with a certain degree of self-interest, some would even say, corruption, but when people do it in a blatant manner as if there's absolutely nothing wrong with it, that certainly causes institutional erosion and diminishes the trust and confidence in our institutions. So we need to elect people, yes, as a short-term solution, we need to elect people who will not disrespect or diminish these institutions.


The second big area of focus is institutional reform. We need to reform our institutions of government and specifically the Congress. The Founding Fathers of this country had the idea that Congress would be the protagonist in government—it is the article one institution. And the Congress over recent decades has diminished itself, has ceded a lot of its authority and its power to the executive and sometimes willfully and other times by way of its own dysfunction, not just to the executive but also to the judicial branch. We have seen major social questions resolved by the Supreme Court and not by the Congress. So I work with a number of NGOs focused specifically on strengthening the Congress as an institution and we can get into some of those reforms, some of them are very specific, like, who gets to file amendments, and when, and how do we organize congressional committees. But the main goal of a lot of these reforms is to strengthen the rank-and-file members of Congress. The leadership of the two parties has too much power, there's too much concentration of power with the leadership, individual legislators do not have the power to build coalitions to work across the aisle or even with members of their own party in favor of ideas and concepts that have support of the American people. And then lastly, the most difficult, is structural reforms. And this will require a lot of investment and a lot of patience because changing the way states draw districts, opening up primaries, moving towards a rank-choice voting, that will take a long time and it has to be done for the most part on a state-by-state basis. That means it has to be done fifty times. So those are the three big topics or big solutions that I think about as we analyze and take in this chaotic and diminished democracy as far as I'm concerned.


TREVELYAN: Carlos Curbelo, thank you so much for that overview. We'll get to some of the specifics in a minute but now, Stephen Heintz over to you. And just a reminder, if you're able to keep your overview to about two minutes, it gives us more time for the Q&A. Thanks, Stephen.


HEINTZ: Thank you very much Laura and thanks to all of you for participating in this important conversation. You know, I think we're at a kind of an inflection moment in the history of our constitutional democracy. I think we are in a crisis, and it is not a crisis that was made in 2016. It's a crisis that has been actually decades in the making. But it has left our democracy impaired, dysfunctional, and it has left Americans disappointed, frustrated, embittered. And I think it's a really serious crisis. This experiment, this brilliant experiment that we've had now is at risk. And I think we need to wake up to the fact that it's at risk. Laura mentioned that I had the privilege of co-chairing this national commission, organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which produced the report Our Common Purpose, which if you just Google "our common purpose," you will get a link to the report. We spent two-plus years in a bipartisan, very, very diverse commission of thirty-five members studying the status of American democracy. And one of the things we concluded from all the work that we did, was that actually a really vibrant democracy depends on a virtuous cycle that connects vibrant, effective, inclusive institutions and processes with a healthy civic culture and an empowered civil society, which is the sphere in which citizens come together and work together for the common good. And we need to pay attention to all three. Yes, we absolutely must reform the institutions and processes as Congressman Curbelo has noted, but that won't be sufficient. We also have to revitalize the civic culture of America and massively engage civil society. And the culture is really important because after all, democracy is not just a system of governance or mechanisms for voting or creating laws, it is, as John Dewey said, a civic faith. It is an act of faith. And at present, Americans have lost faith in our democracy. They've lost faith in the system and they've even lost faith in each other when it comes to politics.


And so we have to attend to all three of these things. And I'm happy to say that our report offers thirty-one very specific recommendations covering all three of these sectors. And I'm happy to get into some of that. The last point I want to make for this audience in particular, I think it may be obvious but it's worth stressing, that the erosion of American democracy is bad for America's role in the world. We are now viewed far less favorably than we were several decades ago, even among our closest allies. In fact, if you look at all of our major allies across the world, with the exception of South Korea, the populations of all of these countries, less than 50 percent of them have a favorable view of the United States today. So revitalizing our democracy, in fact, as we say reinventing our democracy for the challenges of the twenty-first century, is not only essential for self-government at home, it is essential for America's role in the world.


TREVELYAN: Stephen, thank you so much for that. And we'll get into some of the specifics of your recommendations in just a second. But Didi, I'd like to invite you to present your overview, please.


KUO: Thank you, Laura, and thank you to my distinguished panelists and the Council on Foreign Relations for this important discussion and to all of you for tuning in. So there are many problems with American democracy, many of which my panelists just enumerated—those that existed prior to the pandemic, like polarization, inequality, ongoing racial injustice and also those that have been amplified during the pandemic, including serious concerns about democratic backsliding given President Trump's marginalization of public health expertise in science, as well as his ongoing attacks on the electoral process. So to strengthen American democracy, I'd like to emphasize two things at the top of the conversation. First, we are living in a period of democratization. It may not feel that way, but that's what it means when we acknowledge there's a crisis and that maybe we need to reform our institutions. And historically, this kind of reform is necessary when democratization occurs. When people feel as if governments are not responsive or accountable that's often because there's actually something outdated or inadequate about the way we translate citizens' preferences into policy outcomes. Of our peer countries, the other long-standing liberal democracies, we are exceptional at any number of ways—the high cost of voting placed on individuals, our winner take all electoral system, our antimajoritarian institutions, our partisan and decentralized election administration institutions. Americans often feel wedded to tradition, but we've also modernized our institutions when our understanding of democracy evolves over time. We've done this plenty of times over our history. Reestablishing the rules of the game can be a necessary step that renews democratic commitments from all sides. So when we discuss specific reform proposals later, I'll emphasize that these institutional reforms are very promising along the lines of those that Carlos enumerated.


But second, much of the renewal of civic culture that needs to go along with these institutions emphasizes the inputs of democracy. In other words, if you change whose voices are heard, and how we organize, you might change democratic outcomes. But it's very important that we also think about the outputs from democracy or the supply of democracy. For example, we very much need to strengthen our intermediary organizations like political parties. Parties are some of the most despised institutions across the world today, and yet they are the solution to strengthening representation. We also need public policies that respond to voters' grievances and demands. For civil society to be effective in the long run, parties need to be able to channel these interests and turn them into effective government. They need to mediate among competing and diverse interests and devise policies that might sometimes be suboptimal, but nonetheless address diverse needs. And parties are the only organization tasked with linking citizens to their governments, those responsibilities don't lie in the private sector, the philanthropic sector, or even in large-scale civic organizations. So ultimately, I'd like to echo something Carlos said that we need the legislative process, one that is public and messy and deliberative, but ultimately accountable to solve the problems that we have with democracy. And finally, I'll just say on the public policy question, new policies mobilize new constituencies, and they create new rights and obligations between leaders and the governed. So when we think about what needs to be done, definitely we need to renew our civic institutions, we definitely need to think about institutional reform, and we also need to ensure that there are new and innovative ways of thinking about what government can do to solve problems in the twenty-first century.


TREVELYAN: Didi, thank you so much for that. So, I'd like to start with Carlos because, of course, you were in the House of Representatives, you saw it from the inside, you talked about structural reforms. In Stephen's report that he co-chaired, there's a specific suggestion that the U.S. House of Representatives should have more members. Do you think that would make it more responsive and strengthen our democracy?


CURBELO: I think that it can certainly help. We have members of Congress now representing, in some cases, close to a million people and that sure makes it a lot more difficult to really have a relationship with the communities you represent and to balance all the competing interests and arrive at the best decisions. However, I will say, whether you have 435 members in the House or one thousand, if the rules of the institution are not reformed to empower individual legislators, it doesn't matter how many you have. And I'll take you back to an experience I had in the 115th Congress where we wanted to debate immigration reform, we wanted an up or down vote on the floor as we told our leadership, we do not ask you to guarantee of success, we just ask you to allow us to have the debate to present our ideas and to let that play out, let the House work its will. The only way we were able to do that was by putting the leadership into a corner and filing a discharge petition, which is probably the most aggressive instrument that's available to members of the House and rarely used by members of the majority. We did that, we got close to the number of signatures required which would have discharged the immigration legislation and brought it straight to the floor. And only then was the Republican leadership willing to bend and guarantee us a debate and a vote which we ultimately had. But it cannot be that difficult for the people's representatives to have their ideas aired out and debated and to allow others to offer amendments and to weigh in. And right now, and we're seeing this play out with this stimulus debate about a second CARES Act, where it's the leadership of both parties suppressing individual member initiatives. There is clearly majority support in both chambers, over sixty votes in the Senate for additional CARES Act relief, but the leadership of Republicans of the Senate, Democrats in the House, just won't let it happen. As long as that’s the case, it doesn't matter how many numbers you have in the House.


TREVELYAN: Carlos, thank you so much. Stephen, you have so many recommendations—and I would advise everyone to read the report because we can't get into all of them here—but one I was especially struck by because you're seeing President Trump having the prospect of confirming a third Supreme Court justice with Amy Coney Barrett during his first term. You're recommending that Supreme Court justices should only have eighteen-year terms. We see the courts becoming so important given our disputatious and divided system. Tell us a bit more about that recommendation and why you think it's so important.


HEINTZ: Yes, this, you know, what's interesting about this, of course, is that the commission issued its report in June, well before we knew that there would be this battle for another nomination this year. And as I indicated before, it's a bipartisan group. We had a former Republican chief justice of the Supreme Court of the state of Texas, we had a sitting judge in the federal circuit court in Chicago, plus political scientists and scholars, etcetera. But we looked at this Supreme Court issue and realized a) that when the founders, you know, created the three branches of government in our Constitution, the average lifespan of the American citizen was, you know, far shorter than it is today. The size of the court of course is varied, five or six times, until it finally kind of settled at nine, but there's nothing that says it has to be at nine. We are not recommending adding additional seats to the court. But we do recommend these term limits, which over time would have the effect of reducing the power of one party or one president to name so many members of the court. You have to link the term limit with what are called regular appointments, meaning that one appointment would be made in each two-year session of Congress, meaning that a president, maximum, gets to appoint two justices in a four-year term. And if this were implemented over time, as people reach their eighteen years and reverted back to the federal bench, maintaining their lifetime appointment, you would begin to have less dominance by one political party or one political philosophy. And this, I think, would create a court that is more modern, more effective, and again, you know, consistent with the vision of the founders, which was a separate nonpartisan branch of our governing structures.


TREVELYAN: Thank you, Stephen. And Didi if we just look at our election system and the different states and the different rules that they have at the moment, we have the prospect that Michigan and Pennsylvania, two key battlegrounds, may not even certify their absentee ballots, which they have many, until right around Election Day itself. Is there, you're a comparative scholar, does anything like this happen anywhere else in the world?


KUO: So we have one of the most decentralized and partisan forms of election administration around the world, but particularly among OECD countries and other long-standing democracies. Where in those other countries elections are run, usually by some centralized and often independent commissions that can create standard rules across the entire country, they're usually trying to make access to the ballot easier rather than more difficult. So in the United States, when we were thinking about voting in a pandemic, there were already so many differences, sort of a patchwork of laws, about how you could get your ballot and how you had to register, with the residential requirements were, etcetera, that we started out really far behind being prepared for a national election to go smoothly. And I think that you're seeing that play out in the different states, and of course worsened by the president's rhetoric about fraud, which serves to just sow cynicism and distrust in the electorate even more. So one of the, I think, most important recommendations that the American Academy has recommended in this report, is to think about making election administration more robust, which is something that's been in the works since 2000, since the Bush versus Gore disaster, our crisis in the United States about the presidential election then. And we have recommendations that are eminently legal and tractable, it's just that they have not yet been adopted.


TREVELYAN: Indeed. And Carlos I wanted to ask you about the role of money in U.S. elections and what impact that has on the strengthening or otherwise, because a record $11 billion is likely to be spent this election cycle, which is the GDP of Chad, just by way of comparison. And again, because you saw it from the House, what role does this have, all of this money sloshing around? Does it serve the interests of the people?


CURBELO: Well, what I can tell you from the perspective of a former legislator is that it further diminishes people who get elected to Congress, their ability to be good legislators. Being a good legislator means dedicating a lot of time to learning about different policy options, to building the relationships in a legislature that are necessary to collaborating, to cooperating with others. And there is so much pressure to raise funds to keep up with your opponent, to make sure you have enough resources for the television buy, that it really does ultimately end up having a negative effect on your ability to do your job well, to get to know other people, to socialize with colleagues, to learn about issues, to meet with different organizations. So, no, it's not good. I mean, that's one where I think the solutions, again, will take a very long time and perhaps require maybe even changing the Constitution. But certainly the impact that it has on the system is generally negative.


TREVELYAN: And you've just raised that point now about the Constitution. Stephen, our Constitution is supposed to guard against the tyranny of the majority, but does it potentially empower the minority at the moment?


HEINTZ: Well, it does in certain ways. Look at the constitution of the United States Senate. We have a hundred Senate seats, two for each state. And again, because of demographic change during the history of our country, the Senate is a very different body than it was designed to be. As of today, the twenty-six states with the smallest populations control more than half of the Senate. And in ten years' time, by twenty years' time, 2040, 70 percent of Americans will be represented by thirty U.S. senators, and 30 percent of Americans will be represented by seventy U.S. senators. So this is not something that can be easily changed. This is a constitutional problem. They're also, you know, the states have a great deal of commitment to the current system. But this is another argument for why we need to open up the process, reform the rules and procedures of Congress, as Carlos has been describing, and it's another argument for why you should expand the size of the House as a counterbalance to the Senate and really make the House the people's chamber once again. But we do, you know, we have a representative democracy that is no longer terribly representative, nor very democratic.


TREVELYAN: And Didi, based on your work around the world, what reforms do you think could work in the U.S. system?


KUO: I think that some of the reforms recommended at the top of the report, having to do with ranked choice voting or even a move towards proportionality, might be very tractable here assuming that you can mobilize a constituency around them. What I mean by that is, many other countries, especially in the '90s, when there was jubilation worldwide about democracy, reformed their electoral systems when they deemed them to be inadequate at translating votes into seats in the legislature. And they did this by mobilizing the population around the idea that our institutions can sort of be mathematically imprecise or even unfair in generating outcomes, and once people tie those two things together, there was more support for reforming those institutions. I think in the U.S. we still have some work to do to convince people that their voting system, which is something that's a little bit arcane and a little bit boring, is what's responsible for our two-party duopoly, as well as this geographically-based system of representation that doesn't take into account the proportionality or the distribution of votes around the country. But there are many other countries we can talk about later, such as New Zealand, Italy, Japan, Taiwan, more recently Mexico and South Korea, that reformed their electoral systems. And there have been efforts to do this in Canada, in Great Britain, that we can use to think about what creates strong support for these kinds of institutional electoral reforms in particular.


TREVELYAN: Didi, thank you so much. And thank you to all three of you. So, that's a conclusion there to my questions. I'd now like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. Just a reminder that this meeting is on the record. And our operator, Kayla, will remind you how to join the question queue and our panelists are eagerly awaiting your questions. So please ask away because I know that there are lots of people out there and this really couldn't be a more fascinating time to ask a question. So please do ask. Kayla over to you.


STAFF: We will take the first question from Hank Cohen.


Q: Good morning, I have a follow up to Mr. Heintz's statement about the disproportionate power of minorities in the U.S. Senate. Doesn't the Electoral College offset this by giving more power to states that have higher populations?


TREVELYAN: Great question. Over to you, Stephen.


HEINTZ: No, in fact the Electoral College in some ways follows the same pattern as the U.S. Senate, because the number of electors allocated to each of the states follows their congressional delegation size, and this tends to favor the smaller states. And this is part of the reason why we've had now a series of elections where one candidate wins the popular vote and yet the election goes to the other candidate because of the ultimate power of the Electoral College. This, by the way, is another reason that we recommend expanding the size of the House, because when you expand the size of the House, you automatically add the same number of electors to the Electoral College. And since they would be going to the states that are more populous, you end up diluting the distortions that currently exist in the Electoral College.


TREVELYAN: Thank you so much for that question. Carlos and Didi, do either of you want to follow up on that?


KUO: Yes, I will just say that many other countries had quite powerful upper chambers, which is what our Senate is. And in order to resolve malapportionment problems, ones that are similar to the ones we have today, they either expanded the size of those chambers or they took powers away from those chambers. So that would be difficult to do, but it's worth noting that we actually have the most powerful and most malapportioned upper chamber in the long-standing liberal democracies. And also the Electoral College, in order to reform it, to reflect the popular vote, would not require a constitutional change. A vote compact called the National Popular Vote would be able to do that.


TREVELYAN: Great, thank you. All right. On to our next question, please.


STAFF: We'll take the next question from Patricia Rosenfield. As a reminder, please announce your affiliation.


Q: Yes, hello. Special hello to Stephen. Hi, good morning. Patricia Rosenfield from the Rockefeller Archive Center and the Rosenfield Fund. First, I want to say I appreciate very much this difficult and important conversation about the fundamental flaws in strengthening American democracy. There's another institution we haven't yet discussed that's also raised explicitly in Our Common Purpose, the report from the Academy, and that is also very difficult to reform but perhaps equally fundamental for addressing the structural and vertical flaws in democracy and that is the education system. Recommendation six in the report talks about how to build a culture of commitment to democracy. And of course, one of the recommendations is how to embed civic education, but for action in the education system, and I would say maybe pre-K through post-sixteen, and I'm just wondering from the panelists, how do we make this a reality? And is it dealing with fifty states, fifty different education systems? Is there a need now along the other changes, the other difficult intractable changes you're talking about, possibly intractable, is this time now for a national education plan that really focuses on how to build commitment for sustainable U.S. democracy?


TREVELYAN: Carlos, as a former member of the House, what do you think about that idea of a national plan to build civic engagement?


CURBELO: Well, I have a unique perspective there because I also served on the school board here in Miami Dade County for four years. And yesterday, I was speaking to a current member of the House, who proposed legislation to allow Americans to vote as early as age sixteen. And at first, I thought the idea was a bit radical, but I think it could help form the civic conscience of young Americans, of young voters, and really encourage people to take an ownership of this democracy from an earlier age. I think that one of the major challenges, we haven't—Stephen alluded to this in his early remarks—is that people feel excluded. People need to engage in a more meaningful way. People need to take ownership of this democracy and help shape it and protect it. And certainly, many argue that over the last few decades, we've seen a drop in emphasis on civics education. We certainly see from time to time polling responses that indicate that a lot of Americans don't understand how our government works, aren't aware of the history that brought us to this point. So I think that this is another area where we can focus and invest to help heal this democracy.


TREVELYAN: But I will say as someone who took the citizenship test, I found it to be fascinating and learned so much. So yeah, Stephen and Didi, if you'd like to jump in. Stephen?


HEINTZ: Thank you, Laura. Just quickly, you know, for the commission, again, this very diverse group of Americans who worked together for two years, civic education became one of the things I think we felt the most strongly about. Because as I said earlier, this really is about imbuing a sense of culture, establishing norms and values in society that are essential as the kind of foundations of democracy. And so I do think we're at a point where there is growing consensus that we need to really rethink our approach to civics education, to make it a) lifelong civics education, to complement, you know, formal classroom-style curriculum around civics education with experiential civics education, helping kids actually have the experience of being engaged. And I, you know, I was a third grader in 1960 during the Nixon-Kennedy campaign, and my third-grade teacher randomly divided our class and half of us were assigned to follow the Nixon campaign and report weekly and half of us were assigned to the Kennedy campaign. And it was from that experience that my lifelong passion about politics and democracy actually started. And I think Carlos is absolutely right, the more you get young kids engaged in this, and you show them how they can actually have agency. And you also demonstrate the joy. You know, a lot of politics can be about joy, about working together, about love of country, about the things we aspire to be. And I think it's something we just have to nurture and we have to make it a lifelong experience for everyone.


TREVELYAN: Didi, just briefly, do you want to say something about how other countries around the world foster a sense of civic engagement?


KUO: Well, they do so in any number of ways, including often through the political parties, which run youth organizations and clubs, and a lot of the civic infrastructure that we have in the United States is intended to nurture this kind of civic-ness among American youth. I will just say on the civic education question that some of the protests we have this summer and have had over the past few years, big discussions about culture, #MeToo, racial injustice, have to do with what it means to be American, how your lived experience of being American is different depending on who you are and where you are. I was raised in the Deep South, I was not taught anything about slavery is wrong, to be totally honest. And if we just track this summer's debates over the teaching of the 1619 Project of the New York Times, and the backlash from people like Senator Tom Cotton and President Trump, I do think civic education is incredibly promising and necessary. And yet, I find it will be very difficult to think about what agreement we could create around what that means.


TREVELYAN: Very good point. Thank you so much for that question, Patricia. Next question, please.


STAFF: We'll take the next question from Lesley Rosenthal.


Q: Hello, thank you so much. Lesley Rosenthal, I'm the chief operating officer of the Juilliard School, and this is a fascinating panel, so grateful that you're taking up these important questions. There was a piece today in the Times by Charles Fried, not known for his liberal views, but institutionalist nevertheless, really enumerating a number of Supreme Court decisions five to four, that not only have appeared to be moving the court in what he calls a reactionary direction, but also doing so in a way that is incurable by legislation because these decisions were based according to their opinions in the Constitution. And it creates an almost incurable situation as he's described it, where unless you do have, either an actual court-packing scheme or a threat, a credible threat to do one, that we're in a situation where these minority rule policies are upheld in a way that cannot be undone by subsequent curative action by legislators should they be composed in a different political array. So just interested to have your thoughts on that, especially Stephen, if you wouldn't mind?


TREVELYAN: Yes. Well, Stephen, over to you. The court decisions are incurable by legislation?


HEINTZ: Some of them absolutely are, there's no question about it. As Carlos said earlier, some of them then require a constitutional amendment. Let's take the money and politics case, again, you know, in the decision, in the case of Citizens United, which the court ruled that money was essentially equivalent to free speech, and therefore, under the protections of the First Amendment, Congress was not able to legislate to control money in politics. This now requires a constitutional amendment to give Congress the power to regulate money. So it sets a much higher bar, it doesn't make it impossible, but it makes it a long-term project. Unfortunately, there are Americans all across this country who are organizing around the notion of a constitutional amendment to overthrow Citizens United. And it is the one constitutional amendment that our commission endorses because we recognize that amending the Constitution is an arduous process. Obviously, it's happened, you know, twenty, what is it twenty-six times in our history, I think five in my lifetime, so it's certainly not impossible. But it is a slow and arduous process and should only be done when absolutely necessary. And I would argue in this case, it really is for precisely the kinds of reasons that Lesley is talking about.


TREVELYAN: Carlos, when you were a legislator, did you get the feeling that there were court decisions that were incurable by legislation?


CURBELO: Honestly, we never really thought about that. We were focused on our own dysfunction and on how we actually needed the court to resolve major questions, and certainly that was the issue with the marriage question in our country. There have been bills circulating Congress for decades about marriage equality and for the most part never even got a hearing. Similar with nondiscrimination in the workplace. Again, it's the court that recently resolved that question even though someone like Paul Ryan, a long time ago had voted for ENDA, which was the acronym of that legislation. So we weren't worried about incurable court decisions. We were worried about our own inability to do anything at all and hoping that courts would solve some of the questions that we were unable to, even though we were designed for that purpose.


TREVELYAN: Fascinating. Well, thank you all so much. Next question. Please. Thank you, Lesley, for that one.


STAFF: We'll take the next question from Ryan Kaminski.


Q: Hi, everyone. My name is Ryan with the Truman National Security Project. Thank you for a terrific panel and thank you to CFR. My question is it's really good news these conversations are coming up more and more about talking about reform and improving our democracy, but how do we stop this kind of knee-jerk reaction that talking about reform, talking about, you know, recommendations we can implement to make this work a little better have this kind of like knee-jerk reaction that this is an attack on the United States, and that, you know, this kind of fall back on like, we're a city on a hill, and everything's pretty much, you know, perfect. How do we socialize this into making that having these conversations is really okay, and that it's actually a function of a properly functioning representative democracy and ultimately helpful for our society and our democracy as a whole? Thank you so much.


TREVELYAN: That's a great question, Didi. What do you think?


KUO: I think that it's mindful to be aware of history that all of the democratic epics in our past, including the expansion of the suffrage, and the New Deal, times after the Great Depression, after the incredibly tumultuous Civil War, when we, after a fifty-year period of a lot of political contestation led to some progressive reforms at the United States federal government, it's worth reminding Americans that they have the power to change things if they don't like the status quo, that that power resides in us, and that we need to be creative. And like Stephen said, it's a matter of faith. We need to believe that these institutions can be improved. I honestly am heartened by the fact that I don't necessarily see a knee-jerk reaction, even among, there are factions in both parties that are very supportive of the idea that we need to reform something. They may not agree about what it is, but I think that it's gone beyond looking like it's just seeking political advantage, it's gone beyond just seeming like a knee-jerk response or an attack on the United States. And now it does seem like something we need to do, and we should do it because we have done it many times.


HEINTZ: Could I just add a quick thought on that one?


TREVELYAN: Of course.


HEINTZ: You know, we, in our report, we describe the notion of reinventing American democracy for the twenty-first century, because I think a lot of the flaws that all three of us have been speaking to this morning are signs of an anachronism in American democracy. And we need to modernize the system. And what's exciting about this, and what I think can give people the socialization that Ryan is looking for, is around the notion of Americans coming together to reinvent our democracy, to make it work better for them. Historians, many historians, think about the fact that we've actually had three foundings in American constitutional democracy. The first, of course, when we adopted the Constitution. The second was the Reconstruction Amendments after the Civil War. The third was the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. And it's time for a fourth founding of our American democracy, and we've had one each century, interestingly enough—eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth. And now it's time for the twenty-first century founding. And also interesting, race was central to all three of the prior ones, and it has to be again. In order to achieve racial justice in this country, which is an absolute imperative, it is the promise of our Constitution after all. We need to have this kind of fourth founding. And this is not something to be ashamed of, this is not something to shy away from, this is something to embrace with excitement that we as Americans have this opportunity now to create the fourth founding of our constitutional democracy.


TREVELYAN: If I could just ask you, Carlos, just to answer, and Ryan's rather good question, how do we stop the knee-jerk reaction to the idea that reform is somehow un-American?


CURBELO: I will say, and Stephen, I think, alluded to this, most Americans that I encounter—and some of this is an exercise in psychology, so it's somewhat imprecise—will acknowledge that something is wrong. Even the most rabid partisans after the first three minutes will say, well, yes, we can do better; this isn't working; you know, I wish my candidate whoever it is, wouldn't express him or herself in certain ways. They know intuitively that the social fabric is being torn apart. So I do think there is some raw material there to work with and to work from. But in terms of short-term solutions and helping to push the country into a mood, I go back to my first proposal or my first major point of emphasis, which is we have to in the short term, elect people who will start pushing us in the direction of healing, and of dialogue, and of reducing tension, and reducing the volume of the discourse in this country. If we don't do that, it will make it only more difficult. And then of course everything else, which brings me to the point of someone I work with very closely, Kathryn Murdoch, who's involved in Unite America, a democracy reform organization, says that the most important kind of philanthropy is political philanthropy these days. And that doesn't necessarily mean contributing to specific candidates, although it might, but it means investing in these kinds of conversations in promoting dialogue, healing society, reforming the institutions of our government. That will help solve many other pending questions in our society, like how to deal with climate change, how to deal with immigration, how to deal with LGBTQ Americans, whatever it is, unless we reform our politics and renew our culture in our society, as Stephen continues to remind us, it will be very difficult to solve everything else.


TREVELYAN: Thank you all for that. Thank you, Ryan for that thoughtful question. And next question, please.


STAFF: We'll take our next question from Jim Thomson.


Q: Hi, this is Jim Thomson, president emeritus of RAND in Santa Monica. So my question is maybe for Didi, because she does the comparative stuff. So in some countries recently, they've used constituent assemblies to address very difficult problems. Like, for example, in Ireland both the same-sex marriage and abortion were handled by constituent assemblies which then made recommendations that the political institutions had to implement or not implement, depending on what they did. And in the case of Ireland, they chose to put these two questions to referendums. These assemblies are chosen at random from people who say they're willing to serve, and they're adjusted in composition to make sure that get demographically representative. So I just wonder if you think those kinds of institutions could be useful in addressing some of the issues that the Congress can't seem to handle because somebody wants to block them?


TREVELYAN: Over to you Didi.


KUO: That's a great question. And this was also a little bit in the report, there are means of political processes that involve citizens more, whether it's through constituent assemblies, like you described, or through participatory schemes, like participatory budgeting, which has been effective at the local level in any number of regions around the world. And I think there is a lot of evidence that they are effective, and by effective, I mean, citizens who participate in them typically come away feeling less cynical and more empowered by having been involved in that process. Further when you can create mechanisms that then make binding their recommendations, or at least submit them to popular vote, that creates a direct linkage between citizen opinion and a policy outcome. I think the challenge in a place like the United States is scale. You know, this is very difficult to do with this larger country that we have, especially on really thorny, difficult national policy questions. And I think it's also—for the participation question—once you have models that integrate with team participation, you know, voters who have less time or fewer resources are still likely to be somewhat marginalized in those processes. So while I think that there are really great examples of constituent assemblies and deliberative democracies at the local level, I just think it can be difficult to do and implement nationally.


TREVELYAN: Thank you. Stephen or Carlos, would either of you like to say anything about this idea of constituent assemblies?


HEINTZ: Well, we do endorse some of these methods in our report from the Academy, precisely for the kinds of reasons that both Jim and Didi have spoken to. One way of handling the scale problem that we see promising is members of Congress, and maybe Carlos has seen some of this himself, are increasingly using citizen panels for the same kinds of reasons that Jim has described where they work with a group that has been organizing these things in a very representative manner. And they get a sample of their constituents together for discussion with the member of Congress around a particular topic, whatever it might be—let's say it's climate change or healthcare reform—and it becomes a vehicle that is closer to a citizens' assembly. And it actually creates both a stronger connection between the member and the constituents, and it really does instruct, it doesn't bind the member, but it instructs the member on the views of the constituency. And if you do these three or four times a year, with different groups from your constituency, again selected in random sampling, you end up creating this kind of style of much closer connection and much closer communication between the representative and his or her constituent.


TREVELYAN: What do you think, Carlos?


CURBELO: Honestly, I don't have much experience on it. We did put together every once in a while, healthcare roundtables and sure that is informative. But again, the more we can get people to buy into participate to shape policy, the healthier the overall system will be. So I do think there's some value there for sure.


TREVELYAN: Thank you. Next question, please.


STAFF: We'll take our next question from Fred Hochberg.


TREVELYAN: Fred, are you there?


Q: Yes, I'm here. Great. Thank you so much. This has been one of the best panels I've attended. Hello to Carlos and Stephen, and nice to meet you, Didi and Laura. Where do we start? The issue is, if Democrats were to win in November, the push will be on climate, on civil rights, on health care—this sort of falls to the side. If the Republicans maintain control, it's still about judges, taxes, regulation. So how do we get—what do we do first to get the public to actually care because they don't really care, representatives like Carlos will not care either. What would be the first step to engage people in this?


TREVELYAN: Excellent question. Carlos, go for it.


CURBELO: I'll take a quick stab at that. If Joe Biden wins this election, and all the polls indicate that if the election were held today, he would win, of course, there's still two weeks to go—he'll have a decision to make. But we've talked about a lot of solutions here. One that hasn't come up, because it's really completely out of our control is transformational leadership. And if Joe Biden wins this election, he will have a decision to make as to whether he is going to aggressively pursue his party agenda, or if he is going to take steps to try to heal the country's politics and restore some trust and confidence in our system of governance. And if I was advising Joe Biden, what I would tell him to do is look at George W. Bush's education reform initiative—No Child Left Behind—in the year 2001. It was an initiative that was led by John McCain and Ted Kennedy in the Senate and by John Boehner and democratic partners in the House. And it's that kind of model that I think can start moving us in the right direction. Now, the incentive is going to be there to go it alone, to get rid of the filibuster in the Senate, to use reconciliation to make major changes to our tax policy. And it's enticing, for sure, and it will be. But transformational leadership can make a big difference and get us a lot closer to where we need to be. It takes a lot of courage, it takes a lot of discipline, something we haven't seen in recent decades in American politics.


HEINTZ: I want to underscore what Carlos has just said, you know, the commission held fifty listening sessions around the country with all kinds of Americans. I mean, it was a really extraordinary experience just listening to Americans, understanding their frustrations with the quality of our current democracy and their aspirations for its future. And they are so hungry for this kind of change. It is palpable. And if I were advising Joe Biden, I would advise him to make this issue number one, because we as Americans won't make the progress we need on climate change, or education, or healthcare, or any number of issues unless we have a democracy that truly functions. And I think the next president should establish a White House office on democracy and have a special assistant reporting directly to the president on this. That's the way, when somebody has it as a responsibility, that's the way it stays on the agenda. And I think if he could dedicate himself to this in the first four years, it would be transformational leadership.




KUO: I think, yes, I think there are reasons to be optimistic because in 2018 the midterm elections were not necessarily purely a referendum on President Trump so far. There were also a lot of bread and butter campaigns from a lot of new candidates among the Democrats who were talking about health care and Social Security, and Americans responded to that. So once they convened a new Congress, the first order of business from Nancy Pelosi was HR1, the For the People Act, which is a little bit of a kitchen sink piece of legislation with a lot of different reforms in it, but I think it really put on the agenda that in order to move past this period that we're in, we will need to take seriously the idea of reforms that address some of Americans' deep concerns about their country.


TREVELYAN: Thank you so much, everyone. Thank you, Fred, for that excellent question. And it is midday, so that brings our hour to a close. I’d just like to thank all of the CFR members who joined, thank you to our excellent and thoughtful questioners. And thank you so much to our panelists, to Carlos Curbelo, Stephen Heintz and Didi Kuo—thank you. I enjoyed it very much. And may I wish you all happy voting. I am making a plan to vote because early voting starts here in New York on Saturday, and I became an American citizen on the day that President Trump was elected, and I'm excited to be one of the millions who will be voting. So thank you to everybody. And that concludes our panel on strengthening U.S. democracy and thank you to the CFR for making this happen.

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