Download the Political Reform Year in Review as a PDF.
New America’s Political Reform program approaches revitalizing democracy in the U.S. as a long-term endeavor—one that doesn’t follow an election-cycle timeline or end with one administration or one procedural change. Nonetheless, the current political crises offer an opportunity to think more deeply about what kind of democracy we want and how we might get there. This means thinking beyond immediate questions about elections, voting, and the exercise of political power in Washington. We work towards an open, fair, and equitable democratic process.
In 2017, the Political Reform program sought to develop strategies and innovations to repair the dysfunction of government, restore citizen trust, and rebuild the promise of American democracy. We worked on six broad categories:
1. Congressional Capacity
We have studied how declining funding, resources, and staff expertise have reduced Congress’s capacity to play its constitutional role; examined why these problems have persisted; analyzed their impact; and offered ideas on how to tackle them.
- “Congress should do its job. But the job members can do depends on the resources they have” (Lee Drutman, Vox)
- "How a too-strong presidency and a too-weak Congress are destroying the American experiment” (Lee Drutman, Los Angeles Times)
- “This Is Why Americans Hate Congress” (Mark Schmitt, New York Times)
2. Connecting Politics and Policy
The underlying goal of repairing American democracy is to achieve sound, sustainable policy choices with broad public consent. As traditional bipartisan models to achieve consent have failed, we studied how transpartisan coalitions which build from the ends—rather than the middle—of the political spectrum are faring. From that work, we have extracted lessons for policymakers and identified emerging areas of promise in climate change, national security, and trade. In addition, we've studied the models that seem to lead to sustainable policies, such as the choice between targeted and universal benefits.
- “Whatever Happened to Our Transpartisan Future” (Heather Hurlburt, Vox)
- “The Politics of Hurricane Harvey” (Heather Hurlburt, The National Interest)
- “Medicaid Saved the Affordable Care Act” (Mark Schmitt, Vox)
- “We need political parties. But their rabid partisanship could destroy American democracy” (Lee Drutman, Vox)
- “This voting reform solves 2 of America’s biggest political problems” (Lee Drutman, Vox)
3. Reform at the State and Local Levels
With fifty states, the U.S. has fifty different responses to issues like voter registration, electoral processes, and campaign finance regulation. The result is that citizens and activists may not know the laws of their state, or where reforms are happening. In order to make this information more easily accessible, we have set out to track state-level reform, including their challenges and successes. The goal is to build a shared repository which can be of use to both scholars and practitioners. We are also preparing to launch the “50-State Solution,” a collaborative database to track rules on voting rights, election laws, and campaign finance.
- “Civic Tech For Urban Collaborative Governance” (Hollie Russon Gilman, Political Science and Politics, Volume 50, Issue 3)
- “Colorado Politics: Industry Power Continues to Distort State Policy” (Lee Drutman, IB Times)
- “Case Study Highlight: Q&A with NYC’s Regina Schwartz” (New America)
- “How Cities Across the Globe Are Taking Innovation into Their Own Hands” (Hollie Russon Gilman, New America)
4. Race, Identity, and Political Realignment
In the wake of the 2016 election, identity polarization has continued to divide American politics and threaten our democracy. As our two-party structure is struggling to withstand these fissures, our program is looking at solutions that would seek to strengthen other axes of debate, and give a meaningful role to new or smaller parties, to ensure that conflicts do not fall along the same rigid lines.
- “Trump May Make Bipartisanship Popular Again” (Mark Schmitt, The New York Times)
- “Political Divisions in 2016 and Beyond: Tensions Between and Within the Two Parties” (Lee Drutman, Voter Study Group)
- “The Real Civil War in the Democratic Party” (Lee Drutman, The New York Times)
- “It’s the Culture, Stupid” (Lee Drutman, The New Republic)
- “We Need to Think Harder about Terrorism And Gender. ISIS Already Is” (Heather Hurlburt and Jacqueline O’Neill, Vox)
- “A Guide to Talking Women, Peace, and Security Inside the U.S. Security Establishment” (Heather Hurlburt, New America paper)
5. Participatory Democracy
Our analytical framework asks which institutions, organizations, and practices need to change to make public policies inclusive, equitable, and responsive to the communities they’re supposed to serve. With this approach, we are identifying methods of strengthening local institutions, crossing identity lines, and opening up opportunities for more inclusive engagement. Looking beyond the “usual suspects” we hope to serve as a knowledge repository by documenting the opportunities across various cities—including localities and rural communities—and offering rigorous analysis.
- “Our expectations of what civic engagement looks like don’t match reality. Can we fix that?” (Chayenne Polimedio, Vox)
- “The Moment for Participatory Democracy” (Hollie Russon Gilman, Stanford Social Innovation Review)
- “Women create fewer online petitions than men-but they’re more successful” (Hollie Russon Gilman, The Washington Post)
- “Social Media Is Corroding Our Democracy” (Chayenne Polimedio, Washington Monthly)
- “Church Attendance and the Decline of Civic Spaces” (Chayenne Polimedio, Pacific Standard)
- Political Reform Civic Engagement Capsule Blog Series (Hollie Russon Gilman, New America)
6. The State of Liberal Democracy
In 2017, addressing political divisions included monitoring patterns of norm-breaking that challenged our standards of democracy in both domestic and foreign policies. However, dramatic shifts in democracy have happened outside the U.S. too. As countries across the world are facing similar democratic changes, we are expanding our focus to include their recent reconsiderations. To do so, we have called attention to threats to good governance, and explained the nature and importance of particular democratic norms.
- “Liberals Should Still Be Worried About France” (Heather Hurlburt, New York Magazine)
- “The Past Week Proves That Trump Is Destroying Our Democracy” (Yascha Mounk, The New York Times)
- “Brazilians are losing faith in democracy and considering a return to military rule” (Chayenne Polimedio, Vox)
With a range of research angles, fresh analysis, and independent thinking, the Political Reform program has spent the year identifying the biggest challenges to our political system, analyzing their causes, and suggesting ways to make positive change. Going into 2018, we will continue to look for new ways to discuss and understand American democracy, and to develop fresh approaches that can work at both the state and federal level—even as we recognize that the path to real democratic renewal is a long one. We appreciate your continued interest as we move into the New Year, and look forward to seeing you in 2018.