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Year in Review, 2017

Download the Political Reform Year in Review as aPDF. 

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.