Last week, PACE partnered with the Democracy Funders Network in co-hosting the Funders Summit on Democracy and Civic Life in Sausalito, CA.  The event brought together a diverse group of funders with a shared interest in democracy and civic life in the U.S. Over the course of a day and a half, conversations ranged from defining democracy, to understanding the challenges we face, and exploring philanthropy’s potential to protect democratic norms, inspire engagement, and improve our democratic institutions.  Speakers included thought leaders, researchers, practitioners, and funder peers. The depth and richness of the dialogue, and enthusiasm from participants made it clear this is a conversation that will continue.

We asked a few speakers to open the event by sharing their perspectives on what is happening to “liberal democracy” right now–namely, Larry Kramer, Rachel Kleinfeld, Yascha Mounk, and Michael Steele. We asked them to help us think about how we might understand both the problems and opportunities, and while their insights were nuanced and sometimes divergent, taken together, we’ve captured a few high-level themes from their remarks below:

 1.  We’ve been here before.  Polarization and distrust of our democratic institutions are at record levels.  And while this kind of negative partisanship is troubling it’s not new: we’ve seen similar partisan divisions throughout the Gilded Age, the Civil War, the culture wars of the 60’s, and the Jim Crow era.  Some have even suggested that our founding fathers were more deeply divided than our current political parties.  In short, while this political moment feels particularly fraught and uncertain, our collective historical memory speaks to the possibility of moving beyond it together.

2.  Polarization is real, but it’s not deep (and that’s a good thing).  Research has indicated that the polarization America faces today is top-down; it started with our political institutions.  And while these divides have permeated the American public, in the rare instances where politicians have been able to find common ground and work together, Americans have embraced it.  (On the other hand, when one party pushes through in spite of the other, the opposite happens in terms of public support.) In other words, the polarization we see is becoming more widespread, but it’s not deep–underneath the divisions we see are a set of core values and shared humanity we can build from.

3.  Partisanship is real (and that’s… complicated). Data around negative partisanship and/or affective polarization suggest that people are not deeply entrenched in their own party affiliation, as much as they have concerns about the other party identity. So while they may not be strong partisans, they do have strong feelings about what they believe members of the other parties represent (and their perceptions are likely to be about 20% more extreme than the reality of those positions).  An upcoming report from Hidden Tribes will delve into this dynamic more deeply.

4.  Norms of democracy=norms of cooperation.  Our democracy relies heavily on norms, which makes our system all the more fragile when these norms falter.  A central question we face today is: Can we rebuild the norms of cooperation that make politics possible?  Reactions to partisanship can sometimes fuel divisions as factions become increasingly insular in service of their respective agendas.  But what our democratic system needs most is the building that happens when we work together. This does not mean we have to agree–ultimately, cooperation requires clarity and understanding, not complete agreement.  What is does require is openness: receptiveness to other people’s views might be the most important element missing from our current political reality.

5.  It’s possible–and important–to build each other up.  It’s important to remember that pushing for democracy is distinct from pushing for what we want.  And as our democracy relies on (at least) a two-party system to uphold norms, the weakness of one party is not a win for the other, but a vulnerability for our democracy as a whole.  Having a strong party (even one we do not agree with) might be a complex good, but it’s a good. One participant reminded us that “we all live in the same house,” and that’s something to keep in mind as we navigate partisanship in this political moment.

6.  America is not alone.  It’s easy to believe that the challenges we face are unique to our country, but that’s not entirely true.  After a period of growth through the last century, democracy across the globe has been in decline for the past decade, as populism is on the rise.  Today, 4 of the world’s biggest democracies are led by populists (India, Indonesia, Brazil, and the U.S.)  Certainly, America faces some divisions that are unique to its own history, but in the broad strokes of global history, our political moment is part of a much larger trend.

7.  We can learn from the rhetoric of populism.  People have grown increasingly distrustful of our democratic institutions, and at the same time perceived a lack of vision from leaders in defining a path to change.  In response, they shifted their support to a speaker who directly addressed their desire to fix the system–for everyday Americans like themselves–who both articulated that vision and claimed to hold the power to realize it on their behalf.  In short, the rise of populism has deep roots that speak to structural faults in our democratic system, and a failure to address them in a way that serves all Americans. In order to restore our democratic norms and values, we need to find a way to address these underlying drivers.

8.  Philanthropy isn’t the MVP.  Ultimately, the success of our democracy depends on its leadership, and its people–in the universe of our democracy, philanthropy represents a relatively small force.  The role of philanthropy, however, is critical in creating space for the American people and its leadership to come together in meaningful ways, making the it possible to restore our democratic norms and values, and rebuild our social fabric.  We know that democracy is not a self-correcting system; the intention it takes to maintain is a central reason for PACE’s approach to democracy as a “practice.”  Philanthropy plays a critical role in developing that practice, and giving democracy its best chance to thrive.

For more readings and resources raised by speaker and discussed at the Summit, click here.