Hope for Democracy

When the Founders developed their vision of the American republic they called for Members of Congress to consult their constituents, to develop what James Madison called an “intimate sympathy with the people.” 

Madison emphasized that representatives should not be pushed around by the passions of the people. But they should give serious attention to what he called “the reason of the people.”  

Representatives work to consult their constituents. But it isn’t easy. Offices are swamped with millions of emails–many filled with passions, often based on limited or mistaken information. Few are targeted at the actual choices Members are making. Most citizens can’t keep up with or digest legislative language and don’t know the tradeoffs Members face.

Furthermore, the people who communicate may not be representative of the district or state. So, it’s difficult to accurately discern the views of the people as a whole. 

But,innovative new ways to visibly listen to constituents and rebuild trust in government provide hope and a way forward for our democracy. Civic organizations, university programs, and local media have already been working to address these challenges. For example:

University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation, in partnership with our sister organization Voice of the People, has developed online tools called “policymaking simulations”– that put citizens in the shoes of policymakers. They distill an issue so it can be understood by someone with a high school education. 

Citizens go online and get a briefing on a proposal under consideration in Congress. Then, they are presented and asked to evaluate pro and con arguments. Content is reviewed by proponents and opponents of the proposal to ensure that the briefing is accurate and balanced, and the strongest arguments are being made. Finally, the citizen is asked to make their recommendation to their elected official. 

The public consultation survey is often followed by a local event where the Member of Congress and constituents discuss the issues in a thoughtful and civil manner.

The Ohio State Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability (IDEA) aims to study and foster high quality political dialogue and deliberation, generate and disseminate knowledge about American political institutions, and further the university’s mission found in its motto: education for citizenship. IDEA founded the Connecting to Congress Initiative which uses deliberative engagement with representative samples to connect constituents and lawmakers in authentic, productive, and mutually rewarding ways.

Healthy Democracy is a nonpartisan nonprofit that works to elevate everyday people in public decision making. They promote collaborative political processes through the use of lottery selected panels and deliberative processes. These Lottery-Selected Panels, also called citizens’ assemblies or policy juries, are a tested democratic innovation that tackles difficult policy issues – from housing to health care – by transforming both who participates in our democracy and how decisions are made. Health Democracy partners with governments, nonprofits, and other organizations to achieve this goal. The organization also developed the Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR), through which a representative cross section of voters writes useful, reliable voter information on state and local ballot measures. The CIR has been held in 5 states and 3 countries, including becoming state law in Oregon.

The Center for New Democratic Processes (CNDP) is a group of international leaders in civic participation, deliberation, and engagement, driven to design the future of democracy. As a nonprofit with over four decades of experience, CNDP partners with citizens, communities, and institutions to design and implement informed, innovative, and democratic processes to address today’s toughest challenges.

These new tools are used to survey the nation as a whole and used in surveys of representative samples of individual districts and states, enabling Members to get input from their constituents as a whole.

When Americans are told about the possibility of being consulted like this,
they overwhelmingly approve.