Fundamental to any democratic system are the formal governmental bodies that represent and serve the citizenry. At the national level, these bodies span elected offices, such as the presidency and Congress, in addition to unelected institutions including the judiciary, military, and executive agencies. Moreover, the nature of federalism in the United States makes state and local governmental institutions important partners across a range of policy areas and for some, the primary actors. The Constitution delineates how powers should be shared across governmental branches and levels, but in practice, across US history the balance as well as scope of powers have evolved.
Key Questions: Why has trust in most US governmental institutions declined over the past decades? And when it has not, what has caused this higher level of public confidence? How have our governmental institutions developed over time? For example, how has the balance of power evolved among the national branches and the national, state and local levels? How have judges’ constitutional interpretations affected any such changes? And to what extent do they reflect technological versus political pressures? How are our institutions operating today? To what extent do they represent the preferences of constituents? How well do they protect civil liberties, foster prosperity, and serve the interests of future generations of Americans? Which reforms might improve the effectiveness of our governmental institutions and public trust in them?
ORGANIZATIONS AND DEMOCRATIC PRACTICE
Successful democracies depend not only on governmental units, but also nongovernmental organizations and practices that enable citizens to organize, that allow political opposition to form and challenge incumbent governments, and that foster innovation and societal well-being. Modern authoritarian systems commonly have official elections, but these elections can occur in worlds in which electoral opposition is suppressed, the media is censored, and dissidents punished. An important component of the theme of organizations and democratic practice will be to support work that relates directly to the health of elections, including on election administration, the media, and free speech. Additionally, this theme will encompass organizations that provide alternatives to the state for information and innovation, such as universities and corporations, in terms of understanding their functioning within the context of a democratic society.
Key Questions: In what ways have freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly and other individual liberties been curtailed or expanded across US history? How has individual autonomy and freedom to make social, political, and economic choices evolved, and how have these influences impacted public trust and the efficacy of American institutions? What are the most effective policies and practices for ensuring integrity of and participation in American elections and other forms of democratic self-governance? How have developments in the media shaped public discourse and the political system? What are the sources of the decline in trust in media sources? How might different types of media organizations rebuild this trust? How has political polarization shaped corporate and economic governance? What role do universities have in creating and sustaining a healthy democracy? What are a set of best practices for universities in promoting an informed citizenry that understands the values of democratic institutions?
At the heart of representative government is the role of individuals in their relationships with democratic institutions and practices. As such, one component of this theme will be work on public opinion and behavior, including on electoral accountability. Additionally, it will be concerned with the development of individuals’ commitments to constitutional democracy, their understanding of the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship, and preparing individuals for informed, active, and ethical participation in democratic processes. As part of achieving these aims, we will engage in efforts to increase and improve civic education within formal K12 and postsecondary settings.
Key Questions: How do individuals develop an understanding of and a commitment to American institutions and democratic practices? How do they develop healthy civic identities? What are developmentally appropriate and effective civic education models in K12 and postsecondary settings? What are the public’s policy positions and priorities? How well does the public hold elected officials accountable for their behavior? What are the reasons behind declining public trust in American institutions?