Supporting Listening, Learning, and Community Connection for a Stronger Democracy

Laura A. Maristany
November 5, 2018

From rising discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities to the resurgence of fascist and white supremacist ideologies, both the EU and the United States are grappling with how to respond to the rise of hate¬¬ and fear-based politics. Magnified by foreign and special interest propaganda and misinformation, these dangerous and highly divisive movements could significantly challenge the health and future of democracy around the world. This month, I joined the German Marshall Fund Memorial fellowship program to learn more about how European democracies are responding to these threats, and to share how Democracy Fund is standing up to defend democracy here in the U.S.

After visiting with political, philanthropic, and community leaders in five countries, I was especially inspired by the work being done to foster conversation and connection between communities in both Athens, Greece and Sofia, Bulgaria. In Athens, the civil sector has created common spaces for communities to engage with each other through the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, and local government initiatives are working to integrate migrant communities. In Bulgaria, the Sofia Platform is helping communities reconnect by developing a new model for civic education, including an updated syllabus and new tools and trainings for teachers.

At Democracy Fund, we believe that healthy democracy is rooted in the recognition of the dignity of every individual and in the equal protection of their rights under the law. All people have intrinsic value and bigotry in any form undermines democracy. Grantees of our Just and Inclusive Society project are working to defend the rights and voices of targeted communities through communications and legal strategies. Democracy Fund has also funded new research on The Rise of the Alt-Right and is investing in projects that empower faith leaders to help bridge some of our nation’s most painful divides.

We also believe that constructive dialogue within and between political parties is essential to governing a complex society like ours. Americans must find ways to reestablish trust in our political leaders and institutions, and also with each other. In previous blog posts, we’ve shared how elevating constructive voices, celebrating civility, and ensuring Congress looks more like America are important keys to achieving this goal—but it’s not enough. As Speaker of the House Paul Ryan recently explained, “How do you make inclusive, aspirational politics … strategically valuable? How do you make it so this is the winning thing, this is how you win elections?”

To dig into this question, Democracy Fund is partnering with universities, think tanks, and nonprofit organizations to convene leaders from across the political spectrum and in communities across the country to listen, learn, and connect with each other. Through in-depth conversations about American identity and political philosophy, these projects aim to develop new ideas, strategies, and actionable steps towards a more inclusive America.

In a series of bipartisan events, The Project on Political Reform at the University of Chicago is convening political scientists and practitioners to discuss the scope and nature of governmental and political dysfunction. Participants work together to help identify pragmatic solutions and common-sense strategies for improving political accountability, campaign laws and practices, structural incentives influencing candidate and office-holder behavior, and relationships between governing institutions. The American Project on the Future of Conservatism at Pepperdine University is a multi-year program that brings together conservative leaders and scholars to assess where the conservative movement stands today and to imagine its healthy future. Contributors at recent events have published essays and media pieces and a collaborative principles document entitled A Way Forward, which offers innovative insights on conservatism in an age of rising populism.

The Inclusive Republic Series, an Aspen Socrates Program, provides a forum for emerging leaders and civically engaged citizens from a wide range of backgrounds and sectors to discuss American identity through examination of some of our nation’s founding documents and with expert-moderated dialogue. The Prospects for Liberal Democracy Series at the CATO Institute aims to mitigate the growing threat of populism through discussions about the future of liberal democracy in the United States among a diverse group of activists, academics, and political leaders. By promoting civil discourse in communities across the country, these convenings are working to change the nature of our national dialogue.

To push back against the rise of hate and fear-based politics, we must find ways to rebuild trust and connection with our communities and with each other. By focusing on the ideals and values that unite us, rather than divide us, these grantees give us hope for the future. We’re grateful for their commitment to helping build a more inclusive America and a stronger democracy. I look forward to sharing what we’re learning as these and other projects continue.

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