The Ones Who Care

Laura A. Maristany and Anne Gleich
February 23, 2018

​Laura Maristany co-wrote this blog post with Anne Gleich.

As we welcome a new year — and inch closer to midterm elections — the makeup of our current Congress continues to gain attention. With growing frustration around their perceived dysfunction, the need for leadership development and, particularly, candidate development programs across the nation have become a topic of national concern. In response to the spotlight, many groups are using the opportunity to launch new efforts and create pipelines of new candidates for Congress with hopes that helping the institution look more like the rest of America will increase its ability to function. In 2017, we conducted an environmental scan of leadership development programs geared towards elected officials and identified over 700 groups currently committed to this work. While the scan focused on identifying an average number of groups in this space – and not necessarily their models or effectiveness – it made it clear that we are all looking for the secret sauce to ensure more representative, more functional institutions. The question is, does broader representation on its own lead to a more functional Congress?

There is no doubt that we should continue to identify and support groups committed to developing the next generation of leaders, as well as those working with current elected leaders to promote their continued growth. These groups should continue to develop leadership pipelines to Congress and acknowledge that it is not simply about changing the landscape. We also need to ensure this pipeline is filled with constructive voices. We often hear that Congress would be more functional if it looked more like the America it represents. This could help, but we also need to develop leaders who can promote more constructive politics.

Democracy Fund has embraced this challenge as a foundation. To understand why, let’s take a step back and talk about bipartisanship, which is often viewed as a key to making a dysfunctional government functional. The problem is, forcing people — and particularly elected officials — to choose bipartisanship won’t address the underlying issues. People are partisan — generally we believe our own policy approach is the best approach. Our work in systems mapping tells us that even when we agree, there might be other forces — like towing the party line — that get in the way of compromise, and ultimately lead to gridlock and hyper partisanship. In this context, it is not enough that we commit to creating pipelines of diverse voices: we also need to shift political incentives. In our opinion, the missing ingredient to the “secret sauce” is whether the leaders in those pipelines, and our elected officials, care enough about the issues to come to the table to discuss, debate, and ultimately pass legislation with civility and respect. In other words, how willing are they to stand up for their constituents?

Democracy Fund believes that when our leaders care enough — about their community, constituents, or policy agenda — they will be willing to come to the table, have tough conversations, and accomplish the goal of legislating. We believe this work is crucial to the continued health of our democracy. Therefore, Democracy Fund is proud to support organizations and programs that are working to build diverse pipelines and bridges for constructive conversations, including:

Aspen Socrates Program American Values Seminars (AVS) will leverage their network and convene local leaders from a wide range of backgrounds and sectors under the tested Socrates seminar model with the aim of creating connections, promoting civil discourse and increasing dialogue in local communities. AVS will serve as a forum for the open exchange of ideas and the cultivation of leadership steeped in our shared American values. This duty, of citizen engagement and civic responsibility, remain as timely and as timeless, as ever.

The Cato Institute Project on the Prospects for Liberal Democracy which seeks to defend and improve liberal institutions as a way of avoiding the threat of populism. The project will make a concerted effort to vindicate liberal institutions and bolster them where they are weak by identifying reforms that can make them more responsive — not to transient public passions, but to what Madison termed “the cool and deliberate sense of the community.”

The Millennial Action Project works to re-establish cooperation over party lines in Congress by working with millennial members of state and national legislatures to encourage a new generation of lawmakers in our country. It also works to increase the thoughtful engagement of millennial constituents by elected officials.

The National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona encourages political and civic leaders to embrace vigorous debate in a way that allows diverse perspectives to be shared, complex issues to be discussed thoughtfully, and challenging topics to be explored. NICD travels the country to provide trainings to elected officials on how to act civilly to one another.

Cultivate the Karass provides tools for emerging leaders to overcome polarization, establish common ground, and build trust with one another. With the goal of promoting a healthy democracy through cultivating civil discourse and bipartisanship, Cultivate the Karass brings together leaders from different disciplines and political backgrounds to work together and acts as another model to break down barriers to civil conversations.

We hope you will join us in tackling this challenge.

Democracy Fund
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