The health of our democracy depends on the quality of our political leaders and parties. We clearly need to do better in both areas.
We need better leaders.
Democracy rests on a paradox. It is a bottom-up system where the people rule themselves via the representatives they elect. But top-down leadership really matters in democracy also–even more than in autocracy. Political leadership shapes whether and how people perceive reality and govern themselves accordingly. It reinforces (or erodes) social cohesion and patriotism.
Ascending levels of leadership: We should expect all of our political leaders to have a modicum of respect for our constitutional arrangements, elections, and the institutions in which they serve. In more honorable manifestations, leaders conform themselves to and are shaped by the responsibilities embedded in their institutions. Still higher forms of leadership rest on an interplay in which politicians listen to and learn from but also reason with and lead their followers.
The highest level: Statesmanship combines the above dimensions with a core set of moral virtues and a compelling vision for the nation. Statesmanship changes American history for the better, as it did in the 1780s, the 1860s, the 1930s, and the 1980s.
The big questions we seek to answer: What would it take to recover an appreciation for and solicit more responsible political leadership? What would statesmanship look like, and what are its core tasks, in the present moment?
We need better parties.
Most Americans have reservations about political parties and the partisanship they give rise to, but they are essential for democracy. Majority rule is the one legitimate basis for self-government among free and equal citizens. And parties are how we build, organize, sustain, and hold majorities accountable.
The problem with our parties: The American two-party system has become tribalized in ways that confound the core features of our system of government. The complexity of our governing arrangements (separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, etc.) presumes the need to negotiate and compromise across them. The diverse values, interests, and agendas built into our extended republic presume a kaleidoscope of coalitions shifting from issue to issue. These presumptions no longer hold. We are thus hard-pressed to solve big problems, preserve social trust, and maintain faith in elections.
All is not lost: Positive changes could come about in several ways, including more robust factionalism within the two parties; a reimagining and revitalization of place-based party politics; the emergence of multiple parties and ad hoc electoral coalitions in various states; and astute political leadership that cultivates a broad and enduring majority.
The big questions we seek to answer: What will it take to foster more pluralism, pragmatism, and patriotism in our party system? How could we remake party politics to better suit the requirements of our polity?