For the past six months, I have been working to start up Lyceum Labs. In the run up to our launch, I have fielded all sorts of questions about our work from colleagues, potential partners, and funders. Many of them boil down to this: what is unique about Lyceum Labs? It’s a good question. In answering it, I find myself returning to the following three propositions.
We’re focused on the supply-side of democracy.
The vast majority of the activity and focus among civil society actors working to strengthen democracy goes to the demand-side of the equation. From this viewpoint, democracy is a system in which citizens register their preferences for certain candidates and parties in one election and then reward or hold them accountable at the next. Bolstering the demand-side involves getting voters registered, informed, and out to vote, administering elections effectively, and reforming electoral rules and processes to better reflect the will of the electorate. With governing, demand-side theory focuses on transparency for and accountability to the voters.
We have reached the point of diminishing returns with demand-side theories and approaches for improving democracy. We need to be more attentive to the supply side, in particular to the attributes of our leaders and parties. Democracy is an interplay. Of course politicians and parties respond to public opinion and voter input, but that is not all they do. At their best, our political elites inform, shape, and elevate input from the demand-side; at their worst, they dumb down, distort, or inflame it. The quality and capabilities of our politicians and parties matter for the health of our democracy much more than we like to admit. Hence our focus on improving them.
We’re flipping the script for reform and renewal.
How do we get better politicians and parties? The answer of demand-side theories and approaches is to change the rules of the game to better enable and reflect voter input. Hence the advocacy in the democracy field for a revolving set of electoral reform measures, e.g., campaign finance reform, nonpartisan redistricting, ranked choice voting, open primaries, final four or five election systems, etc. The idea is that only by changing the incentives of candidates and parties can we renew our democracy, reduce polarization, and increase the responsiveness of politicians to the voters who elected them.
Unfortunately, the track record of electoral reform is spotty. The reforms themselves are hard to come by and few and far between. When they do come about, the effects can be muted and often perverse. For example, our system of primary elections, now widely held to be the cause of our current discontent, was the solution according to an earlier generation of demand-side reformers. These technocratic fixes are efforts to reform politics from the outside-in rather than from the inside-out. We believe the best way to reform our politics is, well, through politics! Rather than trying to change the rules of the game to get better politicians and parties, we need to get better politicians and parties so the rules can be respected and refined as needed.
We’re upholding politics as a vocation.
Given the troubled state of our democracy, it is little wonder most Americans hold our politicians and political parties in ill-repute. Our frustration with and suspicion of political elites for what they have done or failed to do is understandable and often warranted. The pervasive skepticism reflects the extent to which Americans tend to look at and critique democracy from the vantage point of the demand-side. To call someone a politician, a partisan, or an elite is to insult them. To suggest to a group of young people that they consider raising their hands and running for office typically generates a mix of quizzical looks, shaking heads, or outright guffaws.
To function well, our system of government depends on not only ambitious but also talented, thoughtful, and public-spirited people stepping forward to lead their fellow citizens. In their absence, we are left to be led and governed (or not) by their opposite numbers. We need to restore the luster of political leadership as a noble calling, perhaps the noblest, for citizens of a free society to pursue. There are many thorny dilemmas and trade-offs inherent in this calling, which is why we need the best people working to resolve them. Some exemplary political leaders are at work today; we are more dependent on them than we know. But they need reinforcements. We are setting out to inspire, inform, and encourage more recruits.
So there you have it. Lyceum Labs seeks to improve the supply-side of our democracy, flip the script on approaches to reform and renewal, and uphold politics as worthy vocation. We look forward to working with allies who share one or more of these goals.