Democracy: Threats, Trends, and Trust

Posted by Tara Roth on

According to a recent poll, seven out of 10 Americans agree that American democracy is “imperiled.” With this in mind, the Goldhirsh Foundation has prioritized fostering more trust in our civic institutions. 

The Democracy Lab, with support from the Goldhirsh Foundation, works in partnership with Unite America - which focuses on issues including ranked choice voting and non-partisan primaries, and Summit Impact - which uses the power of Summit’s creator and influencer community to amplify social issues - in order to create structural democracy reform.

As a part of the Democracy Lab, we hosted a luncheon this week with media, investment, and community leaders to discuss what is fueling the collapse of trust in our democracy, what threats we should be paying attention to, and how we can make a positive impact. Central to the day was a conversation moderated by Jelani Cobb, Dean of Columbia Journalism School, and featuring Jessica Yellin, journalist and founder of News Not Noise, Mike Murphy, GOP strategist and co-director of the USC Center for the Political Future, and Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America.

The media’s influence over our democracy was a key topic. As Jessica noted, “the media as an industry has come up with conventional wisdom that cynicism brings eyeballs.” Both she and Mike spoke about the ways in which many media outlets reward negativity, making both candidates and voters lean into a pessimistic cycle. So much so, Jessica noted, that cynicism and emotions can replace knowledge and facts when voters cast their ballots.

As Mike mentioned, many Americans have the mentality that “I’m right, you’re evil” toward their counterparts with different political views. The polarization is exacerbated by partisan media options for voters. News Not Noise, a newsletter created by Jessica, works to combat this by providing readers with “substantive, succinct information on the stories that impact your life” through broader context and facts, as well as interviews with experts.

The panelists also dug into the topic of rebuilding trust in our democracy to engage more voters, especially young voters. Jelani made the analogy that we “don’t ever think about the logic behind things like driving a car,” but we trust in the rules of the road and that people will follow them. This is the type of trust that our democracy needs, that when people vote, the system will work the way that it should.

Our current electoral system is often dictated by partisan primaries, wherein most Congressional seats are decided in the primary, not the general, election. One startling figure shows that in 2022, only 8% of voters nationally elected 83% of our leaders. Issues like this are top of mind for our partners when working to engender more trust and engagement.

After the panel, Nick remarked that “in order to protect our democracy, we need a cultural movement, not just a political one.” He also pointed to the progress being made around the country to engage more voters. Alaska is a great example of a state that now uses both nonpartisan primaries and ranked choice voting. This allows voters more control over who is representing them while simultaneously forcing politicians to listen to the concerns of all of their constituents. 

As Nick said, this requires a movement. The Democracy Lab is focused on creating this movement, where everyone understands the importance of a robust democracy. In addition to Unite America, other partners include the Voter Formation Project which engages, registers, and mobilizes new voters of color, and Tangle, an independent, non-partisan politics newsletter.

Civic participation is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. All of us need to do our part. If you are feeling lost (understandably so these days) and looking for a place to start, I invite you to subscribe to the News Not Noise newsletter and to stay updated on the work of the Democracy Lab.

To see a few photos from the event, click here.