voice for democracy

Always asking questions: Welcome to Democracy Pie – The Fulcrum

Willis is the founder and director of Oregon’s Kitchen Table at Portland State University and executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. She is the author of a textbook, a book of essays and two books of poems. This is the first in a new, regular monthly column called Democracy Pie.
As I launch this column, I might as well tell you the truth. I am a magpie, an enthusiast. I am forever pecking at some shiny piece of tinfoil I found on the sidewalk. Some of those glittering attractions are professional — citizen assemblies and popular education and mutual aid. Some of them are personal — embroidery and color wheels and kayaking. Often, I chase after these gleaming new attractions, learn whatever I can and drop them to pursue the next sparkly thing. But there are a few tarnished bits that I come back to again and again. And, given the title of this column, you will not be surprised that two of them are democracy and pie. A third, as you will see, is poetry.

Even if I think I am pursuing something new, often I discover that seemingly new thing is like a refolded newspaper. I crease and then un-crease it, revealing another section of a deep, old concern. A long-fussed-over worry. As I turn it over and over in my hands, I am reminded of the opening lines of Robert Haas’s poem “Meditation at Lagunitas”:

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter
In my case, a good deal of the new thinking — alongside a whole lot of the old — is about democratic culture and how democracy takes root — or doesn’t — in our day-to-day lives. How we live together in our homes and churches and synagogues and mosques and temples and workplaces and classrooms and grocery stores and parks. How we conceive of ourselves in a democratic society and how we might do a bit better at pursuing this elusive enterprise of self-governance. How our inner lives connect with the external expressions that make up our civic and political identities.
Our democracy has suffered a beating the past few years — contested elections, foreign meddling, record levels of institutional mistrust, existential polarization, a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, National Guard troops on the streets of American cities, including Washington, D.C. In a Pew poll released last year, nearly 60 percent of Americans said they are dissatisfied with how democracy is working in this country. A YouGov poll conducted right after Jan. 6 found that 62 percent of Americans thought the events at the Capitol were a threat to democracy.

I swing back and forth between mourning the loss of something vital and knowing — deep in my bones — that American democracy has never lived up to its self-concept. But, as Nikole Hannah-Jones asserted in her introduction to “The 1619 Project,” maybe both are true: “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie.” And ever since that founding, we have been gloriously and cruelly floundering in the space in between.
And yet, according to the 2021 Harvard Youth Poll, more than half of American young people are more hopeful than fearful about the future of the United States, including 72 percent of Black youth and 69 percent of Hispanic youth.
So considering all that, where are we in our pursuit of a more just and humane democracy? This is where I turn to the poets for comfort, or perhaps more accurately, for company. Adam Zagajewski — who was born in Lvov, Poland, in 1945, was displaced from his home both as an infant when Lvov was absorbed into Soviet Ukraine and as a young adult, when he emigrated to Paris and then to the United States. In his poems, Zagejewski frets over the particular losses of leaving and returning, grieving and fleeing the places that define him.
He begins the poem “Submerged City” flatly declaring, “The city will be no more,” and then eulogizes what is taken by the sea — summer streets and leafy avenues and church towers. At the midpoint of the poem, though, it turns toward the citizens of the city, surprisingly rescuing himself and all of us: “And still we live on calmly.”
Zagajewski continues:
I have read this poem dozens of times in recent days, stubbornly, blindly seeking how we might forge a democracy that serves all of us, straining toward how we might unearth a (more) perfect union, some final form of things. But that, as many have discovered before me, is a fool’s errand. As Zagejewski not so gently reminds us, that ideal democracy is always out of reach. There is no hidden key that unlocks the door to the holy destination we so desperately seek. Rather, of course, the submerged city —that imagined just and shimmering democracy — lives within our imaginations, ever elusive, and tirelessly exacting in demands that can never quite be met.

I suppose, in the end, that is what I will take on in this column — the questions we ask ourselves between fits of despair and the answers we stumble toward in our stubborn, broken humanness. It will be yearning for something better; it will be messy and imperfect and uncertain; it will be arguably wrong at least some of the time; but I am surely grateful to have you all for company.
President Biden issued an executive order in March asking federal agencies to come up with plans to promote voter access and participation.
While federal electoral reform legislation languishes in Congress, the executive branch is taking small but significant steps toward promoting access to the ballot box.

In March, President Biden issued an executive order asking federal agencies to evaluate how they can, within their purview of the law, encourage voter registration and participation. The deadline for agencies to submit their proposals was Sept. 23, and this week the White House announced the first set of plans.
Here’s how 14 federal departments and agencies plan to promote voter participation and access:

More initiatives from federal agencies will be rolled out in the coming months.
Before the agencies submitted their plans to the White House, the Campaign Legal Center outlined recommendations and best practices for promoting voter access.
Demos, a progressive think tank that advocates for democracy reform, celebrated this step forward, while also pushing for further action from the federal government.
“The actions outlined today are a good start and, with additional consultation, creative thinking, and commitments, have the potential to transform how and where people register to vote all across America. This is especially significant in Black, brown and low-income communities, where we see notably lower rates of voter registration,” said Laura Williamson, senior policy analyst at Demos.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter
When announcing these plans for promoting electoral participation, Vice President Harris also emphasized the importance of Congress passing the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. However, with the filibuster still intact, both bills have a slim chance of success in the Senate.
“Our nation and democracy are stronger when everyone participates, and weaker when anyone is left out,” Harris said. “The president and I will help ensure these plans are fully implemented, and we will continue to work closely with these agencies to bring a whole-of-government approach to making voting accessible for all Americans.”
In this edition of #ListenFirstFriday, we hear from John Noltner who shares stories of hope, healing and transformation in overcoming the differences that divide us as a nation.
Watch Now.
Who can honestly say they are satisfied with the government? Government is an easy target for our angst and woes. We pay taxes, but what do we get for it? Seems like an endless and hopeless customer service failure. But the government isn’t doing anything to us. The government is us.
When Ronald Reagan identified government as the problem in the 1980s, he intended to promote the idea of smaller government and more personal freedom. Given our endless human dissatisfaction with the government, a majority of people gravitated to his message. At the time, it was a clever turn of phrase that many of us took with good humor. But embedded in his cleverness were the seeds of separation, distrust and contempt for the system of government itself.
At the time, most people considered the government inefficient, but necessary. Business guru Peter F. Drucker is credited with saying he wasn’t in favor of small or big government, but effective government.
Today, a sizable percentage of our fellow Americans consider the government to be corrupt, evil and tyrannical. Even elected officials, with power to make the government more effective in serving the common good, share this view.
But what if we have it all wrong?

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter
A governing system is a significant part of how we manage to live in groups peacefully. The Constitution of the United States set in motion a governing system that allowed for self-interest to co-exist with common good. Not to dominate the common good, but to co-exist with it. This was radical in the 18th century when we were subjects to the monarchy — where only the monarch’s self-interest mattered. Instead, we agreed to abide by the rule of law, and the government was granted credibility by the will of the people.
In order for our democratic republic to function effectively, we have to be as equally committed to the rule of law and the rights of others as we are to our individual freedom. It’s a trifecta of priorities that cannot be separated.
Leading into the Great Depression, the stock market was at an all-time high. The oligarchs were profiting from a newly industrialized nation. Workers — from children to the elderly — were paid poverty wages to eke out their living. Alcohol prohibition led to increased violence and crime levels. Streets were filled with hungry and homeless people. The small government advocated by big business was failing to provide for the common good of all citizens.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw a role for government in ameliorating the excess of big business that dominated the self-interests of a few over the needs of the public. Like the Founding Fathers, he sought to disrupt the status quo where big business had influenced the government to benefit themselves. FDR’s “New Deal” was a series of reforms that gave us a 40-hour work week, eliminated child labor, oversaw massive infrastructure projects and provided Social Security for the elderly.
Passing the dozen or so laws that made up the New Deal took time — about eight years. It involved obstruction by the Republicans. Some of the laws passed were struck down by a conservative Supreme Court. The Democrats threatened to pack the courts with more progressive judges. Within the Democratic coalition of women, African Americans and left-wing intellectuals, deals were struck.
Sound familiar?
In times of unrest and uncertainty, we look to scholars and pundits to predict the future.
In his write up in The Washington Post, Robert Kagan predicts that Trump loyalists will be running elections in counties across the nation and the state legislatures that have given themselves the power to invalidate election results. He labels this a current and ongoing constitutional crisis, which will lead to civil war. The demagogue wins in his analysis.
Robert Hubbell takes a more measured approach in his rebuttal, arguing that the violence pre-supposed by Kagan is a form of trauma from watching the events of Jan. 6, 2021m in a loop. He states that the Constitution allows for this and will be followed. Should election interference in 2024 invalidate the presidential election, the speaker of the House will become president, the courts will have a say and we’ll have a new election in 2028. The rule of law wins in his analysis.
I’m more certain our path will follow the historical pattern. We have 14 months until the midterm elections. And 62 months until the next presidential election. That’s a lot of time for Congress to pass legislation in the interests of the common good. It’s a herculean task, to be sure. We need more people to vote. The will of the people wins in my analysis.
Yes, predicting the future is fraught with risk. We’ll have to live it out.
Although a government shutdown has been temporarily avoided, there’s no shortage of pressing issues on Capitol Hill.
The federal government will narrowly avoid another shutdown as Congress plans to approve funding for agencies and operations through early December.

Congressional leaders came together on a band-aid solution just hours before the end of the fiscal year Thursday night, as spending was set to expire. Because Congress only agreed to a temporary solution, lawmakers will have to address it all over again in 65 days.
And there’s scant time to start on a long-term spending solution because there’s no shortage of other pressing issues on Capitol Hill: Lawmakers will need to raise or suspend the country’s debt ceiling by mid-October. Democrats are trying to cobble together enough votes to pass a massive bipartisan infrastructure bill and a separate economic package, two of Biden’s top priorities. And major voting rights and election reform legislation also lies in wait.
Partisan disputes in Congress kept lawmakers from reaching a solution earlier. Leaders of both parties said they wanted to avoid a government shutdown, but disagreed on how to do so. Democrats tried to pass a measure earlier this week that both funded the government and suspended the debt ceiling, but Senate Republicans blocked the effort.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said if Democrats want to raise the debt ceiling, they’ll have to do it on their own. By forcing the issue to a party-line vote, Republicans hope to use the higher debt ceiling as evidence of out-of-control Democratic spending during the midterm elections — even though a significant portion of the debt accrued came from spending and tax breaks approved by the GOP during the Trump administration.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter
Thursday’s vote on a stopgap spending bill will provide interim funding for the government and keep critical services running during the Covid-19 pandemic. Before it spending expires Dec. 3, lawmakers will need to either approve another short-term solution, known as a continuing resolution, or approve appropriations to fund the government through the end of 2022.
Close calls like this and actual government shutdowns have become increasingly common over the years. In the last decade, there have been three government shutdowns, including a 34-day closure in 2019, the longest one in American history. Since the current budget process was introduced in the 1970s, there have been 20 funding gaps — four of which have resulted in shutdowns lasting more than one business day.
The last time Congress approved federal appropriations before the fiscal year ended, with no need for continuing resolutions, was 1997, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Because Congress is so polarized, it’s tough for legislation to garner the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. This hurdle is especially difficult “when you’re talking about things in the budget process where Congress first has to agree on big, top-line numbers for how much they want to spend across the board and then they actually have to proceed to the hard work of dividing up the pie,” said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Appropriations measures also become popular targets for other, unrelated issues because of their “must pass” status, which can ramp up the drama. These combined challenges are why Congress finds itself flirting with shutdowns so often, Reynolds said.
To make the federal budget process more functional, Reynolds said, Congress should develop the appropriations bills individually in their respective subcommittees and bring them to the floor in “minibus,” or smaller, packages rather than omnibus packages that put all the appropriations bills together.
“In 2018, we had both the start of a record-long government shutdown and also, earlier in 2018, we had Congress’s most productive appropriations year in several decades. Part of what made that happen was this minibus strategy,” Reynolds said.
The minibus strategy allowed some of the appropriations bills to pass that year, keeping significant parts of the government funded, even though other parts shut down.
“We don’t live in the political world that we lived in when Congress wrote the Congressional Budget Act of 1974,” Reynolds said, adding that lawmakers should try to figure out “what are the things about the 1974 process that we think are valuable and that we can keep, and then how do we adapt other parts of the process to recognize the [current] political realities.”
While Congress has skirted another government shutdown for now, the debt ceiling deadline still looms. If the debt limit isn’t raised or suspended by Oct. 18, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the U.S. won’t be able to pay its bills and the country could default for the first time ever. Because so many countries rely on the U.S. economy, such an outcome would have dire and unpredictable repercussions around the globe.
Democrats could raise the debt ceiling on their own through a process called reconciliation, which only requires a simple majority to pass in the Senate, rather than the usual 60 needed to overcome a filibuster. However, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has refused to resort to reconciliation, calling it “risky” and “uncharted waters.”
The reconciliation process can only be used once per fiscal year and Democrats are already considering using it to pass their $3.5 trillion domestic policy package. However, the fate of that legislation and the $1 trillion infrastructure bill remains uncertain as the Democratic party is divided over how much money to spend on what programs.
And amid the drama over the federal budget and infrastructure package, two landmark election reform bills have taken a backseat, despite voting rights advocates’ urgent calls for passage. The Freedom to Vote Act was introduced earlier this month as a compromise version of the For the People Act. Both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act face long odds in the Senate if the filibuster remains intact.
President Biden needs to employ some newer forms of leverage in order to advance his agenda, writes Anderson.
The centrist and progressive wings of the Democratic Party are either giving birth to a compromise to move President Biden’s agenda (and their agendas) forward, or they are strangling each other.
Make no mistake, the drama on Capitol Hill this week is not only or even chiefly about whether Biden’s agenda will move forward. The drama is chiefly about the health and direction of the Democratic Party. And although the Republicans of course are also players on the Washington stage — especially concerning the debt ceiling issue and a potential government shutdown — the dominant themes are controlled by the Democrats.
The centrists, especially Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, want the infrastructure bill to be passed by the House and they want a scaled-down version of the social-services-oriented $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. The progressives, especially the group led by “the Squad “and Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal, want the full $3.5 trillion and a demand that the Senate agree to it before they vote yes on the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
The fighting from afar looks like good old fashioned leveraging and horse trading. We all know that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are making promises and deals behind closed doors and Biden is offering what he can to get what he can.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter
In this context it is useful to ask the centrists and the progressives if they are relying too much on traditional bargaining leverage and the rigidly defined concepts of their faction.
A more constructive approach at this stage is to employ resource leverage to transform the Democratic Party and better position the president to lead it. With resource leverage, a concept that has become more widely known and used in the last generation, you get the most from the least. With information technology, for example, you get 1 million emails to 1 million potential customers or voters — from one email.
The concept of leverage from ancient physics involves using a minimum input to create a maximum output with a fulcrum of some kind. With resource leverage, the levers may be social or political or economic or psychological rather than physical. Moreover, resources leveraged creatively generate new products, services and brands.
Resource leverage goes beyond traditional physical leverage and traditional bargaining leverage.
The question for the Democrats is what resources can they leverage to transform their factions and their party to serve the nation? Rather than using threats of withholding votes as leverage to get what they want, how can they leverage resources, which includes relationships, to transform their party and our country?

Presumably the solution finds a new center for the Democrats which rejects old concepts about moderation and progressivism. Legislators must break out of their molds and not only compromise but redefine.
Getting from traditional bargaining leverage and negotiations driven by threats to creative resource leveraging is extremely difficult. But greatness requires creativity and imagination and not just dedication and hard negotiating.
The solution, whatever it is, concerns the entire Democratic Party and the nation overall. In truth, any viable solution must address financial leverage as well, since the debt ceiling issue revolves around this third critical concept of leverage.
Indeed, leveraging is not only central to the strategy needed to resolve the crisis, it is central to the content of the crisis itself. This should come as no surprise since leveraging is, at least I have argued, the dominant theme of our time.
If the focus given by the Democrats is on passing the president’s agenda, the effort may fail. At the same time, the one person in Washington who can transcend transactional bargaining leverage for transformational resource leverage is President Biden.
In this episode of Democracy Works from The McCourtney Institute for Democracy, the team looks at the impact of Amazon on democracy and America’s social fabric.

Listen Now.