An Ambitious Strategy
To Strengthen Democracy

Realism Is Difficult but Illusions End Badly

It has taken tens of millions of us neglecting our democratic commons over the last 50 years to get us into the mess our political process has become. We won’t fix things in a year or two.

We are, most of us anyway, a very small part of our democratic whole. We understand that it will take north of 80 million of us to elect our president in 2024, yet it is nevertheless difficult to accept what a small difference we can make in the far longer struggle to strengthen our democracy.

When we realize that this will be a very long fight, and that each of us as individuals can play only a very small part, there is a temptation to give up. We want a quick and easy fix. But there is no miracle cure. No magic potion. No pill to take. No button to push. No knob to turn. No lever to yank. Yes, we are all small, and there is no easy path.

Only by the unrelenting efforts of tens of millions of us, working patiently over decades and taking countless small steps, can we build the strengthened democracy we must have to cure today’s ills, to prevent a long slow slide into civilizational decline and into the abyss of environmental collapse.

It is in our nature to want to see how the story ends. We are in the middle of a long running series, and we want to see the finale, the last episode. But some of us will not. I’m 76, and I’ll never live to see how our current crisis is resolved. I’ll never see the last episode. We must accept that, although it is difficult and contrary to our nature.

No One Will Build Monuments to Us

Our efforts to build a strengthened democracy will be, for the vast majority of us, utterly thankless. No one will build monuments to us. No one will even remember our personal efforts. Likewise, we must accept this too. Many who have fought and died for our freedom, in the Civil War to free the slaves, in World War II to beat back fascism, and today in Ukraine, have given their lives anonymously.

Today we must make a great and thankless effort for our children’s children, for all those who will follow us. This struggle will be hard. For many of us, this will be unrewarded virtue, sacrifice that will go unrecognized and unacknowledged. But we must accept this too. If we do not rise to this challenge, the inheritance of our children’s children will be ashes.

When we are tempted to feel sorry for ourselves, we should remember that it is only because of the thankless efforts and sacrifices of those who came before us that we today enjoy the blessings of liberty and the fruits of prosperity.

Referring to the collective identity of a nation, the renowned journalist and thinker Walter Lippmann explained more than a century ago the powerful motives we must summon to inspire us today: "This corporate being, though so insubstantial to our senses, binds, in Burke’s words, a man to his country with ties which though light as air, are as strong as links of iron. That is why young men die in battle for their country’s sake and why old men plant trees they will never sit under."

A greatly strengthened democracy is a tree many of us will not live to sit under, but for the sake of our children’s children, we must nevertheless, whatever the cost, plant it today.

Another great thinker expressed words to brace our courage a year before the revolution that launched our experiment in democracy. In 1775, Thomas Paine wrote this now immortal passage: "These are the times that try men’s souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."

This is real patriotism, and it is this spirit that everyone who loves our country in its time of troubles must summon today.

The Good News: Progress Builds on Itself

While modest improvements in the functioning of our democracy and governments will not be nearly enough to do what we need our governments to do - tackle urgent problems on a large scale while seizing the opportunities opened by rapid change – we must nevertheless start with modest improvements. If we keep at it, they will reinforce each other and add up to the big change we need. We could call this the synergy of solutions.

The good news is that marginal improvements will often increase our ability to make related improvements. Better civics education in a community’s schools, for example, can improve the likelihood of electing better local representatives, and that in turn can improve the prospects for more transparency and accountability in the governments they lead.

Real Progress is Being Made Right Now

As you will see from the "Details & Resources >>" links in the Elements of an Ambitious Strategy section below, there are strong organizations and smart dedicated people working in many of the areas of change we need, and solutions are being developed on many fronts.

Progress is being made in promoting an increase in the cooperative attitudes and practices needed to improve our democratic functioning. A massive democracy reform movement is building all over the country, and better policies hold the promise of expanding the base of support for a reinvigorated pro-democracy politics.

Because Our Problem is "Wicked," Our Best Strategy Is to Attack Everywhere at Once

Given the "wicked" nature of our problem, the only practical approach will be to do many things concurrently, and use the positive synergies described above, where improvements in one aspect will lead to improvements in other parts. Register voters, fight gerrymandering, lobby the school board to restore civics education, have a "come to Jesus" talk with local news editors, go door-to-door with voter education materials, the list may at times seem endless, and it certainly is demanding.

Because our systems of democracy and government are dysfunctional or weak in so many places and in so many ways, a very broad and multifaceted effort is needed. An ambitious strategy to strengthen our democracy will need dozens of elements, and will need to be approached at all levels, from local school boards and town council races to our national elections.

The approach that makes the most sense on a national level is to attack every facet, every crevice, and every nook-and-cranny of this complicated problem. On a local level, specific aspects may be particularly fruitful depending on unique local conditions. Activists on the ground should make local judgments, but those who are thinking on a larger geographic scale should be supporting everyone, everywhere, doing everything that needs doing.

That may sound hard, but it actually isn't that hard. There are so many useful things we can do that, for many people, the hardest part will be deciding where to invest their own personal resources from among the abundant good choices. 

While all together we can do many things, any one person will need to pick and choose. Democracy is another of those "all hands on deck" enterprises. If we are to restore its vitality and effectiveness, there can be no passengers, only crew.

Elements of an Ambitious Strategy to Strengthen Democracy

This article will focus on a comprehensive overview of what elements should be included in an ambitious strategy to improve our democracy. Other articles in this series will deal with closely related aspects of our challenge. These include our stake in strengthening democracy, how our democracy falls short of the strength and effectiveness we need, how citizens can engage the challenge, and how you can choose the specific ways to engage that will work best for you.

A strategy to create a stronger and more effective democracy and improve the government it creates must have many parts, steps, projects, and goals. A robust listing follows. Please note, however, that the list below is intended as a "living list." It is neither complete nor perfect. Additional explanation and explanatory resources are added throughout in the form of "Details & Resources >>" linked pages. These will also be expanded and improved over time. Please suggest additional points or clearer or more specific and practical wording for existing points. Email comments and suggestions (or questions) to  

Before you go on, note also that most readers will find this list eye-glazing. It is included now to give readers an idea of where this article is headed. By mid-October, this list will be moved to another page and accessible here via a link. The lists below will be replaced by much more reader-friendly text. In the meantime, the best approach for most readers will be to skim the lists which follow and slow down to read more carefully only the sections of particular interest to you.

Ensure free and fair elections and that all votes count equally:

End, reduce, or work around constitutional but anti-democratic voting power inequalities:

Enhance the power of majority interests and desires to shape decisions about government policies, programs, budgets, laws, and regulations:

Reducing polarization, vilification & extremism while increasing cooperation and compromise:

Build up a better-informed electorate:

Create a more effective and efficient government:

Ensure equal economic opportunity for all individuals and groups:

Enhance government’s capacity and performance in protecting public health and safety:

Provide more and better opportunities for civic and community engagement and participation:

Build up the skills and capacities of pro-democracy activists and democracy-promoting organizations:

Increase the capabilities and the democratic values of people who are elected to office:

Protect freedom, civil liberties, minority rights, equal rights, women’s rights:

Ensure an independent judiciary:

Ensure civilian control of the police:

Ensure civilian control of the military:

Please Note:

The above is intended as a "living list." It is far from complete, and far from perfect. Additional explanation and explanatory resources are added throughout in the form of "Details & Resources >>" linked pages. These will also be expanded and improved over time. Please suggest additional points or clearer or more specific and practical wording for existing points. Email comments and suggestions (or questions) to

Published:September 2023
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