To defend, strengthen, and improve U.S. democracy: Our priorities for this year

Voters at a voting booth.
(Photo by Andrew Whitaker/Xinhua via Getty Images)

In the midst of a deeply polarizing election cycle projected to be the most expensive of all time, it is easy to be pessimistic about the state of our nation’s democracy. Political divisions appear to be widening, while public confidence in critical institutions continues to wane. Global conflicts stress long-standing coalitions, perception of the economy shapes political identity, and the emergence of powerful AIs threatens to further destabilize society at a speed and scale we can hardly comprehend.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s work to mitigate the corrosive impact of polarization on U.S. democracy is a long-term endeavor. We believe that regardless of the outcome of the election, Nov. 5, 2024, will be neither “mission impossible” nor “mission accomplished” for American democracy. In other words, trustworthy elections and just policies rely upon the institutions and processes through which we negotiate our differences. Our nonpartisan focus on these core components of a shared political community, we believe, leads to a durable, inclusive democracy that ensures all people can reach their fullest potential.

Given the very high likelihood that certain forces will use the election to undermine and weaken our democracy, in the short term, our focus is to engage as broad a coalition as possible to increase confidence in elections and enhance the capacity of national governing institutions. That means this year we are continuing our work to defend the infrastructure and processes core to our elections and governing institutions, strengthen the connective tissues that support these infrastructure and processes, and nurture long-term approaches to improve our democracy.

What does this look like?

First of all, given our belief in strong institutions and processes as the foundations for a durable and inclusive liberal democracy, we view efforts to disrupt elections or politicize and dismantle these institutions as existential threats. Therefore, we will support organizations, across the ideological spectrum, that are defending electoral institutions and processes, mitigating efforts that use disinformation and threats of political violence to disrupt elections. In terms of governing institutions, our efforts will defend the guardrails protecting a professional and depoliticized civil service, and ensure Americans are well-served by the executive and legislative branches alike.

Second, we believe that a durable and inclusive liberal democracy is important to all Americans, regardless of ideology or political party. Therefore, we will pursue efforts to strengthen our democracy in a deeply nonpartisan fashion.

Along these lines, the relationships and networks that support democratic processes and infrastructure are of critical importance. Our grantees are helping the press, election officials, and policymakers understand the values and operating principles of our democracy, devise innovative policy solutions, and, most importantly, plan for threats and opportunities that loom on the horizon. Complementary to this work, we are excited about new efforts to advance in-group moderation strategies across a range of communities.

Finally, while our immediate grantmaking will index toward short-term efforts to defend and strengthen processes and infrastructure, we cannot lose sight of longer-term strategies to improve our democracy. In this vein, we are exploring research to better understand how trust in democracy is shifting, as well as efforts to deepen our analysis of the culture of our democracy so that our democratic processes, infrastructure, and institutions help all Americans reach their fullest potential.

Our collective ability to defend, strengthen, and improve our democracy ultimately relies on our willingness to build the broadest possible coalition of stakeholders across the ideological spectrum. Through constructive dialogue across differences, we can build an inclusive democracy where all people and communities flourish.

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