Civic Engagement

Moving Toward Multi-Dimensional Democracy

If the Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative wants to strengthen American democracy, it needs to adopt a more multi-layered democratic theory.

Earlier this month, the Hewlett Foundation announced a three-year, $50 million initiative to strengthen American democracy by tackling the problem of polarization between Republicans and Democrats, particularly among these parties’ representatives in Congress. With this Madison Initiative, the foundation said that it was not invested in promoting particular policy outcomes, but rather in encouraging pragmatism and compromise across party lines in Congress.

Last week, Inside Philanthropy’s David Callahan lamented that this initiative reflected a general tendency among big mainstream funders to hide their liberal values and present themselves as politically agnostic institutions. On Inside Philanthropy this Monday, the Madison Initiative’s director Daniel Stid responded by saying that this was “emphatically not a value-neutral exercise.” He explained that the Hewlett Foundation was very much invested in supporting and improving the health of representative government, because it believed in the fundamental importance of these institutions and processes. However, by contextualizing the Madison Initiative within Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer’s own scholarship, the project gains some intellectual coherence and shows that its roots are different from what either Callahan or Stid suggest. Rather, the Madison Initiative is specifically a reflection of Kramer’s democratic theory. That said, his theory limits the ability of the initiative to meet its general goal of rescuing a troubled American democracy. If the project cares to maintain this broader purpose, then it will need to move beyond Kramer’s restrictive definition of American democracy and adopt a more multi-layered one.

In his 2004 book The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review, Kramer (then a New York University law professor) argues that a democracy requires an engaged American citizenry and a Congress capable of thoughtful deliberations on the people’s will. He explains that Americans did not always entrust the US Supreme Court with having the last word on the US Constitution. Rather, Republicans such as James Madison, Jacksonians such as Martin Van Buren, and New Dealers such as Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that the American public and their political representatives had final authority on the meaning of the US Constitution. While some of their contemporaries feared the excess of democracy, Kramer notes that these Republicans, Jacksonians, and New Dealers shared a “proper respect for the people.” With the advent of mid-20th century civil rights litigation, however, liberal Americans joined conservative Americans in their reverence for judicial supremacy. Liberal Americans came to distrust the ability of the American public and their legislators to properly interpret the Constitution and, together with conservatives, came to support the perspective that the judiciary should have final say in its interpretation. Americans of all political stripes came to assume the legitimacy of judicial supremacy.

Nostalgic for a time when Americans had faith in themselves and their fellow citizens to govern themselves, Kramer concludes the book by asking contemporaries whether Americans in the 21st century would be courageous enough to challenge judicial supremacy. The American people and their Congressional representatives, he explains, did not need to rely on the US Supreme Court to provide them with the final reading of the US Constitution. Rather, they could interpret it themselves. They were, after all, as qualified as Supreme Court justices to debate, reason through, and decide on the tough constitutional questions of the day. They simply needed to determine whether they would maintain the current aristocratic order or demand actual self-governance. In the end, Kramer hopes that Americans and their legislators will meet the ideals of a populist democracy.

Unlike Kramer in 2004, the Hewlett Foundation in 2014 is not particularly invested in arguing against judicial supremacy. But like Kramer in The People Themselves, the foundation’s Madison Initiative imagines that American democracy principally and singularly requires a Congress capable of dialogue on behalf of the people. In its press release of the project, the organization notes:

It is hard to look at events of the past few years without concluding that democracy in America is in trouble … Against this backdrop, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced today that it is launching a new initiative to help alleviate the problem of polarization, with a special focus on the problem in Congress.


As in The People Themselves, the Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative prioritizes Congress above any other branch of the federal government in its definition of American democracy.

However, American democracy calls for more than simply representative governance: It promises more than a collaborative legislative body that will listen to an informed and active citizenry. Among other things, it also promises equality among citizens in the public realm and the safeguard of certain treasured ideals. If the Hewlett Foundation wants to make a sincere, comprehensive effort to save a troubled American democracy, it will need to build from (and go beyond) Kramer’s own democratic theory to include such multiple definitions. To this point, the foundation might want to address the varying economic, racial, ethnic, and gender inequalities that lead certain voices to dominate over others in the public realm, because citizens in a democracy should have a relatively equal chance of being heard by the legislative body before it deliberates. Because American democracy is, in many ways, also defined by the ideals it protects, the foundation also might want to champion certain democratic rights. Bruce Ackerman’s description of “human dignity” in The New York Times this past March is an example.

American democracy is a rich concept that incorporates various layers of commitments and promises. Assuming the Hewlett Foundation's Madison Initiative wants to strengthen American democracy (and not simply representative government), it needs to move beyond Kramer's one-dimensional democratic theory and adopt a more multi-layered one of its own.

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  • James Carroll's avatar

    BY James Carroll

    ON July 24, 2014 04:10 PM

    What Ms. Morey criticizes as the Madison Initiative’s “one-dimensional democratic theory” instead might be praised as one of the most ambitious and hopeful aspects of the effort. The initiative’s focus on a Congress that everyone from the corner grocer to the President believes no longer fulfills the basic functions of government is timely and crucial. Thank you to Hewlett and to Larry Kramer for taking a refreshingly pragmatic approach to finding solutions to this very troubling development in our democracy.

  • Larry Kramer's avatar

    BY Larry Kramer

    ON July 24, 2014 08:50 PM

    I’m genuinely delighted that Maribel Morey actually read “The People Themselves”—though I’m sorry she has misunderstood its underlying political theory. I nowhere equate democratic government wholly and solely with “a collaborative legislative body that will listen to an informed and active citizenry,” though I absolutely believe such a body and citizenry are central. Obviously democratic politics takes place more fluidly in and through a variety of formal and informal institutions and encompasses certain substantive presuppositions about citizen participation. Indeed, the most common criticism of popular constitutionalism is that the democratic process is too fluid and messy to supply the kind of certainty and settlement constitutional law requires—a charge I refuted in subsequent writing.

    But that’s a debate for another day, because the Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative is not in any way an effort to promote or implement my understanding of democratic theory. It is, rather, precisely what we say it is in our public explanation: an effort to improve Congress by promoting a greater spirit of compromise and negotiation. The theory underlying the initiative is thus the same one as that held by the Founder for whom it is named, James Madison. To wit, our extended Republic comprises, and always will comprise, people with real differences in interests, passions, and beliefs. Such a people can succeed in the daring experiment of self-government only if it’s political institutions are capable of “adjust[ing] these clashing interests” through a process of compromise and negotiation. The Hewlett Foundation’s initiative focuses on Congress not because it is the exclusive forum for this, but because Congress remains the preeminent one, and because successfully moving even that institution in a positive direction is already a pretty monumental task.

    Ms. Morey says near the end of her piece that democracy also promises “equality among citizens in the public realm and the safeguard of certain treasured ideals.” If Hewlett wants to improve American democracy, she says, we should address “economic, racial, ethnic, and gender inequalities” and “also might want to champion certain democratic rights.” But, of course, defining these inequalities and rights and deciding what to do about them are the precise issues about which people in a complex democratic society—people in *this* complex society—disagree. Our goal is to find a way to reduce polarization, so we can forge acceptable solutions that bridge our disagreements to these and other problems. Charging in like a bull in a china shop, with ready made solutions we insist are the “right” ones, is sure only to exacerbate the very problem we are trying to solve. Healthy representative institutions may not be the full story of democratic government, but we haven’t a chance of making it work without them.

    What’s depressing is the apparent inability of partisans on either side to see this very simple point, or to recognize that the long term ability of representative institutions to operate has intrinsic importance and value wholly apart from the policies one wants it to produce. Think of it this way: I may want the Red Sox to win, while you root for the Yankees. But we both have an interest in the integrity of the rules and norms of baseball that has nothing to do with winning the individual games.

  • Maribel Morey's avatar

    BY Maribel Morey

    ON July 25, 2014 11:18 AM

    Dear Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer:

    I very much appreciate your response and just wish that we had more time and space to engage in this thought-provoking dialogue. 

    To your first point: I still stand by my reading of “The People Themselves.” In this book, you were quite invested in arguing against judicial supremacy and in favor of empowering the American people to interpret (and have final say) in the meaning of the U.S. Constitution. Your analysis remained focused on the federal government; so when you looked around for a venue where the American people could exercise popular constitutionalism, you turned specifically to the federal government’s legislative body. Judicial supremacy was “aristocratic,” while popular constitutionalism was “democratic,” and this form of active participation could take place in Congress. 

    However, I very much take your point that you published “The People Themselves” in 2004 and that your thoughts have developed and changed since then. That is a very fair point, though I would still argue that “The People Themselves” helps place the Madison Initiative in some intellectual context. Let us begin with the name of the initiative. “The People Themselves” opens with a quotation from James Madison and you quoted or mentioned this Founder over sixty times in the 253-page book. You also noted that his arguments in “Federalist 49-50” should be examined “if for no other reason than it was among the most elaborate statements on popular constitutionalism of the Founding era” (45). Madison spoke to you as a leading thinker on the very topic of the book.  When I read about the Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative last week and that it would strengthen American democracy by focusing on Congress, I immediately thought about your Madison-heavy book that equated American democracy with this legislative body. It was too loud an echo to ignore.

    As an historian of philanthropy, I write about philanthropic trustees and managers who, now deceased, cannot challenge my readings of their archival records. So, I must say that it is a rare treat to read a response from a philanthropic president. This is a wholly different sort of experience in writing about foundations! That said, the years spent in the archives of the Carnegie and Rockefeller organizations have helped me appreciate the politically sensitive situation in which you might find yourself.

    For example, historians of philanthropy have acknowledged that foundation presidents shape funding decisions. However, presidents can find it difficult to express this power in a direct way: They have to be subtle and nuanced about the ways they relate to their board members. Let me use a historical example of this dynamic: Since 1930, then-Carnegie Corporation President Frederick P. Keppel had wanted to challenge his organization’s funding practices with respect to African Americans. However, he faced opposition on the board and particularly among those who had known Andrew Carnegie personally. So, Keppel waited until these specific trustees had passed away and until a board member with vast social capital (a well-respected former Secretary of War) was willing to challenge this funding precedent. Keppel was able to build from this trustee’s criticism and convince the entire board of the value of a project he had long been thinking about himself.  By then, it was 1936. Why would it take so long, one might ask. Not only did Keppel and the rest of the board feel constrained by donor’s intent, but they navigated each other’s personalities, worldviews, and ideologies. If the Hewlett Foundation today is anything like the Carnegie Corporation in the 1930s, a foundation president can wield quite a bit of power in shaping funding decisions, but it can be quite the political dance. 

    To your final point, I see equality in the public realm and the championing of certain democratic rights to be as basic to a democracy as representative institutions. After all, how can the institutions be representative if citizens in the public realm don’t have a chance to engage with each other as equal individuals? Whom are these institutions representing then? What is democracy, if not also the protection of certain rights? Mid-twentieth century Americans hungry to distinguish their form of governance from fascism and totalitarianism knew this: Democracy needed to mean more than simply representative government. Against Nazism, for example, it also meant the protection against racial segregation. Against totalitarianism, it meant too the protection of a private realm. We don’t have to take past definitions of American democracy as our own, but we should ask ourselves how—in a substantive way—democracy brands itself today. What do we stand for? 

    Put differently, how is the Hewlett Foundation branding democracy for those of us in the U.S. and for those watching from abroad? In my opinion, American democracy is a more multi-layered concept than the Foundation is selling it to be. And if we lose the richness of these expectations, we lose a sense of what we owe each other as a democratic community.

    Very best,
    Maribel Morey

  • BY AudreyGreenwood

    ON March 15, 2015 07:53 PM

    Just to throw in my 2 cents worth - everybody has their own form of hidden agenda when they vote for something and sometimes it really involves moving things from the old way of doing things to a radically new way. It might sound a bit “simple” but all we really need to do is agree to disagree in order to start getting somewhere!

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