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.