For 60 years, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation has invested in improving lives and communities. And as the world has evolved, so has our work.  

We recently explored how we could further evolve to more rapidly and effectively realize our vision of a just and equitable world. This effort put a spotlight on the central role the U.S. democratic system must play in creating long-lasting, positive change.  

Our grantee partners have often used advocacy, community organizing, and other tools of the democratic system to advance their work, and these approaches depend on a healthy and functional democracy to be effective. Yet today, the U.S. government is struggling to meet people’s needs, trust in institutions and each other is declining, and support for authoritarianism is growing here and around the world. 

We believe that a more robust, inclusive, and responsive democracy in the U.S. is essential in and of itself, and as a tool to accelerate progress and ensure long-lasting solutions. Recognizing this, we have expanded the Foundation’s focus to include strengthening the resilience of U.S. democracy through a Democracy, Rights, and Governance initiative. 

We sat down with Kelly Born, the Foundation’s inaugural Democracy, Rights, and Governance director, to learn more about the vision, strategy, and approaches behind this new initiative.  

What would it look like for our U.S. democracy to live up to its full potential?

Our vision is of a thriving, resilient, pro-equity democracy that effectively meets the needs of a politically, racially, and religiously diverse America. This aspiration goes beyond simply avoiding immediate threats; instead, we aim to reimagine our democracy so that it meets the demands of our time and can withstand changes and challenges. We envision a system of democracy that protects everyone’s fundamental rights, fosters equity and justice, and encourages positive engagement across divides – and a democratic government that effectively, efficiently, and equitably serves the public good.

The democracy you just described is very different from the one that exists right now. Why do you think there is such a big gap between today’s reality and that vision?

America’s democracy was originally constructed nearly 250 years ago to meet the needs of a very different time and serve the interests of a small fraction of society – at our founding, only 6% of the population could vote. Today’s democratic dysfunction, where public trust is exceedingly low while polarization is exceptionally high, is driven in part by a society that has significantly changed since 1789, and an underlying democratic system that was never properly equipped to live up to its full promise. Americans are now experiencing the highest economic inequality since the 1920s, changing racial demographics, shifting gender and religious norms, and growing climate threats, among other concerns. Americans have increasingly moved to parts of the country that align with their partisan views and seldom have the chance to interact with communities different from their own. Moreover, structural problems within America’s electoral systems have been compounded by recent changes to campaign finance laws and the media landscape, both of which have further incentivized the divisive rhetoric now overwhelming our discourse.  

Solving these problems is far from an easy task, but with proactive, longer-term thinking and a willingness to work across divides, we can make real progress toward a truly inclusive, effective democracy that can endure well into the future.

Read the full article about a democracy that delivers at The David and Lucile Packard Foundation.