Resources on Strengthening Democracy
Organizations and Resources for Strengthening Democracy
Compiled by Harry Masters with input from David Brodwin, Bruce Patton, Vicki Judson, Rich Lipman and Tom Manning
We have split this document in two parts. Part 1 identifies organizations that are doing good work concerning Strengthening Democracy in its various facets, in case you want to become personally involved or provide financial support. Some of these are projects of our amazing classmates!
Part 2 aims to highlight some good introductory overview articles as well as books and other resources on the state of democracy in the U.S. and how to fix it, for those who wish to investigate further.
This list is by no means exhaustive. Please feel free to recommend additional sources.
For those who wish to involve themselves more directly in the work of strengthening democracy, the groups listed below address governmental shortcomings and/or polarization, countering extremism in politics, policy, and social behavior, improving civics education and serving as balanced sources of information. Many promote dialog among people with diverse/opposing points of view and provide opportunities to engage directly in conversation.
Our list is far from complete. One site we identified (Citizenconnect) provides a search engine of groups that work in this space. It lists over 550 groups, far more than we have here. We mention this to illustrate how extensive the field has become, not to discourage anyone from becoming involved.
We have created a taxonomy to characterize the groups we have found. It is hardly definitive, but we hope it helps identify groups by their primary objectives. Our categories are:
- Bridging Differences
- Election Reform
- Civic News and Education
- Legal Action Groups
- Think Tanks and Policy Groups
- Umbrella Groups and Coordinators
- Electioneering Groups
- Reforming Legislatures
- Values-Based Groups
- Multifaceted or Miscellaneous Groups
[P][H’77]Braver Angels: formerly Better Angels, seeks to bring Americans together to bridge the partisan divide and strengthen our democratic republic. (Founded and led by our classmate David Blankenhorn)
[H’77]Democracy Studio encourages dialog about our democracy in political art and political language. (A project of Harvard Square Lab, founded and led by our classmate Tom Manning)
[P]Livingroom Conversations – a program to connect people of different political orientations for respectful, well-moderated conversation.
[P]BridgeUSA (Youth Focused) “BridgeUSA is a youth-led 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that creates spaces on high school and college campuses for open discussion between students about political issues. Political division is one of our biggest challenges in the United States. Today’s youth are being taught that tribalism is better than unity and that having conversations across our differences is impossible…This isn’t true! Currently operating on 50 college campuses and 24 high school campuses.”
[P]Common Sense American (part of the National Institute for Civil Discourse) “brings common sense to American Politics” by Identifying issues, particularly those solutions with the “greatest promise of attracting broad cross-partisan support”; developing policy briefs offering best arguments for each side; letting volunteers review briefs; and having volunteers share their views with their members of congress.
Common Ground CommitteeLearn about critical issues, create positive change and restore hope.” This organization offers information on major issues, a conversation guide, programming that examines possible solutions to polarization, and events that present thought-leaders discussing these solutions. Individuals are invited to learn, create, or join discussion groups and attend events.
[P]America Talks “America Talks provides an opportunity for Americans of different backgrounds and beliefs to connect during a time of deep division in our country. Participants will be matched into face-to-face, one-on-one or small group conversations with one or more people.”
[P]Millennial Action Project: Red and Blue Dialogues creates a space for conversations among diverse community members with a spectrum of different perspectives.
Essential Partners – a resource for conversations Across the Red-Blue Divide
[P]American Exchange Project sends high school seniors to different parts of the country to give young people a direct experience of communities very different from their own.
[P]Urban-Rural Action All UR Action programs bring together Americans across divides to 1) engage in constructive dialogue, 2) deepen understanding of societal challenges, and 3) take action to address those challenges.
Search for Common Ground – “With 40 years of experience working on the frontlines of violent conflict, we know the early signs of danger. And we see in the United States a country that stands on the brink. Yet, millions of Americans are also calling for common ground — seeking a way to live with our differences without compromising our principles. Common Ground USA is our answer to that call.”
RepresentUS (the giant in this space) “RepresentUs brings together unlikely allies from across the political spectrum who put country over party to pass pro-democracy laws, fight corruption, and defeat authoritarian threats.”
American Promise – “ending big money corruption in our politics; …winning voice and freedom for all Americans.”
FairVoteAs Americans, we expect our voices to be heard, our views to be respected, and our votes to truly count. Too often gridlock, low turnout elections, and increased polarization are preventing American democracy from living up to the expectations of its citizens. It’s easy to see that something is broken in American politics. It’s harder to figure out why – or how to move forward. We examine some of the most pressing problems in American democracy and discuss ways to address these issues.”
[P]League of Women Voters - The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization working to protect and expand voting rights and ensure everyone is represented in our democracy. We empower voters and defend democracy through advocacy, education, and litigation, at the local, state, and national levels.
FixUS - “FixUS is committed to engaging fellow citizens to better understand and address our nation’s growing divisions, dysfunction, and distrust in our political system. Through a number of research projects, public engagement efforts and partnerships, we seek to bring attention and visibility to these issues, build support for necessary changes, and ultimately help to regain a sense of shared aspirations, values, and a belief that there is more that unites us than divides us.”
The Institute for Political Innovation – Founded by Katherine Gehl (see Gehl and Porter book, below) strives to restore healthy competition in American elections and legislation, at federal and state levels.
Civic News and Education
[H’77]The Right Question Institute works in low-income communities to build democratic skills for asking better questions so that more people can have a voice in decisions that affect them on all levels of government. (Co-founded by Dan Rothstein, one of our classmates)
[H’77]USA Facts founded by our classmate Steve Ballmer. “USAFacts provides a data-driven portrait of the American population, US governments’ finances, and governments’ impact on society. We are a nonpartisan, not-for-profit civic initiative without a political agenda. We provide vital spending, revenue, demographic, and performance information as a free public service and are committed to maintaining and expanding our available data in the future.”
Allsides – “We expose people to information and ideas from all sides of the political spectrum so they can better understand the world — and each other. Our balanced news coverage, media bias ratings, civil dialogue opportunities, and technology platform are available for everyone and can be integrated by schools, nonprofits, media companies, and more.”
The Fulcrum - The Fulcrum is a platform where insiders and outsiders to politics are informed, meet, talk, and act to repair our democracy and make it live and work in our everyday lives.
Citizen University – “Citizen University’s mission is to build a culture of powerful, responsible citizenship across the country. We design gatherings, rituals, and workshops for people who are searching for new ways to strengthen civic culture in their hometown.”
iCivics – “iCivics champions equitable, non-partisan civic education so that the practice of democracy is learned by each new generation. We work to inspire life-long civic engagement by providing high quality and engaging civics resources to teachers and students across our nation.”.
Legal Action Groups
Campaign Legal Center is a nonpartisan organization that seeks: “a future in which the American political process is accessible to all citizens.” It monitors events that influence the fairness of elections and accessibility voting, educates the public on these events and mounts legal challenges to laws and processes that deny or complicate access to voting.
Democracy Docket “Democracy Docket is the leading progressive media platform dedicated to providing information, opinion and analysis about voting rights and more. Founded in 2020 by Democratic voting rights attorney Marc Elias, Democracy Docket delivers expert opinion and commentary on voting, and offers detailed information about important litigation and policy that will shape our elections and democratic institutions for years to come. Democracy Docket is committed to helping people everywhere better understand the greatest challenges facing our democracy and what can be done to solve them.”
Think Tanks and Policy Groups
Scholars Strategy Network “The Scholars Strategy Network is an organization of university-based scholars who are committed to using research to improve policy and strengthen democracy.”
R Street “R Street Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public policy research organization. Our mission is to engage in policy research and outreach to promote free markets and limited, effective government… We work extensively on both state and national policy and focus on issues that other groups tend to neglect. Our specialty is tackling issues that are complex, but don’t necessarily grab major headlines. These are the areas where we think we can have a real impact.”
Bipartisan Policy Center – The Bipartisan Policy Center is a Washington, DC-based think tank that actively fosters bipartisanship by combining the best ideas from both parties to promote health, security, and opportunity for all Americans. Our policy solutions are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates who represent both sides of the political spectrum. BPC prioritizes one thing above all else: getting things done.
Umbrella Groups and Coordinators
Bridge Alliance The Bridge Alliance is a coalition of ~100 organizations working together to promote healthy self-governance in our democratic republic. Bridge Alliance member organizations span the ideological spectrum, but are unified to work efficiently, outside arbitrarily defined political lines. You can see the results of their work by visiting their websites / social media pages (accessible through our All Members page
Citizen Connect Citizen Connect is “a non-partisan platform dedicated to helping Americans right, left and center find ways to heal our divides and strengthen this great nation.”
Crimson Goes Blue “Crimson Goes Blue harnesses the talents, passion, and resources of the Harvard alumni community to forge a more just American democracy. Founded in 2019 by Harvard alumni to take back the White House and turn the Senate blue in 2020, we foster high-impact political engagement among the Harvard-Radcliffe alumni community by defending voting rights and supporting candidates in order to preserve and grow the Democratic majority.”
Lincoln Project “The Lincoln Project is a political action committee (PAC) that was founded in December 2019 by a group of former Republican political strategists with the goal of defending democracy from the populist nationalistic ideals and agenda of Donald Trump, his allies in Congress, and the far-right media…[its] mission is to hold accountable those who would violate their oaths to the Constitution and would place their loyalty to others before their loyalty to the American people and democracy.”
[H’77]Rebuild Congress Initiative (RCI) works for “a strong, functional and representative Congress that can fulfill its constitutional responsibilities.” (Founded and led by our classmate Bruce Patton)
Renew America Movement is “deepening America’s pro-democracy bench” by “standing alongside principled Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who have the courage to stand up against political extremists across the country; [by] advancing policies needed for a healthy democracy, such as the protection of voting rights; [and by] investing in reforms to the democratic process itself to increase competition and choice in American elections.”
No Labels is “a national movement of Democrats, Republicans and independents working to bring our leaders together to America’s toughest problems. No Labels supports people who stand up to party leaders and who have the courage to fight for two-party solutions.”
Problem Solvers Caucus – is “an independent member-driven group in Congress, comprised of representatives from across the country – equally divided between Democrats and Republicans – committed to finding common ground on many of the key issues facing the nation…[aiming] to create a durable bloc that champions ideas that appeal to a broad spectrum of the American people. It is a group united in the idea that there are commonsense solutions to many of the country's toughest challenges. “
American Values Coalition is dedicated to “growing a community of Americans empowered to lead with truth, reject extremism and misinformation, and defend democracy.”
Repairers of the Breach is a nonpartisan 501c3 tax exempt, not-for-profit organization that seeks to build a moral agenda rooted in a framework that uplifts our deepest moral and constitutional values to redeem the heart and soul of our country. We challenge the position that the preeminent moral issues are prayer in public schools, abortion, and property rights. Instead, we declare that the moral public concerns of our faith traditions are how our society treats the poor, women, LGBTQ people, children, workers, immigrants, communities of color, and the sick.
Multifaceted or Miscellaneous Groups
Protect Democracy – Protect Democracy is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization formed in late 2016 with an urgent and explicit mission: to prevent American democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government.
Demand Progress Amplifies “the voice of the people — and wield[s] it to make government accountable and contest concentrated corporate power.” It has a policy focus and acts as a congress-watcher, from a progressive standpoint.
We also found an extensive list (24 pages) of other groups, organizations and resources from the Morton Deutsch Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University.
Part 2: A Selection of Books, Articles and Videos that describe the threat to democracy and what may be done about it.
In general, resources in this section have links directly to the resource (for articles and videos) or links to the publisher’s page (for books.) Books may also have a link to a review.
The following high-level articles cover the threats to American democracy posed by polarization, dysfunctional politics, attacks on our essential institutions, and more.
- Video: The Decline of American Democracy—And How to Reverse It
- “Where Does American Democracy Go from Here? Six academics discuss how worried we should be about its future” in the New York Times Magazine
- “Democracy and its Discontents” in the New York Review of Books
- “Is Democracy Dying?.) Consider, especially, Anne Applebaum’s article: “A Warning from Europe: The Worst is Yet to Come” which shows how Poland’s descent into authoritarianism anticipated many of the strategies since unleashed in the United States.
- “Is America Still Safe for Democracy? Why the United States Is in Danger of Backsliding” by Robert Mickey et al., in Foreign Affairs.
- “America’s Coming Age of Instability: Why Constitutional Crises and Political Violence Could Soon Be the Norm” by Steven Levitsky et al., in Foreign Affairs. Levitsky, of Harvard, and his coauthors posit that the polarization of the country and the radicalization of the Republican Party will not lead to a Hungarian-style autocracy but to “enduring conflict between powerful authoritarian and democratic forces could bring debilitating—and violent—regime instability for years to come.”
For a deeper take on the problem consider the books below. As much as possible, books are linked to their publisher’s web sites which generally offer a synopsis as well as links to vendors.
Books about the slide into autocracy in general, drawing lessons from history:
Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum. Reviewed in the Guardian
Death Of Democracy – Hitler’s Rise to Power by Benjamin Carter Hett
The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder
How Democracy Ends by David Runciman
The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again by Robert Putnam with Sherilyn Romney Garrett. This analyzes the social division and income inequality in the United States a century ago, which strikingly resembles the current situation, and describes how it was resolved and how that he and his coauthor believe it is likely to work again.
Books and articles more specifically about the current level of polarization and threats to democracy in the United States and how to respond:
Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein This New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller shows us that America’s political system isn’t broken. The truth is scarier: it’s working exactly as designed. In this “superbly researched” (The Washington Post) and timely book, journalist Ezra Klein reveals how that system is polarizing us—and how we are polarizing it—with disastrous results.
The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It by Yascha Mounk “… as Yascha Mounk shows in this … timely book… trust in politics is dwindling. Citizens are falling out of love with their political system. Democracy is wilting away. Drawing on vivid stories and original research, Mounk identifies three key drivers of voters’ discontent: stagnating living standards, fear of multiethnic democracy, and the rise of social media. To reverse the trend, politicians need to enact radical reforms that benefit the many, not the few.”
The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure: by Yascha MounkFrom one of our sharpest and most important political thinkers, a brilliant big-picture vision of the greatest challenge of our time—how to bridge the bitter divides within diverse democracies enough for them to remain stable and functional.”
Divided We Fally David French – “… Divided We Fall is an unblinking look at the true dimensions and dangers of this widening ideological gap, and what could happen if we don't take steps toward bridging it. French reveals chilling, plausible scenarios of how the United States could fracture into regions that will not only weaken the country but destabilize the world.”
The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy by Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter. This book looks at politics as an industry. The website offers a brief video on rank choice voting and the role it plays in solving electoral gridlock and countering the rise of extreme candidates in primary elections.
The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch discusses how we determine truth, how it has been subverted, why it is essential to a successful democracy. It was inspired by an earlier article The Constitution of Knowledge in National Affairs.
The End of Identity Liberalism by Mark Lilla in The New York Times argues that Democrats exacerbated the problem of polarization through identity politics.
Election experts sound alarms as costs escalate and funding dwindlesargues that lack of public funding contributes significantly to the problems with our elections.
Books about broader context and root causes
These two books look at the overall dynamics of why nations rise and fall over the course of centuries and suggest a context for our current challenges.
Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail by Ray Dalio. This book offers an overview of how hegemonic powers decline, and how neglecting the underlying productivity of a nation undermines living standards and leads people toward autocrats who promise a return to the “good old days.” It suggests that our current situation reflects a predictable dynamic that has played out in many times and places.
Liberalism and Its Discontents In this short, clear account of our current political discontents, Fukuyama offers an essential defense of a revitalized liberalism for the twenty-first century.”
Books about underlying structure of American political system and resulting inequality.
These two books look more specifically at the structure and assumptions underlying our founding national documents and institutions, and how these relate to our current challenges.
The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution by Ganesh Sitaraman provides context and theories on why economic inequality threatens the Republic.
References on Voter Suppression, Voter Engagement, and What Can Be Done
Prof. Luis Fraga, (our classmate) Testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, "A History of Voter Suppression in the United States," July 27, 2021,
Prof. Luis Fraga Harvard ’77, “The Origins of the 1975 Expansion of the Voting Rights Act: Linking Language, Race, and Political Influence,” US Latina and Latino Oral History Journal,"” Vol. 1, 2017, pp. 7-28.