How to Reform American Democracy

Topic: Historical Precedent

Michael Waldman:  There have been a lot of other times in the country’s history when people looked at their government, looked at the institutions of government and said you know what, it’s not working anymore.  It’s not right for this moment.  We’ve gotta fix things.  The Progressive Era, a century ago, when Teddy Roosevelt was president, people from top to bottom said you know what, we need a different kind of government, and they created stronger national protections for food safety.  They began conservation and they did all these things that we now live with in the federal government, and they reformed their politics.  They passed all kinds of changes in how politics worked, including having senators directly elected by the people, just as one example.  There have been many times throughout the country’s history, whether it’s the progressive era, or the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, or even if you want to look at it that way, the Reagan revolution of cutting back on government, where people looked at their institutions and said you know what, we need a change.  There’s nothing baked in the cake that says that we can’t have that kind of focus now.

Question: What are your specific recommendations?

Michael Waldman: In very significant ways, our democracy is broken.  It needs repair.  And a lot of the progress that’s been made in recent decades, we’ve really fallen back.  You have this remarkable situation right now in 2008.  On the one hand, there’s a huge upsurge in citizen engagement, in interest, more people voting, more people giving campaign contributions in small dollars through the Internet, all these signs that the public is deeply excited and engaged about politics.  On the other hand, our government’s broken.  Our democracy badly needs repair.  We have tens of millions of people who are not registered to vote because of flaws in our voter registration system.  You’ve got campaign spending going up fivefold in the past quarter century, the number of lobbyists tripling in Washington, D.C. in the past decade.  These are all things that have been around for a long time, but they’ve gotten worse and they’ve compounded.  And so the sense that Washington and national politics is stuck, that special interests are keeping action from taking place on key issues, the voice of ordinary citizens is frozen out, and that politicians are caught up in this crazy system of chasing after money and spending much of their time fundraising, that’s all real and it’s something people are waking up to the need to change.  And when you have that sense of public engagement colliding with
broken institutions, throughout our history, that’s when you get real change.

Voting is the heart of democracy, and we need to make it so that everyone who wants to vote can vote, everyone who wants to register can register, and every vote that is cast is actually a vote that is counted.  Today our voter registration system is a remnant of a time when we set up all these rules to keep former slaves and Irish immigrants from voting 100 years ago.  There are tens of millions of people who today, aren’t on the voter roles because they slipped off when they moved or for all the other kinds of reasons.  There is no reason that we could not have universal voter registration in this country.  We should just make it a policy that every adult citizen who’s eligible to vote is registered to vote, whether they move, they’re registered.  If we did that, and it’s easy for the government to do it, we would make it so that the politicians no longer are spending their time trying to appeal to the narrowest part of the electorate, but they know that on election day, everybody might show up and that would change politics.  Another thing we need to do in the area of voting is make sure that everyone who votes has their vote counted.  Now there’s been a move toward electronic voting machines since the year 2000, since the Florida debacle, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  But my group, the Brennan Center convened a task force of top computer scientists from all over the country, including the federal government to look at these new electronic machines and ask well are they really safe?  Could somebody hack the machines?  Could somebody tilt the election?  There’s a lot of worry, a lot of conspiracy theories.  What are the facts?  And what they’ve found out was that every single one of the electronic systems is, in fact, very vulnerable, very vulnerable to hacking, to fraud and to error.  You know it turns out even paranoids have enemies when it comes to electronic voting.  The good news is there are all kinds of fixes that could solve the problem, including a paper record and auditing to make sure that the machine’s really counted the vote.  Unfortunately, while many states have made some of the changes, there are no states that have made all of the changes, so there’s still a risk that votes that are cast won’t be properly counted in this November, and there’s still a lot to be done in that area. Another set of changes that would really help democracy has to do with making sure that elections are competitive and that the voices of ordinary citizens are what the politicians are listening to.  Campaign finance reform is something people have been worried about for a long time, but it’s really gotten much worse, and there’s now an opportunity to make it much better.  What I think we ought to do is move to a system of public financing of elections, especially for congress.  Congress, right now, is gridlocked with special interests.  Members of congress have to raise their money from lobbyists.  They have to raise their money from the people who want something out of government.  It’s one of the reasons very little happens, or certainly, very little that’s good.  If you go down to Washington, D.C., you want to look for a member of congress, a lot of the times, go down a block, not to the capital, but to the campaign committee offices and you’ll see the members of congress sitting there in little warrens dialing for dollars.  It’s not like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”  It’s like Glenn Gary, Glenn Ross.  I mean it’s not what you want your elected officials to be spending their time doing.  And they don’t like doing it, either.  There’s an opportunity now to pass reforms that would liberate them, give our elected officials real independence and give the voters a bigger voice.  If you had public financing of elections, as you have in places all over from Arizona, which is quite conservative, to Maine, which is liberal, to New York City, what you would have is candidates who qualify, would get public money.  And there’s a way of doing it that would really boost one of the best developments.  One of the best things that’s happened in this election is the explosion of small contributions, mostly to Obama, but to other candidates also, that has democratized fundraising and made it so that fundraising is a form of organizing.  And it’s small dollars.  It’s not the big bucks.  We could make it so that that’s how congress gets elected, also. 

Right now, that small dollar revolution is just a rumor in congress.  They’re still raising their money overwhelmingly from big interests.  But if you had a system of matching funds, especially something like if I give $100 to a candidate, then the matching fund is 4 to 1, which is the way it is in New York City’s elections, then you would boost ordinary citizens.  You would make it so that every $10 contribution suddenly mattered to the politicians.  You would force the people running for office to do some organizing in their communities, and you would change and greatly diminish the power of special interests in Washington.

Question: What is preventing campaign finance reform?

Michael Waldman:  Well when it comes to campaign finance reform, very often the people in office don’t think like liberals or conservatives.  They don’t think like democrats or republicans.  They think like incumbents and most incumbents benefit from the current system.  It’s how they got there, and they can always out-raise their opponent.  But what is happening that’s exciting is that there is a real movement among people in congress to change the system.  You’ve got people in both houses who have said okay, now is the time to move to public financing.  John McCain and Barack Obama are big supporters of public financing, so there is a real moment here where you could have, I hope, bipartisan support for something that’s very real.  And that would change America.  It really would.  If people want to have healthcare reform, if they want to see action on climate change, if they want to see a fairer tax code, whatever it is you want, it’s going to be much, much easier to do it if we had a different campaign finance system, if we had universal voter registration and deep reform of our democracy.  Another big change that would make a big difference is in the electoral collage.  One of the things that’s been very thrilling in this election is to see all these primaries in all these states all over the country, places like Indiana, and South Dakota, and North Carolina, Guam, all these places that don’t have, usually, a really competitive election.  Well the bad news is now that the general election has started, a lot of these places are never going to see a candidate again, because suddenly, everyone’s worried about a few states.  And it sometimes feels like these presidential elections are just held in Ohio and maybe Florida.  And if we had a national popular vote, we would not have the phenomenon which has happened four times of the guy who comes in second winning, and we wouldn’t have the phenomenon of the candidates campaigning only in a few states and basically leaving out the rest of the country.  Now you know how do you get the end to the Electoral College?  You need a constitutional amendment, which can be done, but is very hard.  But there’s actually a way to bypass the Electoral College that doesn’t need a constitutional amendment.  It’s called national popular vote, and it’s basically an agreement among states.  A state will pass a law, as Illinois, and Maryland, and New Jersey and others have done, said we will cast our electoral votes for whoever wins the national popular vote, as long as enough other states do it also, so that that’s who wins.  And if you get enough states to do it, then you’ve ended the Electoral College as a practical matter, even without a constitutional amendment.  And if the Electoral College didn’t matter, you would see candidates going to where the votes are, not just those handful of swing states.  And again, that would be a big deal.

Michael Waldman unpacks his vision for a strong democracy.

Hack your brain for better problem solving

Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

Credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via Unsplash
Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
  • Use Design Thinking: An Alternative Approach to Tackling the World's Greatest Problems, with Tim Brown, CEO and President, IDEO
  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
  • The Science of Successful Things: Case Studies in Product Hits and Flops, with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor, The Atlantic, and Author, Hit Makers

Request a demo today!

How AI learned to paint like Rembrandt

The Rijksmuseum employed an AI to repaint lost parts of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." Here's how they did it.

Credit: Rijksmuseum
Culture & Religion
  • In 1715, Amsterdam's Town Hall sliced off all four outer edges of Rembrandt's priceless masterpiece so that it would fit on a wall.
  • Neural networks were used to fill in the missing pieces.
  • An unprecedented collaboration between man and machine is now on display at the Rijksmuseum.
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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.


"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.


If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

Pragmatism: How Americans define truth

If something is "true," it needs to be shown to work in the real world.

Credit: Gene Gallin via Unsplash
Culture & Religion
  • Pragmatism is an American philosophical movement that originated as a rebuke to abstract European philosophy.
  • The pragmatic theory of truth argues that truth and reality only can be understood in their relation to how things work in the real world.
  • The trouble is that the theory devalues the term "truth," such that it only applies to one particular moment in time. But Charles Sanders Peirce offers a clever way out.
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