The National Constitution Center and a Question

November 20, 2009

This week I was appointed President and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the museum and education center devoted to engaging Americans, especially young people, in being active and informed citizens of our constitutional democracy.
I could go on for some time about how great the place and its exhibits are—high-tech and interactive, historically astute, pedagogically sound, and incredibly beautiful. Suffice it to say if you haven’t been yet, you should come.
Instead, let me ask readers whether they think the National Constitution Center can play a useful role in fixing how Congressional districts are shaped.
I’ve spoken to many people recently who believe that today the single greatest challenge to American democracy as framed by our Constitution is the polarization of American politics in general and of Congress in particular. This polarization has been artificially fostered and exacerbated by four decades of Congressional redistricting, which has driven Members of Congress to the extremes, while making centrist moderates unelectable.
The statistics are indisputable—out of 435 Congressional races next year, barely 20 will be significantly contested, because districts by and large have been drawn to create “safe” (read extreme) Democratic or Republican strongholds. The balancing process that our Congressional framers intended for members of Congress representing tens of thousands of citizens each has evaporated; today, virtually all members represent districts assembled of constituent parts that are completely homogenous and, therefore, demanding of party orthodoxy.
The questions around such an initiative are big: would we focus on legal challenges, state legislative fixes, national legislative fixes, other solutions, or all of the above? How would we create popular support for an initiative that is central to the future of our democracy but that feels wonky and narrow? In changing Congressional districts, how do we avoid losing the gains America has made over the past 40 years in minority representation in Congress? How do we overcome the entrenched self-interest of members of Congress in safe districts?
For me, the first questions are: can an institution like the National Constitutional Center, which is nonpartisan and educational, afford to tackle such a highly charged challenge? And if this issue threatens our Constitutional democracy, can we afford not to?
Tuesday's post: Government Innovation.
Monday's post: A Spark of Light in Texas.

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