America’s system of constitutional democracy has long been the envy of the world. Yet, this is an incredibly fragile time; each day seems to bring news that further divides and angers the American public. This election year has already been rocked by a global pandemic, continued instances of racial injustice, a Supreme Court nomination battle, and increasing threats of political violence.
An insidious form of hyper-partisanship — negative polarization — leads Americans to hate our political opponents even more than we like our own allies. The public’s attachment to democracy and faith in government are near their all-time lows, and a small but increasing number of partisans across the spectrum are willing to accept the use of violence for political gain. These are giant warning signs for American democracy, for civil society, and for most of the issues about which philanthropy is concerned.
Despite these challenges, American citizens have already begun to exercise their most sacred democratic obligation — voting — in numbers we have not seen in decades. Experts believe turnout for this election could top 150 million people, up from 139 million in 2016. Motivated by an intense interest in the presidential race, this wave of civic participation provides our best opportunity to begin the long journey of democratic renewal.
Repairing the fabric of our democracy will require extraordinary stewardship by leaders across society. This is especially true of elected officials at all levels of government, as their vigilance is key to ensuring the sacred right to vote is upheld, and the norms of representative democracy transcend partisanship. There are also important roles for media, businesses, civil society groups, citizens themselves, and our peers in philanthropy. To achieve this objective, we call upon leaders at all levels of government and sectors of society to uphold their obligations to democracy during this intensely partisan time. Specifically, we ask that they:
Ensure that all eligible voters are able to vote and to have their votes counted. Any efforts to suppress votes — including along racial lines — or to thwart or overturn the will of the people are anti-democratic and unacceptable.
Support efforts and advance messages that uphold the safety and integrity of the electoral process. Unfounded claims about voter fraud or the illegitimacy of the election do irreparable harm to the centerpiece of our democracy.
Forcefully and consistently condemn all forms of political violence. Our leaders should be doing everything in their power to de-escalate rather than encourage violence.
Commit to respect the peaceful transfer of power or the continuation of power, pending the final results of the election, which will take time to tabulate. This norm is a hallmark of American democracy, and the American people should not be left to wonder whether a candidate for public office will refuse to accept the results of a free and fair election.
We sign this letter as philanthropic leaders and representatives of nonpartisan institutions whose interest in the presidential election is not a particular outcome for any candidate, but for these core values that should transcend politics and be upheld in any election. Our goal is the strengthening of American democracy and careful and thoughtful leadership through this tense moment to achieve that objective.
The Democracy Letter was originally posted to Medium on October 19, 2020