By Jason Grumet

American democracy is propelled by the belief that when the chips are down — when the nation is facing challenge and crisis — our leaders will come through. We believe we are brought together in moments of crisis.

Is this still true? Or, instead, are we heading down a democracy abyss? There’s evidence pointing in both directions. The past year has revealed a deep contradiction in US governing.

On the one hand, faced with a global public health crisis and unprecedented economic fallout, Congress last year came together to deliver aid to families and businesses and keep our health system working, passing some of the most significant bipartisan legislation enacted in generations.

On the other hand, it’s hard to argue that this and other crises have brought us together. On many issues, Americans — and our elected leaders — remain as divided as ever. There is much work to be done to repair our damaged institutions and constructively engage the profound challenges facing our nation. We didn’t dig this hole overnight, and we won’t get out of it in one day.

We shouldn’t romanticize the past: The history of this country is not 245 years of placid cohesion. Politics is conflict — it’s about the collision of ideas. While there haven’t always been “gentler” times, though, it is true that our system of governance used to be better at metabolizing that conflict and turning it into constructive action. There are important lessons here.

Rather than cursing the storm we currently face, the Bipartisan Policy Center believes this country needs an all-hands effort to restore and increase the capacity of lawmakers to work together and govern a divided country despite those challenges.

The good news is that there’s a lot more resiliency in the system than many may fear. It’s important to not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of members of Congress are good people who face terrible incentives. It doesn’t take much to change these incentives enough to allow lawmakers to engage more constructively with the process of governing.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is working to improve the resiliency and capacity of our democracy. Our immediate goal is to vindicate the ability of Congress to govern across division by bringing aggressively diverse groups together to reconcile policy differences and advocate for shared solutions. These efforts give confidence, energy and ambition to legislators with authentic collaborative intent. 

The business community has a key role to play in this effort. Our economic system rests upon the premise of functional democracy. It is simply not viable for leading companies to focus only on specific policy concerns and assume that someone else is protecting our core governing institutions. While politicians are incentivized to focus on winning news cycles to prevail in near-term elections, corporations must take a longer-term view that prioritizes stability and durable public policy.

At this moment of heightened political division and polarization, strengthening our democracy is a material interest for the business community. American businesses and business leaders are among the most trusted and respected voices in our society, and thus have a lot to bring to the table in these discussions. Moreover, shareholders, employees and customers are increasingly demanding companies take public positions that express their core values when democratic principles are at stake.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is encouraged to see members of the business community actively evaluating opportunities to encourage voter participation, evidence-based debate and principled collaboration. We believe these efforts can provide critical ballast to public discourse and help restore confidence in governing institutions. Our democracy is at an inflection point. With a little bit of courage, a lot of strategy and some creative partnerships, our unique system of governance can once again find its footing and advance the shared interests of our diverse and divided country.