Democracy TBD

“The question of whether our democracy will long endure is both ancient and urgent — as old as our Republic, still vital today,” said President Biden in this week’s address to a joint session of Congress. But while his rhetoric was lofty, the realities on the ground are more gritty and unsure. As corporations have begun to take sides over the voting rights debate, we’ve been contemplating how such dynamics relate to a newly released futurism project we co-produced last fall with the Democracy Fund: Democracy TBD.

For the project, we convened five groups of diverse thinkers and led them through a scenario-planning process to understand the considerable challenges and opportunities for democracy in the fall of 2020. In more than one of the scenarios that participants imagined, states begin to fragment along party and cultural lines in a kind of bloodless civil war. While we haven’t quite reached that point, it’s easy to see how our country could devolve further.

An experimental process designed to help inform Democracy Fund’s ability to develop more nimble and wide-ranging strategies, the project was an exercise in volatility. Even as we ran the working groups, some of their predictions came true, including the dual catastrophes of an escalating pandemic and a natural disaster. Later, proposed disruptors such as “Trump refuses to leave office” and “disparity in how COVID-19 vaccines are accessed” have become painfully clear.

But the goal of the process was not necessarily to make accurate predictions — but rather to anticipate major pathways where change might happen and how Democracy Fund might shape and intervene in these pathways. We especially wanted to surface assumptions and gaps that have left us unprepared to respond to big disruptors, including during the pandemic. And our goal was to find out how these various disruptors and scenarios might affect a healthy democracy.

Some findings from our exercises:

  • Major concerns centered around disintegration, fragmentation, inequality, authoritarianism, corruption and polarization.
  • Areas of hope included renewal, localism, cooperation, and mobilization.
  • In our discussions, participants identified public health, infrastructure, elections, the Supreme Court and communications technology as being especially volatile.
  • In the Democracy Fund’s Health Democracy Framework, the participants’ insights most commonly fell under the categories of News and Media, Rule of Law and Civil Rights, and Civic Participation.

We also gave the participants a chance to make creative responses to the exercises and that led to a hip-hop suite, speculative fiction pieces, and an essay about an alternate history.

Overall, the project was a great way to demonstrate Dot Connector Studio’s evolution into a collaboratory with a focus on futuring. And what we learned was that bringing together a diverse mix of people could lead to surprising, intelligent ideas that brought us visions of dread and hope for the future.

Read the entire report on Democracy TBD here.