Why we’re launching The Democracy Solutions Project

In the runup to the 2024 election, the Sun-Times, WBEZ and the Center for Effective Government at the University of Chicago will be collaborating on a project to educate our audience about the threat to our democracy and how we can form “a more perfect union.”

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An early morning runner passes in front of the U.S. Capitol and flags circling the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

An early morning runner passes in front of the U.S. Capitol and flags circling the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

AP Photos

Exploring critical issues facing our democracy and searching for solutions.

Check the news on any given day, and the signs that American democracy is fraying badly at the edges are right there for all to see.

Consider this: It’s relatively easy to vote in Chicago — no show of ID required, unless you need to register, which you can do on the spot since Illinois is one of a minority of states that allows residents to register and cast a ballot on the same day.

Yet too many Chicagoans seem to take for granted the ease with which we can exercise our voting rights compared with those in states where voting rights are under assault: Turnout in the April mayoral runoff election was just 38% overall and was lowest among young people.

Meanwhile, Americans’ voting rights are under assault in state after state, as the Brennan Center for Justice points out: Legislators in over 30 states have introduced bills that would make it harder to vote — especially for many people of color — as well as bills that would increase partisan interference or otherwise threaten the integrity of our elections.

Editorial

Editorial

Voting rights are only one sign of the problems we face. A free press is essential to democracy, but the spread of misinformation threatens trust in legitimate media.

Remember those so-called “newspapers” that showed up in Chicago-area mailboxes before the November 2022 election, mimicking the look of trusted traditional news sources to try and sway voters with overheated attack “articles”?

A Washington Post report showed last week the misinformation machine was even worse than you might think: The Illinois-based right-wing outlet that published those papers had a private portal where Republican candidates could “request stories and shape coverage” against opponents — a clear breach of journalistic ethics.

And has there ever been a time when so many Americans expressed skepticism, or even open disapproval, of our nation’s highest court? No surprise there, given what we’ve learned about the years of unreported luxury vacations and other expensive gifts Justice Clarence Thomas accepted from a billionaire GOP donor connected to groups with cases before the court. Not to mention revelations about potential conflicts of interest involving other justices — and Chief Justice John Roberts’ high-handed dismissal of it all.

Congress wants the Supreme Court to adopt stronger ethics rules, and 72% of Americans agree, a recent YouGov poll found.

We could go on with other red flags, such as the ongoing fallout from the “Big Lie” about a stolen 2020 presidential election; the Jan. 6 insurrection, which most Americans blame on the former president; bots and trolls spreading election misinformation on social media; partisan gerrymandering; the increase in attempts at book banning; the rise of far-right, white nationalist groups. The list goes on.

As William Howell of the University of Chicago pointed out to us, the threats to democracy impair the ability of our government to function effectively.

As Americans, we expect the will of the majority to prevail. But that ideal has clearly been thwarted on pressing national issues such as gun safety and reproductive rights. Most Americans want both, but good luck with that in this Congress, with one party dead set against both.

“There’s the inability of institutions to enact policy that a majority of Americans want to have enacted, to solve problems that people want solved,” said Howell, director of the Center for Effective Government and the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago. “When you think about how our democracy is faring, that’s a big problem.”

Education, understanding and solutions

We want to help our readers and listeners better understand how our democracy works, the threats facing it and most importantly, how Americans can become more civically engaged and form, as our founders put it, “a more perfect union.”

To that end, Chicago Public Media — the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ — and the Center for Effective Government will be collaborating over the next 18 months on The Democracy Solutions Project, a multimedia, multi-part series examining critical issues in our democracy in advance of the 2024 election.

To kick off our project, you can listen Monday to Howell on WBEZ’s Reset with Sasha-Ann Simons, followed by an interview on civic engagement with Eric Liu of Citizen University. You can also hear Tracy Brown, Chicago Public Media’s chief content officer, talk more about the project on WBEZ’s Rundown podcast.

And in the coming months, expect more news stories, editorials, podcasts and interviews, and other forms of coverage digging into topics such as the state of the judiciary; extremist factions in Illinois politics and government; corruption and money in politics; the impact of political polarization; election integrity and security; our two-party system; and the impact of grassroots organizing.

CPM’s community engagement teams and its music station, Vocalo, will also participate with events, audio storytelling and music exploration.

We’re just getting started, so send us your feedback to letters@suntimes.com.

As Howell puts it, “We need sustained engagement and reflection on how we build up our democracy in the face of acute divisions and challenges. We need people to stay engaged. There are very real stakes to the outcome.”

We agree.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. Here’s our guidelines.

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