Saving Democracy

How to address the “great misalignment” between self-government and human frailty.

By Isabel Sawhill

Tagged DemocracyGovernanceGovernmentLiberalismtechnology

In 2021, a mob tried to take over the U.S. Capitol; an explosion of floods and fires destroyed homes, businesses, and whole communities; and a pandemic killed 460,000 Americans.

What do all of these events have in common, aside from the horror of each? People did not trust the experts. Countless court cases had documented a lack of fraud in the 2020 election, but one-third of the public still believed in the Big Lie. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had reported that climate change was having catastrophic effects, but more than a third of American adults were not very concerned. Many experts urged people to get vaccinated, to wear masks, and to socially distance, but a large number of Americans refused to believe that such steps were necessary, leading the United States to have the highest cumulative deaths per capita through the pandemic among large, wealthy countries. All of these problems were exacerbated by deep divisions by race, gender, religion, and geography—most strikingly in the partisan divide in COVID-19 vaccination and death rates.

Imagine if, in place of all this denial, there had been a peaceful transfer of power from Trump to Biden; if we had enacted a carbon tax and invested in renewables; and if we had reached the goal of 75 percent of the population vaccinated in 2020—enough to avoid tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Public passions and misinformation have taken hold of our democracy. Too many elected officials are in thrall to those passions. Trust in expertise has gone out of style. Leading scientists, academics, judges, doctors, and fact-driven journalists no longer command much respect. Individuals trust their own beliefs and intuitions, or those of close friends and family, more than the verdicts of experts. They have retreated to their own information bubbles and their own partisan identities, which now dominate our public life.

To respond appropriately, we need to understand three foundational truths. First, human nature is flawed, and we humans are especially vulnerable to myopia, to emotionally satisfying but irrational beliefs, and to loyalty to our own tribe. Second, an increasingly complex and technologically advanced society offers huge opportunities for progress against poverty, disease, environmental catastrophe, and the horrors of war, but it also poses near-existential threats to our well-being and ultimate survival. Third, this combination of human frailties and the risks and opportunities posed by new technologies requires stronger, not weaker, collective institutions—and above all, a well-functioning democracy. The biologist E.O. Wilson summed up the challenge nicely when he said we have “paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”

We confront today what I call “the great misalignment”—a mismatch between our human capacities and the requirements of self-government in an age when we need to collectively manage some new and potentially revolutionary technologies.

I am an economist with a decades-long career working on economic and social policy in government, academia, and at several leading think tanks. Why, you might wonder, am I suddenly interested in a set of issues outside my normal purview? The answer is because I believe that without more attention to these issues of governance, policy analysis of the kind that motivated my own career and is essential to good government will not flourish. Social scientists don’t always get things right, but the distrust of experts, the labeling of them as part of a now corrupted or unresponsive elite, is also a rejection of science, of data, of the search for objective truth, and of the Enlightenment values that have been critical to human progress for the past three centuries.

The great misalignment means we must either better educate the electorate or change our political institutions, or ideally some of both. Specifically, we need three things: to do a better job of preparing citizens for the tasks of democratic governance; to create a nomination process that selects leaders who are not just popular but experienced and of good character; and to delegate more decision-making to those with the competence to manage the complexities of governing in an era when good governance is needed more than ever. In short, we need both more liberalism—in the classical sense—and a little less democracy. That means more equal rights in the voting booth but more delegation of decision-making to the most competent.

Human Nature: It’s the Rider vs. the Elephant

As biologists and neuroscientists have taught us, the human brain is simultaneously our greatest asset and our greatest liability. It’s our greatest asset because it is the only reason we stand at the top of the food chain, able to see into the future and plan, to use language, to create narratives or creeds, to build institutions, and to use technology to control our environment. It is also a liability because we are often driven by hidden emotions and biases. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt likens the mind to a rider and an elephant. The rider believes she is in control, unaware of the vast power of the elephant, which represents the unconscious portion of her mind. But it’s the elephant that drives a great deal of human behavior, even if we are barely aware of its massive influence. We need institutions to keep the elephant in check.

When I was getting a Ph.D in economics many decades ago, we were taught that humans look at the costs and benefits of different choices and pick the ones that maximize their individual welfare. Thanks to the work of behavioral economists and psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler, we now realize that view is way too simple. Social scientists are increasingly emphasizing the nonrational and emotional aspects of much human behavior. We have short time horizons, care more about our relative than our absolute status, and are heavily influenced by social norms and the views of others. Our behavior is not autonomous; it responds to what others, especially those in authority, do and say, as the famous Milgram experiments at Yale University demonstrated.

Tribalism, including unconscious bias toward our own group and a tendency to stereotype other groups, has been shown over and over again to be embedded in our brains. Precisely because it is often unconscious, this bias is hard to control—a part of the elephant, not the rider. We know, however, that when groups get to know one another better, prejudice and stereotyping decline, which is why integrated workplaces, neighborhoods, and universal national service could help. But no one should doubt the power of the elephant to create havoc with our democracy, stirring up a toxic mix of negative polarization, conspiracy theories, and resentment between groups.

Public passions and misinformation have taken hold of our democracy. Too many elected officials are in thrall to those passions.

We routinely ignore problems that experts tell us loom large but that have not yet gained the kind of salience or urgency needed to rouse the elephant. Climate change is the best example. It is already doing great damage to the planet and, by extension, to all kinds of life. In August, Congress finally adopted a set of climate measures that should have been enacted long ago and that still fall short of what is needed. The effects of not acting sooner are all too evident on the nightly news. Wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, and other extreme weather events have destroyed whole communities, with more damage to come. The remaining window to prevent far worse damage is now very narrow.

What makes us vulnerable is not technology or science. It is, in short, our own brains. It’s the short-sighted, emotional, and self-centered elephant that’s too often in charge.

These human frailties now threaten to derail democracy itself, and with it our ability to address a set of issues that require a collective response. The first scientific era and the Industrial Revolution it spawned led to a historic discontinuity in the way we live. The next scientific revolution will be based on our ability to change our own biology and to use artificial intelligence to take over many human tasks. Its effects could be even more profound than those of the first one. But whether those effects are mostly good or bad will depend on how they are managed. Will we destroy ourselves and the civilization we have built, or will we use new technologies to conquer poverty, disease, untimely deaths, and oppressive toil?

Unprecedented Threats and Opportunities

The biggest threats facing the globe are weapons of mass destruction, climate change, uncontrollable pandemics, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence (AI). I will have little to add about nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, and I have already discussed climate change and pandemics. But two newer risks, genetic engineering and AI, deserve far more attention than they have been getting. Gene editing shows promise in treating certain diseases, including sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and some forms of cancer; it can create new vaccines and new, more effective tests for coronavirus; it will increase the supply of organs for transplantation, enabling people to survive a major heart attack or end-stage kidney disease. It has allowed a Brazilian-American artist to create a fluorescent green rabbit from a white rabbit embryo and a gene taken from a green fluorescent jellyfish. Worms have been engineered to live six times as long as normal, and mice to have better memories and learning skills. The genes responsible for monogamy in voles have been isolated. Who knows what will come next? The eventual consequences for human health and longevity are potentially revolutionary.

But these advances also raise troubling questions about whether parents will one day want to create designer babies, selecting embryos for their intelligence, health, beauty, and other attributes. In 2018, a Chinese researcher modified human embryos, leading to the birth of genetically edited twins. He was widely condemned by the research community and sentenced to three years in a Chinese prison. But once such feats are possible, it is only a matter of time before they are repeated.

The ethical issues are monumental. On the one hand are unprecedented advances in human health and well-being; on the other are huge risks that the technology will produce a new Frankenstein. As futurist author Jamie Metzl says, “if we thought the debates over abortion and genetically modified crops were contentious, wait until the coming debate over genetically modified people arrives.” We are, Metzl says, in the process of “hacking Darwin”—replacing random mutations and natural selection with human-directed mutations and human selection—and the governing structures needed to find the right balance between the benefits and costs have not kept pace with the science.

Artificial intelligence is perhaps the least well-understood threat, but accord ing to some experts, it poses the greatest danger as well as promising the greatest benefits to society if appropriately managed. AI is already outperforming humans in such tasks as playing chess and reading X-rays. Its recent success in identifying a new antibiotic that works against previously resistant bacteria (after human efforts had failed) is just one example of its transformative role. It will produce self-driving cars, delivery drones, voice and image recognition, and automated stores and factories. Many people have worried about the job dislocation this will produce. That’s a concern, and one that I addressed in my book The Forgotten Americans, where I concluded, as many have, that the benefits outweigh the costs but that everything depends on handling the transition with the right kind of public policies. Once again, proper governance can make all the difference.

But the risks remain substantial. Many experts are predicting that AI will soon be capable of outsmarting us not just in performing routine tasks but in pursuing objectives we never specified or intended. The issue, in a nutshell, is whether we will control the machines or they will control us. Toby Ord, an Oxford professor who has studied all of these existential threats in depth, believes that AI tops all of them in terms of both its potentially beneficial impact and the risks it poses to our species. He states, “The transition to a world where humans are no longer the most intelligent entities on Earth could easily be the greatest ever change in humanity’s place in the universe.” He puts the probability of AI performing better than humans on nearly all tasks within the next hundred years at roughly one in two, and the chance that it will be misaligned with human values at about one in ten. There are, of course, huge uncertainties and controversies here, as he admits, but this is not a fringe position within the expert community. Looking at five of the big risks—nuclear war, climate change, other environmental developments, engineered pandemics, and unaligned AI—he estimates a one-in-six chance that they will lead to an existential catastrophe (defined as “the destruction of humanity’s long-term potential,” including extinction and other alarming possibilities) over the next century.

The governance challenges associated with these mind-bending technologies are enormous. How much should we invest in these technologies, what shall we regulate, and how do we assure the public that their own safety and security will be protected? Such questions cannot be avoided because if we don’t address them, another nation, likely an authoritarian one, or a rogue group will. In addition, if the U.S. role in these new technologies is purely defensive, we will have missed an opportunity to transform human lives in unprecedented ways with huge benefits for almost everyone.

How to Respond: Three Strategies

A focus on these technological risks and opportunities provides one more reason to worry about the misalignment between human frailties and democratic institutions, and especially our tendency to focus on salient, short-run problems while ignoring the insidious, often hidden costs—including the opportunity costs—of failing to address bigger, longer-term issues. As Charles Schultze, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget, once put it in reference to the growth of public debt, there are termites in the woodwork, but we remain focused on the wolf at the door.

We cannot deal with emerging technologies with a polarized and paralyzed democracy. Democracies are fragile. Without constant vigilance, they too easily fall back into some form of autocracy. After many decades of progress around the world, democracy is now in decline, and the United States has become the poster child for the worst kind of backsliding. Because autocracies may prove better able to manage these new technologies, for good or for ill, the pressure on liberal democracies will be that much greater. To succeed, we must calm the elephant and give the rider a new set of institutional reins with which to manage his unruly behavior.

There are a number of political reforms that might help to shore up our political institutions. These include proportional or ranked choice voting, eliminating the Electoral College (or working around it via a state compact), limiting gerrymandering and the role of money in politics, making voting easier, and the like. These are all good ideas, but they involve a Catch-22: The foxes who are currently in charge of the hen house are not about to change the status quo. We can hope that these reforms take root, but I also want to suggest some new ideas based on a deeper understanding of the rider vs. the elephant. How do we minimize the illiberal tendencies of the elephant while enabling the rider to gain more control over her own destiny? Too much democracy sends the elephant crashing through the bush; too little deprives the rider of her basic rights.

The technological challenges outlined above are, of course, global and will require supranational organizations to deal with them. But I will focus on the United States both because we must fix a dysfunctional political system at home before worrying about the global challenge and because this would put us in a better position to play a leadership role. Our country still has considerable soft and hard power, but that power is waning and must be restored.

What kinds of institutional changes might help? First, a more informed electorate. Second, much stronger leaders, created via new methods of nominating presidential candidates and other elected officials. Third, more attention to the unprecedented threats and opportunities themselves along with reliance on expert bodies to assess and recommend actions for dealing with them.

Educating The Electorate

The typical voter is woefully lacking in the kinds of knowledge needed to vote intelligently. Many do not know such basics as what the three branches of government are, which rights are protected by the Bill of Rights, or how their taxes are spent; some years, the majority of Americans do not even know which party controls each house of Congress. As political scientist Larry Bartels says, “The political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best-documented features of contemporary politics.”

Even when voters are well-meaning and intelligent, it is often not worth their time to spend hours studying the issues or the candidates. They know that their vote will count for little, so why spend scarce time learning what they would need to know to make a more informed choice? Instead, they rely on partisan identity as a readily available shortcut, along with the views of family, friends, or other influentials; they may be swayed by social media or the mainstream press; they may simply like how someone dresses, speaks, or looks. That said, party identification remains a very strong predictor of how people vote. The problem with this shortcut is that, in a two-party system, its binary character does little to promote pluralism.

Another problem, in addition to ill-informed or rationally ignorant voters, is that we are all, to one degree or another, vulnerable to having our views and our behavior manipulated. As historian Yuval Noah Harari writes: “Referendums and elections are always about human feelings, not about human rationality…. This reliance on the heart might prove to be the Achilles’ heel of liberal democracy. For once somebody (whether in Beijing or in San Francisco) gains the technological ability to hack and manipulate the human heart, democratic politics will mutate into an emotional puppet show.”

Social media is not just an example of Harari’s point but the ultimate “democratic” institution. It is, after all, chock-full of information and opinions, participatory, easily accessed, and open to all. It is the town hall of the twenty-first century. Yet instead of turning ignorant and unengaged voters into well-informed and engaged ones, it has mainly inflamed the elephant, produced herdlike behavior, and misinformed citizens.

So what can be done?

First, we need dramatically more civic education. Only a minority of Americans are able to pass the test taken by immigrants seeking to become citizens. Why not require that high school students both attend a naturalization ceremony to gain more appreciation for what citizenship means and be asked to pass a similar test? Perhaps doing so should be a high school graduation requirement.

But passing a factual test is only a beginning. Without deeper engagement, without helping students master critical thinking skills, understand habits of the heart as well as of the mind, and handle exposure to a wider array of views, a mere test is not likely to fundamentally change our democracy. Instead, imagine if all high schools encouraged or required their students to study the Constitution, to not only take on the task of learning its provisions but to then debate the implications of those provisions, their normative foundations, and whether they should be revised.

For all their brilliance, the Framers were men of their time. Shouldn’t we all be asking if an eighteenth-century constitution is still right for a twenty-first-century society? No organization, including a nation-state, should go for more than two centuries without at least questioning its principles and values and how they are embedded in its operational structures.

Just such an exercise was suggested by this journal in its Summer 2021 issue. Led by Sanford Levinson from the University of Texas Law School and involving many other legal scholars as “delegates” to a mock constitutional convention, the group came up with a new, bold, and progressive constitution. It included, for example, eliminating the Electoral College, limiting the power of the Senate to delay but not kill legislation, creating term limits for Supreme Court justices, electing House members for four-year terms, using single- or multi-member districts of roughly the same size, and using ranked choice or proportional voting for both congressional and presidential elections. Can we envisage further exercises of this sort catalyzing a congressional or state-led effort to actually amend the Constitution? Should we even want one, given the dangers of opening up the Constitution? Maybe not, but here’s an idea that builds on the Democracy effort and also on an argument made by my Brookings colleague Robert Litan. He argues that what is missing in our education system is the kind of appreciation for opposing views that a much greater emphasis on teaching students debating skills could correct.

My idea is to ask America’s high schools to engage their students in a debate on these governance issues after teaching them the views of the experts. The debates would require students to take positions often contrary to their initial views as one of the best ways of teaching them critical thinking skills while deeply informing them about their government. The debates would be competitive, with the winners at the local level going on to debate the issues at the state level, and the state winners finally meeting for a national competition. Much like today’s spelling bees, this would create a set of young heroes and attract much media commentary and public attention. With a little luck, we would all soon be debating these issues around the dinner table. Colleges and universities might compete as well, and the younger generation would gain a sense of shaping their own futures.

Selecting Leaders

Given the challenges we face, we need leaders who have a larger vision of, and dedication to, the public good, whose motivations are not driven primarily by self-interest, and whose knowledge and experience provide the competence to address these issues. Can voters be counted on to choose such leaders?

In a nation that elected Donald Trump, that may be a tall order. It is for this reason that the founders of America did not propose a form of government in which the public’s will would translate directly into who was to govern and what kinds of decisions they would be empowered to make. Instead, they forged a document that called for a representative and not a popular democracy. The people would have a say (or at least those who were white, propertied, and male), but not too much say. Above all, as historian Robert Tracy McKenzie makes clear in his book We the Fallen People, they were acutely aware of the human frailties, passions, and prejudices that could lead a popular democracy astray. He writes:

…the Framers who gathered at Philadelphia in 1787 didn’t craft the Constitution for a virtuous people. Their recognition that we are self-interested by nature informs every article, every section, every line of the document that they created. It explains their ambiguity toward governmental power, their preoccupation with checks and balances, and above all, their distrust of democracy.

Given this distrust, they created many filters between the will of the people and their leaders. Only members of the House of Representatives were to be directly elected; the President and other leaders in the Senate and the courts were to be chosen in other, more indirect ways—ways that would help to isolate such choices from popular sentiment and factionalism.

That distrust of human passions has weakened over time. The elephant is increasingly in charge. We now select candidates through direct primaries rather than through the deliberations of party leaders in smoke-filled rooms. That’s an outgrowth of demands for more democracy, more involvement of the public in choosing candidates. But as a number of thoughtful political analysts such as Jonathan Rauch, Lee Drutman, and Elaine Kamarck have argued, direct primaries come at a cost. The people who vote in primaries are not only a minority of those eligible but tend to be more immoderate. More importantly, given the large number of “safe” districts where winning one’s party’s primary is tantamount to winning the general election, together with a fear on the part of incumbents of being “primaried,” our politics are now skewed to the extremes, increasing polarization and paralysis. Direct primaries have also produced a group of elected leaders who are arguably far less competent and experienced than in prior generations. Almost no one believed that Donald Trump would be elected, but he was and remains surprisingly popular.

If we don’t address these governance challenges, another nation, likely an authoritarian one, or a rogue group will.

If a major corporation or nonprofit institution were looking for a new CEO, vice president, or division head, would they simply put this up to a vote by their various stakeholders, including consumers, suppliers, employees, or shareholders? No, they would vet the candidates with people who knew them well and pay attention to such intangibles as character, leadership, and vision. Choosing a President, a senator, or a member of the House should receive similar scrutiny— what Elaine Kamarck calls “peer review.” She notes that it is “neither possible nor wise to try to roll back the system of binding primaries,” but she spells out some alternatives that would re-empower parties and party leaders in the vetting process. Given the kind of extremism that exists, especially among Republican members these days, even these proposals may not do the job, but at least they might hold the most radical extremists at bay.

How we choose to select candidates goes back to the central tension between liberalism and democracy, the one addressed by the founders. Jonathan Rauch has been warning for a long time that the weakening of intermediaries such as political parties has produced chaos and a lack of accountability. As he and political scientist Ray La Raja argue, “Paradoxically, democratic fundamentalism—the insistence that the remedy for whatever ails democracy must always be more democracy—is dangerously undemocratic.”

Trusting the Experts

A better-informed electorate and a wiser leadership will help but will not be sufficient. We are going to need to empower the so-called administrative state—aka the bureaucracy or the permanent government or, dare I say it, the “deep state”—to take on more of the challenge because they alone will have the competencies needed and because progress on these issues will require continuity of effort and at least some isolation from day-to-day politics. Donald Trump’s second-guessing the National Hurricane Center on the path of a hurricane or the CDC on the effectiveness of treatments for COVID-19 was not helpful. Nor were the efforts of other presidents over the years to pressure the Fed. These examples demonstrate the importance of these agencies being ultimately accountable to the public but independent enough to resist such pressures.

There are two issues here. The first is the question of competence. The second is the degree of independence from short-run political pressures.

On the competence issue, unfortunately the administrative state has gotten a bad name. I served as an associate director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton, with responsibility for one-third of the federal budget. I couldn’t have possibly done my job without a highly talented group of about 40 civil servants and their counterparts in the agencies we oversaw. Yes, bureaucracies can seem impersonal, inefficient, bloated, and unresponsive. And sometimes they are. Experts may be distrusted. But to a large extent, this caricature is unwarranted, and to the extent it is true, it is largely because we have not given administrative agencies the resources and the respect that they need to do their jobs well. Total inflation-adjusted federal spending has increased more than fivefold since 1960, while the number of federal employees has remained roughly constant. The salaries of high-level civil servants have not kept pace with the private sector (although the less-educated ranks of the federal work force are doing fine). Public discourse about “overpaid and underworked” public employees and the need to “drain the swamp” has debilitated government workers’ morale. Finding younger people who have the knowledge and training needed to oversee high-tech areas including biotech, AI, nuclear power, and cyber threats is a particular challenge.

To be sure, problems persist. The civil service needs to be reformed, an aging work force replaced with a younger one, a merit-based hiring system combined with more flexibility to pay higher salaries and to terminate poor performers. The CDC has come under fire for not handling the pandemic well and is now undergoing restructuring and reform to better serve the public. But a lack of resources and support is undermining the ability of government agencies to hire and retain the best people, and cumbersome rules impede their flexibility. Consider the Internal Revenue Service. Analysts have been complaining for years about its inability to identify tax cheats via audits and have recommended additional budgetary resources for this purpose. It may finally get those resources as part of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (though that long-needed reform triggered an immediate backlash among some Republican candidates, who made wildly false claims about how that money will be used). Or think about why the COVID-19 death rate in the United States was much higher per capita than in other wealthy countries. That almost surely had something to do with the sorry condition of public health infrastructure in this country at both the federal and state levels.

As citizens, if we want a government that performs well, we cannot keep starving it of resources and complaining about the swamp. Conservatives from Ronald Reagan forward have argued that government is the problem, and of course, that’s a foregone conclusion if elected officials are starving it of resources and respect. Then there is the issue of protecting agencies from political interference. To what extent should we delegate more responsibility to independent agencies and insulate policymaking from public passions and short-term thinking?

In his book Advice and Dissent, Alan Blinder argues for putting more decision-making in the hands of experts, after seeing firsthand as a top economic adviser to President Clinton and vice chair of the Federal Reserve what happens when politicians call the shots on important economic decisions. They neither understand the issues well nor care much about the long-term welfare of the country. They simply want to win the next election. Of course, there must still be room for the public, and their elected representatives, to weigh in on the overall objectives and to hold such agencies accountable after the fact.

The Fed is the classic case of an independent agency. Its members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Congress, but because of staggered terms and a norm of quasi-independence, it is somewhat protected from short-term political interference. Blinder proposes a Federal Tax Board, analogous to the Federal Reserve (that is, independent, with its members serving staggered terms), but in charge of reforming a hugely inefficient and overly complicated tax system. Let Congress provide some guidance on overall goals, such as fairness and growth, but let the experts decide the best ways of achieving these goals. Similarly, in The Forgotten Americans, I argued for an independent national investment bank. It would use experts to recommend the most cost-effective and productive investments in infrastructure and research and then work with other sectors on financing and implementation.

It is worth thinking about whether we need similarly independent agencies to deal with some of the technological challenges described above. Although the EPA is presumed to be an independent agency, it is insufficiently protected from the kinds of wild swings in leadership and policy that have occurred during the transitions from Obama to Trump to Biden. This leads to regulatory turmoil, something that even the corporate sector dislikes. Meanwhile, genetic engineering is currently under the control of three separate agencies: FDA, USDA, and EPA. A more coordinated effort might be useful.

The somewhat better news is that there is a White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). It was leaderless for two years under President Trump, with its staff reduced from 135 to 45. President Biden has now elevated it to Cabinet status and has signaled that he takes very seriously the role of technology in improving people’s lives, keeping us safe, and competing with China. With OSTP help, he or his successor could become the President that makes the United States a leader in AI, genetic engineering, climate innovation, and other game-changing technologies.

Another potential response to the need for administrative competence and independence is to reduce the number of political appointees in the executive branch. While these are needed to carry out an incumbent President’s agenda, the number of political appointees has doubled since 1960 and now comprises about 4,000 people. This is a far higher proportion than in many other advanced democracies.

The administrative state is needed more than ever in light of the critical technological changes described above. Does anyone really think that Congress can specify in any detail how much to invest in these new technologies, monitor the threats that they pose, and work with the private and academic sectors as well as with other countries to strengthen our ability to use them wisely and well? This would be a tall order, even in a well-functioning democracy. In today’s tattered republic it is a pipe dream—made worse by a Supreme Court that seems intent on clipping the wings of the administrative state on the grounds that such decisions are Congress’s to make. In West Virginia v. EPA, the Court took away much of the leverage the EPA had to deal with climate change. With a conservative court in power, more such challenges can be expected, with similar consequences for public welfare.


What I am calling for here is less democracy but more liberalism. That means more delegation of decision-making but only in the context of a reaffirmation of individual rights, including reforms that make the electoral process more responsive to the will of the people and less dominated by small states, monied interests, and gerrymandered districts.

As many have argued, political paralysis and polarization have prevented us from tackling such major issues as climate change and growing inequality. But we will soon face even graver risks as we learn to edit humanity itself and outsource our brain power to ever-more intelligent machines. It is not an exaggeration to say that these advances pose unprecedented challenges and will demand stronger governing institutions both domestically and internationally.

E.O. Wilson was right when he said we have primitive brains, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. There is a misalignment here that needs to be addressed. As first steps, I have suggested a national debate around our founding documents as one way to strengthen the collective wisdom needed for self-government, modifying the primary process to better select our leaders, and reforming but honoring the administrative state for its competence and political independence.

Earlier public investments and technological breakthroughs such as the GI Bill, the Interstate highway system, the near-eradication of polio and other diseases, space exploration, and the Defense Department’s creation of the Internet have profoundly altered the human experience, and mostly for the better. Emerging technologies promise even more revolutionary change. Can we human riders now design institutions to manage them well, transforming lives in the process, or will we sit back and allow the elephant to trample our species and the planet?

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Isabel Sawhill is a Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. She is the author, most recently, of The Forgotten Americans: An Economic Agenda for a Divided Nation.

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