Our nation turns 250 in less than four years, and needs to right its ship of state; let's start by asking some questions

By Terry Anderson

In just four years, in 2026, America will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the signing of our Declaration of Independence.

This unique document did more than lay out the reasons for separating ourselves from a remote and despotic ruler. Its brilliance lies in the powerful and radical ideas the Founding Fathers introduced about how our new nation should be governed, including the people's inalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, and that the people could put limits on the power of those who governed in their name. These ideas and the Constitution that sprang from them provided a system of government that has worked for almost a quarter of a millennium.

Today, America is plagued with problems: A deeply divided society, a shrinking middle class, massive distrust in our public institutions, a resurgence of violence and racism, and more. Our elected leaders often seem less interested in solving our problems than pandering to special interests so they can get re-elected. They rarely seem to hear the voice of the people, which is muddled by the echo chambers of social media. The social compact built by the Founders is coming apart. The biggest threats to our democracy are internal.

For several years, several former government and academic experts have been studying and discussing the state of America: How did we come to this state of affairs and are there ways to right our ship of state? A main concern of what we call the Designing Government Forum is communication between our leaders and those they lead.

The Founders believed deeply in the wisdom of the American people, and in the idea that the people must be heard in the halls of power. The governing system they built was flawed – they did not wholly trust the people – so we have the Senate and the Electoral College. And they were not yet ready to address the evil of slavery. Yet it was the closest thing to a democratic republic since Athens. And it worked. Even that deep, unaddressed fault of human servitude, though it brought a bloody war, was not enough to break it.

And now, 250 years later, the problems of today often seem beyond the ability of our society to solve. National divisions now divide our villages and towns, eroding public confidence in local institutions such as our schools and even libraries. There is little two-way communication between the governed and the governing. ”Giving voice to the voiceless” is a refrain that resonates with ordinary Americans who feel they have no voice in the halls of power.

Can we change that? How do we reopen the conversation between the Citizen and government? How do we cross the divide that separates us on so many issues? Can we restart a national conversation on who we are, and what we want for our future?

In partnership with the Designing Government Forum, we invite you, as individuals and interested civic organizations, to take part in a series of community conversations to stimulate thinking about Who We Are, Where Are We? How did we get here, and how can we move on? What do we want for our future, as a nation and as a community?

We are starting with the question: What does the American Dream mean to you?

Working with your local newspapers and other media, you can gather background on the evolution of ideas about the American Dream and respond using your own words, phrases, sentences, art, music - however you choose. We also will invite young people to participate, perhaps working with a local group or school.

Send your response to tanderson@theforum.us.org. If you have questions, email to me at that address.

Over the course of a year, this first question will be followed by two or three other questions. All replies will be placed on our website, the Designing Government Forum portal, and comments will be invited. They also may be carried in local news media. The best, as judged by the DGF, will be awarded prizes.

The real prize in this process, we hope, will be a new vision for making our democracy work. We owe it to those who created it almost 250 years ago to keep it going.

Terry Anderson is retired chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press.

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