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Research Report

Conference Report: The Governing Crisis

Published: May 14, 2014

The Brennan Center gathered a group of scholars, advocates, journalists, foundation leaders, and philanthropists with the goal of identifying possible solutions to government dysfunction. This new report describes and explores those possible solutions.


On February 12–13, 2014 the Brennan Center for Justice convened a group of 80 scholars, advocates, journalists, foundation leaders and philanthropists at NYU School of Law for a series of discussions on government dysfunction. The conference was conceived at the height of worry over the government shutdown and latest debt ceiling debacle. It soon gravitated toward larger, longer-term ambitions. The Center — and organizations like ours — must grapple with governing crisis that besets the country, a task that will require new thinking and focused effort. Our goal for the two days: to facilitate discussions that moved beyond arguments about causes of the current state of dysfunction and, rather, begin to identify potential viable solutions.

Among the repeated themes and lessons from the two day gathering:

  • Across the political spectrum, participants shared a sense of urgency — even alarm — over the collapse of effective government. This is not just messy governance as usual. Something new, and disturbing, seemed evident to most participants.
  • Cures for dysfunction are structural as well as cultural. Reformers should avoid the fallacy of assuming that tweaking rules or tightening procedures can overcome deep-seated divisions. At the same time, merely wishing for partisans to cast aside their animosities is a hope never likely to be achieved. Recognizing cultural and political trends, the participants gravitated toward reforms that could steer political actors toward more productive governance. We sought to avoid false choices, and largely succeeded.
  • The conference produced some surprises. In particular, some stressed the importance of party leadership … and skepticism about openness and transparency as an effective mode for governance. Different communities brought preconceptions — and had those preconceptions challenged. Social justice-oriented groups and funders grappled with the “dysfunction” frame. Reform ideas must be assessed not just through the lens of “democracy” but also “governability.” If government and the political system are not rendered more functional, on a basic level, no underlying policy changes are possible. Funders and scholars who focus, especially, on “polarization” as the ill to be addressed grappled with the need to embrace structural reforms, and not just changes in norms and practices.
  • All grappled with a fundamental challenge for funders, nonprofit groups, scholars and journalists: how to address intrinsically political questions through a necessarily nonpartisan lens. We must beware the fallacy of technocratic solutions. Today’s problems have deep political roots — the solutions must be inevitably, intrinsically political. It is naive to expect solutions to come without wider public engagement and political conflict.
  • Repeatedly, participants asked whether dysfunction is a genuine crisis, or merely the most recent swing of a cyclical pattern. Perhaps it’s always been this bad. Or perhaps it will work itself out, as moderates battle extremists and self-interest drives leaders to the bargaining table. Or perhaps, as too often seems likely, this really does reflect a new, worrisome and dangerous degradation of America’s democratic experiment.
  • One dividing line: Some participants believed the governmental breakdown on display is best understood as a consequence of widening economic inequality and spreading stagnation. They see the most worrisome polarization as top-down, not left-right. Given these broad trends, they suggested, it would be a surprise if the political system worked better than it did. Others saw the challenges of the political system (e.g., the ability of wealthy interests to stall or steer policy change) as a cause of economic malaise. In any case, they argued, political reform is a necessary precondition to policies that could help spur economic revival.

In all, we explored seven topics — the summary of each panel discussion is described as a section in this report. In addition, we heard an evening keynote and a funder-led and focused summary at the close of the event. Sessions were held in a “discussant-style” format to facilitate participation from the entire audience, along with the moderator and panelists. There were a few variations: the session on “Opportunities for Bipartisan Democracy Reform,” featured the co-chairs of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration engaging in a lively moderated dialogue; the panel on “Cultural Polarization” was a Q&A over dinner. The sections that follow each provide a summary of the discussions that ensued, followed by the Brennan Center’s assessment of follow up questions to be explored via research. Recordings of the discussions are available, as well, on the Center’s web site ( Other resources included as appendices with this summary: the event program; bios of the moderators and panelists, and the full list of participants.