Democracy Re/Designed

How do we envision a more aspirational democracy that works for everyone?

Our democracy has never worked for everyone, and like democracies globally, the nation is moving farther from the ideal. People are giving up, and nearly half of Generation Z believe it doesn’t matter whether they live in a democracy or a dictatorship. These conditions are dangerous because when people give up, anti-democratic forces can take hold, jeopardizing basic tenets like free and fair elections, equitable political participation, civil rights, freedom of the press, separation of church and state, and the just application of the law.

How can Democracy Re/Designed help?

Colleges and universities have a vital role to play by creating opportunities for people to come together, listen to one another, and re-envision a more aspirational democracy that works for everyone. Democracy Re/Designed helps catalyze discussion, creativity, and promise about the future of our democracy.

Contribute to National Research

Democracy Re/Designed is also a research project involving eight  campuses of various types, sizes, and geographies. The focus groups are  being taped, transcribed, uploaded to a central repository, and analyzed for themes by a team of researchers. We invite your campus to join this research. We can provide materials for obtaining IRB approval, recording and transcribing focus groups, and uploading the transcripts to the national repository. Contact IDHE for more information.


  • Democracy Re/Designed is the most recent iteration of IDHE’s efforts to align democratic principles and practices with student learning experiences and institutional priorities. The original framework, published as Democracy by Design (2014), emerged from discussions with civic leaders working together to improve democratic structures and decision-making processes. The idea was that all students would learn the basic attributes of a strong democracy, and each student should complete an intense study of a topic related to one of the attributes. At the same time, campus can create a set of norms to shape campus climate and institutional decision making. The principles and practices should be periodically revisited and updated. The 2014 framework was reviewed and edited slightly in an article entitled Strengthening Democracy by Design (2018).

    Democracy Re/Designed can serve the same purposes and it fills a gap in public life: Most Americans lack opportunities to participate in and improve democracy. Colleges and universities can serve as conveners for these discussions, providing opportunities for democratic engagement for more Americans.

  • The organizing and discussion guide offers guidance for convening, setting up, facilitating, and concluding discussions about the framework. Following the prompts in the guide, facilitators can walk participants through the framework and discuss what they see as the qualities of an inclusive, equitable, and robust democracy. As you can see, the smaller, empty tiles are there to suggest that other attributes can be added and can even replace those in the current version. The honeycomb image suggests that no attribute stands on its own. The guide provides tips for facilitators to help the discussion run smoothly and allow all voices to be heard.

    The facilitated discussions take about 90 minutes and are ideally done in groups of 6 to 10 participants. The discussions can also be convened at once, in a larger venue, with facilitated breakout groups of 6-10 people.

  • Students. Younger generations, especially Generation Z, are so disillusioned with how democracy is currently working, that many are giving up. Many say that it doesn’t matter whether they live in a democracy, a dictatorship, a monarchy, or under military rule.

    We also encourage campuses to bring together other groups—faculty, staff, institutional leaders, alumni, trustees or regents, and people in the local communities—to participate in discussions about a better democracy.

  • We agree that this is a risk, so we offer the following suggestions:

    • Identify and share opportunities for students to develop the knowledge and skills they need to effectuate social change. Based a decade of research, we created a self-assessment tool campuses can use to identify opportunities like leadership training programs, programs in community organizing or public advocacy, student government, student participation in institutional decision making, debate teams, facilitation training, and more. Don’t overlook community-based issue activism or service. Create a list for students and share that list with participants at the end of the discussions.
    • Contribute to a national research effort to capture perspectives. Currently, eight pilot campuses are convening focus groups using a common discussion guide and process. The discussions are being recorded, transcribed, uploaded to a central repository, and analyzed by a team of researchers for themes that will go into national publications. We invite additional campuses to participate in this research. And we encourage you to report to your own campus community on the outcomes of your discussions. To do that, however, you might need IRB approval. Please note: You need to be transparent with participants before convening them about how you intend to use what they say.
    • Emphasize the medium as the message. Sometimes talk is the action. By using best organizing and facilitation practices in dialogue and discussion, campuses can model the behaviors they want to teach for sharing ideas, disagreeing without being disagreeable, negotiating compromise, and collaboratively solving problems. For example, it’s important to make the discussions inclusive and reflective of diverse perspectives. IDHE offers a training guide for facilitation as well as other resources.
  • Refer people to the video on this webpage, which explains D/RD and makes the case for this national effort. Stress that this will only work if campuses nationwide participate.

    If you need talking points, here are a few:

    • Democracy has never worked for everyone—it is a system that leaves too many people behind economically, socially, and politically. The US should strive to be a model for democracies globally.
    • Since the 1960s, the US has made progress toward the ideal, especially gains in civil rights for people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and immigrants. Today, the nation seems to be backsliding and moving away the ideal. Multiple forces are exacerbating this reality: the proliferation of disinformation and nefarious actors on social media, an imbalance between individual freedoms and the collective good, political polarization and distrust, and the rise of extremism, white nationalism, and political violence.
    • This is not a partisan agenda. Democracies globally face authoritarian threats. The US is not alone. And there are plenty of people on both sides of the political aisle who want, and even assume that, democracy is the best social and political system for this nation.
    • A resounding number of Americans (85%) still say they want to live in a democracy, but they are not sure things can change. People, especially young people, feel powerless, distrustful, and are giving up. Or they are embracing other governing systems, like military rule and dictatorships. When people give up, it creates a void that can be filled by undemocratic forces.
    • Colleges and universities have a critical role to play. The nation lacks opportunities for people to meet, talk, envision, and strategize for a better democracy. Colleges and universities are in communities across the nation. They can serve as hubs for redesigning democracy.

Project Staff

  • Nancy Thomas

    Nancy Thomas

    Senior Advisor to the President for Democracy Initiatives and Executive Director, IDHE

Questions about Democracy Re/Designed?

If you have questions about Democracy Re/Designed or how you can get involved, please email us at [email protected].

Support IDHE

Support great ideas! To grow AAC&U’s efforts to educate for more aspirational, inclusive, and robust democracy, please donate to the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education Fund.

Democracy Re/Designed is possible because of the generous financial support from Lumina Foundation and invaluable guidance from people in the Office of Innovation and Discovery, Jamie Merisotis (President and CEO), Terri Taylor (Strategy Director), and Joelle Deleveaux (Strategy Officer).