Activists concerned with American democracy typically worry about present-day dysfunctions and the looming threat of authoritarianism. But this essentially negative approach often leads to fatalism and burnout. What if those active in the democracy space gave more consideration to the positive futures they seek to achieve?
That’s the premise of a thought-provoking new study, “Imagining Better Futures for American Democracy,” by Suzette Brooks Masters, a social entrepreneur and philanthropic consultant with the Better Futures Project. She interviewed 64 people from a wide variety of backgrounds — including not only democracy activists but also futurists, religious and spiritual leaders, artists, writers, and even game designers and architects — to stimulate more positive thinking about democratic futures. The act of envisioning and articulating better alternatives, in her view, will make it easier to develop strategies to achieve better outcomes and also to inspire more people to become active in such projects.
In this podcast discussion, Suzette Brooks Masters discusses hypothetical and real-world examples of how better democratic futures may be possible. Her examples range from the visionary possibilities glimpsed by science fiction writers like Octavia Butler and Kim Stanley Robinson to participatory democracy projects like Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly, care communities like England’s Frome Medical Project and the Netherlands’ Hogeweyk Dementia Village, and government efforts around the world to incorporate future-oriented perspectives into present-day policymaking.
Suzette Brooks Masters: You need to have examples of what good could look like to start even developing the ability to both imagine it and feel inspired to achieve it. If all you see around you is dystopia, it’s really, really hard to fight that.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans drawing upon history, biography, and current events. I’m delighted to be joined today by Suzette Brooks Masters. She’s a social entrepreneur and philanthropic advisor with extensive experience in law, research, and the nonprofit world. She puts this experience to good use in advising foundations, corporations, and policymakers about social cohesion, pluralism, and democracy.
She’s the author, most recently, of a thought-provoking study entitled “Imagining Better Futures for American Democracy,” which she wrote with support from Ruby Hernandez under the auspices of the Democracy Funders Network. She also leads the Better Futures Project, which is a collaboration between Suzette and the Democracy Funders Network. Welcome, Suzette!
Suzette Brooks Masters: Thanks.
Geoff Kabaservice: Can I begin by asking you to tell me something about the Democracy Funders Network and the Better Futures Project?
Suzette Brooks Masters: Sure. Well, the Democracy Funders Network is a cross-ideological learning and doing community of donors concerned about the health of American democracy, and they’re housed at a social impact firm called Third Plateau. The Better Futures Project, as you mentioned, is a new thing. It’s a partnership between myself and Democracy Funders Network to try to provoke and inspire thinking and dreaming about what democracy’s next chapter could look like.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay, terrific. As you know, Suzette, I lead the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center, which has no connection to the Open Society Foundations of George Soros but which is likewise inspired by Carl Popper’s 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies and other philosophical defenses of liberal democracy. We work with other pro-democracy reform organizations trying to defend both democratic ideals and organizations against the challenges that they face. But you recently spoke to our mutual friend Daniel Stid, who spoke for me and many others who are active in this space in observing that we spend most of our time worrying about the threats to American democracy and what is wrong or could go wrong with democracy really over the next election cycle or two. I don’t think, in the wake of the January 6th insurrection, we are wrong to worry about these threats. But as Daniel pointed out, this does lead us to pay insufficient attention to the need to take a more hopeful view of what could go right for democracy over a longer time horizon.
And this is why I found your paper on “Imagining Better Futures for American Democracy” to be so interesting and really unique. What you are doing in that paper, it seems to me, is inviting those of us who are active in the democracy space to resist negativism and despair. Instead, you’re inviting us to imagine more positive visions of democratic futures. And if I read you correctly, you’re also saying that the act of envisioning and articulating better alternatives will make it easier to develop strategies to get there and also to inspire more people to join us in making that happen. Is that about right?
Suzette Brooks Masters: That is totally on point.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay, glad I characterized that correctly! What was also different about your project was that you interviewed 64 people, I think it was, from a wide variety of backgrounds to help you think through this effort to imagine better democratic futures. Your interviewees included a few people on the center right who I’m familiar with, such as Yascha Mounk at Johns Hopkins, Yuval Levin at the American Enterprise Institute, David French at The Dispatch. They also included a few people I know of through work in the democracy space including Ted Johnson at the Brennan Center for Justice or Tim Dixon of More in Common.
But then you also interviewed a lot of people in a very colorful mix who I’d never even heard of, including activists, futurists, religious and spiritual leaders, people in the creative arts, even game designers and architects. People like this don’t often figure into the usual democracy discussions. Can you tell me how and why you decided to take this approach, how you chose your mix of interviewees, and what the interview process was like?
Suzette Brooks Masters: Yeah. I’d just like to go back for one second to talk about why I wrote the report in the first place, because I wasn’t that different from you and Daniel Stid. I was truly in despair in 2021 and really had hit rock bottom, and all I could think about was all the ways that America was broken and things were going from bad to worse. And I was really, really…
Geoff Kabaservice: Was this because of January 6th?
Suzette Brooks Masters: In part, and I think the lead-up: the Trump election, the increasingly overt efforts to subvert democratic processes, and also things like people not voting in high enough numbers to make their voices heard and so many people checked out and disengaged. It just felt really remote that we were going to be able to fix things. It was in that space that I began to look for… Perhaps it was a form of self-medication, really. Who wasn’t despairing? That was the kernel that led to the project, which is: Who are the people that aren’t giving up, that aren’t feeling despair when I am, and who are inspiring other people with a real vision of a better future? That was sort of the kernel of what led me to try to identify the people to interview.
What happened was I started this Google Doc, started collecting all these stories from all the different media that I consume, and that’s why it led to a somewhat random (or seemingly random) array of examples and people. What I found was that the people that are imagining better futures come from all sorts of fields. As you pointed out, there were some futurists, some designers, some artists, some game designers, movie makers, script writers, fiction writers… And then there were activists and businesses and political theorists and religious leaders.
What really led me to think of the array of people to interview was informed by the examples that I was seeing and collecting. It’s a somewhat idiosyncratic list, but somewhat by design, because I didn’t want to cluster this only among people who were sort of professional democracy people. I really wanted to get inspiration from the people that were able to imagine what things could be and how they could look in a theoretical or a hypothetical better future. Then there were also examples of people who were building things that frankly looked a lot better and that existed in the here and now, usually at the local level or pilot programs or small experiments.
So that’s really how I came up with the list. I would say, going into the project, I maybe identified a few dozen people that I wanted to interview. Obviously not everyone agreed to be interviewed. Then in the process of beginning the interviews, we deliberately left some room to identify new people that came up in the interviews themselves about others who might be imagining better futures whom we’d never heard of. Some of the list was designed going in and the rest of the list was assembled as we did the interviews themselves.
Geoff Kabaservice: I like the idea of keeping an open Google file on inspiring examples to keep at the forefront of your mind. I should do that myself, really.
Suzette Brooks Masters: Well, a funny point about that… As you know, the last section of the report is essentially a version of that Google Doc, just laid out more beautifully. But since I stopped writing the report, I’ve continued to keep a Google Doc, and just in the last two months I’ve already assembled another fifteen pages of examples. I think once you start looking for the work, you see it everywhere. It’s just that most of us aren’t attuned to looking for it and therefore it’s not registering. I think that’s an interesting aspect of being in the negative surround-sound environment that we live in, in the United States right now, is that the good gets submerged in all the negativity and conflict and dystopia that’s all around us.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s true. I hope I get to see those additional entries to the Google document at some point. You did mention that your list of interviewees skewed somewhat more progressive than you had hoped.
Suzette Brooks Masters: Yes. I had gone into this, especially because of the partnership with Democracy Funders Network, really wanting this not to be just a progressive document. I myself am a progressive and have been in progressive policy and advocacy work for two decades, but I really wanted this to be a project about how we build a better future for America together — and together means that it can’t just be one side. That was a very deliberate choice.
But I was somewhat limited in who I knew, and even though we asked for a lot of recommendations, frankly there just weren’t as many people to interview. I wanted to be clear about that: that I thought there was somewhat of a bias, that I was conscious of it and really trying to work with that as much as possible and supplement through some additional research. But it was not intentional for there to be a bias, but unfortunately that’s how things ended up stacking up in the end.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, congratulations on the report. I may well offer some gentle critique or correction from the center right as we get into the discussion. But I also want to keep in mind one thing here, really just for my own purposes… I need to be careful to distinguish between the views of the people you interviewed and cited and your own arguments and conclusions. And you don’t necessarily agree with or endorse the views of all the people you cite. For example, at one point you cite the philosopher William McCaskill, who’s probably the best-known exponent of longtermism and Effective Altruism. But the report as a whole does not endorse those beliefs — am I right about that?
Suzette Brooks Masters: You are right about that. The quote that I have of his is really more about contextualizing the moment that we’re in right now as opposed to any kind of philosophy about what democracy should look like or how we should invest dollars in the future. It was really more in the context-setting mode that I referred to his work.
Geoff Kabaservice: Though I think it was your term that you used to describe this present moment that we are in as an “intertidal” moment of flux and change. Can you explain something about that?
Suzette Brooks Masters: Yeah, that was actually not my term, that was Ari Wallach’s term. He’s a futurist who wrote a book called Longpath and has a very famous TED talk where he lays out the importance of really thinking like a responsible ancestor rather than a descendant. The intertidal is a moment of great societal flux. When you have a number of paradigms that are probably shifting, you’re in the middle of it so you’re not quite sure how things are panning out and there’s a lot of crisis and turmoil and disruption. He and others that I read about really characterize the moment that we’re living in as one of those epochal shifts, and that although we might many of us be clinging on to the relics of the old, we’re actually already transitioning to something new.
So the question is whether you’re going to be looking for the signals of the new or whether you’re going to be holding on for dear life to the vestiges of the old. I think that’s the situation and the choice that many of us face. One of the big results of the research is to make me really appeal to as many people as are willing to listen that pretending that things are normal and business as usual is, I think, gross negligence right now because it is just not the case.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think that’s a useful warning. Before we get into the specific details of your paper, can you tell me something about yourself? Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? What kind of work did you do before you came to this particular field?
Suzette Brooks Masters: I’m a native New York City girl and I am the product of an immigrant mother and an American father. I went to French school for twelve years, then I went to Amherst College, then I won a Marshall Scholarship and studied at Cambridge University, and then I went to Harvard Law School. And then I spent thirteen years unhappily practicing different kinds of law, hoping that I would find the magic practice area that would make me happy — but that did not happen. So I did everything from corporate law, mergers and acquisitions, environmental law, land-use law, a little bit of intellectual property… And frankly, after thirteen years, I just threw in the towel.
And that’s when I tried to figure out what might be interesting to me. So I ended up getting very interested in immigration policy and spent a good twenty years working in the immigration policy and immigrants’ rights world. The last nine years of those were as a funder at a private foundation in New York City. That led me to the consulting for philanthropy and eventually ending up in the democracy field over the last five years.
Geoff Kabaservice: You told our mutual friend Daniel that over time you saw even the pro-immigrant side become much more ideological and much less pragmatic. What did you mean by that?
Suzette Brooks Masters: When I first entered the immigration space in around 2000, there was huge consensus across the parties that immigration was good for the country. It was seen as in the national interest, and there was a lot of good work that you could do with some shared assumptions about what immigrants could do for America.
Over the course of the ensuing twenty years, I would say there was growing extremism and ideological purity on both sides of the issue. And so the center fell out, and what you were left with was a pretty strident left that didn’t seem to care particularly about the rule of law and an extreme focus on undocumented immigration rather than on legal routes for immigration. And then on the right, transforming immigrants into a cultural wedge issue and really trying to elevate white identity in contrast to “the hordes” that were coming across the border and that were leading to “the Great Replacement.”
So over a relatively short two decades, I saw the issue that I cared so much about and believed in so deeply really become toxic — and it became one of the key ways, actually, in America that Trump was able to galvanize a sense of grievance among a lot of disaffected voters and get elected. So that led to a huge inward look and eventual decision to leave the field for something that I thought could be more productive — and to go upstream, really, at where I thought the biggest issues lay, which is whether we can revitalize and strengthen our democracy or whether we’re going to cede to authoritarianism or illiberal democracy in the coming years. I view that as the key existential fight. And, frankly, immigration and whether we make progress on that issue is downstream from that.
Geoff Kabaservice: You told Daniel, “I realized that immigration was one piece of a much bigger puzzle around status and identity and democracy. And I realized also that if our democracy fell — and it was clearly under threat — then all the things I cared about on immigration would also fall.”
Suzette Brooks Masters:Yep. I do believe that.
Geoff Kabaservice: And so when did you start to keep your Google Doc on the more inspiring things that you saw coming up in the democracy space?
Suzette Brooks Masters: I would say summer of 2021, and I built it for a good six months. I turned it into a concept paper, started shopping that around. And Mike Berkowitz at the Democracy Funders Network, whom I talk to often about all of these democracy issues, read it and he said, “Nobody’s really asking this critical question in the way that you are about: What are the perils of dystopia? How can we imagine something better for our democracy?” And so he decided to partner with me on this project.
Geoff Kabaservice: So what are the perils of dystopianism and crisis-framing for people who are working in the democracy space?
Suzette Brooks Masters: Well, first and foremost, I think despair feeds fatalism, and I think it also feeds nihilism. And I think we’re seeing both of those right now. I think it also leads to disengagement and apathy. All of these are extremely dangerous when you’re trying to rescue a system that needs some updating and reimagining.
There’s an image that always comes to me when I’m thinking about working on democracy issues right now, which is that you’re in a trench and you’re just hurling various bits of artillery at the other side. The other side is in another trench, and you rarely peek outside of the trench and look around. I think what’s happened is that the conflict has consumed everyone working on this issue. So rather than thinking about what could be, we’re worried about playing defense, we’re reacting to the salvos from the other side. And I think that makes perfect sense when you feel under threat.
But the problem is when the conflict itself becomes your entire view of the issue, and you can’t see the bigger picture anymore and you can’t look around the corner, you’re just in reaction mode. And in several places in the report I talk about the importance of shifting from reaction to imagination. There have to be people that are doing the reacting, that are playing defense. But if everyone’s playing defense at the same time, then it really narrows your aperture. And you’re basically, as I was saying earlier, clinging onto the wreckage of the old rather than ushering in the new. And I think that was the key insight that I got in doing the research for this project.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think I incline more toward pessimism. But at the same time I realize that pessimism can be a self-fulfilling projection, so to speak.
Suzette Brooks Masters: Absolutely. And I think I’m like you. I mean, I am by nature very much of a glass-half-empty person, and I had no trouble imagining all sorts of worst-case scenarios. But what I had a really hard time doing was imagining how you get to a better place. My mind would just not go there. And I realized that that part of my mind had atrophied, and I no longer was able to even imagine what could be. And I didn’t have any good examples to inspire me. That’s when it dawned on me that you need to have examples of what good could look like to start even developing the ability to both imagine it and feel inspired to achieve it. And if all you see around you is dystopia, it’s really, really hard to fight that.
Geoff Kabaservice: So in the summer of last year, you start keeping this Google Doc, and you’re finding examples of people who are looking to the future and democracy’s future with positivism and optimism. Besides those qualities, what else did they seem to share in common?
Suzette Brooks Masters: Well, I think first of all, I just want to say one thing… This project was about reimagining American democracy, but a lot of the people that were doing the imagining were not specifically thinking about democracy. And so there was a bit of a disconnect. A lot of the inspiring work was about ways in which humans could interact with each other better, interact with the planet better, do pro-social things that were going to help future generations. There were not that many examples of better democracy in action. So I just want to mention that, because it’s not like my appendix of great examples is chock-full of better democracy in action. There are some examples, but a lot of the examples that I speak about are really about different forms of human interaction, mutuality, different regenerative agriculture examples, different ways of doing group decision-making. So I just want to bring it down one level. These were not necessarily well-developed depictions of what life would be like if we solved all our democracy’s problems.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s almost a question of approaches, in some cases, as much as end goals.
Suzette Brooks Masters: Exactly, exactly. So what I would say characterized most of these visionaries is, first of all, the ability to imagine something that doesn’t already exist, or to take something that does exist and push it — push the boundaries and imagine what else could come next. So there was an emphasis on looking ahead rather than looking back. And I know that sounds really trite, but most people look back, they don’t look forward. They don’t know how to imagine something that hasn’t already existed. And so that was sort of a fundamental characteristic that a lot of these people shared.
I also think there was a lot of participatory and collaborative work, a lot of energy around people imagining and doing things together. So this wasn’t necessarily solitary. There was sometimes magic that was created when people got together to try to solve a problem and were really expansive in their thinking about how they might solve that problem.
And I think we’re seeing some of that energy in some of these new ideas about deliberative democracy and different forms of decision-making that aren’t reduced only to voting every couple of years; new forms of participatory governance. I think those were the main things: looking around the corner, not being hemmed in by assumptions that the future was going to look like the past. Just much more willingness to be expansive and open in your thinking.
Geoff Kabaservice: I should say that your report does not engage in excessive optimism or minimization of the problems that we face in the present environment. You have a lot to say about the present atmosphere of tribalism, cancel culture on both the left and the right, nihilism, pessimism, spreading conspiracy theories, public cynicism, eroding social cohesion… But nonetheless, all of your interviewees also acknowledged these realities but felt that they could be overcome.
Suzette Brooks Masters: To a point. I mean, here’s one of the most interesting findings in the report… As you pointed out, I interviewed 64 very, very different kinds of people — different on pretty much every axis. And to a person, they all said that having positive visions of the future was incredibly important, both to motivate them — to avoid despair, to have a North Star, to guide their work — and to build a better society for their families, for future generations. So there was this unanimous and emphatic belief that these positive visions matter.
But then when reality hits and you acknowledge the environment that you just described, a lot of people felt like they were swimming upstream, that it was just incredibly difficult to stay focused on the positive when there were all these other factors that were making it really, really challenging to believe that you could build a shared future together in a country that is so divided and where affective polarization has made that just much, much more challenging.
It’s not just ideas, it’s now people: “People are bad if they disagree with you.” And so how do you build a shared vision of a better future with people whom you’ve demonized, and who demonize you? That’s a pretty tough wall to scale.
Geoff Kabaservice: There was an interesting comment from Jessica Clark of Dot Connector in the report, and she was asking, “Why aren’t there more stories about good government that works, diverse groups of people solving problems together?” I notice that even in the Marvel superhero films, as she’s pointing out, it’s often a lone individual fighting a big, faceless, corrupt system.
Suzette Brooks Masters: I completely agree with that. That was one of my obsessions during the interviews, because a lot of people talk about entertainment, media, games as really shaping people’s views. I think they’re incredibly important as a way to transmit norms and shape attitudes about fellow Americans. And the fact that so many people that I interviewed couldn’t connect government and governance to achievement of their personal positive visions made me wonder: Why is that? Why is government absent from this equation? I mean, it’s going to be really hard for individuals to solve all these problems by themselves without government as a partner. And so I was just very curious why government was so absent from people’s responses.
I didn’t get any definitive answers, but one hypothesis is the one you just discussed, which I had a long conversation with Jessica about, which is that the way the media portrays government is extremely negative. It’s usually corrupt, inept, faceless, incompetent at best — if it’s portrayed at all. And then, like you said, there’s usually some rogue lone wolf, lone individual, who breaks all the laws and all the rules and takes down the government. And that is a very popular narrative. I just wonder why Hollywood has decided not to elevate the good that government can do. It could be local government… Maybe Parks and Recreation or The West Wing are two notable examples where government was portrayed relatively well. But it’s a gap, and I think it’s reinforcing this notion that government is not up to the task of solving our problems.
Geoff Kabaservice: The notion that government is corrupt or at best incompetent is also a kind of self-fulfilling promise. And it’s something that actually we buck up against here at Niskanen in our State Capacity Project, which is looking into this question of why government doesn’t seem to achieve what it did in the past. But it’s also a subject that someone like Ezra Klein is looking at from a perspective of supply-side progressivism. And I can’t remember if it was Ezra or somebody else, but I’ve heard this observation that even in those superhero movies the only people who are building are the villains. They’re the ones who have organizations and big plans. And at best, the lone superhero (or the lone hero of some kind) is bringing down their corrupt and evil schemes, but that hero is typically not putting any other institutions in place.
Suzette Brooks Masters: Yeah, that’s very true.
Geoff Kabaservice: Like Daniel Stid, I was intrigued with your description of the capacity to imagine the future as “humanity’s superpower” — since we’re speaking about Marvel comics. Can you tell me something more about this superpower that we possess?
Suzette Brooks Masters: Part of what I did in the report, in addition to these interviews with the 64 people, was try to do some research both to understand the moment that we’re in and also what the role of positive thinking, utopian thinking, might play in really leading to human progress. And so I came across a literature that I was very unfamiliar with — from cognitive science, psychology, anthropology, some philosophy — that was really focusing… And again, I didn’t go super deep on this, but deep enough to understand that there was a unique cognitive ability that humans have to imagine things that didn’t exist and then to rally people around them to achieve those things. That is not something that happens in the animal world. And one of the people that I read is named Philip Ball, and he wrote an article called “Homo Imaginatus.” I thought that was really interesting; it’s sort of the next step beyond “Homo Prospectus.”
So yes, humans can plan, they can think about the future, but what’s really unique is imagining things that don’t exist and then making them so. I thought that was just such a wonderful idea. Someone else that I got to know during this project named Ed Finn, who runs the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University — he calls imagination “the ignition system for humanity in the 21st century.” Because there’s so much rapid change, so much new technology that’s really transforming the world around us, our ability to imagine what could come next and how to respond to all that change is going to be absolutely essential.
Geoff Kabaservice: Tell me more about that ASU Center.
Suzette Brooks Masters: It’s one of my new favorite places on the planet. If I lived in Arizona, I would definitely want to be associated with the Center for Science and the Imagination. And ASU in particular has really leaned into the future and innovation. Ten years ago, Ed Finn, who’s a professor at ASU, started the Center for Science and the Imagination to try to link up technology, innovation, and speculative fiction. They are a really interdisciplinary center that might have a webinar on science fiction writers and world-building one week, and then something on climate change and technology another week. So they’re really trying to weave together the people that are imagining better futures and seeing the connection between the worlds that science fiction writers imagine and things that come to be in the real world in the future. I just think they’re extremely expansive and creative thinkers. There are very few groups like that that I’ve encountered, honestly, in doing this project. They really rose to the top as one of the most inspiring projects that I’ve seen.
Geoff Kabaservice: Although you did mention that they’re not totally unique. There are organizations such as the Civic Imagination Project at the University of Southern California, the School of International Futures, and a number of European efforts to re-envision the future as well.
Suzette Brooks Masters: Yeah. I would say in the U.S., the Center for Science and the Imagination is very robust. I will completely agree with you, though, that the U.S. didn’t look so good relative to the rest of the world in terms of developing this more futures-oriented thinking. I would say Europe really shone by comparison — the School of International Futures in particular. What’s interesting about them is they are connecting the policy realm and the governance realm and the futures-thinking realm. There are very few organizations that have fully integrated all of those capacities.
I just learned of a new one, actually, last week called Demos Helsinki, which wrote a really fascinating paper on the future of democracy and the welfare state in Europe, which I highly recommend. But there are just not that many groups. One of the things that my study points out is that the futures and futures literacy and foresight world is quite disconnected from the democracy world. There are just a handful of relatively small boutique organizations that have mastered foresight and futures thinking and applied it to governance and democracy issues. I think that’s an extremely exciting area, and I hope that that continues to grow in the U.S. and that we can build that capacity. It’s really, really early days.
Geoff Kabaservice: Your mention of imagination in politics makes me think of a George Bernard Shaw quote that I’m probably going to mess up, but it’s something to the effect that “Most people look at things as they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not.” That quote was famously repurposed by Robert F. Kennedy, and it’s that kind of imaginative, forward-looking politician who seems to be relatively in short supply these days.
Suzette Brooks Masters: One of the things that I’ve observed which I’m really surprised by is… Getting back to the moment that we’re in, we’re in a moment of extremely rapid transformation and change that’s very, very unsettling. Most people crave order and predictability. There’s a lot of nostalgia right now for times in the past when people understood things better. People are really struggling with the pace of change in so many different arenas happening simultaneously. And yet so many of our leaders do not speak to the change.
I feel like we’re in a change management challenge right now, and our leaders are not reassuring people, both explaining to the public that “Yes, there is a tremendous amount of change and that can be very unmooring and stressful, but we’ve got your back. We’re leading you to a better place. We will work through this change together and things will get better on the other side.” I’m surprised that more leaders are not leaning into change and really trying to tap into that fear of change that I’m sure a big percentage of the public is feeling right now.
Geoff Kabaservice: But it does seem that there is a real disconnect between the people imagining a future for democracy and also people working on actual governance. You said that you actually found it surprising how few of the people you talked to were really thinking about governance as a way of achieving some of their future visions.
Suzette Brooks Masters: Yes, we talked about it briefly before. It was a very surprising finding. And part of it is linked to the fact that people don’t have an elevated sense of the power of government and how it can improve their lives. And then I think there’s just, again, this general disengagement and the feeling that people don’t know how to work through institutions and as private citizens to really improve their communities.
I’m wondering how much of it has to do with the erosion of forms of civic engagement that are really meaningful at the community level. It’s a lot of what Robert Putnam discusses in The Upswing. A lot of the civic infrastructure that used to connect people to one another has disappeared. So what’s left? You have every couple of years voter registration and voter mobilization push, but in between how are people being engaged to make their community stronger and more resilient and more cohesive? It’s not clear to me that much of that activity is going on.
Geoff Kabaservice: So this is pretty easy for me to do as someone on the center right, but it did seem to me that this past session of Congress really did show a weakness on the left in terms of their ability to think of big ideas and then make a persuasive case for them and get them past Congress. Of course I’m particularly thinking of the failure of HR1, which was the big voting and democracy reform bill, and then Build Back Better, which in some ways encompassed the Green New Deal ideas that we’ve heard a lot about as well.
And it just seemed to me — I could go on and on about this — but there really was a failure to understand what could pass given the numbers that Congress had, a belief that money and outrage applied to the problem would do what persuasion could not do, and a belief also that people could be bamboozled into this or forced into it through all kinds of social pressure on them, such as following them into the bathrooms and filming them or saying that, “Well, if we don’t pass voting rights, we’re not going to pass some other bill that you really desperately want to pass.” It just seemed to me that the Democrats maybe have lost (or had lost) some of the thinking that previous generations referred to in that Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett book had known about how to actually make a persuasive case, build support with the public, and get legislation passed through Congress.
Suzette Brooks Masters: Legislation didn’t really come up at all in my interviews. But one observation I’ll make is that with all the polarization and the partisanship, I think it’s just become extremely difficult to move on anything right now. I think it’s really hard to figure out how to motivate politicians and what are the levers that are going to be effective (and when you have overreach) when you have a vision worth shooting for. I’m not an expert, so I probably don’t have that much more to say on it, but I’m just not sure. That might be more a symptom of what’s broken about our ability to govern well rather than a specific problem with the left.
Geoff Kabaservice: You did mention though that quite a number of your interviewees, from whatever side of the spectrum they came from, really just did struggle to connect democracy and governance systems to the achievement of their positive visions for the future. Some of them also differed in their level of confidence in the whole American democratic experiment.
Suzette Brooks Masters: Well, that’s an interesting point, and something I’d like to talk about a little bit. We spoke at the top of the interview about the abundance of critique right now about our system. There’s no question that both from the right and the left our current system is under scrutiny, under a microscope, and is found wanting. What is less clear is how to fix it. There are a ton of structural recommendations that various people are coming up with to shore up institutions, to protect voting, to increase access, to try to reduce polarization through primary reform, different nonpartisan redistricting committees, et cetera, et cetera. The big problem is that even those structural reforms don’t really connect with the public. It’s not clear what impact they have on people’s lived experience, how it’s going to improve their lives. It’s very theoretical, very technocratic, and very much an elite conversation.
So I think one of the biggest challenges we all face in upgrading and re-imagining our system is how to connect whatever reforms are on offer to a better future for the people on the other end of those reforms. I think leaving them in a state of being primarily conceptual reforms, as opposed to “Here’s what will happen as a result of those reforms and how your life will be better,” is something that the people that are engaged in structural reform really need to think about — because there is a huge disconnect. I think people are going to be extremely apathetic about these reforms unless they’re connected to things that are going to feel like improvements in their lives.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree. But tell me more about some illustrative examples of what the better futures described by your interviewees might look like, whether in the here and now or in some imagined depictions.
Suzette Brooks Masters: Well, here’s the problem. There’s very little fiction and science fiction that is actually depicting better futures. Most speculative fiction is pretty negative. There are two exceptions, though, that I’d like to point out, and these exceptions have gotten a huge amount of attention recently precisely because they’re less dystopic. One is a science fiction novel by Kim Stanley Robinson called Ministry for the Future and the other is the fiction of Octavia Butler, who is an Afrofuturist who’s gotten a lot of attention recently.
What was interesting about both of them is they were not depicting utopias, but they were depicting ways that individuals could come together — working, in Kim Stanley Robinson’s case, with new forms of governance to make some serious progress in tackling the climate change problem. When I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s book, I was absolutely enamored of this Ministry for the Future and the concept of it. And what surprise did I feel when I was doing the research for this project and found that he was inspired by actual forms of governance that exist in Europe today, and things that I write about in the report. I thought that was science fiction, but in fact he was taking an idea that had already taken root and spinning out further possibilities.
Geoff Kabaservice: I should add that The Ministry of the Future begins with a vignette of thousands of people in effect being boiled to death in a heat wave, so it’s not all utopian.
Suzette Brooks Masters: No, absolutely not. I would say that the genre that they are primarily in is something called solarpunk or hopepunk, which is not ignoring the very real challenges we face but showing a path forward with human agency at the center and just imagining how one could navigate these extreme challenges and move forward. I think that’s a really interesting genre. I hope there’s going to be a lot more of that type of work written that both is real about the challenges that we face but gives some hope to individuals that things can change and get better. So that’s on the fiction front.
In the real-life front, I have a range of examples of anything from examples of greater mutuality and care, to forward-looking stewardship, to intergenerational housing and care settings that provide dignity for people, new forms of collective problem-solving, restaurants that cater to people with disabilities, Facebook networks that enable you to give away things that you don’t want to people in your community and your neighbors… They were mostly small, local efforts to really build in a different way of interacting with neighbors and your fellow residents. It’s not magic. It’s just building in a different set of norms and expectations of how people should treat each other and what is the role of government (when there is a role for government) to facilitate these pro-social norms and behaviors.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think you actually mentioned in your report the example of Gallaudet University here in Washington, D.C., which is probably the nation’s leading university for the deaf. I live pretty close to Gallaudet, and it’s very usual for students to be serving you as waiters in restaurants or to be present there themselves, and people make accommodations. Someone will give you your order on a laptop, or there will be an illuminated sign when an order is ready rather than just calling it out over a loudspeaker system. I think that’s a good example of how things can just be done at the local level without even people really thinking too much about it. But there’s also bigger examples of things like the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland, for example, which are examples of large-scale national governance which happen with more participation. Can you tell us something about some of the other examples you came across like that?
Suzette Brooks Masters: In the governance setting, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of the biggest innovations are happening in Europe and some in Latin America and some in Asia, but very little in the U.S. But ways of engaging citizens to either have influence over how money is spent — for example, Paris has a citizens’ assembly that gets to pick a theme for how 100 million euros is spent, and as you pointed out, Ireland. So there are some experiments around engaging ordinary citizens in a systematic way to opine on matters of policy, not through representative democracy but through a different form of democracy, deliberative democracy. That seems to be a very exciting area, and I’m curious to see how much of that is going to be taking hold in the U.S. There are glimmers of it, but it’s still very early days.
There’s also an interesting effort in the UK, where there’s been a lot of this type of reform of having… There’s a ministry for the future in Wales. There’s legislation that’s been passed to try to build in care for future generations, unborn generations, in policymaking so that legislators aren’t spending all resources focused on the present but being good caretakers for the future. There’s also a group in the UK called the All-Party Parliamentary Group, which is a crosspartisan group of folks in the UK Parliament that are trying to build in more of a future orientation and build some of these foresight techniques into policymaking to, again, ensure better policymaking for the future. So there are wonderful examples.
And if I have time, there’s one from Japan that I’d just like to highlight. Japan obviously is having a demographic problem and aging very rapidly, and one of the things they’ve been thinking about is how to make policy for future generations. And so they did an experiment in a small town and they gave different members of the community different generational roles to inhabit. And then they did some discussions and had to role-play based on whether they were from a current generation or a generation three generations into the future — let’s say 75 or a hundred years out.
And what they found was when they were discussing policy challenges, the people that were given generational roles in the future ended up having a very different take on how to respond in the present. And this had a lasting impact on their thinking even after the experiment was over. They were much more willing to be bold, to sacrifice in the present for the future, and to really question assumptions about what was possible and what wasn’t possible. I think using those kinds of thought experiments with people and doing more role-playing could be really interesting to try to get people’s juices flowing about imagining what things could look like and how to be bolder in policymaking.
Geoff Kabaservice: I do like that example. I also like another example you cited of the Frome Medical Practice in England, which is a way of creating community connections across generations to address loneliness and social isolation.
Suzette Brooks Masters: And there was a really interesting example from, I don’t know how to pronounce it, but it was from the Netherlands. It’s a network of dementia care.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hogeweyk or something like that.
Suzette Brooks Masters: Yes, yes. I didn’t want to mangle it! But this notion of restoring dignity to dementia patients and to creating a care center that mimicked village life so that they could retain as much of the trappings of their old lives — basically giving a new, more human, and dignified face to institutionalization for dementia care patients. And I thought that that was really a beautiful example as well.
Geoff Kabaservice: This is a big question, but I read a lot of speculative fiction when I was a young person, both science fiction and fantasy. And there’s always been some element of dystopianism that runs through it, which often relates to our fear of technology: 1984 is really about our fear of government powers of surveillance, Brave New World is about fears of materialism and drugs and so forth. But there also was a real powerful sense that the future was going to be good, that technology would help us live better lives. And I suppose at an extreme level you can trace this back to the 1888 Edward Bellamy novel Looking Backward, which is about how technology and (in effect) socialist government were going to bring about a wonderful new lifestyle for all.
But you could also look at a lot of the classic science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov, like Arthur C. Clarke, and they’re sort of promising that humanity will be improved by technology. Robert Heinlein’s another sort of classic techno-optimist. But it does seem that for the last two to three decades, most science fiction has been very dark and dystopian. And some of that is because negativism sells — it sells in the media, it sells in science fiction. But some of it seems to be because we really do fear technology now in a way that maybe we didn’t a generation or two ago. Does that make any sense to you?
Suzette Brooks Masters: Absolutely, and I think you’re right. I think we’re really struggling to find examples of futures writing that is positive right now, and that really depicts a future world that’s functional, that’s caring, that solves a lot of our big problems. So yes, I completely agree with you, and I think some of the most effective writing right now is what I referred to earlier, which is either by Kim Stanley Robinson or Octavia Butler. But the writing that straddles that line between “Things are tricky right now, it’s not all Pollyanna, but there’s a path forward.” And I hope that we can see more of that kind of literature.
I think another interesting genre is what I would call alternative histories, like The Man in the High Castle, or there’s a new TV show called For All Mankind — I don’t know if you’ve seen that one. And I just heard about a new alternative history comic book that someone at Harvard Law School is working on called 1/6, for January 6th, and speculating what would’ve happened had the January 6th insurrection succeeded: What would that look like for American democracy? So yes, we need to somehow instigate the creation of much more positive pro-social content in media, in games, in fiction. And I think that’s going to be tough to do because, as you said, conflict sells, negativity sells, dystopia sells. We’ll see.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, I also think that it is that we are in a genuine moment of disruption and have been for a while. And though I think there’s very few people (particularly young people) out there who want to give up their social media, I think there’s also no doubt that the widespread introduction of Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram have led to a lot of mental difficulties for younger people, particularly at university levels.
And I also want to mention that my Niskanen Center colleague, Sam Hammond, has a Substack called Second Best, and a lot of people picked up on his dark foretelling of some of the things that are on the way as AI comes to maturity. He writes, “Within a decade, ordinary people will have more capabilities than a CIA agent does today. You’ll be able to listen in on another conversation in an apartment across the street using the sound vibrations off a chip bag. You’ll be able to replace your face and voice with those of someone else in real time, allowing anyone to socially engineer their way into anything.” But I think where your optimistic case comes into these dystopic possibilities is that we have to master these technological changes or they will master us.
Suzette Brooks Masters: Yes, and we have to imagine how we can rein in the dangers and unleash the good. And I think one of the — getting back to the analogy of being in the trench, I think we need more people looking around the corner, looking ahead, acknowledging the fact that we are in a period of transition where there’s no going back. That’s just not going to happen. So how do we make the most of what’s coming? That’s an interesting shift that needs to take place.
And in the democracy field, I think there’s a real bifurcation between the people playing defense and the relatively few people playing offense. And maybe that balance isn’t quite right and we need to equilibrate a little bit. Some people need to be our defensive vanguard, but then others have to be building what’s coming next. I’m not sure philanthropy has actually seeded enough of the proactive imagination work, because it’s harder to measure, harder to know if you get it right. It feels very speculative, and it’s much easier to measure whether you won your lawsuit and whether people were able to vote or not. But I do think philanthropy has to signal that they care a lot about building a better future and start incentivizing people to think that way and feel like they can be compensated for doing that work.
Geoff Kabaservice: I talk to a lot of people on the right who really do fear technology. And something they talk a lot about is something that seemed to appear at the margins of some of the quotes from people you talk to in your report but wasn’t so much front and center, and that is transhumanism. This is a cause that Elon Musk has put a lot of energy into. But I also was interested that you had mentioned Ari Wallach of Longpath, and he’d talked about people occupying multiple identities in the future. And he’s saying, “We’re in the moment where the predominant identity is racial. But I would argue that in several years it could be gender, culture, religion, generation, or even one’s level of genomic enhancement.” So this is something that’s clearly out there, even if not perhaps being so much talked about by some of the people who are thinking about the future that you interviewed.
Suzette Brooks Masters: Well, I interviewed a few people who are futurists, and I have to say those were in some ways the most exciting conversations because it made me realize how narrow my aperture was just working in the policy realm. Your idea of a better future is that piece of legislation that you’ve been wanting to have passed for 25 years passing, or a bad set of regulations being undone. The narrowness of what I thought was success was really shocking to me when I started having conversations and being in focus groups with people who were foresight practitioners and used to thinking in terms of scenarios 50 years out.
And it frankly made me realize how much of my thinking is lazy, right? I’m just assuming that the future will look like the past. And I think having gone through this experience over the past nine months of really challenging myself and talking to people who are much, much more expansive thinkers than I am just made me realize how this practice of questioning assumptions, of building out future scenarios, of thinking about what your preferred future looks like and then bringing that back to the present and aligning your strategies with how to achieve those better futures — those are essential skills that we need to navigate this time of disruption that you described.
Because the way we normally think is simply not going to cut it right now. We will be left behind, and the people that are more expansive and more imaginative — be they on our side or advocating for much darker futures — will prevail if we’re just hanging onto the relics of the past.
So I just want to emphasize that, because that was by far the biggest takeaway I took from this entire project: how limited most of us are in our thinking and how narrow our aperture is. And whether we’re in think tanks or in foundations or in nonprofit organizations, it behooves all of us, I think, to really adapt some of the techniques and tools from futures thinking and apply them to our own institutions and our work.
Geoff Kabaservice: I sometimes think that it’s a good thing that a lot of the people on the Trumpist right don’t know much or care much about technology. Because if they did, then instead of trying to build a wall at our southern border — which failed much as the Chinese empire’s attempt to build a wall failed several millennia ago — they might have tried to adapt the DARPA project that took place during the Vietnam era as a way of trying to create an electronic fence across the border between North and South Vietnam as a way of intercepting and keeping people out.
Suzette Brooks Masters: Although it makes you wonder, Geoff, what they were actually after. Because I would argue that they may have not built an actual wall, but they won the narrative battle.
Geoff Kabaservice: I would agree with that. But I also think that your report is, in a way, a challenge to people on the right. If you’re worried about the modern world, if you think things are getting worse, are there ways that you can use technology to reinvigorate some older forms of human connection that you do like? Is there a way that a coming era of abundance could actually revive some of the left-behind cities and towns and rural areas where much of the Republicans’ constituents are coming from nowadays? Is there a way that terraforming could bring new life back into these areas? Is there a way that religion could be revived, in a way, to bring some of the family connections that also are really deteriorating during this time? So I think there actually needs to be an engagement between a lot of the thinkers whom you cited and a lot of people on the right who claim to want a better future for their constituents who really are suffering right now.
Suzette Brooks Masters: We do need to imagine what better looks like and figure out how to align around that, because it’s not going to happen by accident. There was a wonderful quote by a guy named Mark Gonzalez who’s at consulting firm called Department of the Future. And he basically said that if all you do is critique, you end up being — I’m going to mangle this — but you end up never being the lead but always a secondary character in the story. You need to have that sense of what you’re trying to bring about in order to bring it about. You can’t just be critiquing all the time. And I think being the main character rather than the secondary one —
Geoff Kabaservice: The NPC…
Suzette Brooks Masters: — is really important. And I think people have so lost their sense of agency and optimism that they can be characters in their own future stories — that apathy and disengagement is serious. And so what’s interesting about these citizen assemblies and these different sortition experiments or that they are ways to engage people not during voting. It’s not about voting for a representative, it’s about change that you can bring about yourself on behalf of your fellow citizens. That’s a really refreshing way to think about how to reinvigorate our belief in institutions, and who’s controlling them, and whose input is being sought. And I just hope there’ll be a lot more of that kind of experimentation in the U.S.
Geoff Kabaservice: So do I. And I have to feel that, in the present environment, writing a report advocating for agency and our ability to achieve positive things in the future is a really courageous act. So thank you, Suzette, for talking to me and best of luck to you.
Suzette Brooks Masters: My pleasure. Thank you.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegnieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.