NPT Blog: The Need for a National Purpose

The economic and political problems our nation confronts today are as deep-seated and complex as any we’ve faced in the past 100 years.

Yet this country has the capacity to revive its dreams and reinvent them for this century. We can renew America’s promise – if we can unlock and harness the collective energy, ingenuity, and idealism of our people.

That’s a tall order at this time of division and mistrust, when economic inequalities and political irresponsibility are straining the fabric of our society. Meanwhile, the needs and concerns of the broader public often go disregarded, fueling historically low levels of confidence in government – a loss of faith in the democratic system itself.

There’s no lack of public concern about the overall state of our union. Nor is there a shortage of good ideas for addressing our political and economic problems. But the piecemeal enactment of specific reforms won’t suffice to reinvigorate our democracy or put our economy on a more just and sustainable course. And big, systemic reforms are unlikely to gain traction in the current political climate.

At critical points throughout our history, the American people have confronted serious challenges, surmounted great obstacles, and achieved important goals. The prospects for positive change today would be enhanced significantly if the sense of shared purpose and collective responsibility that helped America meet daunting challenges in the past could be renewed and transformed to meet the demands of the 21st century.

What’s needed is a sustained, organized, and inclusive national conversation about the kind of country America wants to be; the goals we must reach if we are to fulfill that vision; and the shared values that could enable us to work together toward those goals. The outcomes of that conversation have to be communicated in a way that amplifies citizens’ voices and reframes the public debate about our future – and that helps to hold elected officials accountable to the broadly shared goals of the American people.

Together, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and a number of other foundations are taking the first steps toward launching such a project, which we’re calling – for now – the National Purpose Initiative (NPI).

This ambitious, multiyear effort will combine citizens’ dialogues and other forms of public consultation – engaging hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans, online and face-to-face – with a parallel but integrated effort to engage a wide range of issue experts, policy analysts, scholars, advocates, and leaders from the nonprofit sector as well as from business, the media, and the cultural and faith communities.

The NPI will distill and disseminate insights from both the citizens’ and the experts’ dialogues. We hope that by sometime in 2016, the Initiative will be able to offer a broadly shared agenda of national priorities, a statement of shared principles to guide our nation’s politics and economic life, and an emerging vision for America’s future that is animating, unifying, and empowering.

With a more apparent consensus on the vision, priorities, and principles that should guide America’s political and economic systems, the system flaws will become more widely apparent. The fixes that farsighted advocates advance will become more politically viable; and ideologues will find it more difficult to derail progress.

Our history demonstrates that Americans can take on tough challenges and surmount them. If we unite around our common purposes; marshal the ingenuity and productivity of the American people; and renew this nation’s core commitment to fairness and opportunity, there is every reason to believe that we can restore the vitality and resilience of our democracy. Our character as a society and our success as a nation depend on it.

The national conversation I have described will require financial, intellectual, and moral support from many organizations and individuals. I hope some of you will be moved to participate in this unique process, and to help shape its outcomes.


Stephen Heintz is president
 of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in New York City.