Amid the clatter in the days before the presidential election – the long lines at early polls, racial strife, street protests, political ad skirmishes and the streaming patter of television punditry – three College of Arts and Sciences professors offered a bright light at the end of the 2020 tunnel: hope for democracy.
Panelists Kenneth Roberts, Alexandra Cirone and Julilly Kohler-Hausmann shared their visions during the “Democracy Contested?” online panel discussion Oct. 29. The event was led by David Bateman, associate professor of government in the College of Arts and Sciences.
The faculty panelists agreed that while anti-democratic societal elements – such as gerrymandering, forms of voter suppression and voter intimidation – are gumming up the democratic process, there are solutions.
“Democracy is under threat, because we are struggling to ensure access to accurate information,” said Cirone, assistant professor of government, who teaches a class on understanding “fake news.”
“You can’t test democracy properly without information. You can have multiple candidates – as many candidates as you want – but if voters don’t have enough accurate information to judge who is a good candidate or who is a bad candidate, then democracy crumbles.”
Some politicians have been discrediting the government and democracy for decades, said Kohler-Hausmann, associate professor of history. For example, in the mid-1980s President Ronald Reagan famously joked about the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
While we understand the Reagan joke today, Kohler-Hausmann said, “It wouldn’t have made sense in the middle of World War II or after the New Deal.” As state programs delivering social goods have been starved of funds and politicians relentlessly attack state competency, public faith in institutions has declined.
But for the COVID-19 crisis, as federal drug regulators grapple with rapid development of a vaccine, government experts must be trusted and must offer guidance.
News media reports paint the challenges facing the U.S. democracy on a daily basis, Cirone said.
“We’re seeing a long-standing, stable democracy backslide a bit, as we watch a presidential administration use authoritarian tactics,” she said. “We expect that with struggling democracies in other regions to do it. Our democracy is not as stable as we believed. It’s a little bit more fragile than we thought and that causes us a lot of concern.”
The political battles of 2020 play out in the courts, the streets and on Capitol Hill, Roberts said.
“We are going through a very, very rough period and a highly contentious period in American politics,” said Roberts, the Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government. “That’s why we’re having this discussion. If we look down the road, however, I think there’s a real chance to advance toward a multiracial, more inclusive or egalitarian democracy.”
Without question, he said, we need engaged citizens. “That is the best hope to try to come through this difficult period with democratic progress, rather than democratic regress,” he said.
The hourlong discussion also touched on the erosion of civil rights; authoritarian currents percolating upward; the politization of institutions; and leaders who use the tools of democracy for nefarious means.
Bateman posed the question on which reforms would be needed to improve U.S. democracy after the 2020 election.
“The Electoral College is without question an anti-democratic legacy of the past,” Roberts said. “It is inexcusable in a modern democracy to have the distortions in the democratic process that the Electoral College creates. It should be scrapped.”
Roberts further proposed giving representation to the U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico, Guam and the District of Columbia. “You can’t legitimize having a U.S. colony in 2020,” he said.
Kohler-Hausmann said that law makers must end felon disenfranchisment, where those sent to prison are stripped of their voting rights.
Cirone suggested tossing out gerrymandering, making voting mandatory and create rank-choice voting – where voters rank their candidate preferences.
“Thanks to gerrymandering, the majority of our districts are not competitive,” Cirone said. “When districts are not competitive, active voters aren’t represented because the politicians don’t need to represent them … and future female candidates, minority candidates … don’t even try to run for office because there’s no way to win in that type of system.”
In a thriving democracy, Kohler-Hausmann said, citizens are the catalysts for institutional progress.
“There’s a lot of talk about institutions,” she said. “But it has always been social movements and organized citizens that have held institutions to account. … That’s the key to where that sort of vitality has to come from.”