Taking Temperature On American Democracy

University of Rochester

An interview with Rochester political scientist James Druckman, an expert on American democracy and polarization.

Studies have shown that using dehumanizing language to refer to political opponents-whether directed at the actual candidates or their supporters-has a destabilizing effect on democracy in the United States. According to James Druckman, a professor of political science at the University of Rochester, negative rhetoric has changed how both elites and average citizens talk about politics. It has also affected average people's political attitudes and their willingness to engage in politics.

"Even worse than the toxicity is the moralization, which I think can really lead people to want to disengage from politics," says Druckman.

Yet, what separates us may not be as great a schism as we think, argues Druckman, a coauthor of Partisan Hostility and American Democracy: Explaining Political Divisions and When They Matter (University of Chicago Press, 2024).

"The perception of the divide in this country is greater than the divide itself," he says. "Those perceptions dwarf the actual divides."

In an interview, Druckman discusses polarization, the roles of elites in maintaining-or weakening-US democracy, and the effect of moralizing language on political discourse.

Listen to the interview or read the transcript below.

Transcript of interview, recorded June 24, 2024.

Host Sandra Knispel, communications specialist at the University of Rochester: Thanks for joining us. I'm Sandra Knispel for the University of Rochester, and with us today is James Druckman, who is an expert on democracy and a professor of political science at the University of Rochester. Welcome, Professor Druckman.

James Druckman, professor of political science at the University of Rochester: Thank you for having me.

Knispel: What do you make of the fact that several top Republican candidates have so far refused to pledge that they will accept the outcome of the November election results? Is that something that, as a political scientist, worries you?

Druckman: Yes, I think that it's worrisome insofar as even the most minimal definition of a democracy requires an electoral transfer of power when it's appropriate. And so, you know, any concern that elites would not conform to that expectation is concerning. On the other hand, you know, there are obviously political-rhetorical reasons to do that. Insofar as a lot of the people that have not pledged to accept the election outcome are people who are vying to become the vice-presidential candidate for Trump. You know one likes to hope that it's a bit of playing games rhetorically. But it certainly is concerning insofar as it can lead citizens then to not anticipate acceptance of the outcome.

Knispel: Do you think once one of them will have been picked as a VP, they will turn around and play by political rules again or by democratic rules again?

Druckman: I certainly don't think they will through the election. I think the hope is that once the election is over, you know, and there will probably be legal challenges-potentially on either side-regardless of who wins the election. And once that process goes through, the hope is that most elites will accept the outcome of the election.

Knispel: I'd like to dig a little bit in about the role of elites, though, because I saw that you were writing about elites, the role of elites. And if I remember correctly, you said it's what the elites do, rather than what public opinion thinks, that determines the strength or the health of our democracy.

"I do think citizens can serve as a backstop to democratic erosion. But, ultimately, it's the elite decisions that are probably are the ones that are going to decide the health of a democracy."

Druckman: You know, ultimately, the institutions of democracy are upheld by elites who are making the laws, following the expectations of the democratic norms, and enforcing those norms. And so in that sense, the elites are playing the most proximate role to maintaining the stability of democracy. The question, though, is the extent to which citizens will be okay with elites eroding different democratic institutions. And the more leeway that elites get in that erosion process, the more they might exploit that for their own ends, either because they are authoritarian in themselves or they have some self-interested reasons to try to erode those systems. So I do think citizens can serve as a backstop to democratic erosion. But, ultimately, it's the elite decisions that are probably are the ones that are going to decide the health of a democracy.

Knispel: And we should probably backtrack-what do you mean when you say "elites"?

Druckman: You know, I think of elites as elected officials but also kind of those who work in government. We can also think of elites as people who head interest groups, journalists, kind of, you know, people whose professions revolve around government and politics.

Knispel: Do you see a weakening of democratic norms among your students?

Druckman: I guess two answers. One is, if you step back, and you kind of look at what larger data collections would suggest-they do suggest kind of an age change insofar as younger voters, not just in the US but around the world, do seem more accepting of actions that a lot of people would construe as democratically erosive. And so, for example, you know, kind of restricting voting to favor your party or censoring people from the other party. And, you know, it's not a surprising outcome insofar as if you think about the environment in which the current generation of young voters grew up. They grew up in the 21st century, where you saw a more polarized environment, you saw a lot of antidemocratic actions take place around the world, you saw erosion around the world. So, they're kind of socialized into an environment where democratic norms are not taken as seriously as in previous generations. And I think a related concern is apathy. I think that is something I've seen in the classroom, generally speaking, insofar as I think a lot of younger people-they're tired, they're tired of politics, they're tired of the conflictual nature. You know, by definition, politics is conflictual, but it's gotten somewhat toxic. And I think even worse than the toxicity is the moralization, which I think can really lead people to want to disengage from politics, right? If they're going to take a position and then kind of be yelled at as being incorrect-in a moralizing fashion so that they're taking a position that others see is just fundamentally wrong-you know, that's not a real incentive to want to engage in political discussions. And so, in that sense, there is a bit of a disengagement going on. And I have seen that in the classroom.

Knispel: I know you've done some work on that moralization that you just mentioned. And you found that the way that we see and that we talk about the opposition has changed. How so?

Druckman: This is a trend that's been going on for at least about 30 years now. I think in the US we kind of saw that starting to change in the mid-1990s, where there was a shift in political rhetoric and there had been kind of research done on looking at the conversations that go on in Congress and how they speak to one another. And there's been a shift towards less substantive conversations and much more painting the other side as the enemy and kind of morally corrupt on basic values of the country. That kind of carries over. And that kind of moral rhetoric then kind of spreads more quickly. That changed in how elites talk about politics. We also saw, obviously, a dramatic change in the communication mechanisms through which people are getting information, right. So, people were starting to get access to the internet, cable television was profusing all over the country, and then, of course, social media. And what we do see is that moralized rhetoric and toxic rhetoric, particularly about the other side, spreads much more quickly in social media, and, you know, that can have downstream effects on people's political attitudes but also their willingness to engage in politics.

Knispel: And so, you've got apathy on one hand. And we also saw from recent opinion polls, and we've seen it in action on January 6-that sort of greater tolerance among voters for violence. Is that coming from the rhetoric, the toxic rhetoric?

"[I]f there's a large group of voters who don't want to engage, that gives a little bit more leeway to people who are more extreme."

Druckman: I really liked the way you kind of differentiated: You kind of see apathy on one hand, and then you kind of see something quite extreme on the other hand because, I think, that really nicely captures the threat right now to democracy, at least when you think about the population insofar as you have one group of voters who might be quite extreme, and they hold extreme opinions, and they're willing to engage in extreme action-and that there could be kind of a response to that if there were other engaged voters that were willing to kind of take up and counter that. But if there's a large group of voters who don't want to engage, that gives a little bit more leeway to people who are more extreme. And yeah, it's difficult to pinpoint causal relationships between particular lead actions and attitudes of the populace. But, you know, I think it is fairly clear that one of the underlying correlates of having violent attitudes is the willingness to dehumanize the other side. And we've certainly seen an increase in dehumanizing language amongst elites.

Knispel: How did we come to that?

Druckman: I mean, I think it really kind of began with the change in rhetoric. And I should say, I mean, there is an interesting historical component when I say, "change in rhetoric," because it's not like American politics, you know, was remarkably civil historically. As an aside, there is kind of this question of what were politics like before, you know, the 1940s and the 1950s when social science really started to study these types of things, and it's certainly a possibility that we had this kind of particularly unique era, from kind of post-World War II through the end of the 20th century, where it was a little bit more civil than it had been in the past. So relative to kind of that era, you know, I think we started to see this change in rhetoric in the mid-1990s. And then we, you know-two things, I think, happened. One is, we saw politics kind of spread into lots of other areas of life that hadn't been kind of part of politics before. And so, you know, that includes not only social decisions insofar as people's willingness to kind of socialize with people from the other side. So, two examples of that-they have the studies of, kind of, "how upset would you be if a child of yours married somebody from the other family?" and they have data on that from the 1950s and 1960s. And, you know, people aren't particularly upset about that. And, you know, by the 21st century, people are extremely upset about that possibility. And so, you know, it starts to spill over into those parts of life. And then you kind of have politicians more willing to kind of exploit the language that, you know, seems to kind of galvanize support. And I think part of that is an intersection of the advent of the Internet, which allowed politicians to directly speak to voters. You know, we often think about kind of technological change and the change of communication-from newspapers to radio to television and to cable television and to the internet. And I think one thing that's really unique is once you got to the internet, and particularly social media, there [were] no longer journalists serving as kind of a middle person that could add some civility or balance, you know, giving politicians that direct access to speak to voters. In theory, that might sound very good, because then it's untarnished, and it might be more authentic. But it also gives the possibility for politicians to release the type of rhetoric that galvanizes people from the extremes. And so, you know, I think that's what we've seen.

Knispel: So maybe before we get to what can be done, let's put a pin in that one. People say we've never been more polarized here in this country than we are now. Is that with the exception of the Civil War? Or is that actually really true?

"We do have data going back into the early 1970s. And those trends suggest quite clearly that there has been a monotonic increase in polarization."

Druckman: Yeah, that's a great question. And obviously, people talk about polarization a lot. And I think what we've seen amongst, you know-I want to differentiate it in a few dimensions-I mean first we want to talk about kind of the difference between elected officials and voters. And what we see in elected officials quite clearly in Congress is that there has been a growth in the polarization of their issue positions over time, you know, starting kind of in the 1980s to the 1990s, we see that the Republicans and Democrats have become more divided on most issues and more homogenous in their beliefs on those issues. But again, it's an interesting thing because in some sense it was that period from 1950 to the end of the 20th century where they were notably less divided. They had been as divided before, if you go back in history, and that's something we actually do have a historical record on because we know what the roll call votes were, historically. And so when it comes to ideology and issue positions, elites have certainly become much more polarized but not necessarily more polarized than they once were.

If we go back historically, there's a different type of polarization, which is disconnected from ideology or issue positions. And that's just kind of how much you dislike the other party. And so political scientists call that "affective polarization" or "hostility." And with that, we don't have the historical record that we have on roll call votes. But we do have data going back into the early 1970s. And those trends suggest quite clearly that there has been a monotonic increase in polarization. So, we don't really know what elites are doing on that type of polarization. But we know that voters have come to really dislike the other side more and more with every election cycle. That has been a constant linear trend since the 1970s. So, in that sense, there has been an increase in polarization.

Knispel: So do you think the US then is in danger of becoming ungovernable because you said that with every election cycle the polarization has gotten worse? Is it going to get worse and worse and worse-to the point where we are ungovernable?

Druckman: It's a difficult question to answer. I mean, in some sense, governance is not working very well right now. Right. Congress has been very kind of dysfunctional, not passing legislation-in the last term, at least. I think it's a question you want to ask about as "kind of ungovernable in the short term" or "kind of in the long term." And I think in the long term there's no reason to think that it would be ungovernable insofar as we will see a kind of new generation of people vying to become president. And we just don't know what those individuals are going to kind of look like. You know, in the short term, I think we have to think about what is the composition of the government going to look like. You know, we have the presidential election; we also have the Senate and the House, you know, and what's going on in the states? It's a complex question because governance kind of occurs at so many levels of our lives, right? We can kind of talk about-is it going to become ungovernable at the local level? At the state level? At the federal level? Usually, when we talk about that, we're thinking about the federal level. It depends on-is there going to be divided government or not? You know, in some sense, a divided government will lead to less things getting done. But there are certain necessary things that will get done. I think, regardless, we even saw this, you know, in the last four years: We did see some bipartisanship agreement, at least early in Biden's term, such as the Inflation Reduction Act. You know, I think in that sense, governance will continue but will probably be a lot less efficient than it could otherwise be, at least in the near term.

Knispel: Let's talk about election denialism. With the last election, we know that about one third of US voters still believe, and those numbers haven't shifted, that President Biden is illegitimate-that he did not win the election-despite all proof to the contrary. So where does that leave us if Joe Biden were to win second election? Would most Republican voters just continue to consider him illegitimate?

"If there's a large number of citizens who kind of hold the belief that a particular president is not legitimate, but the rest of the system is kind of working as it has since Biden's election, you know that's not necessarily a direct threat to democracy. It depends on kind of how they're acting on those beliefs."

Druckman: I think it's entirely likely that a large bucket of those voters would continue to view him as illegitimate. It will depend somewhat on exactly what the outcome looks like. And again, kind of what the litigation will look like after that. I guess there's the question of, kind of, what are the consequences of that belief? The fearful consequences are that people stop following laws or, you know, engage in violence. I don't think we've seen widespread evidence of that. But I also don't want to minimize that we have seen certainly an uptick in political threats and political violence at all levels-in local levels and national levels. And I think that there probably is a connection between those two things. And so I think there is definitely a concern about that. You know, I started off, and [to answer] your first question: When you deny an election that's perhaps the gravest threat to democracy-since, again, you know, at any level-you have to have a transfer of power to have a democratic system. If there's a large number of citizens who kind of hold the belief that a particular president is not legitimate, but the rest of the system is kind of working as it has since Biden's election, you know that's not necessarily a direct threat to democracy. It depends on kind of how they're acting on those beliefs. And it doesn't seem that, you know, the 33 percent, or whatever the percentage is right now-at some point it was much higher-were taking to the streets and continuing in January 6-type actions. And so in that sense it wasn't a direct threat to the continuing of democracy. But it is certainly a direct threat to the functioning of democracy. So I'm drawing this distinction between how well democracy is functioning versus whether democracy is falling apart entirely. And again, very importantly-not to minimize-it's a direct threat to the lives of people who are potentially the victims of violent actions or violent threats, which, again, we have seen just an enormous uptick in. You know, it's hard to not imagine that that's directly connected to the rhetoric and also claims of illegitimacy. And so that's a grave concern. And, you know, we see that people are much less likely to want to be election judges this cycle. [There are] a lot of threats to elected officials of all types.

Knispel: Now, I know you're not in the business of forecasting. You're a scientist. So, bear with me and tell me if this is a fair question. How likely do you think, based on the observations and the data that you have, that there could be another January 6 uprising after this next election cycle?

Druckman: I mean, I presume that there were a lot of lessons learned from January 6 for police and other security. I think, depending on the outcome of the election, you could certainly see some movement towards that. But I suspect that there will be much more kind of preemptive measures taken and much more anticipation of what could potentially happen. I would kind of think that it's probably not particularly likely that you're going to get an event like that. And I will-I'll give you an example of where that's coming from. So, you might recall on Inauguration Day, there was enormous concern that there was going to be political violence. And, you know, I think you saw people on the far right were certainly suggesting that there should be political violence; they were suggesting there would be political violence in cities around the country. I think you saw a huge amount of effort put in by local law enforcement and federal law enforcement to kind of prevent any type of political violence on that day, and the day went off with no violence. I remember that day quite well because we were all kind of very interested about that possibility. And so, I think, because we've learned that lesson, I think that, you know, security, local police, they don't want to see political violence on that level. So I think it's fairly unlikely we'll see that. I think the greater concern are these upticks in isolated incidents of violence that aren't necessarily what we call "mob violence" but violence that goes on in locations because it's become fairly normalized, as we've kind of discussed and, you know, that could obviously do a lot of damage to individuals. It might not be as grave of a threat to the existence of the system, but it certainly is pretty concerning, you know, in terms of violence and harm that it can do.

Knispel: We talked a little earlier about what you think would happen if Joe Biden won a second term and in the context of acceptance, widespread acceptance as a legitimate leader. Let's turn this around. What if Donald Trump wins the election? Do you agree with those who say that US democracy would be really in acute peril?

"I don't think the election of Donald Trump necessitates that democracy will cease to exist. I think it is something that one can worry about. And I think that is something one should worry about. I think there will be a lot of reaction in terms of trying to go to steps to prevent certain devolution of norms."

Druckman: I mean, I think it's an open question. I think Donald Trump has obviously indicated clear antidemocratic attitudes and antidemocratic actions. He's made very clear in, kind of, his plans for the second term that he would deconstruct a lot of the executive administration and do away with many departments. And, you know, in that sense, I think the government that we'd be looking at would look quite different potentially from the government that we are experiencing today. You know, I think it will come down to the extent to which how far can he go, given kind of legal precedent and kind of what the legal system will allow? And then we also, kind of, have the federalism as another check on federal power. And so, you know, how far would states go in kind of the devolution of democratic procedures? And I think that it is definitely something one should be worried about. I don't think it is deterministic. I don't think the election of Donald Trump necessitates that democracy will cease to exist. I think it is something that one can worry about. And I think that is something one should worry about. I think there will be a lot of reaction in terms of trying to go to steps to prevent certain devolution of norms by people who care about democracy. And so, you know, I think it'll depend on kind of the response to that. I do think he's made clear that he is going to take steps to do away with certain democratic norms.

Knispel: Does a sitting US president have the right to close or do away with federal departments?

Druckman: That's a legal question that I don't know the exact answer to. You know, there were only three departments at the start of the country. And so I suspect there are procedures to do away with departments. And so it is part of the executive branch, and the president oversees the executive branch. And so in that sense, yeah, I think a president could do that.

Knispel: Now, you said it also comes down to how, I guess, the populace-we the people-respond, or how other elites respond. Are you confident that they will respond, that they will take a stance if there is an outright power grab by a sitting president?

Druckman: Yes, I am confident that there will be a response. I mean, it kind of comes back to-why I was talking about it-it will also depend at the federal level to, kind of, what does the composition of Congress look like. And so, you know, in the end Congress controls the purse strings. And so that, kind of, limits what the executive can do. I do think that there will be a response. I think that there will be lots of efforts undertaken to try to bring attention to any antidemocratic efforts that are being taken. There are certain things that presidents can do, like the power to pardon. I don't think there's any way around that. And so, if Trump is reelected and he wants to really pardon everybody who was arrested from January 6, I don't think there's a lot that anyone can do about that. But there are other things, you know; if Trump wants to kind of do away with the Department of Education, for example, he might be able to do that. But, you know, states could take countermeasures. You could start to try to move some of those oversight responsibilities within other departments to try to, kind of, keep funding for education as it was. The legal establishment will play a large role in this kind of what is allowable or not allowable. But I do think there'll be a pretty strong effort to kind of at least make it transparent to exactly what's going on. I think what's been part of the difficulty of this campaign for the Democrats is that they've tried to make it very transparent to voters what the plan is for Trump, and I don't think that's resonating with voters very well. I think if Trump is elected and then starts to take actual actions that people might find concerning, you know, then that messaging might be more resonant with voters. And, you know, you could see kind of a change in kind of who's elected at the state level. If Donald Trump was elected, I wouldn't say that, you know, it's just going to kind of immediately be the end of democratic government.

Knispel: But we also know that a democracy usually doesn't just walk over a cliff. It's that slow drip and erosion.

Druckman: Absolutely. Right! Which is why I don't think that we'll see this kind of sudden change, but it will be the kind of this continued slow drip somewhat. And so it will depend on the extent to which there are efforts made to kind of stop the slow drip. And, you know, make sure people are enfranchised, make sure that information is still getting out, that journalism is still able to kind of report. You know, I think those are, kind of, some of the greater threats to the extent that an administration can try to censor the press is something that's, you know, a grave threat. I think the extent to which they're going to disenfranchise different populations is one of the gravest threats…

Knispel: Do you mean through gerrymandering?

Druckman: …through gerrymandering, or, you know, explicit voter ID laws that are kind of draconian, you know, moving polling places around so it's difficult to vote, doing away with early voting-things like that.

Knispel: If I asked you what would be sort of the top three or top four-in your book-areas that are most at risk for democratic weakening, what would you say?

"I think one of the really grave concerns that we've seen is that we have a set of institutions that govern society or make society work, and that includes the military, police, scientific institutions, educational institutions, doctors, hospitals, the press. . . [I]f you go back to the 1970s or the 1980s, you know, the trusts in those institutions were fairly high, and they were fairly homogenous-it didn't really matter if you were a Democrat or Republican. If you look at it today . . . it's become very polarized."

Druckman: Yes, that's a great question. I mean, I do think kind of the threat to kind of the flow of information is particularly concerning. And so, you know, I think, you know, we've often talked about kind of the media's serving as a fourth estate: that [there are] the three branches of government and the media. And we do know that it's essential for any democratic polity to have a freedom of the press. And, you know, without that you start to do away with democracy. So, I think that's certainly something to keep an eye on. You know, especially the media system is obviously kind of splintered, given the profusion of media outlets. And so there's kind of the threat of the censoring of media outlets and kind of giving them access to governmental information. And then [there are] kind of efforts to make sure people are getting kind of that information. So, I think that's definitely something I would put up there as a concern.

I think another concern is kind of disenfranchisement-you know, both in terms of kind of explicit voting rights but also kind of rights to protest, kind of rights to assemble, you know, First Amendment rights. What we've seen historically is, you know, as rights come and come, you know, there's then kind of a backlash to the extension of those rights. And you know, we've kind of been in an era of the backlash in the last, you know, decade or so. And so, you know, I think that's another thing to, kind of, watch really closely, especially as the population continues to diversify. And as that happens there's often a kind of a backlash in terms of trying to not let people who are from diverse backgrounds get the rights as easily. So I think that's certainly a concern.

I think another concern is a kind of institutional trust. You know, one thing that we have seen, which is, I think, quite alarming when we talk about polarization-when I talked about it earlier, I talked about kind of the feelings between the two sides-Democrats versus Republicans. I think one of the really grave concerns that we've seen is that we have a set of institutions that govern society or make society work, and that includes the military, police, scientific institutions, educational institutions, doctors, hospitals, the press. And what we've seen over time, right, if you go back to the 1970s or the 1980s, you know, the trusts in those institutions were fairly high, and they were fairly homogenous-it didn't really matter if you were a Democrat or Republican. If you look at it today, the trust is still pretty high, higher than a lot of people might suspect, like people still generally trust scientists. The trick though is-it's become very polarized. And so right now we kind of see this across institutions. So, like, when it comes to science-if you go back to the 1970s, Republicans had a bit more trust in scientists than Democrats. And now you see this out of all the institutions that's the institution that's polarized the most, and you see this massive gap in trust. So even if average trust is not low, you see this big divide on trust. And we can see that when you look at other institutions; you can see it when you look at educational institutions, the press, the military, police. What that means is that people are going to follow the dictates of those institutions in different ways. And they're going to kind of interact with one another in different ways and kind of follow different types of advice. Obviously COVID kind of exemplified the problems that can arise when you get a polarization of trust-in science in that case. Right, we kind of saw one side following scientific advice and the other side not following scientific advice. And, you know, one of the consequences was, regardless of what side you're on, you saw a massive discoordination, which, you know, undermined the ability of the country to respond. And so that would be a third area.

You know, a fourth area-very quickly-would be kind of educational institutions and the extent to which those have also become quite polarized. And this kind of comes back to, you know, the point I made earlier about the socialization processes that are going on for kind of current generations of people in school. And I think that's a concern because educational institutions do have a civic mission-they have a civic responsibility to produce citizens. And though in that sense we expect there to be some kind of civic education, what that civic education looks like is under very intense debate. It's always been under debate, but it's become intensified. You kind of see on one side, on the left, you see kind of much more emphasis on talking about the plight of people who have been historically disenfranchised and kind of the experiences they've gone through. And on the right, you kind of see trying to think about history in the way that had been taught, kind of, in the 1950s, in the 1960s. And so you have very different visions of what education should look like. And, you know, that's obviously become very intense, especially at the local level, as we kind of saw around things like critical race theory, we saw, particularly in Virginia, you know, a few election cycles ago. And you know, that's, that's really problematic for the young people who are in school and kind of what that's going to do to them as citizens and kind of coming back to, they're either going to kind of, you know, again, I think the way you characterize it was really apt, you kind of end up with people who are engaged but fairly extreme-or disengaged. And that's not a functional society. So I think those are the four areas that I would be most worried about.

Knispel: So, now you've laid out all the problems, and there are many. And it's so depressing. Let's circle back to what we started with earlier-which is what can be done. What can people like you do? What can other institutions do?

Druckman: It's a hard question, you know, and I think…

Knispel: There's no silver bullet; we understand that.

Druckman: Yes, exactly. There're a few things to keep in mind. I think first you want to contextualize it insofar as, you know, when I did talk about kind of that polarization of trust in these institutions…if you put aside the political institutions-so obviously, like if you have trust in the presidency or the executive-that flip flops around [depending] on kind of who controls the presidency. But, you know, trust in those institutions that I listed off before-like science and education and military and police-it's polarized, and that's really concerning. But the trust is higher than most people realize. And so there is still kind of a level of trust that a lot of people don't recognize. The perception of the divide in this country is greater than the divide itself. So there are divides, and then there [are] perceptions of divides. And those perceptions dwarf the actual divides. And so one of the things that, you know, ideally we can try to do-is try to get people to perceive the other side as not as distant from themselves as they might think they are. And that might kind of facilitate engagement. So that leads to the question of like, well, how do we correct, kind of, [that] misperception, especially given [that] people live in very different media ecosystems? And, you know, again, that kind of comes back to educational institutions, which is why I do worry a lot about educational institutions but also kind of local civic institutions and kind of, you know, being a gathering place for people to kind of interact with one another from different perspectives. And so, I think, you know, putting kind of more weight on kind of local solutions to things is an important thing to be thinking about.

One of the uplifting things is you do see this proliferation of these civic organizations that are trying to address this thing. There's one in Rochester called Civic Genius, which does all kinds of activities to try to bridge divides between-it might be Democrat and Republicans, it might be Israelis and Palestinians-they tried to kind of bring different sides together. And I think those can be quite impactful. I don't think you're going to see-oh suddenly, like, "oh, things are harmonious." But, you know, given the counterfactual of what it might look like without those types of organizations, you know, we're probably in a better place for the existence of those organizations. And so I think that's one positive thing that's going on. I think, to the extent that we can try to get educational institutions to, you know, not buy into kind of some of the polarizing rhetoric that has gone on and [to] remember kind of a mission of educational institution-there is a mission to create democratic citizens. And so we should all kind of remember that. You know, obviously, it's been a trying year for educational institutions, and kind of trying to figure out exactly the best way forward is, I think, a challenge for educational institutions. So those are all kinds of behavioral interventions where we're trying to kind of alter people's beliefs or their attitudes.

There are kind of these more kind of meta questions of kind of the institutions of democracy. I think one thing that's become clear is that the institutions as devised in 1789 were not necessarily, you know, anticipating some of the population movements that we see today. So we have, you know, things that are clearly antimajoritarian institutions, like the composition of the Senate and the Electoral College. I think we can have these discussions about like how can we change those institutions. I think those are kind of healthy discussions to have. You also don't want to just be spending all your time having those discussions while democracy fades away because the realistic situation is that changing those institutions is probably not going to happen given what it takes to change those institutions. And so, I think you have to kind of think about what are ways that we can kind of work within those institutions to try to have healthier conversations. And I do think that there are elites that kind of recognize that and kind of want to work within those institutions. I think we can kind of see that at the state level; we can kind of see there are certain individuals in federal government that can work that way. And so, you know, I do come back to, you know, we will get a new generation of leadership, and what that generation will look like will be very important.

"[T]he hope is that we kind of can rely on civic organizations, we can rely on media, and we can rely on educational institutions to form somewhat of a bulwark against [the] kind of erosion that could be going on. And so I think what is left out of a lot of conversations about democratic decline is the role of these civic organizations."

I'll kind of end with a quick anecdote. My first class I ever taught was right before the 2000 election, and I talked about the Electoral College-nobody had ever heard of it. They thought it was fanciful that this would be a relevant thing. And then, of course, the 2000 election, you know, Gore won the popular vote but didn't win the election. And, you know, that was kind of a signal of a change in kind of how politics operated. And I think now, you kind of [can] talk to anybody and they understand what the Electoral College is. They understand more about democracy. And, you know, having those conversations at a time when a lot has happened to make one worry about democracy is a positive response. And so, in that sense, the hope is that we kind of can rely on civic organizations, we can rely on media, and we can rely on educational institutions to form somewhat of a bulwark against [the] kind of erosion that could be going on. And so I think what is left out of a lot of conversations about democratic decline is the role of these civic organizations, and I think that's an important thing that political scientists and more general conversations need to pay attention to.

Knispel: Looking ahead-25 years from now-will we have a healthy democracy in this country?

Druckman: I would guess that we will. I don't know how much I would, you know, bet on that. But, you know, I think the institutions are designed in a way to have checks and balances, which I think can become very handy, which is kind of interesting in and of itself insofar as those same checks and balances can lead to a lot of gridlock and a lot of frustrations. And it's not necessarily a great system in terms of how democracies function because it's really hard to get things done. But at the end of the day, that could be a saving grace of democracy insofar as we have the branches checking each other-we have the state governments checking the federal government, and then, you know, we have these civic organizations. The hope is that those will help sustain democracy. And so, you know, I like to be more optimistic on this front. And so I think people want democracy. They have different interpretation of what that means. But I think that there is some general agreement at the end of the day-and so that's the hope.

Knispel: Let's finish on that positive note. Thank you so much, Professor Druckman, for this interview.

Druckman: Yes, thank you.

Knispel: That was James Druckman, professor of political science at the University of Rochester, and I'm Sandra Knispel for the University of Rochester. Thank you so much.

/University Release. This material from the originating organization/author(s) might be of the point-in-time nature, and edited for clarity, style and length. Mirage.News does not take institutional positions or sides, and all views, positions, and conclusions expressed herein are solely those of the author(s).View in full here.