Democracy at Risk

Across the disciplines, DU experts see troubling signs for the American way of government.

Democracy: 1a: government by the people; 1b: a government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections. — Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Hardly a day goes by without a distressing headline or a new book bemoaning the fate of democracy. It’s in its twilight. In danger. At risk. 

The public has taken note. A January 2022 NPR/Ipsos poll found that 64% of Americans agree that our democracy is in crisis and at risk of failing, with broad consensus among Democrats (68%), Republicans (79%) and independents (67%). 

Calling the defense of democracy “the defining challenge of our time,” President Joe Biden convened world leaders in the first-ever Summit for Democracy in December 2021. In remarks launching the summit, he called democracy “an ongoing struggle to live up to our higher ideals” and recognized that to advance democracy, “we have to renew it with each generation.” 

In February, the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies convened its second annual Denver Democracy Summit, where a nonpartisan group of leaders explored the conundrums and challenges facing democracies today. (Please see summit coverage here.) 

If democracy is indeed imperiled, what are the contributing factors? Experts from the University of Denver weigh in on some of the challenges confronting democracy in the United States.

The plague of polarization

Carl Raschke is a professor of philosophy of religion and critical theory in DU’s Department of Religious Studies. On Twitter, he bills himself as a “professor of unseasonal thoughts and unpredictable opinions.” 

As the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Capitol attack neared, Raschke tweeted: “The latest media theme seems to be the threat to democracy. However, the threat is always posed as the ‘other half’ of the country. The threat to democracy is polarization, and both sides are culpable.”

In his messages, he doesn’t spare either political party from his scrutiny. But Raschke, who has been worrying about polarization for years, directs some of his sterner words to Democrats and progressives. 

He notes that the key to democracy is not universal participation but universal respect. “You can’t have a democracy if there isn’t respect for everybody as equals,” he says.

In his book “Neo-liberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics” (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Raschke reminds readers that wealth has shifted from the captains of industry—owners of factory and material production—to the realm of immaterial labor. In other words, wealth is now virtual, tied up in the stock market and various assets. With this shift, status markers have flipped, and the country’s political parties have realigned. “It used to be that the working-class party was the Democratic Party, and now primarily it’s the elite party. This has a lot to do with the transformation of the economy in the last 30 years, particularly with the coming of the internet and digital culture,” Raschke says. 

Education disparities exacerbate America’s divide. The well-educated, whom Raschke refers to as the cognitive elite, dominate the world in terms of wealth, prestige and status. “The elites have always looked down on the lower class and, whatever we mean by the elites throughout history, have always in some ways written the script for how we’re supposed to think,” he says.  “What we have now is a real separation of classes and influence of power,” he adds. “This polarization is getting greater because each one has their own form of media. Each one has their own forms of narrative, and they’re taking these narratives as somehow corresponding to reality. And, of course, you can’t have two competing narratives.”

Raschke argues that the cognitive elites have created a classist caricature of working-class people, one that distorts their views and concerns. “We have to listen to what the working class is saying today, and we can’t have real democracy if we keep stereotyping them as being proto fascist, because they’re not.”

Whatever happened to civil discourse?

Whether taking a stance on social media or declaring views in a town hall, impassioned citizens too often resort to insults and sneering, with cavalier dismissals of other viewpoints. Often enough, they shut down speakers or interrupt public events. Even in the houses of Congress, elected representatives violate the rules of decorum to tear up a speech, accuse a president of lying or disrupt an address with invective.

This phenomenon troubles Chancellor Jeremy Haefner. So much so that he has dedicated $1 million to a DU initiative studying, promoting and nurturing civil discourse. 

“Why is this so important to democracy?” he asks. “I always have believed that democracy, especially the version that we enjoy in the United States, is grounded in [civil discourse]. Dialogue is an important way of informing our citizenry, [of helping voters] get at the truth so they can make informed decisions. The moment when open dialogue and exchange of ideas are not part of the environment, then I think we have sacrificed a great deal.” 

In his inauguration speech in October 2021, Haefner defined civil discourse as “the act of listening across differences, seeking truth and artfully persuading.” Universities, he says, bear the responsibility of modeling this behavior, in part because they train and educate the nation’s leaders and professionals. They also shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that marginalized voices have access to the conversation and are encouraged to express their views freely. 

“The moment speech is censored, a chain of oppression is formed,” Haefner said in his inaugural address.

Even a cursory survey of the headlines fuels his concerns. In recent months, several state legislatures have banned public schools from teaching critical race theory, effectively determining which views of history are open for discussion in taxpayer-funded classrooms. In early March, a University of Virginia senior published a guest essay in The New York Times decrying a censorious campus culture that leads to self-censorship and thereby promotes intellectual conformity. Her stance was greeted by a social media backlash laced with insults. 

“We have all kinds of forms of silencing of one group or the other. It doesn’t matter what end of the political spectrum you are on, it’s happening every where,” Haefner says. “There’s a chilling effect, meaning that people are reticent to enter into conversations and dialogues, and when there’s a chilling effect, you’ve essentially squandered free speech and free expression. We absolutely must figure this out and make every attempt to correct this situation.” 

With that in mind, Haefner expects DU’s Scrivner Institute of Public Policy at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies to spearhead many of DU’s efforts to advance civil discourse. Look for collaborations with think tanks, guest speakers on campus and webinars exploring the challenges associated with disagreement and differing opinions. 

 “I look at civil discourse, I look at free speech, I look at pluralism and diversity of ideas as critical to not only democracy, but to the very heart of higher education and for the outcomes our students need to be successful citizens,” Haefner says. 

Extremist groups on the rise 

The United States has seen a marked increase in domestic terror and violent extremism in recent years, according to the Colorado Resilience Collaborative (CRC) in the International Disaster Psychology: Trauma and Global Mental Health Master’s Program at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology.

“It’s critical to understand the gravity of these threats and how they are evolving in relation to the nation’s democracy,” says CRC director and professor Maria Vukovich. The collaborative—founded in 2017 in response to identity-based violence in Colorado and funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships—aims to help mental health professionals and community members prevent and respond to targeted violence and violent extremism.  

Domestic terrorism and targeted violence by extremist groups are at their highest levels in decades, according to recent analyses by the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). 

“Data has suggested the vast majority of domestic terror and violent extremist activity is being driven by white supremacy, anti-Muslim and anti-government/authority ideologies,” Vukovich says. “Ongoing racial injustice, political and social unrest, and the COVID pandemic have intensified, and at times emboldened, violent extremism across the spectrum of far-right and far-left movements in the United States.”

CSIS findings indicate that attacks and threats from the far right lead to more deaths, injuries and armed conflict than extremism from the far left, Vukovich says. Since 2015, individuals and groups motivated by far-right extremist views have carried out 267 attacks resulting in 91 deaths, compared with far-left extremists’ 66 incidents with 19 fatalities.

The Biden-Harris administration sees targeted violence and domestic terrorism now posing the most significant and persistent threat to our nation’s security. Vukovich agrees, adding that effectively and responsibly addressing the threat of violent extremism is critical to protect and honor the nation’s security, values, civil rights and liberties. 

“Prevention efforts require enhanced coordination and collaboration across federal, state and community actors,” she says. “There also needs to be greater emphasis and resources placed on addressing the factors that incentivize people to engage or to disengage with violent extremism—online and offline. If those factors, often related to basic needs and social connectedness, are better met in society, people may be less motivated to engage in acts of targeted violence.” 

Waning confidence in election results

On Jan 6, 2021, a mob of Donald Trump supporters sought to overturn the 2020 presidential election by attacking the U.S. Capitol while members of Congress counted the electoral votes that would formalize Joe Biden as the winner. On that day, one of the strongest symbols of U.S. democracy, the peaceful transition of power, was under threat.

Misinformation on voter fraud has created a schism in which millions of Americans believe that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. Doubts about election integrity present a significant threat to American democracy, says political science professor Seth Masket, director of DU’s Center on American Politics. 

“One of the core principles in making a democracy work is a belief that elections are free and fair. Not every democracy has free and fair elections. There actually is corruption; there actually is fraud in a number of democracies, which really undermines everything,” Masket says. “Probably the most important stabilizing feature in a democracy is that people accept the results of the election.”

The U.S. does not have widespread election fraud or election-related corruption, he says. “But we do have a widespread belief that there was something wrong” in the 2020 presidential election.

“A lot of people, both office holders and voters within the Republican Party, simply refuse to accept the outcome of 2020, and that’s very dangerous,” he says. “It means they will only accept the outcome of elections in which they win.”

Since the U.S. Capitol attack, members of both parties in Congress are exploring possible reform of the Electoral Count Act of 1887. The act, which came on the heels of a disputed 1876 presidential election, lays out procedures for how members of the Electoral College are certified, how they cast their votes and how the votes are counted. Many observers suggest that ambiguities in the law helped foment the uprising at the Capitol.

“There is some vagueness to the Electoral Count law, and if some senators want to amend the law to make it less vague, I think that’s generally a positive thing,” Masket says. “I don’t think that’s the reason that we had a violent insurrection.

“Somehow between the 1880s and 2016, we managed to have peaceful transitions of power, even though there was this vagueness in the law,” he adds. “The difference was that in 2020, there was an outgoing president who simply didn’t believe in democracy. He would rather resort to violence or chicanery than to simply leave office peacefully. That was the problem.”

Misinformation abounds

Kareem El Damanhoury is an assistant professor in the Department of Media, Film and Journalism Studies. He’s alarmed by the widespread proliferation of misinformation—via social media, fly-by-night news organizations, talk radio and random websites. He sees a connection between the unchecked spread of misinformation and one of democracy’s key virtues.

“Democracy is built on the free marketplace of ideas. But it seems that the way the marketplace of ideas [has] become very free is starting to hurt democracy. So it’s a dilemma,” he says.

When it comes to making sense of the barrage of conflicting information, El Damanhoury says media literacy is most important, and it should be taught in high school and college.

“There are certain theories of political communication that I feel not just media and journalism students, but everybody should learn,” he says. Framing theory, for example, suggests that how something is presented to the audience influences how people choose to process that information. 

“How can a media outlet, or an entity or an actor frame a message a certain way?” he asks. “How can I report on the very same topic, and be arguing that this is news, yet you are presenting something totally different? I think [framing] ought to be understood.”

El Damanhoury’s research focuses on the local news industry and local journalism. He considers supporting local news a civic duty for preserving democracy.

“Misinformation and disinformation … prosper in places where local journalism infrastructure is not strong,” he says. “People are basically at the mercy of online news rather than having local, trustable, credible outlets around them that they depend on for information.”

El Damanhoury says he focuses on local news because “it is the weakest part of the chain.”

“There are a lot of news deserts across the U.S. A news desert is defined as a county that doesn’t even have one newspaper to cater to its needs.” And if people don’t know what’s happening in their own communities, he says, how can they be expected to know what’s happening in their state, region and beyond? 

Studies show that Democrats and Republicans both tend to expose themselves to information that aligns with their views, creating an echo chamber. “Once you get in that echo chamber, everything is being viewed from the prism of the party and the ideology,” El Damanhoury says. 

Some news outlets are more balanced than others, he says, “but in my view, it’s not a matter of finding that outlet and just sticking to it. It’s getting exposed to more than one outlet.” 

If information from one news outlet contradicts another, consumers should verify the source. “It takes time,” he says, “but it’s not that time-consuming if what’s at stake is false information and propagating false information.”

The First Amendment takes a hit

In recent years, journalists have grown increasingly alarmed by a perceived erosion of the First Amendment, which, among other things, provides for freedom of speech and the press. 

Consider this little-noted event in the Midwest: In January 2022, the Des Moines Register reported, “Republican leaders in the Iowa Senate will no longer allow journalists to work at press benches in the Senate chamber, ending a tradition that has lasted more than a century.” Instead, journalists will sit in the public gallery on an upper level, making it difficult for them to interact with lawmakers. The reason: The Senate struggled with “the evolving nature and definition of ‘media’ when considering journalists’ access to the chamber.”

Actions like these pose a threat to democracy, says Alan Chen, a Sturm College of Law professor specializing in the First Amendment. 

“Government transparency and media access are essential elements of a thriving democracy,” Chen says. “Allowing reporters to work from the press benches in the Iowa Senate allows them to observe the legislature’s deliberations up close and probably also facilitates their access to individual senators to conduct interviews.”

At the same time, he says, the change probably does not violate the First Amendment. “Journalists don’t have a special right of access to particular locations within the Senate chambers, even if it has been the longstanding practice to allow them such access.”

Other strikes against freedom of the press are less obscure and just as troubling. How damaging is it when a U.S. president declares the press an “enemy of the people”?

“Public officials of all ideologies frequently attack the press when the news coverage of their actions and decisions is critical. But that’s the very function of a free press,” Chen says.

Nonetheless, he adds, “President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric … is more reminiscent of what leaders in authoritarian nations say about the press. Public trust in the press has already fallen significantly, and statements like this from elected officials exacerbate that lack of trust.” 

Chen reminds Americans that the First Amendment protects the right for all people to engage in public protest and even to use angry and inflammatory rhetoric. But it does not permit people to intentionally incite others to unlawful conduct such as property destruction and violence. 

“Much of the speech on Jan. 6 would meet the incitement standard and would therefore not be protected by the First Amendment,” he explains.

While Chen worries about these tests to democracy, he reminds Americans that protecting it begins at the grassroots level.  

“Democracy is an important, ongoing and difficult experiment in governance. There are many threats to the success of that project, and we all must be vigilant about addressing those threats,” he says. “If you want to protect democracy, subscribe to a newspaper or news service if you can afford it. Stay informed. And vote!”

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