As democracies around the world grow increasingly divided with the rise of various anti-democratic forces and nationalist-populist movements, a group of Harvard scholars gathered Friday morning to assess the state of democracy in the U.S. and propose ways to revitalize it to ensure it best serves 21st-century America.
The event, titled “Revitalizing Democracy,” was one of six academic symposia that took place Friday across the University as part of President Claudine Gay’s inaugural celebration. Gay, a political scientist, has called “faltering” democracies one of the most pressing challenges the world faces. She said that seeking ways Harvard can join with the global community to find solutions is a priority for the University.
During a discussion at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School led by moderator Guy-Uriel Charles, Charles Ogletree Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, faculty panelists identified some of the difficulties American democracy faces today.
Among the issues that panelists cited are an outdated reliance on institutions like the Electoral College, the U.S. Senate, and the filibuster that permit a minority to thwart the will of the majority, and foreign actors and nation-states targeting the American electorate with threats and false information designed to widen political and cultural divisions and weaken consensus on democratic principles.
Many of the problems have been gradually emerging over time amid changes in population through immigration, shifts to a global economy, and the rise of digital technology.
Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor, and director of the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation, said passage of immigration laws in the 1960s, the emergence of social media and structural reforms to both political parties in the 1950s have resulted in “unintended consequences” that affect our democracy today.
Some of the panelists noted that the country has only been a true multicultural democracy since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, while the Constitution, written by and for a white minority eligible to vote, has remained largely untouched since the Civil Rights era.
The “outsized” and very different experience that communities of color often have with policing compared to white communities fuels misperceptions about the state and crime and hardens fear-driven partisanship, said Yanilda González, assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School.
The panel offered ideas for how the Harvard community, particularly faculty and students, can start to dismantle these barriers and strengthen democracy so that it more fairly and equitably serves the changing America populace.
Archon Fung, Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government and director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at HKS, said research has shown that frequent face-to-face interactions between people with very different political views reduces polarization and will foster a “culture of democracy” in which disagreement is welcome and partisanship is not, so focusing more effort on bridging political gaps at the local or state level is critical.
Jill Lepore, David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History and Harvard College Professor, suggested an amendment to the Constitution that would impose term limits on Supreme Court justices at some future, mutually agreed upon date, could be an effective way to eliminate lifetime appointments, which partisans on both sides agree in principle runs counter to democratic practice, and to demonstrate that changes to the Constitution are necessary and possible.
Academic institutions, like Harvard, ought to begin working now to identify the models that can best move U.S. political institutions forward so that they truly support our multicultural democracy, said Daniel Ziblatt, Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University and director of the Center for European Studies.
“The ideas are already there,” Ziblatt said. They just require time and attention to refine them so they’re ready to be implemented when the time comes, much like was done following World War II to establish institutions like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.
“If we just sort of hold off until the moment is ‘realistic,’ then we won’t be ready when the moment comes.”
“Innovating for Impact: Science for the Mind and Body in the 21st Century”
Another panel, moderated by Amy Wagers, the Forst Family Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology and the co-chair of the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, discussed Harvard’s biomedical research and the field’s untapped potential in improving health outcomes for billions around the world.
“I really wanted to highlight the many facets of innovation that are needed to realize the full potential of biological discoveries, spanning from the first arc of an idea to the experiments in their early days to the discoveries — and ultimately their application — in the real world,” Wagers said.
And the first step, all agreed, was to be unafraid to take leaps.
“We need to take big risks to solve hard problems,” said Kara McKinley, one of the panelists and an assistant professor at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. McKinley leads a lab that seeks to advance regenerative medicine by studying a repair mechanism in the uterus that may offer insights into how we can harness natural processes to heal wounds. “Because in the end, this is really the goal, to create cures and to do science that is in service to humankind,” she said.