It was a solemn scene at Ostrander Auditorium on Tuesday, as leading professors from the Department of Government came to give their insights on the fate of democracy and liberalism.
“Liberalism”, in this context, does not refer to the ideology of any political party, but rather the founding principles of the Constitution. “I understand liberalism here to mean a free and open society in which people are free to control their own destinies.” Dr. Frederick Slocum, one of the speakers at the forum, noted.
Seven professors spoke at the forum. Dr. Frederick Slocum, Dr. Jacqueline Vieceli, Dr. Kevin Parsneau, and Dr. Tomasz Inglot represented Political Science and its subdisciplines. Law Enforcement was represented by Dr. Thor Dahle and Dr. Carl Lafata, and Urban and Regional Studies was represented by Dr. Beth Heidelberg. The panel was moderated by Dr. Joshua Berkenpas.
Speaking from an international perspective, Dr. Inglot said that there are cultural and economic reasons for the current issues facing liberal democracy. Dr. Heidelberg pointed to cases wherein cities were threatened by the federal government or state legislatures because of political disagreements. “We’re seeing policies being developed to be almost punitive with regions that don’t agree with upper levels of government.” she said.
“I think that we do have a crisis.” Dr. Vieceli said. “I’m not going to say that we’re done for, but I do think that we’re done for if we don’t rethink and take some action.” She pointed to the decline of civic education in America as part of the problem. “We haven’t really done civics education in our primary and secondary schools consistently for thirty or forty years.”
Dr. Lafata said that this lack of education has impacts on law enforcement as well. “Education is incredibly important, not only for officers to empathize with the people that they serve and protect, but also so that they understand the law.” He pointed to examples wherein state police officers were asked to enforce federal immigration law, which is not in their jurisdiction to do.
How to fix the problem? For Dr. Slocum, any solution in the U.S. has to start with managing partisanship. “I think it’s important to address polarization and one approach to doing this is to address gerrymandering and the sorting of people into likeminded enclaves.” He pointed to cases in Wisconsin and other states wherein legislatures had, in effect, chosen their own voters by drawing electoral maps in such a way as to guarantee them a persistent majority, thereby thwarting democracy.
Dr. Dahle emphasized that humanity has made progress, and that we are not living in the worst of times “Is crime worse than it was in the past? It’s not.” He added that deaths in military action have also declined,
Dr. Vieceli emphasized the importance of free speech and civility, especially online. “We cannot attack each other on social media or use these labels of liberal or conservative as pejorative labels, because it shuts down free speech. I would also suggest that we separate news and entertainment.”
At the end of the presentation, Dr. Parsneau added the importance of bipartisan respect for democratic norms. “Those of us who believe in institutions and norms need to stand up for them, even when it isn’t in the specific interest of our party or side, because nothing damages those norms more than when people let it slide when it’s their side.”
Feature photo courtesy of the Associated Press.