The final UVA Democracy Biennial event, on the future of American democracy, opened with the screening of a short documentary film, produced by 2018 UVA graduate Micah Ariel Watson. Four artists and scholars explored the role of art in democracy.
“The relationship of art, democracy, and justice is an urgent consideration for our moment,” Harvard University Assistant Professor Sarah Lewis said in beginning the film, which also offered perspectives from cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Juilliard School President Damian Woetzel, and UVA Assistant Professor and musician A.D. Carson.
John Dickerson of CBS News, a UVA alumnus, moderated the panel discussion, which examined democratic institutions such as the Electoral College and the American presidency while asking how we might restore truthfulness in American norms, institutions, and governance.
“I’m as worried as anybody about [our] democracy,” said Angela Glover Blackwell, founder in residence at PolicyLink. “But at the same time, I am super excited about the possibilities. . . . We really are in a time where we have a shot at a true, multiracial democracy.”
She added: “There is an outcome we could have that would be terrific. Now, whether or not we’re going to have it is an unknown.”
Julian Castro, former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama, spoke of “a growing anxiety” about the changing nature of democracy in our country, which is fueling much of the nation’s polarization.
Castro pointed to the repeated demands by former President Donald Trump for audits of the results of the 2020 election, despite no credible evidence of any fraud or wrongdoing, as one example rooted in “a history of bigotry and anxiety about a changing America” and the mistrust and questioning of our democracy by a subset of Americans.
Tone matters, words matter, great speeches matter, and that’s what I am trying to transfer to the next generation.
Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and a Miller Center senior fellow, expressed both optimism and concern, particularly where the country has lost sight of its foundational, fundamental values. As a speechwriter, she noted the importance of the language and communication around democracy. “Tone matters, words matter, great speeches matter, and that’s what I am trying to transfer to the next generation,” Cary said.
Larry Diamond, a political scientist and professor at the Hoover Institution, was more somber. “My view is much darker than my fellow panelists,” Diamond noted. “American democracy is facing its most serious test since the Civil War. I think this is the first time since then that a substantial formation of one of the two established political forces in the country . . . a very large segment of the activists and office holders of one of our two great parties, have defected from basic Democratic norms.”
If the intellectual effort launched here is going to be serious, we have got to confront hard and painful truths.
He continued: “If the intellectual effort launched here is going to be serious, we have got to confront hard and painful truths.”
Diamond said he believes Trump will be the Republican party nominee for president in 2024 and that he will likely succeed in that election, either legitimately or through fraud. “I am very deeply worried about the near-term future of our democracy,” Diamond said.
Panelists discussed structural and legislative reforms that would be necessary to ensure the right of all citizens to right to vote, as well as steps that might decrease polarization and division.
Cary highlighted the importance in appealing to the “big middle” of 50 percent of voters, as cited in a recent poll, who identify as independents. Diamond put that number at around 40 percent.
What could be more important in a global economy, for the people in the middle, than to have a population that is connected to the globe through kinship, language, and custom?
Blackwell agreed. “The middle is where I spend a lot of my time trying to have conversations,” she said, pointing out that we are becoming a nation in which people of color will comprise the majority of the population. “What could be more important in a global economy, for the people in the middle, than to have a population that is connected to the globe through kinship, language and custom?” she asked.
Castro cited the media’s role in democracy and the importance of truth, accuracy, and local journalism in holding institutions accountable—a foundation that is eroding in many communities. Cary noted the corrosive effects of social media, misinformation, and censorship, suggesting instead that we should focus on diversity of viewpoints. Blackwell added that new Internet protocols are needed, particularly transparency about the sources of information.
Would either party even be willing to accept reforms to American democracy? Dickerson asked. Castro said he felt there is support for some reforms, citing bipartisan redistricting happening in some states. Diamond pointed out the efficacy of ranked-choice voting in “lowering the temperature of partisan polarization and creating more competition, choice, and flexibility.”
Eliminating the Electoral College was also discussed.
How, Dickerson asked, can individual citizens boost the health of our democracy?
“Over time, if we are able to do some of the things we’ve talked about to repair the damage to our democracy, then we’re going to get to a point where we can make reforms that need to be made that are more fundamental,” Castro said. “Both Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump at one point in their political careers called for abolishing the Electoral College. I think there are a lot of people who agree with that.”
How, then, Dickerson asked, can individual citizens boost the health of our democracy?
First, Blackwell said, educate yourself on why we keep talking about the Electoral College.
"it’s a vestige of the worst of the nation,” she said, noting the racial and power inequalities it was designed to enforce. “Next, think about how much you enjoy the diversity and the difference that attracts you to everything you do, whether it’s cultural things or learning, whatever you do. Understand that bit of joy that you get when you’re in a diverse setting is the joy that we could be really experiencing as a nation.”
She concluded: “Only a democracy that can work in the context of difference is worth putting on the world’s stage to be proud of.”
Larry Sabato, director of UVA’s Center for Politics, wrapped up the Biennial by reminding viewers of the importance of facts, particularly in the face of a large part of the American electorate to whom “facts don’t matter so much anymore.”
Ending on a hopeful note, Sabato pointed to opportunities to gather engaged citizens at a local, state, and national level. He highlighted a UVA project entitled “Common Grounds,” created entirely by students, which brings together a diverse group ranging from Young Americans for Freedom on the right to the Democratic Socialists on the left, and “every ideology in between,” to talk and discover whether a politically diverse group can set aside partisan differences by finding common ground. The results will be released later this fall in a documentary, with a challenge to colleges and universities nationwide to carry out a similar curriculum.
“These students are wonderful in their hopes and ambitions to make politics better than what they’d known as they were growing up. And that is where I pin my hopes,” Sabato said. “It’s the best shot we have for the future in America.”