Fundamental tenets of our democracy are currently under threat, according to Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, Executive Director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. She has worked in the White House as the Consultant to the Chief of Staff and served as Chief of Staff to the Governor of Ohio. Through her work in political offices, she was inspired to start AmericaSpeaks, so that ordinary people would have a voice and the tools and platform to help strengthen our democracy.
The decline of democracy did not just begin in the 2016 presidential election. In fact, the 2016 election was more of a symptom than a cause, according to Lukensmeyer. The political divide between Republicans and Democrats has been growing deeper for some time now.
“Throughout most of modern political history, if you took the 535 members of congress and looked at it as a bell curve there were places where some conservative democrats and liberal republicans overlapped. They were willing to compromise, and they shared some of the basic political philosophy. If you look at the bell curve, now, there is absolutely no overlap,” said Lukensmeyer.
So why have the seas parted and turned salty against one another? Well, Lukensmeyer points to the Supreme Court’s Decision in Citizens United as a root cause.
“In 1992, when George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton ran against each other the combination of their campaign contributions and in total spent 92 or 93 million dollars. When Mitt Romney and Barack Obama ran, the total amount spent on the 2012 presidential campaign was more than 7 billion dollars,” said Lukensmeyer. Essentially, the decision gave corporations the same campaign funding rights as an individual. It has changed the face of campaign funding.
Additionally, Lukensmeyer holds the media responsible for increasing the division. “The creation of information technology has undercut the business model of journalism,” said Lukensmeyer. The rise of the internet caused advertisers to shift their support out of print, and it reduced the amount of money spent on long form journalism. While it may have democratized information, it has led to everyone being a broadcaster.
“The internet’s structure does not put people that disagree with each other in dialogue in a meaningful way. The amount of negative content and responses on the internet has increased exponentially.”
Furthermore, it is easy to get stuck in a media silo and to just absorb political information that confirms your political views. People are becoming more polarized because they are absorbing content that only speaks to one political party. This problem is only exacerbated by social media sites like Facebook that have an algorithm for only showing you content that they know you will enjoy.
“You need to access news sources that don’t just affirm what you already believe,” said Lukensmeyer.
The increasing polarization of the media and congress has led to people being unable to have civil discussions.
“The divides have grown deeper. During and after this election we saw and are still seeing the demonization of Trump voters by Clinton voters and vice versa. We, the people, have got to take the step of learning to be in contact with people who think differently than we do, and learning to how to listen to understand rather that to convince,” said Lukensmeyer.
Why does this lack of communication pose a problem? It creates political gridlock. Furthermore, it destroys the deliberative nature of democracy. The process of civil deliberation creates a system of political accountability that is essential to democracy. If we aren’t talking to one another, a demagogue can divide, conquer, and rise to power.
“My concern for your generation… is that you have been under a explicitly anti-government narrative coming from mass media and politicians for your entire lives. Many of you start with an anti-government bias, and the positions you hold about it are not fact based. I am not sure if your generation carries enough perspective to protect fundamental institutions of our democracy,” said Lukensmeyer.
So what can you, as a college student, do? Well for starters, take pride in your citizenship, and do not take it for granted. Citizenship is not a right. It is a responsibility. In order to be a contributing citizen it is important to engage in civil discourse with people that you disagree with. In the liberal community of Claremont, this can be a difficult task. However, push yourself to challenge your beliefs by reading or listening to alternative perspectives with an open mind. Maybe even call a relative that you disagree with, and attempt to have a civil conversation. Lukensmeyer’s organization has an app that helps individuals do this.
Take your cellphone and text 898-00 and in message line type civility. You should do this activity with friends. The app will send back prompts for you and your friends to talk about, and it will guide you through a civil discussion. Then, once you have had this conversation with friends, you are encouraged to take that framework and step outside of your comfort zone by having a civil discussion with someone you fundamentally disagree with.
“Most of us have pretty strong reactions to people that have different viewpoints than our own. What most Americans don’t do is to take the time to reflect on what it is in me that makes me react so strongly.”
Find that thing that makes you itch for justice, and scratch it. For example, you might select rank-choice voting as a systemic change you believe in suggested Lukensmeyer.
“It’s great because it cuts the incentive to run negative ads against your opponent and can reduce polarization. Get a group of students together that are passionate about implementing rank choice voting in California. Take a petition to your state and members of the assembly and the senate, and the secretary of state,” said Lukensmeyer.
Some of the reforms our system needs seem so basic. The fact that they haven’t been accomplished makes it seem insurmountable.
“Different centers that hold power today aren’t going to give the power up until someone forces them to give the power up. The weight of historical institutional power is on the side of the system today, and it takes a huge push from money or citizen power, to break through the institutional power.”
“Is it idealistic to think that we could overcome the current political situation?” I asked Lukensmeyer.
“I would never say that. One of the great gifts to humanity is the idealism of each new generation. It is part of what keeps the world on a positive progression, as Martin Luther King said, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. There may be in specific issue areas a lack of facts and support to help you act on your idealism in ways to produce meaningful social change, but your idealism is a great asset,” said Lukensmeyer.