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Abraham Lincoln doomscrolling in his monument as if pondering the state of American democracy

this american moment

The polls are clear: Americans on both sides of the major partisan divide agree on two things. Democracy is the best form of government, and this past year was a bad one for democracy in the United States.

We asked eight faculty and alumni experts to share their insights on the state of American democratic institutions and the challenges to them. The questions and issues go beyond the outcome of one election, but they have consequences for how we think about electoral politics at the federal level.

Is American democracy in crisis? Where are the biggest challenges? The areas of possibility? How do we re-store broadly shared trust in our federal institutions?

Our experts address these questions and share a few of their own—ones designed to help point the way for-ward in a nation whose demographics and social geography will continue to evolve.

Interviews by Sandra Knispel and Karen McCally ’02 (PhD) | Illustrations by John Tomac

image of a fraying American flag

Cracks in the Foundation

Democracy is under strain, but the infrastructure remains largely intact.

The way I tend to think about democracy is that people have to trust that the rules are basically fair and that if their party or their team loses, the stakes of that loss are tolerable; that in the future they’ll be able to contest an election again; and that they’ll have a chance of winning. That trust keeps everyone committed to democracy and committed to playing by the rules.

—Gretchen Helmke, professor of political science at Rochester; cofounder of Bright Line Watch, a nonpartisan research project that monitors democratic practices in the United States

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American Revolution Redux

Why are some Americans waving the flags of 1776?

The kind of distrust in mainstream institutions that we’re seeing in some sectors of the population today has a lot in common with the way British colonists in North America were thinking in the middle of the 18th century.

If the past is a guide, these are people who believe that both Republicans and Democrats in positions of authority are corrupt and that society is so corrupt that the whole system needs to be disrupted and possibly overturned.

—Thomas Slaughter, the Arthur R. Miller Professor of History at Rochester and a specialist on American Revolution, abolition, political violence, and just war theory.

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image of voters at voting booth with raised fists

Power of Protest

Voters at home are listening and learning from citizens in the streets.

Protest has really been resuscitated in the United States in the past few years, to a level we haven’t seen since the late 1960s. At that time, President Nixon introduced the idea of a “silent majority” of voters, content with the status quo, who stood in opposition to protest and protesters.

But there’s been a real change since then in how most people view protests. If you look at the relationship between protesters and the larger electorate, the evidence suggests a much less adversarial relationship. In fact, protests are serving as part of a social learning process for voters.

—Daniel Gillion ’09 (PhD), the Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt Presidential Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy.

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The Votes of Others

Why are so many Americans doubting the integrity of the ballot?

There have been previous periods in American history of wavering confidence in the integrity of elections. Although we did not have public opinion polls at the time, during the late 19th-century era of Democratic machine politics, for example, the popular press regularly reported on voting fraud.

—Mayya Komisarchik, assistant professor of political science at Rochester and a specialist on race and ethnic politics in the US, representation, and voting rights.

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image of flagpole with flag at half staff

Civil and Uncivil Discourse

The new world of digital media has amplified an old concern: What speech, if any, should be limited? And who should decide?

There’s a trade-off between allowing people to speak in an unfettered way and risking that at some point unfettered speech might veer into the realm of inciting or threatening violence. The rise of the internet and social media have amplified concerns about incendiary speech, but the concern is not new. . . .

Who should be drawing the lines in the world of social media? Private companies? The government? Both? Does the First Amendment get “canceled” because of social media’s reach? Our society will continue to wrestle with these questions in the coming years.

—David Primo, the Ani and Mark Gabrellian Professor and professor of political science and of business administration at Rochester.

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Speaking in Code

Campaigns can still thrive on racial stereotyping and coded language.

There’s a traditional political science model that might have predicted the tactics of racial stereotyping and coded language would become less effective over time. It says you have this median voter, and you have a party on the left, and you have a party on the right, and they are going to try to converge toward the middle to reach that median voter. But we’re not seeing that in our politics.

—LaFleur Stephens-Dougan ’02, assistant professor of politics at Princeton University and a specialist on racial attitudes, Black politics, and public opinion in the US.

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image of person falling into spiral of conspiracy

What to Do about Q

Ever present on the fringe, conspiracy talk has pierced the mainstream.

The kinds of conspiracy theories that we see circulating today are what I call “conspiracism.”

They’re theory-less. They’re assertions that something was rigged, something was hidden, but there’s no elaborate theory behind them. For example, there’s no elaborate theory behind the claim that the 2016 or the 2020 election was rigged. There are only a bunch of disconnected assertions that don’t really fit together into a cohesive story.

—Scott Tyson, assistant professor of political science at Rochester and a specialist on game theory, conflict, authoritarian politics, and collective action.

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Mask Wars

Do Americans agree on the meaning of liberty? Of truth?

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored how interdependent we really are and how inadequate and even naïve our thinking about liberty really is. In the United States we’ve tended to see liberty as a matter of, “I should be free from interference to do certain kinds of things.” But there are two dimensions to liberty.

—James Johnson, a professor of political science at Rochester and a specialist in democratic theory and pragmatist political thought.

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