On Thursday, Oct. 17, the Open Visions Forum “American Democracy a Year from 2020: Reeling or Resilient” took place at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts as part of the Common Ground Lecture Series.

Philip Eliasoph, Ph.D., the creator of the Open Visions Forum, welcomed the audience to the event. Richard Greenwald, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, introduced the speakers Miles Rapoport, E.J. Dionne and Heather McGee.

Heather McGee is a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, the public policy firm. McGee is also an NBC news analyst. She is currently writing a book about the economic, social and personal effects of racism. 

E.J. Dionne is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, an independent, nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C. Dionne is a professor at Georgetown and a visiting professor at the Kennedy School at Harvard University. Dionne is also a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post.

Miles Rapoport is a fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Kennedy School at Harvard. He was the president of Common Cause, and the head of Demos for 13 years. Rapaport was Connecticut’s Secretary of State from 1995-2005. 

Each panelist presented their own perspective on the future of democracy in the United States.

“Who gets to be an American? Can a multiracial democracy thrive?” McGee asked the audience.

“We are a nation of ancestral strangers,” McGee said. She then listed several of the areas of contention of our time: birth rates are at their lowest, the number of refugees entering the US is at its highest and climate change is a problem of our own making. 

Even so, in the future, McGee hopes to see a true democracy of the people forming with ties to every part of our globe. 

“If democracy is not destroyed…I see a revival of democracy,” E.J. Dionne said. 

Dionne explained that democracy is the most educational form of government because people can listen to and learn from opposing viewpoints through healthy arguments.

“We don’t have real arguments anymore,” Dionne said.

There are many people who do not want to listen to views that are so different from their own. In order for a revival of true democracy to begin, people must listen attentively to opposing viewpoints, Dionne concluded.

“American society has been extremely resilient,” Rapoport said, explaining the basis of his perspective for the future of democracy.

According to Rapoport, activists have taken action to remedy issues of gun safety and climate change. Genuine efforts to suppress the vote has taken place, but the process to register to vote has become easier over time, Rapaport said. Overall, things are getting better. 

After each panelist spoke, Dean Greenwald and Eliasoph began asking the panelists questions.

Dean Greenwald asked, “How do we teach the new generation to disagree with each other constructively?”

“After a presidency that issues a direct challenge to facts, in the information ecosystem where echoes of lies continue to be heard long after they are uttered, I think it will take decades,” McGee said.

Eliasoph then asked about the influence of Facebook in the 2020 election. 

In response, Dionne said, “Facebook…seems to think of itself as a telephone, with no responsibility for its conversation, but I think it is more like a publisher, who should take responsibility for everything that is published on its platform.” 

“The Russians are not going to take people by surprise in the 2020 election,” Rapaport said. 

A member of the audience asked, “Is tribalism is a good thing to enforce the vision of democracy or is it something that detracts from democracy?

In response, Dionne said that too often, one division reinforces another, and these divisions are compounded. 

Following that, Rapoport posed the idea of universal national service, such as the Peace Corps, to help people in the U.S. break down the barriers formed by tribalism.

“National service is the one place where you are required to be with people who are different from you,” Rapoport said.

McGee then noted that humans have instincts towards both bridges and walls.

“People of color are being killed by police in ways that would never happen if they were white…There are also so many white people in the United States who see demographic change as a threat,” McGee said. 

“What unites us as a country is leadership.” 

Sophomore Magdalena Dutkowska, an international studies major and humanitarian action minor, commented on the panel.

“I really liked how Heather McGee opened up the discussion with her question, ‘Who gets to be an American?’ Being a Polish immigrant and a U.S. citizen, it’s really exciting to see how the definition of “who gets to be an American” is becoming broader,” Dutkowska said. 

Senior Alana Hubbs, a political science major, said that the panelists made her reflect on the diverse perspectives of the world that she does not always get to hear.

 “One thing that stood out to me the most is what E.J. Dionne said, how the first word of the constitution is “we.” And we don’t say it enough…” Hubbs noted. “We need to remember that we are one country.”

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