As democracies around the world grow increasingly divided with the rise of various anti-democratic forces and nationalist-populist movements, a group of Harvard scholars gathered Friday morning to assess the state of democracy in the U.S. and propose ways to revitalize it to ensure it best serves 21st-century America.

The event, titled “Revitalizing Democracy,” was one of six academic symposia that took place Friday across the University as part of President Claudine Gay’s inaugural celebration. Gay, a political scientist, has called “faltering” democracies one of the most pressing challenges the world faces. She said that seeking ways Harvard can join with the global community to find solutions is a priority for the University.

During a discussion at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School led by moderator Guy-Uriel Charles, the Charles Ogletree Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, faculty panelists identified some of the difficulties American democracy faces today.

Among the issues that panelists cited are an outdated reliance on institutions like the Electoral College, the U.S. Senate, and the filibuster that permit a minority to thwart the will of the majority, and foreign actors and nation-states targeting the American electorate with threats and false information designed to widen political and cultural divisions and weaken consensus on democratic principles.

Many of the problems have been gradually emerging over time amid changes in population through immigration, shifts to a global economy, and the rise of digital technology.

Danielle Allen in the JFK Forum.

Danielle Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor, and director of the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at HKS, said passage of immigration laws in the 1960s, the emergence of social media and structural reforms to both political parties in the 1950s have resulted in “unintended consequences” that affect our democracy today.

Some of the panelists noted that the country has only been a true multicultural democracy since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, while the Constitution, written by and for a white minority eligible to vote, has remained largely untouched since the Civil Rights era.

Yanilda González in the JFK Forum.

The “outsized” and very different experience that communities of color often have with policing compared to white communities fuels misperceptions about the state and crime and hardens fear-driven partisanship, said Yanilda González, assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School.

The panel offered ideas for how the Harvard community, particularly faculty and students, can start to dismantle these barriers and strengthen democracy so that it more fairly and equitably serves the changing America populace.

Archon Fung, the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government and director of the Ash Center, said research has shown that frequent face-to-face interactions between people with very different political views reduces polarization and will foster a “culture of democracy” in which disagreement is welcome and partisanship is not, so focusing more effort on bridging political gaps at the local or state level is critical.

Archon Fung in the JFK Forum.

Jill Lepore, David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History and Harvard College Professor, suggested an amendment to the Constitution that would impose term limits on Supreme Court justices at some future, mutually agreed upon date, could be an effective way to eliminate lifetime appointments, which partisans on both sides agree in principle runs counter to democratic practice, and to demonstrate that changes to the Constitution are necessary and possible.

Academic institutions, like Harvard, ought to begin working now to identify the models that can best move U.S. political institutions forward so that they truly support our multicultural democracy, said Daniel Ziblatt, the Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University and director of the Center for European Studies.

“The ideas are already there,” Ziblatt said. They just require time and attention to refine them so they’re ready to be implemented when the time comes, much like was done following World War II to establish institutions like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.

“If we just sort of hold off until the moment is ‘realistic,’ then we won’t be ready when the moment comes.”

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in the Harvard Gazette.

Photographs by Stephanie Mitchell

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