Ash Center Launches Challenges to Democracy Initiative

September 24, 2013
By Marty Mauzy, Ash Center exec. director

To commemorate its 10th anniversary this fall, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation will launch “Challenges to Democracy,” a public dialogue on the threats facing democracy in the United States. Leaders in thought and practice, from scholars to artists, will identify ten of the nation’s greatest challenges and explore a range of promising solutions. The program’s launch, a discussion on “Inequality versus Democracy,” will be hosted on October 3 in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.
”Democratic governance in the United States is being tested on many fronts and this public dialogue is intended to focus on these very significant challenges,” said Tony Saich, Ash Center Director and Daewoo Professor of International Affairs.
The threats are complex but tangible. The growing wealth and income gap between the wealthiest and the rest is testing our sense of fairness, social mobility and equal opportunity. Economic inequality also threatens to undermine the principle of political equality upon which our country is founded. The boundaries of executive power, often expanded in the name of maintaining national security, is testing our sense of balance between civil liberties and due process on the one hand, and our heightened levels of alert and anxiety on the other. Our democracy is also tested by the seemingly intractable issue of reconciling our collective views on immigration and by the promise of technology to increase democratization and participation, muted by evidence that it also serves to amplify the voices of the elite.
Ten years ago a generous gift from Roy and Lila Ash helped launch the Ash Center. The Ashes had dedicated their lives to serving the public good in both business and government, as well as through extensive volunteer and philanthropic endeavors. Through these experiences, Roy Ash came to view democracy as “fragile and in need of real and constant hands-on care.” Specifically, he and his wife wanted to support concentrated scholarly attention “to the nature, principles, functioning, and continued innovation and adaptations essential to a living and effective democracy.”
Today the Center’s scope of inquiry is broad, examining public-sector innovation, democratic institution building, civic participation, collaborative governance, Chinese public policymaking, economic development in Southeast Asia, and emergency response management. Yet the Ash Center’s commitment to what Roy Ash called the “fragile institution of democracy” remains strong. And this commitment is at the heart of the center’s new initiative, “Challenges to Democracy.”

The new initiative will be lead by Ash Center Director Anthony Saich; Archon Fung, Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship; and Alexander Keyssar, Matthew W. Stirling Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy . Also playing key roles will be Matthew Baum, Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications; Merilee Grindle, Edward S. Mason Professor of International Development; and Jane Mansbridge; Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values.

Over the next two years, the Ash Center will sponsor a series of events—from public forums, seminars, and book discussions to art installations and film series-- to broaden and deepen public discussion about the state of our democracy. The events will be amplified by a parallel stream of research, blogs, suggested readings, and occasional papers.
The faculty leadership has identified three challenges to date, with more to follow. They are:
Inequality Versus Democracy:Economic inequality is a principal threat to the health of democracy in the United States. An accounting of the causes and scope of inequality in the United States is necessary to an exploration of what we can do to mitigate inequality or how to mitigate its impact.
Expansion of Presidential Power:The expansion in recent years of executive powers in the U.S. has accelerated a debate that is often framed by a tradeoff between security and civil liberties. Understanding this challenge merits both a historical perspective and a contemporary one, made more relevant in light of current events such as the newly reported FISA surveillance of telephone and Internet communication.

Becoming American: Immigration and Citizenship:Today, immigrants comprise almost one-sixth of the US workforce, and together with their children represent one-fifth of the entire US population (and almost three-fifths of US population growth in the last three decades). What makes immigration such a hotly contested topic—one in which the general electorate is regularly at odds with policy decisions made by their representatives?
“Challenges to Democracy” will kick off on October 3 when the Ash Center joins with WBUR and NPR’s On Point to launch a discussion on Inequality vs. Democracy, in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at 6 p.m. Tom Ashbrook, an acclaimed journalist and host of On Point., will lead a panel discussion featuring Chrystia Freeland, liberal party candidate for Canadian parliament, Princeton Professor Martin Gilens and Kennedy School Professor Alex Keyssar.
Please visit the website for additional information, blog posts, suggested readings and upcoming events related to each of these themes.

Anthony Saich, Daewoo Professor of International Affairs Director

Anthony Saich, Ash Center Director and Daewoo Professor of International Affairs.

”Democratic governance in the United States is being tested on many fronts and this public dialogue is intended to focus on these very significant challenges,” said Saich.


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