DEMOCRACY IN CRISIS
Democracy in Crisis: Civic Learning and the Reconstruction of Common Purpose
By Bruce Jennings, Michael K. Gusmano, Gregory E. Kaebnick, Carolyn Neuhaus, and Mildred Z. Solomon
This multiauthored report offers wide-ranging assessments of increasing polarization and partisanship in American government and politics, and it proposes constructive responses to this in the provision of objective information, institutional reforms in government and the electoral system, and a reexamination of cultural and political values needed if democracy is to function well in a pluralistic and diverse society. The essays in the special report explore the norms of civic learning and institutions, social movements, and communal inno¬vations that can revitalize civic learning in practice. This introductory essay defines and explains the notion of civic learning, which is a lynchpin connecting many of the essays in the report. Civic learning pertains to the ways in which citizens learn about collective social problems and make decisions about them that reflect the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. Such learning can occur in many social settings in everyday life, and it can also be facilitated through participation in the processes of democratic governance on many levels. Civic learning is not doctrinaire and is compatible with a range of public goals and policies. It is an activity that increases what might be called the democratic capability of a people.
By Sheila Jasanoff
Nation states in the twenty-first century confront new challenges to their political legitimacy. Borders are more porous and less secure. Infectious disease epidemics, climate change, financial fraud, terrorism, and cybersecurity all involve cross-border flows of material, human bodies, and information that threaten to overwhelm state power and expert knowledge. Concurrently, doubts have multiplied about whether citizens, subject to manipulation through the internet, have lost the critical capacity to hold rulers accountable for their expert decisions. I argue that the primary threat to democracy is not the public’s epistemic incompetence but a slow dissolution of the deliberative practices that are essential for self-rule. We need a radical reimagining of the sites, forms, and performances of democratic deliberation. For this purpose, the American state needs to reconstitute a public square open to citizens who are deemed to be epistemically competent and capable of informed judgment.
By Peter Levine
A civic ideal is an ideal of deliberative self-governance. People who participate in discussing what their own groups should do are being civic. Civic venues, institutions, and habits have waned since the mid-1990s. In the 1990s, a movement arose to restore them, under the banner of “civic renewal.” This movement was carefully nonpartisan, often impartial about specific issues, and interested in creating alternative settings that could complement such basic political institutions as Congress and elections. As the condition of democracy has worsened in recent years, this approach looks inadequate or irrelevant. The most promising sources of civic renewal now are parties and social movements that have substantive agendas, such as racial justice, and that improve civic life as a collateral benefit.
by Meira Levinson and Mildred Z. Solomon
Civic education that prepares students for principled civic participation is vital to democracy. Schools face significant challenges, however, as they attempt to educate for democracy in a democracy in crisis. Parents, educators, and policy-makers disagree about what America’s civic future should look like, and hence about what schools should teach. Likewise, hyperpartisanship, mutual mistrust, and the breakdown of democratic norms are perverting the kinds of civic relationships and values that schools want to model and achieve. Nonetheless, there is strong evidence that young people want to be civically engaged and are hungry for more and better civic learning opportunities. Reviving the civic mission of schools is thus a win-win-win. Adults want it, youth want it, and democracy needs it. We propose three means by which educators and the public can reconstruct our common purpose and achieve civic innovation to help democracy in crisis: support action civics, strengthen youth leadership outside the classroom, and engage both students and adults with “hard history” and contemporary controversies.
By Michael K. Gusmano
Successful deliberations over contentious issues require a publicly spirited citizenry that will encourage elected officials to promote what James Madison called the “permanent and aggregate interests” of the country. Unfortunately, atomizing forces have pulled American society apart, undermining trust and making collective action difficult. Residential segregation is one of those atomizing forces. Residential segregation undermines a commitment to civic virtue because it encourages people to think about fellow citizens as “others” with whom they have little in common. To address this situation, we must start by fixing our neighborhoods and creating local institutions that enhance trust and foster a public-spirited democratic citizenry. For example, our existing educational policies reinforce the disparities associated with residential segregation and have created massive resource inequalities among school districts across the country. A useful first step would be to equalize school district funding to promote a more genuine equality of opportunity.
By Robert Westbrook
This essay looks to Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey, as well as a contemporary political theorist, Kevin O’Leary, for some guidance in confronting the present crisis in American democratic norms and practices—including that swirling around issues of public health.
by Miriam Solomon
General science literacy contributes to good public decision-making about technology and medicine. This essay explores the kinds of science literacy currently developed by public education in the United States of America. It argues that current curricula on “science as inquiry” (formerly the “nature of science”) need to be brought up to date with the inclusion of discussion of social epistemological concepts such as trust and scientific authority, scientific disagreement versus science denialism, the role of ideology and bias in scientific research, and the importance of peer review and responsiveness to criticism.
By Gregory E. Kaebnick
Social debates about highly technical topics are often driven by values yet dwell on facts. The debate about whether genetically modified organisms are acceptable in food, for example, focuses on causal claims about consumers’ health or the environment, but the language and imagery surrounding it often point to underlying misgivings about the human relationship to nature or the use of science. In such cases, it is not always possible to resolve the factual disputes simply by articulating the facts better. Because of various features of human reasoning—cognitive biases and heuristics, the very nature of facts, and the central role of social trust in how people learn—facts cannot be fully disentangled from values. Three lessons can then be drawn. First, values sometimes need to be discussed at the outset of debate, before or while addressing facts. Second, factual issues can and should sometimes be framed in less politicized ways. Third, factual claims that have a limited evidentiary basis may nonetheless need to be aired and discussed.
By Kiameesha R. Evans and Michael K. Gusmano
Vaccine hesitancy is a major public health challenge, and racial disparities in the acceptance of vaccines is a particular concern. In this essay, we draw on interviews with mothers of Black male adolescents to offer insights into the reasons for the low rate of vaccination against the human papillomavirus among this group of adolescents. Based on these conversations, we argue that increasing the acceptance of HPV and other vaccines cannot be accomplished merely by providing people with more facts. Instead, we must address the pervasive racial discrimination in the United States that undermines trust in social institutions, including the health care system. In the short term, it may be helpful to increase the number of clinicians of color working in the health system, but more fundamental changes are required. The U.S. must adopt and implement policies that dismantle structural racism if it hopes to produce greater trust and community-oriented thinking on behalf of people who have been exploited for centuries.
By Erika Blacksher and Sean A. Valles
This essay argues that a failure to think and talk critically and candidly about White privilege and White poverty is a key threat to the United States of America’s precarious democracy. Whiteness frames one of America’s most pressing collective challenges—the poor state of the nation’s health, which lags behind other wealthy nations and is marred by deep and entrenched class- and race-based inequities. The broadscale remedies experts recommend demand what is in short supply: trust in evidence, experts, government, and one another. The authors’ prescription is threefold, beginning with a call for intersectional health studies and reports that avoid one-dimensional misrepresentations of widespread health problems as simply Black or White problems. Second, there is the need for a “critical consciousness” about race and class. Lastly, the essay calls for widescale opportunities for Americans to engage in cross-racial and cross-class democratic conversations about their struggles and aspirations in search of common ground.
By Bruce Jennings
Forces including extreme economic inequality, cultural polarization, and the monetizing and privatizing of persons as commodities are undermining the forms of moral recognition and mutuality upon which democratic practices and institutions depend. These underlying factors, together with more direct modes of political corruption, manipulation, and authoritarian nationalism, are undoing Western democracies. This essay identifies and explores some vital underpinnings of democratic citizenship and civic learning that remain open to revitalization and repair. Building care structures and practices from the ground up and developing inclusive and egalitarian modes of solidarity in a pluralistic society are the focus of discussion. The essay argues that solidarity and care are essential relationships and practices of moral recognition upon which democratic political agency and freedom rest. The social-relational lifeworld and the democratic lifeworld are interdependent. Democratic citizenship is itself a relational practice that supports other practices. Democratic governance properly carried out fosters an underlying social solidarity and care and in turn draws moral and political legitimacy upward from them.
By Bruce Jennings, Michael K. Gusmano, Gregory E. Kaebnick, Carolyn P. Neuhaus, and Mildred Z. Solomon
This essay provides an integrative discussion of various theoretical and practical reform perspectives offered by other essays in the report. It also offers a number of recommendations. It notes that the aim of the special report is not to propose specific reform measures but, rather, to consider larger, more theoretic concerns related to political and economic questions, which are personal and structural—psychological, cultural, and institutional—at the same time. In response, this essay argues that the best relationship between the citizenry and government in a democracy is not one of deference, nor one of contestation, but one that is critically constructive, which in turn is linked to practices of civic learning. To be constructive, citizens need scientific literacy, an understanding of how government and other institutions work, critical thinking abilities, and many open and diverse forums for civic learning to offset the increasingly isolating media “bubbles” that are the only source of information for many. The essay then formulates five recommendations designed to facilitate critically constructive citizenship and civic learning. These are creating a basis for civic participation, acquiring information, talking to each other, designing institutional change, and achieving deliberation.