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Democracy under Siege: What Are Colleges and Universities to Do?
Version 1: Young people are registering in record numbers, wanting to exercise the franchise in this most fraught of elections. They look for clarity in the policies of the two parties and for candidates who speak to the issues most on young people’s minds: climate change, inequality, and access to and the cost of education. Young people are repelled by the hyperpartisan drama in Washington and don’t know what to make of the deepening chasm dividing the country. They, and we, decry the lack of civility.
Version 2: The 2020 elections hurtle toward us under a cloud of fear and uncertainty. An impeached president, supported by a party indifferent to his crimes, wages a campaign that smacks of old newsreels from the 1930s. Meanwhile, outside his base, hundreds of thousands of voters across the country struggle to register in the face of Republican efforts to narrow the franchise and the vote. Can the rhetoric of white supremacy and nativism capture the electoral college? What happens to the rest of us if it does?
Which of these versions is most likely to begin an essay in a higher education journal? On the other hand, which language captures the depth and seriousness of the current passage through which the country moves? Version 1 is safe, it distributes blame widely, it has no named enemies of democracy. It reassures us, subtly, that the system isn’t really in peril, merely marked by “divisiveness” and bad behavior. It implies equivalency between the parties and political leaders. It implies an answer: engage in civil discourse, be polite, educate, vote.
Version 2 has the virtue of saying what is actually on my mind and names the proximate threat to democracy. It allows me to talk about the very real possibility that the president of the United States will not honor the results of an election that goes against him, just as he refused to participate in a legitimate congressional impeachment inquiry. This all hints at authoritarian tendencies that most of us recognize. While avoiding too many rhetorical gestures to Weimar, it sees the current struggle as an existential moment for American democracy.
Version 1 avoids the partisan trap. If the threat to democracy is the alienation of our people from government, the loss of faith in politicians, or the ignorance of voters—all true—then we can act as if no agents are working to end or limit democracy. If we begin with the public opinion findings over the past two decades—only a third of American adults can name a branch of government, one in six Americans now believe military rule is acceptable, only a bare majority vote1—then the answers are long-term and (happily) almost curricular. If the issue is structural inequality and low voter turnout among low-income citizens, we can believe others outside the academy will address it. Our job stays the same as it has always been: the education of our students, best-case scenario, in the facts and arts of democracy.
But what if democracy is in peril because powerful political forces are actively working to limit the franchise, maintain the hegemony of big money and corporate power, and create a politics of minority rule by oligarchs? What if the threat to American democracy is part of a multinational, faux-populist attack on liberal democracy itself, and Donald Trump is only one actor (and symptom) in a much larger struggle being waged across Europe, Turkey, India, Brazil, and elsewhere by antidemocratic forces?
A struggle between worldviews
The belief that we are engaged in a worldwide battle between liberal democracy and autocracy is advanced by both Russia and the more candid of the alt-right theorists. In their view, liberal democracy is a dying system, corrupt and weak, to be replaced by authoritarian regimes. Steve Bannon is not some peripheral figure on the fringes of the fake-news world. He was, after all, the chief strategist for Trump and now among the chief consultants working the far-right across Europe. Bannon and his colleagues are nothing if not clear that the current struggle is between different worldviews. He appears entirely familiar with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favorite theorist of the new world order—Aleksandr Dugin—and his chief theoretical antecedent, the Italian fascist Julius Evola.2
These are the theorists of “traditionalism,” who see the current political struggle as between a secularist liberalism and a Judeo-Christian patriarchy needing to assert its authority and fight against both Islam and modernity.3 What a happy coincidence for the international alt-right that one of theirs actually has state power in the United States and appears determined to hold on to it by any means necessary—including accepting the active intervention of a foreign totalitarian state.
It is, of course, entirely possible that both versions of the “crisis of democracy” could be simultaneously true. The levels of alienation and anger animating contemporary politics, the lack of commitment to democratic institutions, the distance ordinary citizens feel from government—all are issues of enduring danger and also form the ground on which actual enemies can act. And, the willingness of the Republican Party to abandon principle to maintain power, to distort reality in the name of what the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński called the Great Yesterday,4 means the partisan divide in the country is actually more than bad behavior and bad opinion. One party depends on expanding the franchise and widening democratic engagement; the other depends on narrowing it. One embraces the demography of the new America; the other appeals to a resentful nativism.
Facing the crisis
If these are the stakes, how are we to act? How do institutions committed to the broadest liberal education of students respond to “democracy under siege”? Does it matter what kind of crisis this is? Maybe colleges and universities will act in expected ways no matter what the nature of the crisis.
Our default position, if you’ll excuse me, is to duck and cover. Or, more charitably, to fall back on our traditional nonpartisanship, avoid any explicit engagement with campaigns or candidates, and then provide some small support for programs to register students, help efforts to get out the vote on and off campus, and believe that the system can survive without our public voice or any other institutional initiatives.
That’s not enough this time around.
Let me suggest two things. First, of course, the commitment to nonpartisanship is not just cultural; it’s mandated by regulation. Our avoidance of a direct institutional critique of one party or the other is born of more than prudence; it’s legislated. We threaten our funding and our political support if our colleges or universities favor one party or another, one candidate or the other. This is not trivial. But is it all there is to say?
Second, it is possible that colleges and universities might not actually have much of a role in defending democracy during an immediate and urgent crisis. If the crisis is, at least in part, the emergence of a reactionary populist demagogue thoroughly disinterested in democratic values or norms, higher education can’t do much about it. Even if we are under fundamental threat (to academic freedom, institutional autonomy, science, the independent judgment of scholars and teachers), we depend on the political mobilization of others outside the academy to protect us.
But, within the confines of institutional nonpartisanship, and with a certain modesty about our role, what might we do this electoral season? However dire we see the circumstances, what can we do? We can do a lot more than we’ve been doing. We can act as if we actually believe there is a crisis.
First, of course, we can find ways to make clear our policy preferences: we support DACA, we oppose deportations of undocumented students, we believe in science and support initiatives to address the climate crisis, we want increased access and lower fees for students, we support student voting and want polling places on our campuses, we oppose white supremacy and misogyny and expressions of hatred even while supporting free speech. These are all appropriate institutional positions, in keeping with our commitments to a robust liberal education.
Second, even if we have to avoid institutional partisan expressions for any particular candidate, university and college leaders do not have to remain silent in our personal capacities. All of us—faculty, staff, administrators, presidents, chancellors—can do far more this electoral season to make the election matter, to bring public urgency to the issues that matter to us individually: writing op-ed pieces, giving public speeches, participating in demonstrations, engaging in nonviolent and civil disobedience. It’d be encouraging to see university and college leaders who really do believe the climate crisis is an existential threat take a much more public stand to draw attention to the crisis (perhaps joining the demonstrations with Jane Fonda or the Extinction Rebellion).5
In short, we should not be silent or passive on issues that matter to us personally. Our moral obligation to speak out for social justice and equity, the rule of law and democracy itself, may come into tension with our institutional commitment to nonpartisanship. But during this political passage, we must err on the side of expression and principle.
Third, with regard to our institutional practice, we have to do much more to educate and engage students in the issues and the campaigns, however last-minute and hurried our efforts. There will be roughly six to ten weeks between the start of classes and the election this fall. The election ought to be the centerpiece of campus life for all those weeks: public forums and debates, local candidate and referendum events, massive voter-registration drives, and the establishment of polling places where it’s legal to do so. Institutional resources can go to student interns and student-run events. If colleges and universities can (and will) spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for temporary staff for football season, we can spend a share of those dollars for voter registration and voter education.
Then, go further. How can colleges and universities use the urgency of the campaign to spark substantive learning on what’s at stake? What are the policy priorities of the two parties? Can students learn to discern fake news? What historical analogies help us understand the emergence of antidemocratic movements? Looking forward, can this election cycle prompt a review of the degree to which our programs prepare young people for the political debates that will dominate the next decade? This pivot from the immediate to the long term will matter if we actually make the pivot to “centering” the civic and political in our work. No matter who wins, democracy will continue to be contested terrain. We might use the postelection moment to reflect on what we wish we had done better long before we reached this difficult moment. What can colleges and universities do to better prepare our students for democratic action in the face of conflict and ever-sharper disagreements? Why have we buried our civic commitments so much that they don’t even register in accounts of the “public narratives” regarding higher education?6
Nowhere is this more critical than the climate crisis. This issue clearly matters to our students, and candidates who address the climate crisis will disproportionately gain the support of young voters. What more might we do to better prepare them for the tough political choices that will be forced by the climate crisis? How many are familiar with the science with which we understand the largest existential threat to the planet? None of this can be addressed adequately in the run-up to the 2020 election, but the election can surely be a time when we assess how well we’ve done in developing curricula that educate all students in understanding the climate crisis.
Protecting a democratic future
Our role in sustaining democracy in the face of long-term cultural and ideological confusion can comfort us. It really does matter, it turns out, if students graduate with a broad liberal education. Even if they don’t know the difference between 1.5 and 3 degrees Celsius, they have a deep and intuitive sense that climate catastrophe is threatening their world. Poll after poll shows that today’s students celebrate their diversity, support expanded rights for groups and persons long marginalized, and believe in democracy. They want to protect these values, and they will be among those who protect a democratic future. They are a massive voting block for democracy.
That is, if they vote. Our role is to do everything we can to facilitate their political education, facilitate their engagement, and be clear about what we care about. This time around, the stakes could not be higher. Can you imagine four more years of relentless attacks on equity, diversity, the rule of law, the climate, and the institutions of democratic governance themselves?
This essay was written before the country was struck by the coronavirus pandemic and before higher education was convulsed by the sudden need to exercise social distancing, close campuses, and move to online learning. Sadly, nothing in the essay’s main argument has changed. Indeed, the crisis only makes more pressing the need for broad democratic engagement among our students, as the national election will come upon us no matter what stage of “recovery” we are in. The challenge for higher education will be how to devote the resources and energy required to encourage students to engage national political issues—and vote—when campuses are absorbed in the daunting logistics of recovery.
ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge:
Campus Vote Project:
Fair Elections Legal Center:
Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning
Institute for Democracy
Rock the Vote:
U.S. Vote Foundation:
- See Yascha Mounk, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), esp. 4.
- See Jason Horowitz, “Steve Bannon Cited Italian Thinker Who Inspired Fascists,” New York Times, February 2, 2017.
- See Aleksandr Dugin, The Fourth Political Theory (St. Petersburg: Amphora, 2009).
- See Adam Hochschild, “Another Great Yesterday,” New York Review of Books, December 19, 2019. Hochschild, following Kapuściński, points to the similarities of populist movements that hark back to a mythical past of supposed virtue and (usually) a racial and/or ethnic identity.
- The Extinction Rebellion movement began in the United Kingdom, advocating civil disobedience to bring attention to the climate crisis.
- Debra Humphreys, “Reframing Narratives of Value in the New Media Landscape,” Lumina Foundation, presentation of research commissioned by Protagonist, Inc., at the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Forum for Presidents and Foundation Leaders, January 2019.
Brian Murphy is president emeritus of De Anza College and an associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California–Berkeley.