Perceived erosion of democracy spawns new campaign

During his 16 years representing a Long Island district in Congress, Steve Israel said he saw divisiveness and partisanship grow exponentially. By the time he retired from the House of Representatives in 2017, compromise and respect for democratic norms seemed almost irrelevant, he said, and his biggest fear was not of foreign conflict but internal division.

“All of that came home in a very powerful and emotional way when I saw the images of people stampeding through the Capitol and ransacking it (on Jan. 6),” said Israel, director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs (IOPGA). “They weren’t trying to ransack the building; they were trying to ransack democratic norms.”

On Jan. 13, the institute launched the Campaign for the Future of Democracy, a bipartisan effort to strengthen democratic resilience and restore respect for those norms, such as accepting election results and ensuring peaceful transfers of power.

Through in-depth research on voters and engagement with members of Congress and with students, the campaign plans to design and disseminate messages to counter growing support for authoritarianism that Israel said has been decades in the making.

“We’re going to develop a counter message to the steady diet of authoritarianism that American voters have consumed,” said Israel, a professor of practice in the Department of Government, in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S). “We’re going to produce advertisements, we’re going to air commercials and we’re going to distribute digital media content that builds democracy up rather than tearing it down.”

The initiative kicked off at 7 p.m. on Jan. 13 with the webinar “Bipartisanship in a Time of Crisis? How Members of Congress Can Heal the Wounds and Find Common Ground in a Biden Presidency.” The discussion on how to support civil discourse and compromise in the new administration featured the co-chairs of the House’s Problem Solvers Caucus, U.S. Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) and Tom Reed (R-New York).

Israel, who moderated the discussion, is a co-chair of the Campaign for the Future of Democracy with Susan Molinari, a former Republican congresswoman from New York, and Richard Ravitch, a former lieutenant governor of New York and chairman of the IOPGA, whose mission is to raise political discourse and deepen people’s understanding of domestic and international affairs.

The campaign is assembling an advisory council of prominent academic experts, thought leaders and former elected and government officials. The 14 confirmed members so far include Gen. H.R. McMaster, former national security adviser to President Donald Trump; former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel; Bret Stephens, op-ed columnist for the New York Times; former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp; former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; and Suzanne Mettler, the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions in the Department of Government (A&S).

The Campaign for the Future of Democracy will focus on three missions:

  • Voter market research: A bipartisan partnership of leading pollsters, focus group conveners and media consultants will lead a project striving to understand why citizens have increasingly supported authoritarian figures, then develop messages to counter efforts to exploit those attitudes. “We will be not just testing but delivering,” Israel said, “direct messages that help strengthen voters’ resilience against attempts to subvert democracy at home or abroad.”
  • Engagement: The campaign will convene a series of salons bringing together sitting members of Congress, academics and thought leaders to assess democratic norms and ways to strengthen them, providing “translational platforms” for scholars and practitioners of democracy, Israel said.
  • Education: From K-12 to university classrooms, the campaign aims to assess how democracy and democratic norms are taught and help build resilience in the next generation of public leaders.

Israel highlighted data underscoring the national challenge: Nearly 60% of Americans said they were unsatisfied with “the way democracy is working in our country,” according to Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project in 2019. In a Quinnipiac University poll that year, nearly a quarter of Americans identified the free press as “an enemy of the people.” About 30% of the population is predisposed to authoritarian leadership, according to Anne Applebaum, author of “Twilight of Democracy.”

Driving the trends, Israel said, have been the increasing bifurcation of the media environment, the proliferation of misinformation and conspiracy theories on social media, gerrymandering that has created more polarized congressional districts, and a loss of faith in institutions.

Israel cited four major indicators that democratic norms are being violated: a rejection of democratic rules; the vilification and dehumanization of political opponents; toleration or encouragement of political violence; and willingness to curtail civil liberties, including a free press.

“All four of those have been amplified over the past several years,” he said, while noting that the rise of authoritarianism dates to 1960s.

Planning for the Campaign for the Future of Democracy began last year, Israel said, and accelerated in the aftermath of the presidential election.

“Authoritarianism has benefited from persistent and consistent messaging, but there has been no counter message that builds resilience for democracy,” he said, “What has happened since the November election compelled us to launch the campaign now.”

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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