The Heller School for Social Policy and Management moderated a panel discussion last Tuesday, Oct. 27 about the nature of democratic participation and civic engagement in 2020. The panelists were Prof. Anita Hill (Heller), University of California, Los Angeles Professor of Social Welfare and Public Policy Fernando Torres-Gil Ph.D. ’76 and Prof. Dan Kryder, the Louis Stelberg Chair in Law and Politics. The discussion, titled “The Act of Democracy,” referenced an op-ed written by Former United States Representative John Lewis, which he wrote a few days before his death, stating that “democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part.” 

Heller School Dean Daniel Weil moderated the event. He noted that “every four years we say to one other: this is the most important election in our lifetimes, but this time, it truly feels different. … It appears [this election is] not just about what person and party will lead our nation in the White House. It feels like it's about how we will continue as a democracy.” 

Weil began the discussion by asking each panelist to share their opinions on “the act of democracy.” Hill reflected on Lewis’s quote, noting that the concept of democracy has evolved from generation to generation. She reflected that when she was growing up, the act of democracy was about having greater economic and educational opportunity. Contrasting that to today’s reality, Hill showed a clip of a town hall with former Vice President Joe Biden, where a man named Cedric Humphrey asked Biden, “Besides you ain’t Black, what do you have to say to young Black voters who see voting for you as further participation in a system that continually fails to protect them?” Hill noted that this generation, pondering whether the act of voting can actually produce meaningful change, needs “motivation … [to] keep them engaged and keep them believing that democracy is something that can work for them, but only if they participate in it.” 

Torres-Gil spoke of the importance of “recreating civic bonds.” Referencing a New York Times op-ed called “How to Actually Make America Great,” he argued that a healthy democracy requires the nurturing of old school values: honesty, integrity and honor. Torres-Gil agreed with Hill about how the younger generation is grappling with the democratic system. Drawing on his experience teaching undergraduates, he noted that many are under tremendous stress, wondering if democracy is relevant to them. Torres-Gil said he often tells his students that when he was growing up in the 1970s, his generation similarly thought “the world was falling apart” due to significant social and political turmoil. 

Kryder remarked that the pandemic has shed light on the necessity of nurturing the democratic process. He noted that the presidential election this year is “irregular” in many ways due to the closeness of the race, high voter turnout, the interference caused by COVID-19 to voting administration nationwide and a general flood of misinformation and destabilizing rhetoric. Additionally, Kryder predicted that individual state electoral machineries will be under enormous stress, with the double challenge of processing the large amount of early voting and administering the election on Election Day. He speculated on a nightmare scenario where Biden wins a state, but a Republican governor refuses to certify the results under the justification that the ballots were tampered with. This could lead to a confusing outcome with an under-populated Electoral College, Kryder said. He suggested that people overwhelmed by election chaos nationwide should choose an “affinity state” to observe over the coming days and weeks as a coping mechanism to reduce the chaos of these elections. 

One of the central challenges to democracy today is cynicism, Hill said, because it creates apathy toward voting and allows for legislation to curtail voting rights. She remarked that cynicism is a danger extending well beyond these elections. Torres-Gil agreed, saying that “we are at a crucible that goes beyond political values.” He shared that he assigns the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence as readings for his undergraduate students because these documents reflect the aspirational quality of American politics. 

Hill noted that discussing the act of democracy demonstrates that there still exists an investment in the democratic process, and thus we ought to encourage these difficult conversations. She said that democracy survives “as long as cynicism exists alongside questioning.” Hill observed that this year appears to be an exception to this cynicism, with high voter turnout — albeit in part due to negative motivation. 

Weil then asked the panelists how they think confidence in the democratic system can be rebuilt. Torres-Gil argued that while the rebuilding process may take some time he is “really hopeful about the next four, eight and 12 years because the people most committed to changing the current system are under 50. It is that younger cohort going through this crucible.” Hill reflected on her experiences creating a survivors conference that would encourage victims of sexual abuse to be informed and engaged in the democratic process. She argued that “people who are victimized can actually be the best people to decide what needs to be done to make them … able to participate in a process that embraces them.” Kryder shared that he is “hopeful that additional attention will be paid to the machinery of our democracy,” remarking that “we are still a developing nation.” While the documents written by the Founding Fathers were aspirational, they also reflected anti-democratic elements, with a Byzantine political structure constrained by checks and balances created due to a fear of mass movements, Kryder said. 

Weil ended the conversation asking each panelist about their greatest source of hope for the democratic system. Torres-Gil said that everyone is united by their basic needs and so the United States has the potential to flourish under an administration that caters to these needs. He said that he takes hope from his grandmother, who became a U.S. citizen and voted for the first time at 65. Kryder argued that “one of the greatest aspects of American politics is the endless supply of creative resistance,” and that “I’m sure we’ll enter a new phase of this after the election.” 

“I used to think the struggle for a better democracy was going to be a sprint. Then I got a little older and started thinking well no, it's a marathon,” Hill said. “Now I think actually it's a relay. It passes on from generation to generation, but somehow, someway, we find a way to be involved, and that gives me hope.” 

Weil ended the session by urging everyone to make a plan to vote.