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Pair of ASU events feature scholars discussing how to safeguard democracy

Future of Democracy
March 15, 2019

Recent political climates at home and abroad may leave many feeling increasingly insecure about the future of democracy.

Our phones, TVs, computers and tablets provide a constant stream of media reports on erupting civic unrest in other countries, while in the U.S., increasing polarization has left communities divided as many Americans feel excluded from the ideal of “We the People.”

In a 2018 survey, the Pew Research Center found that “Americans generally agree on the democratic ideals and values they see as important for the U.S. — but they say the country is falling short in living up to them.” Only 58 percent of Americans say democracy in the U.S. is working well. Meanwhile, widespread concerns about the future of democracy span the globe.

What prompts such pessimistic outlooks on a country’s ability to execute democratic principles?

“People are worried about the future of democracy today partly because they feel that ordinary citizens have too little power, partly because our party system seems broken and partly because there is such extreme polarization,” said Craig Calhoun, University Professor of social sciences at Arizona State University. “These are all issues for the U.S., but also for other democracies.”

John Carlson, interim director at ASU's Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and professor of religious studies, agrees. He calls for the empowerment of both the individual and democratic institutions alike in order to uphold and promote democracy.

“At a time when nationalist movements and antidemocratic trends are on the rise, the contributions of scholars, journalists, religious actors and others to democratic culture remains more important than ever,” Carlson said.

Considering the underlying urgency, fears and frictions, what does the future of democracy look like, and how can it be preserved?

This month, two ASU events welcome the public to engage with these important issues, providing insights on how to defend the future of democracy.

The first event, hosted by the Institute for Humanities Research, will focus on how community members can overcome feelings of powerlessness amidst authoritarian trends in the U.S. 

The March 20 lecture, titled “Public Universities, Democracy and the Citizen Professional,” will feature Harry C. Boyte, and will take place at 4:30 p.m. in the Memorial Union Ventana Ballroom at ASU’s Tempe campus.

“Harry Boyte’s talk will address precisely these issues of how to connect local to national and global, how to deal with polarization and how to empower citizens,” Calhoun said. “Harry Boyte is one of America’s most important voices for democracy rooted in the civic life of local communities. His famous early book ‘The Backyard Revolution’ told the story of how citizens changed their communities for the better even when national politics seemed blocked.”

The second event, “Religion, Nationalism, and the Future of Democracy,” will take place on March 27. It will address the threat that resurgent religious and ethnic nationalisms present to democracies around the world, as well as the role of media as it covers these conflicts and promotes public knowledge and democratic voice.

“Democracy cannot thrive without free press,” said Kristin Gilger, senior associate dean at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and one of the event moderators.

“We have seen that proposition proven over and over in other countries around the world. In the U.S., we tend to take democracy — and free media — somewhat for granted. But now, with recent attacks not just on the press, but on many of our democratic institutions and practices, we simply can’t afford to take these freedoms for granted any longer.”

Hosted by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, the March 27 lecture will feature Peter Beinart, contributing editor at The Atlantic and associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York. The event will take place at 7 p.m. in the Great Hall of Armstrong Hall, on the Tempe campus.

Carlson will join Gilger in moderating the event. The lecture is part of the initiative, “Religion, Journalism, and Democracy: Strengthening the Vital Institutions of Civil Society,” which promotes the exchange of insights and expertise among journalists and scholars of religion.

Both events will provide ASU faculty, staff and students, along with members of the public, with the tools and insights necessary to effectively sustain democracy within their own communities.

Lauren Whitby contributed to this report.

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