The Key to Maintaining Democracy? It’s Conversation.

by | Jan 30, 2024 | News

On January 25th, the Harvard Kennedy School hosted a panel to discuss how candid conversations about  differences in opinion contribute to healthy democracy and social cohesion. The event, which was held on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was livestreamed via YouTube, and focused heavily on the roles of conversation and disagreement and  in democracy.

The event was moderated by Erica Chenoweth, Academic Dean for Faculty Engagement and Professor of the First Amendment at Harvard Kennedy School, who opened by stating, “Our graduates will be entering a turbulent political culture and time … the goal for tonight’s event is to have a wide-ranging, big picture discussion about the role of dissent and disagreement in a functional democracy.”

Archon Fung, Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at Harvard, began the discussion by asking audience members in the room to identify the three issues most important to them, such as climate change, reproductive rights, etc.

Fung then asked if the audience would be willing to accept and go along with the results if, in a democratic election, the opposing view got more votes. Over half of the audience stated that they would be unwilling to compromise on the issues they cared about.

“Maybe we are the threat to the democracy,” Fung said. “One reason why democracy is fragile is because too many of us become justice-authoritarians and not enough of us are small-d democrats.”

Danielle Allen, Professor at Harvard University and Director of the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation, focused her time on the role of disagreement in a democracy, providing an anecdote of how there was fervent political debate within her home growing up. “Real debate that is the single most productive thing for the need that we all have as human beings to understand our world and find solution pathways forward.”

Allen emphasized the importance of sharing discourse among people who hold opposing views:

“In a democracy, we have this incredible opportunity to tap into the perspective of all of us [as well as] the knowledge we can bring to the table from the very different places we sit in relationship to a problem … In a public space, I am always looking for the person who sits very differently from me. I want to know what they know because that expands what I have access to for my own ability to think my way through the world.”

In a similar vein, Arthur Brooks, Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit and Public Leadership, spoke on why productive disagreement is an important skill. He expressed to the audience the dangers of shying away from disagreement, especially in academic settings:

“Any collection of people that is trying to avoid ideological disagreement — the first thing they are going to do is to put up gates. They’re going to put up gates about what you can talk about, they’re going to put up gates against people that have alternative points of view. You’re going to get fewer and fewer instances in which people feel comfortable saying what they think when it is apart from the institutional norm, and we’re not going to let people into our communities who do so in the first place.”

Brooks acknowledged the natural human instinct to avoid or put a stop to discomfort — something that can arise when exposed to differing opinions, and compared honing one’s debating skills to physical training. “We are a gym. You go to the gym to find people that are going to make you stronger and more skillful, and the only way you are going to do that is from the discomfort that comes with having different points of view.”

Moderator Chenoweth brought up the point that, in a gym, we must trust the person with whom we are training or sparring. They invited Eliana La Ferrara, a professor of Public Policy, to speak on the breakdown of trust among citizens and how it may affect discourse.

La Ferrara has conducted studies on diverse communities and gathered data that suggests that various factors influence trust between people. La Ferrara, alongside now-deceased economist Alberto Alesina, wanted to study how the environment in which people live might correlate with trusting attitudes.

“More unequal cities had on average less trust and more racially diverse cities had less trust,” La Ferrara said. She explained that the data showed economic status had little influence on certain groups’ support of economic and public policies.

“Most of the discussion when we talked about education policy or public provision had previously ignored that the willingness to support these policies might not simply be a function of your own economic benefits — lower income people with certain beliefs and in certain environments were not going to be supportive.”

Cornell Brooks, Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice, spoke on how people may navigate conversations around hard topics. Brooks emphasized that it is important to acknowledge grief, trauma, and sorrow when entering a conversation.

“When we engage in these difficult conversations, it is important to make the distinction between an epistemological advantage and epistemological monopolies. In a democracy, we have to appreciate the fact that we have people who are members of an affected community, and we have to respect that, but we have to approach the conversation with a certain modicum of intellectual and moral humility understanding we don’t have a monopoly on knowledge.”

Brooks concluded by saying:

“Let us not underestimate the degree to which we can be persuasive, meaning we have to be in conversations long enough for our argument to take hold. If you take your own ability to affect discourse seriously in a democracy, that means you don’t engage in performative speech — performative speech meaning when we make arguments, we really don’t care if people are affected by what we say, we simply want to say it. I found these principles helpful not just in participating meaningfully and sincerely in a democracy but as an advocate.”


Photo by Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer


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