OMNIA Q&A: Understanding Democracy

We spoke with Jeffrey Green, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, about the goals and programming of the new educational hub.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Jeffrey Green, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy

This past August, Andrea Mitchell, CW'67, and Alan Greenspan made a gift to endow the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy. The Center will provide an unparalleled platform for students, faculty, and a broad public audience to explore some of society’s most pressing concerns and enhance Penn’s stature as a hub for scholarship on democratic institutions and issues.

The  Center will build on the work of the Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism, an initiative established with Mellon Foundation support in 2006. Leadership is changing as well, with Jeffrey Green, Associate Professor of Political Science, taking over from founding director Rogers Smith, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean for the Social Sciences.

We spoke with Jeffrey Green about the goals and programming of the new educational hub.


What is your overall vision for the Center?

Jeffrey Green: The overall mission is not simply to promote democratic values like civil discourse but to understand democracy. I don't think we fully know what a democratic society requires. I believe we can confidently say that some societies are more democratic than others. I don't think there'd be much disagreement that Northern European democracies like Finland or the Scandinavian countries are more free and equal in their politics than authoritarian regimes in other parts of the world, but I think it would be naïve to think that they have achieved the final answer to the meaning of democracy.

 To give one example of the incompleteness of our knowledge about democracy: In even the most egalitarian countries in the world today, it really does matter how wealthy you are with respect to opportunities for political voice and career advancement. Polling continually reflects that people in even the most advanced liberal-democratic regimes feel that that being born into a wealthy family makes a meaningful difference for their prospects. And decades of social-scientific research has shown that the likelihood of voting and participation in non-electoral forms of civic engagement is affected by social class. So, what are the implications of these findings? How do we make even the most democratic societies more democratic? Do we only try to further reduce the effects of social class in the educational and political systems, or do we introduce new institutions that are not simply about approximating equality of opportunity?

This is but one of the live issues, that will, hopefully, if it is handled progressively, make the democracies of 50 years from now more democratic than those of today. Another would be understanding the threats to democratic regimes—threats which seem to be on the rise in our present moment. And still another would be analyzing the possibilities—and also perhaps limits—of civil discourse to bring about and sustain democratic values. In any case, I see the Andrea Mitchell Center as being intellectually involved in that quest of how to understand the meaning of democracy in a world where it doesn't seem to ever be fully realized at any given time.

Can you speak on this year's theme and upcoming event programming?

This year, the theme is "States of Religious Freedom." The opening event takes place on Thursday, September 28, at the National Constitution Center. It’s an interfaith discussion where we're going to bring together four individuals: Kristina Arriaga, who works in defense of religious freedom; Dan Barker, who is working for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, so someone from the atheistic perspective; Khalid Latif, who is the Executive Eirector and Chaplain or Imam at the Islamic Center in New York; and David Saperstein, a U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom for the Obama administration. Following that, each month we'll have an outside scholar come and speak to the issue of religious liberty, and then there'll be a conference at the end of the year.

We're also working to expand our programming in light of the new donation. Already we have at least two new initiatives that are happening this year. One is a partnership with the Penn Political Union, which is an undergraduate organization that engages in mock parliamentary debate. The students organize themselves into five political parties, which cover a wide spectrum of political ideology. We're not only going to sponsor their debates but sponsor outside speakers.

Our first scheduled speaker is Michael Smerconish, a journalist on CNN and Sirius Radio. He’s also an author and graduate of Penn Law. He is going to debate the students on whether the media is to blame for the climate of polarization in the U.S. We're currently working to schedule other outside speakers.

Are there additional initiatives that include student involvement?

The second new initiative that we’ve already begun, which we’re calling Politics on the Edge, is to interface with the Penn Philomathean Society, a literary society that includes people from all walks of student life and has been in operation since the early 1800s. It's a great, rigorous, diverse organization that brings together very intellectually minded students from broad backgrounds and interests. The plan is to sponsor speakers to visit and engage in discussion in a more informal, far-reaching, perhaps controversial fashion with this group.

Jared Beck will be the first Politics on the Edge speaker. He is leading a class action lawsuit against the Democratic National Committee, claiming that it did not fairly represent Bernie Sanders and that it was biased in favor of Hillary Clinton. There are at least 10,000 fellow litigants that he's working with and he has a book forthcoming that is going to respond to Hillary Clinton's claims about what went wrong in her election.

Our programming over the last decade has been extremely successful but direct engagement with undergraduates tended to be somewhat limited to fellowships for a select number of students working on year-long research projects. That is, our intellectual programming had been pitched primarily toward outside scholars and, thus, a faculty audience or a graduate student audience. Our two new initiatives aim to directly appeal to an undergraduate audience. The logic for doing this is both that they are of course an absolutely vital constituency in our community, and that if we can bring them in, I think we will naturally also be bringing in the wider public. This is because to speak to the undergraduate community is to speak in more general and broad terms, less constrained by specialization and more connected to the issues of the day.

I should add that I think the promise of these initiatives is to cultivate a kind of discourse that is both partisan and independent-minded, where students will think for themselves but will do so often from a prior ideological standpoint. I hope that the conversations will be lively and provocative but also serious, fact-driven, evidence-driven, and open-minded. I think that many of us feel, especially in this moment that we're in, that this type of civil discourse is scarce.

Are there specific ways you hope to address the current divisive political climate?

The very first topic of debate, with Smerconish, is about one of the sources of that divisiveness: To what degree it has come from the media itself, or is it mostly coming from genuine political divides among citizens? It is true that we seem to be in a moment of poignancy, if you want to call it that, with regard to democracy. People are not only divided from each other, it appears, but more polarized than at other times.

I've been studying democracy for almost two decades, and up until recently I've been more focused on the critiques based on the possibility of democracy, that is, how possible is it to have a polity fully shaped by free and equal citizenship. However, there's been an increase now in questioning the desirability of democracy, whether from a technocratic standpoint that says it's better to have experts rather than the populace make decisions, or from a perspective that’s skeptical about the capacity of elections and public opinion to represent the public interest. Exploring the meaning of democracy, and the divisiveness of our moment, will likely involve greater attention to both kinds of critiques.

Related to this, next year's theme will be “Democracy in Trouble?” While the programming is still being determined, we're interested in exploring discourse that might help overcome some of the divisiveness, but we're also interested in understanding the divisiveness, both by not having the programming be restricted to a familiar liberal platform (and instead also include speakers who might identify as being from the right and not left) and also by trying to explore some of the opponents of the democratic regime itself. We want to have our programming be in harmony with the spirit of the times, and it so happens, I think, that the spirit of our times is one of intense disagreement, where even democracy itself is being more questioned than in the past.

You mentioned that the programming will stress varied political views. Can you elaborate?

The Center is an engine for not just cultivating student involvement and civil discourse, but political diversity, which is a hard thing to achieve at a university. Some stats I've heard say that in America, 93 percent of professors are liberal Democrats. I'm very optimistic and excited about this initiative with the Penn Political Union for many reasons, one of which is this, that it is a place that brings together a diversity of perspectives.

Including diverse perspectives also means trying to be global in scope. Democracy is not an American topic—it’s a global topic, and our speakers will very often be dealing with global events or democracy in foreign countries. I would imagine that as part of our programming for 2018-19, we're going to deal with authoritarian drifts in countries like Poland and Hungary, for example. Countries like China claim to be democratic, and so what will be a debate, I think, is not democracy or no democracy, but what kind of democracy? What does it mean?

If you look at the so-called Democracy Index, the U.S. is not in the top 10, or even top 20. I think insofar as we are concerning ourselves with what makes the best democracy, we won't be doing our job at the Andrea Mitchell Center if we think that America has all the answers and the rest of the world should follow. I think we'll want to look at the countries which tend to score at the very highest.

Are there any ambitions beyond the near future for programming?

I would like to have a race and politics initiative that would be partnered with minority student associations on campus and that would bring in speakers to speak to those topics, which are of course extremely relevant to ongoing issues in the U.S., but also relevant globally. I'm not sure you could find a democracy in the world that didn't have an important connection to issues and questions and debates about race. That would be the next thing I would hope to do.

One of the promises of this moment is that the Mitchell Center is one of many new initiatives at Penn in the last few years that concerns itself broadly with politics, including the Biden Center and Perry World House. There's also a revitalized Center for the Media at Risk at Annenberg. I think what's exciting to me is to be part of this broader flourishing of politically minded centers and institutions at Penn, and I think we will work together.