Harvard political experts exchanged views about the future of American democracy following a transition of power marked by insurrection at an Institute of Politics event Monday.
The event, titled “The State of Democracy: Where Do We Go From Here?” featured Eaton Professor of Government Daniel Ziblatt, who co-wrote the book “How Democracies Die,” and government department research coordinator Caroline M. Tervo ’18.
The event marked the finale of a four-part series titled the Harvard Political Union Democracy Fortnight, which brought together policy experts, activists, and scholars to offer their prognoses on the state of American democracy.
Amid bipartisan calls for unity, Ziblatt said the United States must confront the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.
“You can’t move forward unless you deal with the past,” he said.
Tervo also said disinformation campaigns on social media are largely responsible for fueling animosity between Democrats and Republicans.
“The extent to which your only messenger is some disinformation campaign on social media — that totally confounds any ability to have that delivery,” she said. “Having build-up in civic networks, build-up in social capital, can combat that.”
The insurrection, Ziblatt said, shed light on other breakdowns in America’s political system.
“Our constitutional system, which has always favored rural areas, for the first time in recent memory, or in a century really, is disproportionately favoring the Republican Party — in the Senate, in the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court,” Ziblatt said. “And so what all this means is that, essentially, the Republican Party can continue to do well, gain office, without winning a majority of the vote.”
Though Republicans have controlled the White House for 12 of the last 20 years, Ziblatt noted the party only won the popular vote in one of those presidential elections.
Still, Ziblatt said the high voter turnout in the 2020 election shows that American democracy is functioning.
“The high voter turnout — despite efforts to disenfranchise people — shows us that our electoral institutions work. The electoral channels remain open,” Ziblatt said. “So no matter what side you’re on, it means that our democracy worked. The fact that we had this trouble around January 6 suggests that it wasn’t seamless.”
As a result, Tervo said the United States’ current election system can have the effect of dissuading people from participating in the political process.
“I think the extent to which we have these structures where civic participation and voter participation — this exercise of rights — is literally not valuable or useful, I think is very degrading to the country and the system,” she said.
Tervo added that the country should refine its election process to make Americans feel their voice matters in politics.
“We could get some good reforms in here that a lot of people would feel really good about that still have elements of preserving minority rights and minority rule,” she said. “So if you’re a Democrat voting in Alabama or a Republican in Maryland, you would know that it’s not a waste of your time to show up to the ballot and vote for president.”
—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.