“How can we defend the imperfect democracy we have against the serious threats it faces, while also rebuilding and renewing it to move it closer to perfection?”
The proposals in this report were authored by fifteen graduate and undergraduate students participating in “American Democracy at a Crossroads” (PUBPOL590S), a seminar at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, during the Spring 2023 semester.
The proposals have been edited lightly for clarity and consistency by Sanford Associate Professor of the Practice Asher D Hildebrand and Sanford MPP '23 Mona Zahir and are republished here with the authors’ consent Their content does not represent the views of the instructors, the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the authors.
By Asher D. Hildebrand
Associate Professor of the Practice of Public Policy
When this seminar convened for the first time in January 2022, it felt like a moment of acute peril for American democracy. The trauma of the January 6 insurrection was still fresh; state legislatures across the country were debating sweeping new voting laws; the 2022 election loomed large as the first major test of a vulnerable electoral system - and polarized electorate - in the post-Trump era.
A year later, the second cohort of “American Democracy at a Crossroads” faced a more nuanced landscape. The midterm elections had proved remarkably uneventful, with no significant violence or irregularities, high turnout despite some new restrictions, and high profile “election deniers” in key states losing (and then conceding) their races. A bipartisan investigation into January 6, and a swirl of legal proceedings, offered new hope for accountability (if not reconciliation) for the insurrection. And the outgoing Congress had been historically productive, reforming a key election law in addition to major new initiatives on infrastructure, climate change, scientific research, and other priorities.
Yet the long-term trends that produced our sense of acute peril are still evident. The 2024 presidential election is shaping up to be an unnerving rematch of 2020. And new fronts in the battle for the future of American democracy have emerged: a judicial system increasingly unmoored from public opinion, legislators expelled from their chambers for peaceful protests, a wave of book bans and other threats to freedom of expression. The democratic alarm bells are ringing less shrilly, but they are ringing still.
The charge for this seminar’s second cohort thus remained unchanged from the first: “How can we defend the imperfect democracy we have against the serious threats it faces, while also rebuilding and renewing it to move it closer to perfection?”
To answer this question, 15 Duke students - graduate and undergraduate, with diverse identities, beliefs, and lived experiences - examined three defining challenges facing American democracy today: polarization and partisanship, political inequality, and threats to voting and election integrity. Working in teams, the students analyzed the causes and consequences of each challenge, identified and debated potential solutions, and engaged with experts from the Duke community. Each student then selected a single solution to develop into a longer proposal, presented here in one page format.
This report thus represents the culmination of the seminar’s work: 15 distinct proposals for democratic reform and renewal, authored by students whose generation’s commitment to democracy will determine our future.