Discourse for Democracy

Extreme polarization–or intense division and distrust resulting from people’s opposing opinions on political issues–has become a prominent feature of our political landscape. While diverse perspectives and healthy debate are integral to a well-functioning democracy and the generation of good public policy, extreme polarization poses a serious threat to democracy. It can make us significantly less likely to talk with people who hold different perspectives than we do as we stick to our “bubbles” and end up in echo chambers.  This year, Polis’s events and programs center on the theme of “Discourse for Democracy”–centering authentic and transformative political discussions that promote unity and collaboration.  

“A Call for Leadership: Political Polarization and Civil Discourse at Duke University” by Chloe Nguyen (PPS ’24)

In her report, "A Call for Leadership: Political Polarization and Civil Discourse at Duke University," Chloe Nguyen (PPS'24) examines how Duke University can utilize social psychology research to improve civil discourse and political polarization amongst the student body.

After reflecting on the importance of civil discourse and depolarization for democracy, her work defines civil discourse and outlines a pilot program for first years that can help set norms which encourage discourse, collaboration, and relationship building on campus. It also outlines a series of suggestions to improve conversations on difficult topics in lecture halls, seminars, and extracurricular programming. Overall, this work hopes to provide a framework through which educators at Duke can employ social psychology research to foster campus norms which set up future leaders to improve our democracy.

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Rural Recaps: The Politics of Rural Identity, Antonio Butler, MPP ‘23

Antonio Butler, MPP '23

Politics, Policy, and a New Economic Strategy for Rural North Carolina

Rural Communities and the Politics of Identity

Rural Communities and the Politics of Identity featured Pastor Danny Ellis, North Carolina Representative James Gailliard, Executive Director of Tyrrell County CDC Mavis Hill, Duke Professor Jay Pearson, Duke Master of Public Policy Candidate Jaquell Sneed-Adams, and North Carolina Senator Mike Woodard on diversity and political identity in rural communities.

In this panel each panelist paid close attention to the experiences of diverse populations that call rural communities’ home, while considering the social and political constructs that shape these communities.

During their respective presentations Pastor Ellis and Professor Pearson discussed the stark health experiences and subsequent negative views people from diverse backgrounds have about the healthcare system. Pastor Ellis discussed the great deal of distrust minorities have in our healthcare system and the systems lack of cultural competency. Professor Pearson expanded on these racial disparities minority people face in rural America in his presentation. He highlighted where previous studies have gone awry in looking at health disparities and provided solutions to this issue moving forward. These solutions included having a more detailed fundamental social assessment of health disparities in America and realizing one size intervention models will not work. Researchers and policy makers should then focus on tailoring studies and policy toward group specific investigations that include socio-cultural, socio-environmental, and physical environmental factors when looking at health outcomes in rural America. Most important of all, policy makers and researchers should talk directly to rural residences about what they need.

During his presentation Representative Gailliard focused on social constructs and their relation to political identity. His presentation had four main themes: location, political ideology, and dysfunction. He noted the importance of recognizing that western rural NC is not the same as eastern rural NC. He argues that NC rural communities are not monolithic. He also asserts that most rural residents are not far left and often feel detached from the national left agenda. Dysfunction comes from a lack a vision in rural communities. Rep. Gailliard left the audience with a number of solutions to these issues. These included alleviating the systemic issues within rural communities, the creation of a bipartisan, bicameral rural caucus, and fixing the disproportion of philanthropic dollars towards urban communities.

Mavis Hill also highlighted challenges in rural eastern North Carolina including persistent poverty and racial issues. Hill’s strategies to alleviate these issues include creating a holistic approach that builds on eastern NC’s strengths and addressing job creation and building natural disaster recovery skills. Hill concluded that eastern North Carolina is strong, resilient, and should not continue to be overlooked.

Rounding out the conversation Senator Mike Woodard and MPP student Jaquell Sneed-Adams focused on the importance of storytelling. Senator Woodard discussed the need for government officials to go and directly be with the people to hear their needs and stories, and not come to them believing that as a government official they already know a solution to their problems. He also highlighted the pride in rural communities, and how rural communities must pay attention to homegrown talent, and not necessarily on being the next community to get the next big company to move to their location. Jaquell Sneed-Adams also highlighted the importance of empowering young people from rural communities and the need for investment in rural young people. Coming from Hendersonville, Sneed-Adams discussed the stereotypes young rural people face and often internalize, and the challenges of growing up where opportunities may not be as prevalent in more urban communities. Sneed-Adams left the crowd pondering two questions: how can we ensure young people get the necessary resources and opportunities they need to stay in their rural communities, and how can we instill pride in our young people from rural communities.

Overall, the panelist did an excellent job distilling the unique challenges diverse rural populations face, while also highlighting solutions to these issues.

Rural Recaps: Political Organization, Hana Stepnick ’23

Hana Stepnick, '23

Politics, Policy, and a New Economic Strategy for Rural North Carolina

Political Organization in Rural Communities

In this session, we heard from political organizers in rural areas from across the state. Each organizer presented their own background and initiatives, then they came together to answer questions about the major priorities and contemporary challenges facing North Carolina rural communities.

We started off by hearing from the young and inspiring Anderson Clayton, who got started at App State organizing for student voting rights. She then transitioned to work in rural Iowa as a field organizer for Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, where she felt right at home. During the 2020 election, she pivoted to working for the Amy McGrath campaign in rural Kentucky – an overlooked and important region in a well-financed race. She states that this area saw very little of the millions and millions of dollars that went into the campaign. Now, Clayton works as a broadband analyst at CORI. Through her previous and current political engagement, she’s learned the power of relational organizing, the importance of electing Black politicians to represent Black communities, and the strength of a rural platform that makes an actual difference – not just disconnected talking points. She firmly believes that “political organizing is done best when you know these folks” – and her work shows that.

We then got to learn from Aimy Steele, who is the founder and executive director of the New North Carolina Project, which organizes Black and Brown citizens to vote by learning about their priorities. The organization’s goals are to engage communities of color, build a voter base, and create a body of leadership in NC that is more representative. They use innovative technology, like heat maps, to look at where people vote and don’t vote, then engage in all sorts of mechanisms (phone-banking, text-banking, door-knocking) to learn about and communicate with these North Carolinians.

We also heard from Chris Suggs, the youngest person serving in elected office in NC. He believes in “a youth-led approach to civic engagement.” He started off his presentation by telling us the civil rights history of Adkin High School in Kinston, where he serves on city council, explaining the legacy of protests against racial injustice in his hometown. Alongside his work on city council, Suggs leads a program to empower young people through service, leadership, and civic engagement. He believes in putting youth in decision-making positions, centering the most marginalized, making sure political messaging is local, and understanding ownership (often of property) as a means of power and influence. Suggs firmly believes that narratives have to make sense for the issues that affect rural communities. For example, don’t talk about canceling student loans in an area where only ten percent of the population goes to college.

Lastly, we engaged with Cynthia Wallace, the co-founder and executive director of the New Rural Project. Cynthia has a storied political history in North Carolina. She was the Democratic Party Chair for the Ninth District and ran for Congress in 2020. But now she’s focused on seven rural counties – Union, Anson, Richmond, Scotland, Moore, Hoke, and Robeson – and how to engage their young and marginalized residents. The New Rural Project has a three-pronged strategy: listening, electoral engagement, and civic engagement. They’re committed to decreasing the barriers to voting for people of color, especially after 2020 – which didn’t have the same turnout in rural communities as the national narrative would make it seem.

Rural Recaps: Contrasts and Connections, Antonio Butler, MPP ’23

Antonio Butler, MPP '23

Politics, Policy, and a New Economic Strategy for Rural North Carolina

Contrasts and Connections: Perspectives on Rural and Urban Communities

Contrasts and Connections included panelists Kevin Austin, Chair of Yadkin County Commissioners; Linda Brown, President of Asheboro/Randolph Chamber of Commerce; and Patrick Woodie, President of the NC Rural Center. They discussed economic opportunities that have been unfolding in rural and urban communities, workforce development, and the role new businesses play in shaping economic development, particularly focusing on providing opportunities for young residents.

During his presentation, Kevin Austin explained how Yadkin County is tackling decreasing workforce participation and their attempts to lower the percentage of disconnected youth. Through programs such as the Yadkin Guarantee Scholarship Program and Surry-Yadkin Works, Yadkin County invests in their young people by providing them with opportunities to make college more affordable and introduce them to manufacturing and technology opportunities available right in their backyards. Early results from the programs have been pleasing. The Yadkin Guarantee Scholarship Program has reached many students in the area and allowed the Yadkin Center at Surry Community College to expand and increase the number of courses they offer.

During Linda Brown's presentation, she highlighted the challenges Randolph County faces and how they are conquering those challenges. Randolph County in 2020 saw a 65.5% increase in new business startups, yet a study highlighted by Linda Brown states that 70% of these new startups are doomed to fail. To combat this, the Asheboro/Randolph Chamber of Commerce launched an online business gym. Inside the gym, registered business owners can get free help through modules and templates on topics such as creating a business plan to self-care practices as a business owner from subject matter experts.

Lastly, Patrick Woodie gave an exceptional breakdown of the urban and rural demographics of North Carolina. Currently, 78 counties in North Carolina are rural, while 16 counties are considered regional cities/suburban counties, and 6 counties are considered urban. While Texas is the only state more rural than North Carolina, there is an even split in the population between North Carolina’s urban and rural counties. This even population split highlights Patrick Woodie's main point that North Carolina's urban and rural communities are interconnected and cannot exist without each other. They both need each other to thrive. Patrick Woodie also highlighted the state's increasing diversity and how we must engage emerging new communities and make meaningful efforts to bring them to the leadership table.

As a Master of Public Policy student whose upbringing has been shaped by rural and urban communities, it was great to hear how rural communities are solving their communities' issues. It was also great to hear how urban and rural communities in proximity are leaning on each other to solve North Carolina's most complex issues, especially as they pertain to young people.

Braver Angels Student Debate, 4/6/2022

On April 6th, students debated the question: "Should college campuses disinvite speakers whose ideas can be construed as “cancellable?” The debate was sponsored by Polis: Center for Politics and led by Braver Angels, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing Americans together to bridge the partisan divide and strengthen our democratic republic. 

Braver Angels debates are not competitive, but a collective exercise in searching for truth. Conducted in a light parliamentary style, they teach students to engage respectfully around difficult and divisive issues. Students think together, listen carefully to one another, and allow themselves to be touched and perhaps changed by each other’s ideas.

Read on to hear what two students, James Gao '24 and Manon Fuchs '24 had to say about their time debating this timely question.

2022 SGM Health Symposium: Transgender Policies, Care Practices, and Wellbeing, 3/21/2022-3/22/2022

"We need to continue to advocate strongly for the most vulnerable in our community," said Admiral Rachel Levine, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health, during opening remarks for the symposium.

The two day conference was hosted by the Duke Sexual and Gender Minority Health Program and co-sponsored by Polis. Experts from around the country discussed such topics as: the intersection of race and being transgender or non-binary in the US; teens transitioning; participation in sports; effects of recent legislative decisions; queer experiences of neurodiversity; aging as a transgender or gender expansive person; and pushing the boundaries of SGM health.

Professor Kate Whetten

Co-director of the Duke SGM Health Program, Professor Kate Whetten remarked, “Even within the communities who support transgender and gender-diverse people, there is incredible disagreement about what we should be doing...We're creating a space where people who have quite different beliefs can come together and express their differences, why they have them and what would convince them to believe differently.”

During closing remarks, Duke University Provost Sally Kornbluth stated, “We live in a society where it’s become too easy to dismiss people we disagree with, or those who challenge our beliefs and assumptions. But that’s not how progress happens. We have to be as willing to hear others’ perspectives as we are to advocate for our own."

Click here to read Duke Today's article on the conference, "Care, Understanding, and Agreement: Seeking a path forward in sexual and gender minority health."

Also read Duke's Global Health Institute's article and panel highlights, "Charting a Path for Transgender Health and Policy."