The state of U.S. democracy

On the eve of a presidential inauguration following a historic election and its aftermath, experts from across the University weigh in on where we stand as a country.

the capitol building in washington dc
While a new administration transitions into office, the past four years have left the country asking, “How strong is our democratic foundation?”

The run-up to the 2020 presidential election in the United States was like none other, with vitriolic and divisive discourse and a sitting president making false claims about the integrity of the vote, culminating in a deadly confrontation at the Capitol building. Yet, lawmakers still carried out their role in certifying Joseph R. Biden Jr. as 46th President and Kamala Harris as 49th Vice President and the first female to hold the role.

In theory, the inauguration gives the U.S. a logical moment to move forward, to break from the events of late. But where does all that’s happened leave the country’s democratic foundation?

It’s shaken, but still standing, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. In an op-ed she penned for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jamieson laid out three reasons she believes this: An independent judiciary protected basic constitutional freedoms; the press remained free and diligent; and individuals used their voices to “advance the cause of justice.”

“Is this a period in our country’s history in which we should be particularly proud? No. But is our system proving that it’s durable? Yes,” she tells Penn Today. “The president cannot exercise governmental authority to stop our press from putting out images, our Congress from deliberating, or the citizenry from exercising the right to vote. Protecting that right is a foundation of a democratic system. Poll workers, secretaries of state, judges, members of Congress who certified state Electoral College votes—people in many places stood up and did the right thing.”

Penn Today asked Jamieson and others across the University to weigh in on the current state of democracy in the U.S., with a specific focus on their areas of expertise. Here, we present thoughts from nine. We will share others in the coming weeks.

Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought, professor of history and Africana studies, School of Arts & Sciences

The first inauguration of a president is always a new beginning. At this moment, the populace is so polarized that we do not know what the next moment will bring. The pandemic, the economic downturn, the protests that turned into a riot at the Capitol, and the continuing dream of achieving a beloved community and a just society present formidable challenges. Biden should avoid a domestic terrorism focus because when this episode passes, history teaches us that incarceration and surveillance mean that the most vulnerable will be victimized for their activism. We need an inspirational message reminding us that the ideals to which this country aspires are still achievable.

riot at the capitol steps in washington dc
A mob of Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Their breach of the building led to several deaths and sent members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence into lockdown.

Daniel Gillion, Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt Presidential Distinguished Professor of Political Science, School of Arts & Sciences

There’s a thin line between protest and insurrection, and many individuals have compared what took place this summer with Black Lives Matter to the rebellion at the Capitol. But there are huge differences.

For one, Black Lives Matter protesters did not go into the Capitol building looking to hunt down congressional members and destroying federal offices of duly elected representatives while taking mementos of a riot to advert the Constitution. What happened Jan. 6 is in a disgraced infamy class of its own. One was protests, the other a failed coup. What we’ve seen is our democracy being tested. These events can’t be viewed as a childish mistake to be forgiven in the name of unity. It has stained the history of our democracy, a stain that must be addressed.

The riots also revealed a glaring dichotomy between the treatment of Blacks and whites by the police, and it was shocking. It’s one thing if police were just not as aggressive, but some opened doors for or took selfies with the mob. There is one silver lining, though.

Many times, this dichotomy and unfairness are not acknowledged, but Biden did. He spoke about photos his granddaughter sent him of troops on the steps of the Capitol during the Black Lives Matter protests, but very few during the insurrection. Just achieving that is progress, an incoming president saying, “Hey, I recognize this difference.” He’s doing it on the grandest of stages, and that is heartening.

I don’t know what the future holds for America, but as we look forward, we have to speak about these issues and listen to one another; this requires us to have a deep dialogue on democratic efforts in America.

black lives matter george floyd protests
Crowds of protesters took to the streets following the murder of George Floyd by police in June 2020. (Image: Ted Eytan)

Stephen B. Burbank, David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

Trusting in the integrity of our institutions when they are not under stress, we focus attention on them when they are under stress or when we need them to protect us against other institutions. In the case of the federal judiciary, the two conditions often coincide.

first day of nixon impeachment inquiry
The Judiciary Committee, United States House of Representatives, opened its formal impeachment hearings against President Richard Nixon on May 9, 1974. (Image: Library of Congress)

I had the privilege of clerking for Chief Justice Warren Burger. On my first day of work in July 1974, a messenger gave me a large envelope, saying that the chief justice had asked me to proofread the enclosed opinion. It was United States v. Nixon, which precipitated President Richard Nixon’s resignation and the end to what President Gerald Ford called a “long national nightmare.”

Laws, we are told, are “those wise restraints that make us free.” Experience during the past four years—and even more so during the past two months—has reminded us that, in times of aspiring authoritarianism in the executive branch and serial subservience in the legislative branch, independent and accountable courts are the bulwark of our freedoms. Those who lived through Watergate should not need the reminder.

Anne Berg, assistant professor of history, School of Arts & Sciences

After an angry mob of ordinary, mostly white Trump supporters, militia members, QAnon conspiracists, right-wing extremists, and full-on Nazis stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, I am to describe the state of American democracy? I have but one word: visible. Now the state of American democracy is visible to all, even to white people.

Pundits talk about a divided polity as if it were some remarkable novelty. In shock, they profess, “This isn’t us. This isn’t who we are.” But America has always been thus divided. Africans never consented to their enslavement. Indigenous people never consented to genocide and expropriation. Post-slavery, Black people never consented to their systematic oppression or the murder of their kin by lynch mobs and police.

Historical image of police officers turning back a peaceful Civil Rights crowd of protesters at the foot of a bridge in Alabama.
On March 9, 1965, protesters marched from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery in the second of three protests against segregation and disenfranchisement. Police turned the protesters away at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

American democracy has white supremacy baked into its institutions, its laws, and the enforcement of these laws. The violent backlash against the movement for Black Lives and the growing, multi-racial coalition that stands with it made that undeniable.

American democracy isn’t broken, it works precisely as designed. It works for white people with access to property, wealth, education, and social status. It has never worked for Black Americans, for Indigenous Americans, for people of color, for non-white immigrants, for refugees, “undocumented” migrants, the homeless, the poor, the incarcerated.

The white rage—to invoke historian Carol Anderson—that spilled down Pennsylvania Avenue with reclaimed vigor is neither new nor more violent than in the past. Black advancement and Black resistance have always met with white mob violence and state repression. To arrest this pattern, we must change the underlying structures of American democracy and not, as philosopher Charles Mills put it, rewrite the racial contract yet again. If we don’t, the raging white mob will return to a polity that professes incredulity and outrage.

Ezekiel Dixon-Román, associate professor, School of Social Policy & Practice

The current moment is a significant challenge to what has been characterized as the experiment of the American democratic project. The insurrection on Jan. 6 tore open the seam that has been woven together of American democracy in dangerous ways for the global community to see. Within a matter of hours, a mass of people made their way into the Capitol, literally revealing a weakness at the center of U.S. democracy: white supremacy.

We are living in the midst of a new civil war, one taking place in what I would characterize as post-colorblind political discourse. The prior foreclosure of overt racism as a result of civil rights legislation has caused whiteness to make explicit rights claims as a marginal subject. The nation’s shifting demographics have shaped an anxiety in whiteness in its grasp of entitlement over this American project.

Through different configurations, different terms, this populist movement has been developing over decades. [President Trump] is not the determinant, but rather the symptomatic expression of a growing movement characterized by an apathy toward science, distrust in government institutions, and an interest in neo-fascism. Unlike the civil war of the 1860s, the agonistic battles of today have been and will continue through different terms of engagement, through discourse organized and enabled by new media technologies.

The political has long been enfolded into the platforms and algorithms of these technologies, which are fundamentally designed with a behavioral psychology to attract, addict, and shape behavior through preemptive action. The rapid flow and algorithmic interpellation of (mis)information includes that which produces fears, anxieties, and desires of uncertain future events inciting preemptive action. What becomes of political behavior under such terms? What are its implications for democracy?

What is needed are federally mandated anti-racist educational curriculums and greater government interventions that mitigate the political forces of new media technologies. Without such, the U.S. democratic project will become increasingly polarized and deeper entrenched in new civil war agonisms, tearing the warp and weft that weave us together. The cost is too dire.

Mauro F. Guillen, Zandman Professor of International Management, The Wharton School

It is no secret that American corporations have enjoyed a few good years in terms of an Administration focused on deregulation and tax cuts. The violent insurrection on Jan. 6—which was a planned event, perhaps even an organized conspiracy to overthrow our system of government—apparently represented a step too far for industry groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, and some of the country’s largest employers, which have announced a freeze on their political contributions to elected officials who enabled the insurrection by casting doubt on the election or by delaying the certification of the Electoral College results.

sign in front of the Capitol building with a U.S. flag that reads FOR SALE
Political contributions by corporations can influence lawmakers to serve special interests in exchange for political stability. But corporations withholding contributions may send a stronger message, says Amy Sepinwall. (Image: Anne Meador, Cool Revolution)

One is left with the impression that corporations and their interest groups should have taken action much earlier, after Biden was declared the presumed winner weeks ago. The economy cannot work well without political stability. Unfortunately, this time corporate America has been too slow to react.

Sigal Ben-Porath, professor of education, Graduate School of Education

Although democratic citizens are free to make up their own minds, a fully divergent set of facts, a vastly distinct view of the world in which we live, is untenable in a democracy. If we cannot agree on such facts, how are we to make policy and to be governed as a nation? To live together, citizens depend on a basic common account of reality. An inherent tension exists between the freedom to think for ourselves in a democracy and the need for coordinated action. To make decisions together we have to be able to listen to each other, and we have to rely on true facts.

plan a protest on georgetown's campus
Universities have a responsibility to accommodate diverse viewpoints in free speech activities on campus, like Georgetown University in 2010 (pictured here), while maintaining a commitment to truth and integrity, according to Sigal Ben-Porath. (Pre-pandemic image: The Georgetown Voice)

Clashes over free speech on social media, on campuses, and in other contexts in recent years illustrate populist shifts around the question of who gets to adjudicate the boundaries of truth and therefore the boundaries of what might publicly be expressed as a true claim. Universities need to accommodate viewpoint diversity while prioritizing the truth and the opportunity for all to participate in learning, and that is a tough act in a polarized society in which so many views stem from ideology. Truth is also important to defend in other public contexts like social media, even though lies are generally protected forms of speech. But without a shared understanding of reality—who won the election, how to address a public health emergency—we cannot live together.

Amy Sepinwall, associate professor of legal studies and business ethics, The Wharton School

Corporations have been instrumental in securing some of the landmark civil rights advances of the past decade. Google’s “Legalize Love” campaign may well have contributed to the Supreme Court’s momentous decision finding that same-sex marriage was a Constitutional right. When Paypal and other businesses decided to boycott North Carolina over its “bathroom bill,” the state rolled back the law. And corporations came out in droves to express their support for Black Lives Matter, often offering financial support to boot.

These are undoubtedly laudable initiatives. But should we be sanguine about the role of corporations in shaping public policy or otherwise exerting political influence? Several considerations counsel caution.

black lives matter protesters
After the murder of George Floyd, communities across the country took to the streets to demand justice and plead for the safety of Black lives, like this youth-led Justice for George march in Baltimore on June 1, 2020. (Image: Elvert Barnes Photography)

For one, corporations speak for all of their members—shareholders, executives, directors, employees—even while most corporations exclude a significant constituency from having a say in the position the corporation chooses to advance. Hobby Lobby, for example, took a stand against certain contraceptive use but do all of its employees and their family members feel the same? For another, it is all too easy for corporations to urge symbolic change—for example, by “benching Aunt Jemima,”—even as they sustain the vast wealth inequalities that produce or facilitate so many of our systemic injustices. Finally, as satisfying as it was to have social media sites mute an insurrection-baiting President Trump, do we really want these platforms to have the power to permanently expel users?

Mom-and-pop shops or democratically organized workplaces should perhaps enjoy the prerogative to pursue both profits and political ends. But we should think hard before celebrating the political engagement of large corporate behemoths.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communication, Annenberg School for Communication and director, Annenberg Public Policy Center

A free press is alive and well; I don’t think it’s ever been stronger. Read its exposés on QAnon. The challenge facing the country is that we have channels of communication that have been abused in order to traffic in conspiracy theories, which often are harmless but can be menacing. As we have just seen, the QAnon conspiracy theory has violent disruption of a democratic system as its likely end.

The platforms have realized late that it’s inappropriate to permit their privately owned channels to be used in this way. They’ve realized the same thing about conspiracy theories and misinformation about COVID and vaccination. Those who think that those decisions violate a supposed First Amendment right haven’t read the Constitution. It says “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ...”

Sigal Ben-Porath is a professor of education in the Literacy, Culture, and International Education Division of the Graduate School of Education. Her most recent books include “Making Up Our Mind: What School Choice is Really About” and “Free Speech on Campus.”

Anne Berg is an assistant professor of history in the School of Arts & Sciences whose research includes histories of racism, genocide, and Nazi Germany. She is working on a book that examines the disturbing connections between waste management and genocide in the Third Reich entitled “Empire of Rags and Bones: Waste and War in Nazi Germany.”

Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and a professor of history and Africana studies in the School of Arts & Sciences. She is the author of 12 books including “Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy.”

Stephen B. Burbank is the David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice in the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and co-author of the book, “Rights and Retrenchment: The Counterrevolution Against Federal Litigation.”

Ezekiel Dixon-Román is an associate professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice whose research interests include how power and inequality are reproduced, especially in human learning and development. His most recent book is “Inheriting Possibility: Social Reproduction & Quantification in Education.”

Daniel Gillion is the Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt Presidential Distinguished Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts & Sciences. His books include “The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy” and “The Political Power of Protests.

Mauro F. Guillen is the Zandman Professor of International Management in The Wharton School. His most recent books include “The Architecture of Collapse: The Global System in the Twenty-First Century,” “Global Turning Points,” and “Emerging Markets Rule.”

Kathleen Hall Jamieson is the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication in the Annenberg School for Communication, Walter and Leonore Annenberg Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and program director of the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands. She has authored or co-authored 16 books, most recently “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President.”

Amy Sepinwall is an associate professor in the Department of Legal Studies and Business Ethics in The Wharton School whose research interests include corporate constitutional rights, gender and racial justice, and individual and collective responsibility for corporate and financial wrongdoing.

Homepage image: The Biden-Harris administration represents not only a different political party from the outgoing administration, but views that differ across many subjects. Yet a new presidency offers no guarantees for how the United States will progress. Check back for more thoughts from Penn experts on the state of this country’s democracy.