Kettering Review Fall 2022

In 2022, it is starkly evident that the health of our democracy is at risk. Many democratic processes and institutions are eroding or, worse, under attack: Have people become disillusioned with self-governance? Is the country experiencing authoritarian creep? Is there a way to not only strengthen but also to enhance our democracy? The thinkers presented in this volume delve into these questions and the underlying problems; they also offer counter actions that could be taken. Most important, within these essays lies hope. Hope that America’s people can not only retain self-governance but can forge an inclusive, equitable, and sustainable democracy.

Elizabeth Gish, Noëlle McAfee, Editor's Letter 

Stephan Haggard, Robert Kaufman, “The Anatomy of Democratic Backsliding”
Authors Stephan Haggard from the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego, and Robert Kaufman of Rutgers University detail factors of and possible counters to what they term “democratic backsliding.” They studied 16 countries, including the United States, that seem to be caught in this process of democratic “erosion.” Cited as “early warnings,” these incremental steps toward authoritarianism should alert “advanced industrial democracies” to “place a higher priority on defending democracy as a key foreign policy objective.”

Suzanne Mettler, Robert C. Lieberman, “Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy”
In an excerpt from their book of the same name, political science professors Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman warn that today America is facing four threats: “political polarization, conflict over who belongs in the political community, high and rising levels of economic inequality, and executive aggrandizement.” Each of these threats is inherently dangerous to democratic governance. However, Mettler and Lieberman hold that “democratic decay is not inevitable” and that circumstances will be determined by politics, which they see as “driven by human beings who exercise agency and choice, and who can set their sights—if they so choose—on preserving and restoring democracy.”

David Brooks, “The Dark Century”
In this reprint from The New York Times, David Brooks posits that democracy is not a natural state of being. Throughout human history, there has always been tumult, uncertainty, and exploitation, and that is “normal.” America’s founders recognized that the citizens of this foundling country would have to learn the skills needed for self-governance. They believed institutions, such as churches and civic associations, would teach civic behavior. Brooks notes, “Over the past decades, the institutions that earlier generations thought were essential to molding a democratic citizenship have withered or malfunctioned.” It is up to citizens to reestablish the functionality of these institutions because “democrats are not born; they are made.”

Ezra Klein, “Why We’re Polarized”
In this excerpt from his 2020 book, “Why We’re Polarized,” Ezra Klein notes that “all politics is influenced by identity.” This leaves people open to manipulation by both politicians and the media. One way to avoid being harangued by those who seek to persuade or misdirect us is to notice where we place our attention. Perhaps “we give too much attention to national politics, which we can do very little to change, and too little attention to state and local politics, where our voices matter much more.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Our Founding Ideals of Liberty and Equality Were False When They Were Written. Black Americans Fought to Make Them True. Without This Struggle, America Would Have No Democracy at All”
Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project, details the arrival of captured Africans to North America, follows their history, and chronicles their importance to American society. From the horrors of the institution of slavery to the limits and inequality of structural racism, she states, “Black people have seen the worst of America, yet somehow, we still believe in its best.” She reminds readers that the freedoms laid out in America’s founding documents were, in reality, only truly experienced by a fraction of the country’s citizens. Black people, women, Native Americans, and other minorities were left out. However, “black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.”

Amanda Ripley, “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out”
Nominated for the 2022 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Amanda Ripley’s “High Conflict” highlights ways that people can successfully work through polarized situations. This essay pulled from that book not only defines the concept of “high conflict” but also shows how this harmful state can be avoided. “In any intense conflict, one of the most powerful disruptive strategies can sound deceptively basic. It’s to listen, with genuine curiosity.” Ripley sees this seemingly simple response as a promising strategy because “when people feel heard, . . . they open up to new ideas. They listen. They say less extreme, more interesting things.”

Danielle Allen, “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality”
This excerpt from Danielle Allen’s “Our Declaration,” introduces an analysis of the Declaration of Independence that she and her students at the University of Chicago — both undergraduates she taught during the day and adults she taught in night school — discovered together as they studied the document slowly and thoughtfully. They uncovered that “equality and liberty . . . are the summits of human empowerment; they are the twinned foundations of democracy.” This “political equality” allows for the engagement of “all members of a community equally in the work of creating and constantly recreating that community.”

Sharon Davies, “A Few Thoughts on Democracy”
Kettering Foundation President and CEO Sharon Davies closes this issue. As has been noted in other essays in this “Review,” she holds that while “we can say at least that our founding documents captured the aspirations of democracy and put us on a path toward it. . . . The timeline of the US coming into the fullness of its democracy was slow.” And as Davies hints at the reimagining that the foundation’s work is undergoing, she stresses that we at the foundation can join with the many other voices in our network and “agree that there is no more important moment for this work than right now.”



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