Skip to main content

An essay on democratic health by the University of Delaware’s SNF Civil Discourse Chair

“For a Healthy Democracy”

by Dr. Timothy J. Shaffer, Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Chair of Civil Discourse in the Biden School

We’re sick. Our body politic is ailing and we can’t seem to collectively care for one another. Earlier this month, we celebrated Independence Day. At a time when our hearts are normally filled with patriotism, we’re gut-punched with hateful rhetoric and daily violence against fellow citizens. 

To say there’s a lot going on right now is an understatement. Supreme Court rulings and January 6th Select Committee hearings dominate our discourse and politics. President Biden recently returned from a G7 meeting in which Sweden and Finland are set to formally to end decades of neutrality and join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in response to Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Politics, at all levels, are reminding us that significant decisions are being made impacting lives and our world. What are citizens to do?

We can look at the dysfunction of Washington and, in light of all of our challenges, feel we aren’t making progress on many of our collective challenges. There are examples of bipartisan collaboration, such as the recently signed gun safety bill, but that stands out in sharp relief. We continue to experience mass shootings across the country, making one wonder if this monumental legislation is too little, too late. A common view, understandably so, is that our democracy is declining. The ways the media speak of politics can easily confuse us into thinking we’re simply rooting for a sports team rather than for the future of a democratic society. This gamification can make us lose sight of the future of pluralistic democracy.

While we can be disappointed with what’s going on in Washington or in your own state legislature, there are significant actions that are addressing challenges. One striking example is the recent recognition of one of the most significant issues impacting people, young and old—mental health. Just days ago, the inaugural Biden School Civility in Public Service Award, supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), was awarded to Delaware State House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst (D) and State Representative Michael Smith (R) for their bipartisan work to pass HB 100 in Delaware. Currently, as reported by Delaware school districts, 86% of elementary schools do not employ a school social worker, and ratios of students to school counselors and school psychologists exceed best practices. This bill lowered ratios and increased access to mental health services for elementary school students. The legislation took three years, but it was signed into law by Gov. Carney in August 2021. These legislators recognized a common challenge and committed to addressing it, even though that process took time and bipartisan collaboration.

In her remarks for the occasion, Biden Institute Chair Valerie Biden Owens expressed appreciation for their leadership making this legislation possible: “You are all a model of what’s possible when public servants set aside their differences, collaborate with one another, and reach a consensus on the best path forward for our communities. Real civil discourse requires work. It takes courage, empathy, and a willingness to be humbled. It takes intention.” Both Rep. Longhurst and Rep. Smith received awards from the SNF Ithaca Initiative, with $5,000 going to the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Delaware and an additional $5,000 contribution made to Sean’s House. Both legislators recognized mental health was a real challenge facing young people and worked to address it, not with lofty rhetoric, but with action. 

This type of intentionality and courage can seem to be diminishing, which is why it’s important to hold up examples of it happening to remind ourselves of what we can and should do. Just days prior to this award given in Delaware Legislature Hall, a delegation from the Biden School attended the annual SNF Nostos in Athens, Greece. With a focus on the SNF Health Initiative, speakers highlighted the ways in which physical and mental health shapes communities. 

SNF Co-President Andreas Dracopoulos, reflecting on SNF Nostos Health, highlighted how “Achieving better health for all will require listening to new voices, trying out new approaches, and being willing to change the status quo and venture into unfamiliar territory.” The ability to have honest and challenging conversations is critical to addressing numerous challenges, with health as its foundation. Civil discourse does not need to be passive or reserved. As Dracopoulos said, “With clarity, humor, and incisive insight, the young participants showed us that a better future is possible with health as its foundation—but also reminded us in no uncertain terms of our obligation to act now and act in a big way to make it so.” This call for action is to address health inequities, but also the cultural and political issues that impact or exacerbate these issues. It’s for this reason that thinking about a healthy democracy, in all senses of the phrase, becomes important when thinking about policy decisions.  

During one SNF Nostos panel about science communication and democracy Dr. Lauren Gardner, co-director of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, spoke about information and its role in the pandemic. She is behind the creation of the Johns Hopkins University dashboard that has been used to share information about the COVID-19 pandemic, a vital global resource. As she and other panelists noted, it’s not simply enough to have information and disseminate it. We need to think about how to articulate messages so they are accessible and received. Unfortunately, depending on the source, the best information can simply be disregarded as being “fake” or biased. If someone doesn’t trust a source, even the most sound information is simply noise. Another layer is disinformation–the intentional efforts to mislead or outright lie. In a polarized and partisan climate, it’s easy to think about this use of disinformation across the political spectrum rather than being asymmetrical, being utilized by some with detrimental effects. Simply put, civil discourse becomes an instrumental component of addressing a global pandemic or even the decline of democracy if it is a pathway to having people meaningfully engage ideas and others beyond their bubble. 

This is why we must acknowledge that democracy is being seriously challenged around the world; we cannot afford to abandon this way of life as we increasingly become a more diverse and pluralistic world while some individuals retreat to nationalistic identities that exclude. So what do we do? One response, both for legislatures and ordinary citizens, is civil discourse. Civil discourse allows us to engage, listen to understand, and wrestle with competing ideas about public policy—what should we do? The challenge to institutional and cultural democracy is real, but so are our responses. 

Earlier this year, with the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) through the SNF Ithaca Initiative at the University of Delaware Biden School, we invited nearly one hundred students from 16 colleges and universities to the inaugural SNF Ithaca National Student Dialogue. It was an opportunity for students to learn about civil discourse and its role shaping how we conceptualize and realize public policy on college campuses. Students worked through the policy process of naming an issue all the way to actionable steps. Speaking to the importance of this convening, Biden School Dean and Charles P. Messick Chair of Public Administration Maria Aristigueta noted that, “At the Biden School, we recognize and prioritize the promotion of civility and discourse across political and philosophical divides. It was heartening to see such a diverse group come together from across the country to work on these important issues.” The opportunity—and challenge—was to think about real issues on their campuses and what they would do upon returning to campus. Who has power? How has the issue facing one’s campus been framed by university administration? What could student organizations do to address the issue facing their community? 

As I expressed at the SNF Ithaca National Student Dialogue, “The SNF Ithaca Initiative has the potential to transform how people on our campuses, and ultimately citizens of our country, are able to work together despite differences and collectively impact and address the critical issues we all face.” I made it a point to frame civil discourse within the broader context of the state of democracy. We can’t simply think of civil discourse as good manners or politeness. We must also think about it as responsiveness to others and to our shared challenges. Robert Danisch and William Keith write about a “strong” form of civil discourse that includes dialogue, deliberation, and deep listening, as well as protest and civil disobedience. We need to recognize that ideas about how we’re supposed to talk can sometimes hold us back from why we should engage others, especially when we have deep differences. We need to call out and challenge others, especially when they are advocating for something other than democracy. Retreating from public life because of disagreement does not heal the festering wounds to our body politic. 

President Biden has long said, “All politics is personal.” If that’s the case, then we need to engage one another in a way that takes seriously the real challenges and opportunities to truly understand what others think and believe–especially those people we disagree with deeply. And we must challenge them when we believe certain actions and policies cause harm. Civility isn’t simply politeness. Civil discourse affords opportunities for action rather than only experiencing frustration because we have retreated from our shared life rather than stayed in conversation, sometimes uncomfortably so, in order to seek a positive outcome. This is why civil discourse becomes such an important aspect of public policy. If we want to have a healthy democracy, we need to listen to understand. As a nation, we’re sick. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t know some of the steps to take to begin to heal our situation through both words and actions.