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Political Scholars to Examine, Criticize Democracy in America

Research at the Kennedy School of Government

By E.k. Anagnostopoulos

In recent years a tide of democracy has swept over Eastern Europe, through Latin America, and has even touched nations once believed to be inpenetrable, such as the Soviet Union and China.

But at the same time that America's system of government has been gaining popularity all over the world, in the wake of declining voter turnout rates and increased public distrust of the government, inside the U.S. there has been a growing uneasiness about just how successful American democracy truly is.

At the Kennedy School of Government, Dean Robert D. Putnam says it is time to bring that debate to the forefront of the school's agenda. According to Putnam, it is way past time that political academics take a serious and critical look at the structure and goals of American democracy.

Starting this year, and extending well into the coming decade, the dean says he will launch a major new research initiative at the Kennedy School called "Revitalizing American Democracy."

The project, which is still in the formative stages, will examine American democratic institutions and society, compare them with parallel foreign institutions and suggest reforms as they are needed, Putnam says.

"The irony is that at the very time in which the American model of democracy proves ever more attractive to people in the rest of the world, there is a greater questioning here at home about whether our democratic experiment...is working," the dean said in a recent interview.

Unresponsive to Changes

The political system has been unresponsive to the major changes in America and the world in recent decades, Putnam says. Economic life has become more international, women have come to assume very different social roles, and elections have become ruled by the "9.8 second soundbite," the dean explains. But still, he adds, the political structure operates under assumptions that have long since become obsolete.

"The changes are very similar in magnitude to those at the end of the 1800s, and like the Progressive Period around the turn of the century, the U.S. is ready for a period of intense reform of its political institutions," Putnam says.

"The Kennedy School and the country needs to have a debate about how to make democratic institutions more effective," he says.

Lunchtime Discussions

Over the past few months, more than 60 academics, lawyers, politicians and journalists have met in a series of Saturday luncheons at the Kennedy School to discuss the direction of the project and exchange ideas.

While no formal proposal for the program has yet been released, the idea has captured the imaginations of many prominent individuals who have been involved in the initial stages of the project.

"As I understand it, the project involves asking the most important questions about where democracy is headed. I can think of no more important mission for the Kennedy School," says Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel, one of the scholars working on designing a program.

Though project members declined to comment on specifics, some of the general topics that may be included in the debate will be campaign reform, voter participation, failing schools, rising poverty levels and the drug epidemic, they say.

Fostering Budding Democracies

As researchers struggle to fine-tune an established democracy, Kennedy School recruiters and program directors are reaching out to the fledgling democracies in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, trying to help them along.

The Strengthening Democratic Institutions (SDI) program, chaired by former Kennedy School Dean Graham T. Allison Jr. '62, began this fall and is designed to give on the spot advice to public officials in the Soviet Union.

Other new Kennedy School programs work to bring together newly-elected political figures in Eastern Europe, to discuss the process of transition to democracy.

As part of this program, Putnam himself has been travelling to Moscow and throughout Eastern Europe to help ease the transition.

"It's really exciting," says the dean, "for someone like me [who came] of age in the Cold War, to be able to wander around the Brandenburg Gate...I mean literally around it."

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