Professors Debate Future of Democracy at IOP

The Institute of Politics kicked off the fall semester Tuesday evening with a panel discussion of six Kennedy School professors, who debated whether or not democracy is threatened in modern times.

The panel, moderated by Kennedy School lecturer Nicco Mele, brought together scholars from across departments and areas of interest to answer one particular question: “Are democracies in peril?”

Kennedy School lecturer Marshall L. Ganz ’64-92 said he agreed that modern democracy is in danger. Ganz left Harvard as an undergraduate in the 60s to help organize farm workers with Cesar Chavez and returned to finish his degree decades later.

Ganz added that democracy had been threatened by recent Supreme Court decisions about campaign finance that have hindered the ability for effective social movements.

“I think the whole way in which wealth has come to dominate the whole political process...they’re turned into marketing operations, not organizing. So the world of politics, which is getting people to engage with each other… doesn’t get done,” he said.


Professor Jane J. Mansbridge argued that a recent rise populism signaled weaknesses of democracy and that populist thought is a response to a disregard of “economic losers.”

Kennedy School professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad said at the event that he thought democracy must be reworked to include marginalized groups such as immigrants. Muhammad also appears in the recent documentary “13th,” which discusses mass incarceration in the United States.

“A new civic culture must take seriously the creation of a new origin story for America… immigrants must be welcomed with greater intentionality into the fold of this history,” he said.

Meghan L. O'Sullivan, a senior fellow at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan under former President George W. Bush, said she was “optimistic” that liberal democracy is not in crisis. She instead pointed to political parties as declining.

“I don’t see an actual and vibrant debate about whether or not liberal democracy is the best form of government for this country,” O’Sullivan said, “I would not say that we are having a crisis of liberal democracy. I would say that we are having a real crisis in our political parties.”

Kennedy School professor Kathryn Sikkink pointed out that the number of democratically-ruled countries had risen in the past 50 years, arguing that a larger trend of democracy is likely here to stay.

—Staff writer Lucas Ward can be reached at Follow him on twitter at @LucaspfWard.


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