Defend Democracy Like a Champion Today

Author: The Rooney Center

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This op-ed was originally published in The Observer on February 1, 2023


It’s been two years since we collectively witnessed a failed insurrection and attack on the United States Capitol, and the threats to America’s democracy remain serious. 

In its nationally-representative Health of Democracy Survey, taken weeks before the midterm elections, The Rooney Center for American Democracy uncovered a series of findings with grave implications for the future of our republic. For both Democrats and Republicans, the results showed strikingly low support for various, core democratic values — including free speech and voting rights. Just over half of Republicans surveyed continue to doubt the integrity of both past and future elections. And more than half of Republicans and one-third of Democrats in the sample held the belief that the United States is currently on the brink of a new civil war.

Taken alongside continued threats to voting rights and elections and the rampant spread of disinformation, these findings tell a story of how deep divisions and widespread distrust — of each other and our institutions — threaten to compromise our entire democratic system. 

More than 200 years ago, the Framers of the Constitution engrained a series of participatory rights into our founding documents as a means of forging a public square that would direct and maintain our country’s democratic system. In the words of legal scholar John Hart Ely, these provisions were “centrally intended to help make our governmental processes work, to ensure the open and informed discussion of political issues, and to check our government when it gets out of bounds.” 

However, the Founders’ framework was deeply flawed, and set America on a journey — at times a struggle, with blood and tears — to live up to the ideal that democracy allows government to truly reflect all of us. Suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Ida B. Wells and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and civil rights trailblazers like Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Diane Nash laid it all on the line fighting for voting rights. As the late-great Representative John Lewis, a giant in this fight, reminded us in his parting words: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

All considered, the story of our democracy is defined by a sense of ownership and responsibility — where “We the People” are tasked with upholding the core values and functions of our democratic system, by playing a direct role in preserving and embodying them. 

So how can we reconcile this history and our shared burden with the present moment, where the threats of distrust, disinformation and division pervade political reality? If we are endowed with a duty to uphold our Constitution and the democracy it creates, what tools are at our disposal to combat these challenges, two years after a violent attempt to overturn a free and fair election? How can we keep our republic when there is such widespread misunderstanding of, and sometimes contempt for, the inalienable truth that it is, truly, ours?

This spring, the Rooney Center and the Hesburgh Program in Public Service are presenting a semester-long series, ND Democracy Talks, focused on bringing our Notre Dame community together to answer these exact questions. And we invite you — members of this community, of all backgrounds, perspectives and disciplines — to join us in these efforts.

First, we invite you to join us for the series, beginning Feb. 8, where we will host various scholars and guest speakers for interactive discussions on their work related to the state of American democracy. Subjects that we will work through, together, include our democracy’s complex foundational history, political parties, voting rights and the health of democracy. At each talk, you will have the chance to ask questions, think critically and engage with these guest speakers. The goal is that by learning about the important pillars of democracy we will all be better able to champion it throughout our daily lives.

Second, undergraduate students are invited to join the Rooney Center’s new Hesburgh Democracy Fellows program. This program is open to any student who is passionate about the work of understanding and preserving American democracy, regardless of their course of study. As a Hesburgh Democracy Fellow, you will have the opportunity to build community with other fellows and receive exclusive access to opportunities for sustained engagement with the work of the Center and its programming, throughout and beyond this semester’s slate of events. 

Undoubtedly, these will be tough conversations on the complex state of our democracy, the future of our country and the role we each play in shaping it. But they are necessary. Because, as Dr. Matthew Hall, Director of the Rooney Center, has made clear, “the preservation of democracy and the democratic spirit in the American public is an essential part of Notre Dame’s larger mission to fight oppression and injustice in our society.” 

In this season — amid mounting challenges to our democratic system and a growing need to figure out how to best preserve it — we must come together to better understand the task at-hand and what we must do to confront these questions. 

We hope you will join the Rooney Center and the Hesburgh Program to critically engage these topics alongside other members of the Notre Dame community, and fight alongside us to discern what it will take, from each of us, to defend democracy like a champion today. 

Claudia Francis

associate director for undergraduate programming and center advancement, Rooney Center for American Democracy

Nicholas Crookston