Panelists share ideas on how to improve democracy |

Panelists share ideas on how to improve democracy

Greg Schreier

Democracy was both revered and called a broken institution during the Aspen Ideas Festival on Tuesday.The panelists in the discussion “American Democracy” included David Gergen, a political consultant during the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations; David Kennedy, a Stanford University professor; Bernard Henri-Levy, a French philosopher and journalist; Harvard professor Michael Sandel; and Princeton professor Sean Wilentz. Actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith moderated.Everyone spent a bit of time praising democracy as an institution and plenty more time talking about how to fix what they largely described as a dysfunctional American mechanism. Low voter turnout, the stratification of U.S. society and a lack of civic responsibility among the public topped the list of problems with what is an otherwise revered idea.”I think that democracy is first and foremost an act of faith and an act of imagination,” Smith said. The best way to celebrate American independence on July 4 was to engage in vibrant discussion of that concept, she said.Wilentz pointed out the growing vulnerability of democracy in America – participation. Around 1840, nearly 80 percent of voters turned out for elections. But as the doors of voting opened to previously disenfranchised women and blacks, voting percentages declined. With women’s suffrage and the dissolution of Jim Crow laws, America had expanded its democratic base. But “it’s becoming less democratic in another sense” as voter turnout remains low, Wilentz said.Further undermining democracy is a shrinking military force using a disproportionate number of minority soldiers, Kennedy said. There are 1.4 million soldiers and another 900,000 reserves – but that’s only a fraction of the army’s size during World War II. And that smaller force is increasingly deadly.”The United States now has the most lethal military force in the world,” Kennedy said. He gave the recent example of Afghanistan, where 38 planes destroyed dozens of targets. During World War II, it took 108 planes and 648 bombs to destroy just one target. The price of that force is low – the U.S. Department of Defense has a budget equaling 4 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.Kennedy worried that a force that can so easily and cheaply destroy can’t be held accountable by U.S. citizens. Especially when the war is being fought by “other people’s kids” – 42 percent of servicemen and women are minorities. And only 6.5 percent of those have had exposure to a college education.It’s that division that Sandel saw as America’s most dominant threat. He used the example of baseball stadiums: There once was a time when people of all classes sat in the same exposed seats and ate the same hot dogs. But now, everything is “skyboxified” – the elites can sit in air-conditioned, sheltered skyboxes while middle-class people sit in the elements. That stratification has extended to institutions like schools, and now there are no common interests in society.”There is not a shared society that is necessary,” Sandel said.Gergen’s solution to these problems was simple: Instill a sense of duty in young citizens. And that means mandatory national service.”We don’t build the citizen habits we had when there was a draft,” Gergen said. He recommended at least a year of valuable service to the state – not necessarily mandate military service.Levy was not so specific, but said many of America’s ideas are good. He commended America’s value of involvement, its duty to intervene when there is injustice, and its desire to spread democracy regardless of borders. But he said the Bush administration has failed to adequately spread those democratic ideals.”[The solution] should not be to reinvent, but to rehabilitate democracy,” he said.Levy said educating youth is essential to doing that, calling it “the foundation of the democratic project.”Greg Schreier’s e-mail address is

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