Disenfranchisement, Disinformation, Destabilization: Crises in American Democracy

The 2020 Capstone lecture series continued with an online lecture from Princeton University Professor of History and Public Affairs Julian Zelizer.

The 2020 Capstone lecture series continued with an online lecture from Princeton University Professor of History and Public Affairs Julian Zelizer. During his speech, Zelizer spoke about three key crises: disenfranchisement, disinformation, and destabilization. According to Zelizer, "our democratic institutions are not working well" because of these three issues.

Zelizer began by first reminding the audience that these crises, although they have been intensified in recent years, have "been in the making for many years." They are "much grander than who the next president is, and won't be resolved even if there is a dramatic change in power" in the nation.

He then introduced the first crisis, disinformation. According to Zelizer, there has been a recent effort by the conservative movement to introduce new restrictions on voting. These efforts have been largely based on the disproven notion that widespread voter fraud exists. To him, this justification is "the current version...of weapons of mass destruction," referring to the false pretenses under which the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.

Zelizer specifically blamed these changes on the 2013 Supreme Court Ruling Shelby County vs Holder, which struck down two parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that prevented certain states from instituting new restrictions on voting without federal approval. By the 2014 midterms, 14 states, mostly with Republican legislatures, had introduced new restrictions on voting, since higher turnout has been shown to benefit Democrats.

The topic then shifted to disinformation. Zelizer noted that since the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, an act which required news outlets to broadcast both sides of a political story, the news media has begun to segment its audience based on political affiliation. With the rise of social media, it has also become a widespread practice to spread fake news due to a lack of editorial standards.

In recent times, there has also been "a systematic attack on expertise itself" in areas such as climate change and the ongoing pandemic. Activists such as the Koch Brothers have attacked climate regulation not on the basis of finding a solution to global warming but rather on questioning the existence of climate change itself. Activities like this have translated into politicians dismissing accepted facts to push their political agenda.

Lastly, Zelizer spoke about destabilization, which is "the way in which partisan polarization...undercuts [the government's] ability to maintain a system of checks and balances." He explained how the amount of centrist politicians in Congress has declined, while each party is enforcing rigid ideological coherence within. Because of this, Congress has stopped keeping the executive branch in check; for example, Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both appropriated their executive power to pass legislation when it could not get through Congress. This has hurt each party's ability to compromise and pass bipartisan legislation.

Reflecting on the lecture, Elaine Wang '20 said that she had already noticed many of these issues, but Zelizer "was pointing out very specific laws and movements that actually catalyzed those changes," which helped her further understand the causes and repercussions of these problems.

Makayla Boxley '20 believed that in order to address these crises, "it is going to take a step outside what we see as normal, because these problems define our normal right now." She also mentioned that there may not be reform in the immediate future due to candidates' main focuses being implementing their agendas.

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