Democracy Isn’t Guaranteed, UVA Experts Say. They’re Planning To Shore It Up

October 18, 2023 By Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu

Melody Barnes is pretty busy these days.

It’s not just that she’s leading an institute tackling misinformation, challenges to election administration and what she sees as a growing and alarming global shift from democracy to authoritarianism, but also that she’s preparing to talk about that to more than 2,000 people from more than 35 states and several countries.

They’re all arriving in Charlottesville for this week’s Democracy360, a three-day democracy-palooza for community advocates and business leaders, local and national politicians, teachers and faith leaders, journalists and anyone else interested in advancing democratic ideals. The Atlantic is the event’s official media partner.

“My concern is that people think our democracy is inevitable,” Barnes said. “It’s not. It requires our engagement, our attention and our hard work.”

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That hard work continues to unfold Thursday as the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy hosts three days of speakers, panel discussions, training sessions, student oratory and pitch competitions, and workshops to understand the challenges ahead, and how to meet them. The convening is produced in partnership with 19 partners across Grounds and beyond.

The speakers and panelists include New York Times reporter Peter Baker; CBS News anchor John Dickerson; former U.S. Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Barbara Comstock; journalist and podcast host Kara Swisher; UVA alumnus Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit; Fox News correspondent Mike Emanuel; former federal court Judge J. Michael Luttig; UVA President Jim Ryan; and a host of UVA professors and experts, including Barnes herself.

Barnes, the Karsh Institute’s executive director, wedged a few minutes into her schedule to talk with UVA Today about the event, its goals and what happens next.

Q. When you and your colleagues talk about democracy being in jeopardy, what exactly does that mean?

A. If you ask people about their concerns about democracy, the answers will be as varied as the individuals with whom you raised the question. To be as effective as possible, at the Karsh Institute, we’ve identified a few big challenges.

Q. What are those big challenges?

A. First, access to trustworthy media and reliable information. Since 2005, we’ve (nationally) lost a quarter of our local newspapers. Many people are getting information from Facebook, LinkedIn, and other forms of social media, and we’re seeing disinformation travel very, very quickly – much faster than facts. Local journalism is in trouble and as a result, so is democracy.

When people don’t have access to information, they can’t hold their representatives accountable. They can’t get information to make choices for their families, their communities, for their country.

Another issue we’re working on is representation, participation and accountability. In other words, how do people engage with the democratic process and democratic institutions, and how do those institutions respond - whether it’s the local school board or Congress? Are individuals able to hold their elected and appointed officials accountable?

We’re also focused on civic learning and deliberative dialogue. Many people are deeply concerned about civil discourse and free expression which are essential to democracy. Our research and initiatives include work on those issues, as well as the polarization shaping our communities and our politics.

Melody Barnes chats with interviewer
Barnes said democracy faces several threats, including the demise of local journalism and a decline in the tenor of political dialogue. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

Agreement and consensus aren’t always within reach, but often we can disagree productively. It doesn’t mean you give up your convictions. It means that you’re able to respectfully listen, that you present your own positions based on data and facts.

You might be persuaded differently. You might strengthen the position you walked in the door with. But the ability to productively disagree, as well to form consensus, is essential to make the laws and adhere to the norms to that move democracy forward.

Q. Why is the Karsh Institute and UVA uniquely qualified to host this event?

A. It’s in our DNA. We know UVA was founded over 200 years ago to create an educated citizenry that could be actively and productively engaged in the life of the republic. From the [UVA] president to the provost, from the deans to the students, and alumni, many at UVA are familiar with and care about that legacy.

As a result, we have significant expertise at UVA – obviously, at the centers and other units that are democracy-focused – the Center for Politics, the Miller Center, the Karsh Center at the Law School, and the Weldon Cooper Center that’s now part of the Karsh Institute. And that expertise also sits in a wide variety of schools, centers and institutes. Look at the work happening in the School of Education and Human Development, the Batten School, the School of Data Science, School of Architecture, and the list goes on.

We have a legacy and the expertise, and we sit in one of the most interesting places in the country to do this work. We’re at the crossroads of urban and rural, north and south, conservative and progressive. That makes this an interesting and important place to do this work.

Q. When the conference wraps up and you shake the last hand, what happens next?

A. We hope those who gather here enjoy the interesting speakers, but our objective is far more action-oriented. We must focus on doing hard work fueled by all we’ve learned and the relationships strengthened in workshops and training sessions and during panels and keynote conversations.

Finally, we hope those who traveled to Charlottesville understand that UVA is an important partner in the work to strengthen democracy and ensure that it achieves its aspirations.

Media Contact

Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications