Q&A: Upcoming Event Addresses Major Challenges to Democracy

Headshots: Melody Barnes, left, and Bill Antholis, right

Melody Barnes, left, is executive director of the Karsh Institute of Democracy, and Bill Antholis is director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs. (Photos by Sanjay Suchak and Dan Addison, University Communications)

In the midst of a global pandemic, historic and controversial events related to race and inequality, divisive elections, and deepening polarization, it would be an understatement to say that democracy faces significant challenges.

The inaugural UVA Democracy Biennial: Crises, Opportunities, Freedoms event, hosted by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, the Karsh Institute of Democracy and the College of Arts & Sciences’ Democracy Initiative, will be held later this week to look at both the current state, as well as the future, of democracy.

The Democracy Biennial will consist of three sessions from Friday, Sept. 24, through Saturday, Sept. 25. The biennial will be held virtually and is currently open for registration.

UVA Today caught up with Melody Barnes, executive director of the Karsh Institute of Democracy and co-director of the Democracy Initiative, and Bill Antholis, director of the Miller Center, to discuss the upcoming event.

Q. What inspired the Democracy Biennial?

Antholis: Its origins go back two years to the Presidential Ideas Festival, or PrezFest, which we did as a celebration of UVA’s Bicentennial. The Miller Center studies the presidency and we wanted to explore some of the big issues being discussed in the presidency. But the University was founded by a president, with the help and support of two other presidents, James Madison and James Monroe. And so, we wanted to expand the scope to include all the different schools and centers that focus on democracy.

As a result, we all learned that we can work well together, which was the driving theme that President Jim Ryan leaned into in the opening remarks at PrezFest, where he called for a new Institute of Democracy. And in many ways the Democracy Biennial is the first embodiment of the new Karsh Institute of Democracy, which President Ryan envisioned back in May 2019.

Barnes: I think of two things. One, the Miller Center hosted the really successful Presidential Ideas Festival two years ago and there was so much excitement about that, and both leveraging the faculty and administration and students, and all the talent that exists at UVA, along with the national and international policymakers and practitioners and scholars that we brought from beyond Grounds here to engage in that conversation. There were debates, there were differences of opinion, but that I think was really energizing to people.

At the same time, when the Democracy Initiative was launched, it was launched with the idea that we would start to host these kinds of convenings and create those kinds of opportunities to focus on the challenges facing democracy.

So there were a couple of things happening at the same time that led to the biennial that we’ll be hosting this weekend.

Q. Can you explain for UVA Today readers what the Miller Center, the Karsh Institute of Democracy, and others do and how they work together?

Antholis: There are a handful of really great research centers and institutes and initiatives at UVA on themes of democracy, most of which come either out of the schools of the University like the College of Arts and Sciences or the Law School or the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy or freestanding centers like the Miller Center and Larry Sabato’s Center for Politics and the Weldon Cooper Center. And the Karsh Institute was designed to bring all of us together and to both coordinate activities across these areas where we might have opportunities to collaborate with one another, as well as to plan big public gatherings, like this one.

Our collaboration across these units has in the past often been incidental and accidental and has always been from my perspective informative and fun. The creation of the Karsh Institute, and having Melody serve as the inaugural director of the institute, will make it more intentional, more institutionalized and forward-leaning, so we can each be great in our own way but the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts.

Q. Can you give an overview of some of the biennial speakers and the expertise they will bring to the table?

Antholis: The opening session on democracy and capitalism is led by Bob Bruner who was the dean at Darden for 10 years. He’s pulled together this incredible cross section of Democrats and Republicans, former elected officials, CEOs and nonprofit leaders to examine in real gritty detail how decisions get made, or don’t get made, for attracting and growing businesses to American metropolitan regions.

Barnes: [The second session] focuses on equity and mobility and the pursuit of the American dream. We’ll have a couple of TED talks that precede that panel, coming from different perspectives: one from Karin Lips, who will talk about feminism through a conservative lens; the other from Rashad Robinson who leads Color of Change, talking about issues of race and equity in the context of the panel.

And then we’ll go into a conversation with an interesting group of panelists, that come from different perspectives and different sectors, from Margaret Spellings who was secretary of education during the Bush administration, and now leads Texas 2036. Similarly, Ai-jen Poo, who is a world-renowned organizer and leader, specifically with her work with domestic workers and care workers, but also thinking very broadly about issues of mobility in the United States. And then Robert Doar, who leads the American Enterprise Institute and brings practical experience from his work as former Mayor Bloomberg’s commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, and David Rubenstein, author, philanthropist and co-founder and co-chairman of The Carlyle Group.

I also am excited about the two films that will be shown at the biennial: one, on UVA students’ perspectives on issues of democracy. And the second looking at the issue of art and democracy and art as a language to help us better understand how individuals are feeling about democracy, and also a tool that has helped provoke conversations about change and reform in democracy.

Antholis: The final panel will be moderated by John Dickerson, a UVA grad, a CBS News correspondent and former White House correspondent and himself a real scholar of the American presidency and American politics. He wants to look at some of the institutional issues that could require reforming in American democracy. The guests on that discussion are Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama, and Mary Kate Cary, a UVA grad who was a speech writer in the Bush 41 White House.

Q. What are some of the major challenges to democracy right now?

Antholis: I think January 6th is really one of the tragic events in American history. And there were a whole lot of different things that led up to January 6th. In my mind, we have already had a divergence in the country of different perceptions of reality and different questions about some of the institutions that monitor and help shape a common reality: universities, the media, our election system, even science, as we’ve seen in the pandemic. The pandemic has been a stress test for our democracy.

But I think in all of these challenges, there are real glimmers of hope: Democrats and Republicans together condemning the events of January 6th and the number of Republicans willing to step forward and try to figure out exactly what happened. … I think looking at what are some of the lessons learned about how our democracy responded or didn’t respond in the moment. I see those as really fertile grounds for exploration in the future and I hope that we touch on those in the biennial.

Barnes: I think our inability to deal with both COVID and climate change are examples of the challenges in our democracy both culturally and institutionally. I look at COVID: if another country had attacked us in that way, we would be at war, and instead we are attacking one another.

UVA. Mask in indoor spaces.

I think we are seeing the rise of authoritarian regimes and an appeal to populations around the world, which is obviously highly disturbing. I also think that the attack on democratic institutions and practices, and the continued friction in democratic culture, which helps to shape our norms and shapes institutions, and our views of one another as citizens and who is a citizen, and who should enjoy the rights and responsibilities of citizenship – those are now fierce. Those have been and continue to be fiercely debated issues, and the temperature is going up, not down.

But I also think it’s important that we not only look at the contemporary examples that we’re struggling with today, but we recognize that these there are long-standing challenges that we’ve struggled to address and chronic challenges to democracy.

Q. What can average citizens do to help support American democracy?

Antholis: One of the things that will be released around the time of the biennial is a Civic Health Index, which indicates that Americans are actually quite engaged in politics these days, but that that engagement is often driven by anger or fear, as opposed to by a common set of facts and a common understanding of the political reality that we’re facing. And so one of the things that I would say coming out of this is that we want Americans to work backward from that to tone down the heat and turn up the light, to look for places where they can find common cause on issues, and potentially reform our institutions so that it’s easier for their political leaders to find common cause.

Barnes: I often say that citizen is a verb. It’s not a noun, and it requires action, every day. In Virginia we’re about to have an election, then we’ll go into our midterm elections and those things are critically important. But citizens have an opportunity every day to shape and build their communities.

Picking up on Bill’s point about the Civic Health Index, one of the things we know from these indices is that communities have picked up on them. ... I think better understanding where people are coming from, identifying issues, and coalescing around the challenges is a positive thing. Even with our struggles, there is a fire (and I mean that in a positive way) inside individuals and communities such that they’re wrestling with these issues and taking them on.

Q. What other events or projects is the Democracy Initiative currently working on?

Antholis: Bob [Bruner], Melody and [politics professor] Sid Milkis have developed a faculty seminar on democracy and capitalism that brings scholars from across UVA together, with the idea that this will build a set of explorations, case studies and other learning tools that can be built into and built on to create a curriculum for how to teach about the potentially symbiotic relationship between democracy and capitalism. But also to show how, if taken to the extreme, democracy and capitalism can work at cross purposes with one another. That’s a very exciting undertaking that we’ve been happy to work on.

Barnes: The Democracy Initiative is soon to launch One Small Step in partnership with StoryCorps, and we’ll be having a launch event on Grounds with the founder of StoryCorps and President Ryan in mid-October. In the year to follow, we’ll encourage not only student and faculty and staff and administrators at UVA but community members in the surrounding counties to engage in these one-on-one conversations across the political divide to better understand one another, to see humanity, and the other person.

We also have launched a Touchstones of Democracy series to think about some of the history and principles and philosophical issues and questions that help shape our democracy in hope that that will give us additional tools to think about what’s happening to democracy today.

The Democracy Initiative is comprised of several labs, the Equity Center, and the Memory Project, and there’s so much going on. The Equity Center is doing some work on the Eastern Shore with the Environmental Resilience Institute to look at issues of climate change. We have a new lab, the Repair Lab, that’s focusing on climate change and social justice issues. The Deliberative Media Lab's  podcast “Democracy in Danger” has a new season that continues to grow in popularity. The Memory Project is working on a children’s book, looking at issues of cultural memory and history. So, a lot of busy people.

Media Contact

Molly Minturn

University of Virginia Library