Democratic Resilience: Can US Democracy Withstand Rising Polarization?

For a quarter century, the American political system has confronted rising political polarization. It has transformed numerous aspects of government and politics, and at least by some measures, diminished government’s capacity and responsiveness to voters. It encompasses political institutions, putting the separation of powers under strain as conflicts align more thoroughly with partisan divisions. Many ordinary Americans themselves are also drawn into polarization, as partisan affiliation increasingly reinforces cleavages of race, ethnicity, religiosity, place (e.g. urban versus rural), and economic status. Now, the nation is led by a president who fans the flames of such tribalism, while giving little heed to constitutional requirements and flaunting democratic norms. But the trends that endanger democracy are the not the product of a single presidency; rather, they have been on the rise for decades and they threaten to persist well beyond the current administration. The question is, Can American political institutions and civil society withstand these intensifying challenges, permitting democracy to survive?

The conference aims to address whether the dispersion and fragmentation of power underlying the US constitutional system remains sufficient to weather the onslaught of threats the nation is confronting in the contemporary period. We also wonder whether the American polity currently has the capacity to foster countercurrents that can reverse these trends and repair damage that may have already occurred. We are concerned not only with contemporary challenges to American democracy but also with the deeper historical currents and developmental processes that have helped produce these conditions. We also seek to gain understanding of these questions by engaging in comparative analysis, to understand if, how, and why the United States might be similar to or different from other countries where democracy has been under threat.

The conference will be organized to address these questions. It will begin with an overview of rising political polarization. This will be followed by the examination of growing social and political polarization among ordinary American, how it may be mobilized by organizations, and how it may be influencing partisanship. We will consider how these trends might be affecting the separation of powers and specific governing institutions. We will conclude with an assessment of procedures and developments that could reinvigorate or protect democracy. In each case, scholars of comparative politics who have studied democratic deterioration around the world will serve as discussants.

November 7-9, 2019
Cornell University

Co-sponsored by American Democracy Collaborative, Einaudi Center, and Center for the Study of Inequality, each of Cornell University