Strategic framework and university forum confront “anti-democratic attitudes”

As part of its 2023 Strategic Framework, the University of Notre Dame announced five new strategic initiatives for the next decade: arts, data and computational science, ethics, poverty, and democracy. During the 2023–2024 academic year, the university’s democracy forum has highlighted the Democracy Initiative, led by David Campbell, the Packey J. Dee Professor of Political Science.

In 2005, President John I. Jenkins C.S.C. established the university-sponsored Notre Dame Forum to encourage the campus community “to focus on a central theme of particular importance to the University, the nation, and the larger world.” This year, the forum emphasized the theme “The Future of Democracy.” The website homepage explains, “Our goal is to invite reflection and dialogue across different disciplines on the rising threats to global democracy and strategies for reinvigorating democracy in our nation and across the world.”

“[The study of democracy] is especially important now, as democracy is under threat around the world,” Professor Campbell told the Rover. “Historically, Notre Dame has been a global leader in the study of democratization, and democratic backsliding especially in—but not limited to—Latin America. More recently, the university has also made it a priority to raise our profile in the study of American democracy.”

When asked why he believes Notre Dame chose democracy as one of its five new initiatives, Professor Campbell responded, “The university’s leadership has rightly recognized that Notre Dame has a unique opportunity to contribute to the global conversation about the state of democracy. We already have a running start, but hopefully through this initiative we can ensure that Notre Dame’s voice is heard around the world.”

Notre Dame’s focus on democracy extends beyond the parameters of the democracy forum and the Democracy Initiative. The Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy, headed by Professor Matthew Hall, is in the middle of its multi-year-long January 6, 2025 Project. According to the Center’s website, the project is aimed at “[Understanding] the social, political, psychological, and demographic factors that led to the January 6, 2021, insurrection and continue to threaten the stability of our democratic system of government.” 

The site continues, “For all practical purposes, American democracy may die on January 6, 2025, unless deliberate and concerted steps are taken to avert this crisis.”

In a video titled “Anti-democratic Attitudes in America” Professor Matthew Hall explained his and the center’s role in the “defense of democracy,” saying, “My early work focused on judicial behavior and constitutional law. More recently, I’ve shifted to anti-democratic attitudes, conspiracy theories, misinformation, polarization, and what cultural and institutional factors drive the rise of anti-democratic ideas in our society.” 

Professor Hall also articulated what combating “anti-democratic attitudes” might entail, explaining, “It might look like media engagement, trying to push out a message that centers the national conversation on democracy.” The professor added, “How do you take someone who’s starting to believe authoritarian ideas and turn them around—we don’t know yet—and we need better answers drawn from psychology, sociology, and political science.”

What concretely defines “anti-democratic” attitudes was left unclear, and some students thought that the ambiguity from the initiative and the university itself was part of a larger contradiction. Junior Elliot Anderson, president of Notre Dame College Republicans, told the Rover, “The university’s persistent messaging of ‘Defending Democracy’ is puzzling: The Notre Dame Political Science Department and its proxies have demonstrated that they are only concerned with democratic norms when they threaten the ruling elite’s status quo.”

The Notre Dame Forum has already presented several high-profile political figures in its events this academic year. A conversation between Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Todd Young (R-IN) titled “Civility and Bipartisanship in a Time of Polarization and Gridlock” saw the two elected officials discuss means to resolve hyperpartisanship in America. In another event, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan discussed her life and work in the context of democracy with Dean G. Marcus Cole of the Notre Dame Law School. More recently, professor Steven Levitsky delivered  a lecture on “Threats to Democracy,” emphasizing the dire consequences of increasing polarization. 

Rather than address specific points of divergence in how the American regime might be structured, each event offered vague antidotes to the problems that they presented.

Anderson continued, “There have been no statements made to defend former President Trump as he bears these outrageous show trials aimed at preventing him from running again. The initiative seems to lose all interest in democratic norms when they apply to the leading conservative presidential candidate. Is it misinformation to point this out when Kagan and Professor Levitsky, both radically anti-Christian and anti-conservative figures, are the initiative’s foremost speakers?”

Sophomore Eric Gordy attended the forum’s recent screening of “Join or Die” with social scientist Robert Putnam, noting, “The event seemed to be targeted at supporting a certain neoliberal agenda, casting doubt on the alleged bipartisan nature of the forum. By focusing on figures like Hillary Clinton and Pete Buttigieg, it was clear that the center promotes a specific kind of democracy, one not aimed at including conservative-minded Americans.”

Despite skepticism about the Democracy Initiative and its underlying motivations, the coming years will see the university continue to promote democracy heavily as it follows through on its administrative goals. On February 29, the Rooney Center will host Bill Donahue, the Rev. John J. Cavanaugh, C.S.C. Professor of the Humanities, for his talk “The Student Becomes the Teacher: German Lessons for American Democracy.”

Nathan Desautels is a junior studying political science and philosophy-theology. Er wird seine Reise in Deutschland genießen.

Photo Credit: University of Notre Dame

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