If America has always had its share of problems simmering just beneath the surface, 2020 was the year that brought many of them to a full boil. A contentious election ushered in furious charges of rigging and interference. Police killings of Black men and women led to uprisings that were decades in the making. Trust in the media sank, political polarization skyrocketed and an exponential growth in COVID-19 cases at the end of the year had the whole world watching.

To understand what brought us to this difficult moment, and what might be next, a team of faculty, staff and students from Kenyon’s Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) organized an ambitious series of six panel discussions on the central question, “Is the American Experiment Still Viable?” Panelists included members of the Kenyon community who work in areas including politics, journalism, education and foreign service. All but the final panel took place before the Nov. 3 election.

“We wanted to have much deeper, more philosophically grounded discussions,” said Professor of Political Science David Rowe, an organizer of the series. “And Kenyon has a body of alumni and students who are well-placed to have a conversation about what it means to be a liberal democracy.”

We organized some of the most insightful, thought-provoking ideas from more than 10 hours of panel discussions into a mini-course that you can take right here, no books or tests required.

Seminar 1:
Left, Right, Center

How have partisanship, polarization and lack of trust in government shaped the political landscape? Here’s why it matters more (and less) than you might think.

The Experts

Richard Baehr '69 is the co-founder of American Thinker. Jeff Bridges '03 is a Colorado state senator who won re-election this year. Paul Brown '86 is founding director of the Civic Innovation Center at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. Sarah Longwell '02 is president and CEO of Longwell Partners, a Washington, D.C., communications firm.

Two Problems with a Polarized Electorate

We don’t understand how ‘the other half’ lives.
“Politically, we’re increasingly sorting, and polarized, by geography,” said Paul Brown ’86. “As a result, there’s a lack of empathy and understanding about where the other side is coming from, because there are fewer shared experiences.”

Polarization drags us down.
“I have been doing focus groups, and one thing that’s clear is that people no longer define themselves as much about what they’re for as what they’re against,” said Sarah Longwell ’02. “There’s a negative polarization: Instead of aspirational ideas, it’s: ‘Democrats did this. Republicans did that.’ It becomes the Hatfields and McCoys, and a race to the bottom for our democracy.”

Left = Right?

When he first ran for the Colorado House of Representatives in 2016, Jeff Bridges ’03 knocked on thousands of doors and often had unexpected conversations. “Many said, ‘I really like Bernie, but I like Trump, too,’” Bridges recalled. “In my mind, I thought, ‘How is this possible?’ But people were sick of a government that they thought didn’t work, and certainly didn’t work for them. They voted for the stick of dynamite over more of the same.”

Key Insight: Trump governed like a conventional conservative

“Trump’s an agent provocateur,” acknowledged Richard Baehr ’69. But his actual policies? Pretty standard fare for Republicans. “[His policies] are fairly consistent with what a conservative agenda would look like in terms of judges, deregulation, tax cuts, promoting charter schools and school choice, and trade,” Baehr said.

Seminar 2:
Race, Identity and Contesting the “Real” America

Racial injustice was etched into the country’s DNA from the beginning. Discussions about race are fraught. Here are some of the high-level problems — and a few concrete steps we can all take as individuals.

The Experts

Fred Baumann P'19 is a professor of political science at Kenyon. Densil Porteous '02 is chief strategist of DePorteous, a nonprofit consultancy, and CEO of Pride Fund 1, a venture capital fund. Kelley (Coleman) Ukhun ’92 is an educator and anti-racism advocate. Elizabeth Westfall P'23 is a civil rights attorney.

“The wealth gap created by slavery on the basis of race and the accumulation of wealth by white Americans is a major problem.” 

Elizabeth Westfall P’23


What are the impediments that prevent us from living up to and pushing beyond the “all men are created equal” aspiration, as laid out in the Declaration of Independence?

Elizabeth Westfall P’23: The wealth gap created by slavery on the basis of race and the accumulation of wealth by white Americans is a major problem. Educational opportunity is a major problem. The lack of participation and opportunity to participate in the democratic process is a major problem. Housing segregation, employment discrimination and health disparities, too. But a lot of it goes back to gaps in wealth segregation and slavery that we’re still experiencing the effects of today.

How do we have honest, difficult discussions about race and politics?

Professor Fred Baumann P'19: Conversations about these issues are far harder for students to engage in than they used to be. People are saying the right things, but they may not actually be thinking them. I’ve heard students say, ‘Step out of line one little bit, and you’re going to be a pariah.’ This work takes some assurance that you’re not going to be ‘canceled’ because of what you say that’s honest — or just stupid.

Densil Porteous ’02: We should be thinking about how to make spaces safe for everyone to have these conversations. Yet I wonder: Was there ever a time when more conservative dialogue did not give way to this freedom of conversation and expression of ideas? Were there people who didn’t feel comfortable saying [more progressive] things in the classroom? Did colleges and universities think about how we might protect these people?

Kelley (Coleman) Ukhun ’92: We need to make heartfelt connections with other people. I believe that ultraconservative people have values that they like to uplift and hold on to. So do I. I think that we can meet in the middle.

Seminar 3:

Law, Order, Justice and Democracy

The rule of law is a key element of the U.S. government, securing the fundamental rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet these premises do not hold true for all.

The Experts

Sean Franzblau '05 is an assistant United States attorney. Brian Mason '98 is district attorney-elect for Colorado’s 17th Judicial District. Hon. Kathleen McDonald O’Malley '79 H'95 P'11 is a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Matt Sanders '08 is supervising attorney for the juvenile unit in the King County, Washington, Department of Public Defense, ACA Division.

“We often talk about the rule of law as if it’s an abstract concept. But where it really matters is in people’s lived experiences.” 

Attorney Matt Sanders ’08

Practitioner Wisdom: The bipartisan failing that threatens the judicial branch

“Both political parties attack the courts,” said Hon. Kathleen McDonald O’Malley '79 H'95 P'11. “They think if the courts don’t decide things the way they like them, that makes the courts illegitimate. Judges’ lives are being threatened because people claim that they’re not legitimate. The danger, when you politicize the courts, is that the public starts to lose respect for them, and they won’t honor the decisions or the rule of law. That is a grave risk to our entire social contract.”

Rule of Law: Theory Vs. Practice

“If you’ve had nothing but positive experiences with the police, that will influence the way you see the world,” said attorney Matt Sanders ’08.  “It will be hard to understand how another person could see police and feel fear — like they’re not actually there to protect them. We often talk about the rule of law as if it’s an abstract concept. But where it really matters is in people’s lived experiences.”

Why is there not “justice for all”?

Brian Mason ’98: Racism was written into the Constitution at the very beginning because of slavery. It’s part of our history. The racial reckoning we are going through right now is about the criminal justice system and policing, and the over-incarceration of African American and Hispanic people in our prison system.

Matt Sanders ’08: Bias in policing is a premise that most people agree with at some level. The more interesting question is: What do you do about it? Is the answer defunding the police? If you defund the police, all that’s going to happen is that the new cadets — the people most likely to be innovative and eager to change the culture — are going to be the ones that go. I wish we could broaden our thinking.

Sean Franzblau ’05: There is systemic racism in our justice system. But racism is not limited to the criminal justice system, and the criminal justice system alone can’t alone solve the terrible and ongoing racial strife in this country.

Seminar 4:
America in the World

How did the most recent administration’s approach to foreign policy affect the United States and the world? Going forward, how will America work with other countries on critical issues of worldwide scope?

The Experts

Chris Brose '02 is the former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Katherine Simonds Dhanani '81 H'16 is a retired career foreign service officer. Courtney Kealy '89 is a journalist who covers foreign and national security affairs. Tom Susman '04 is the director of risk intelligence at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

3 key shifts in foreign policy

In a break from a fairly bipartisan foreign policy strategy of the recent past, Trump took a different approach which he called “America First.” Here are some overarching philosophies that guided key decisions during the past four years.

Decisions are transactional.
In Trump’s view, “no alliances were permanent,” and he had a “willingness to test and break alliances to achieve short-term benefits,” said Tom Susman ’04. Such an approach has led to changes in trade agreements such as the USMCA as well as some security interests. However, Trump’s decision to protect the Saudi crown prince after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi because of business interests in the region illustrates his “business first, human rights later,” approach to policy, said Courtney Kealy ’89.

All possibilities are on the table.
Trump did not view any aspect of “international architecture or international order as sacred,” said Christian Brose ’02, whether that meant pulling out of NATO to overturn international agreements or getting out of trade agreements. In many cases, Brose said, “a correction was needed.”

America protects its own interests, not the world’s.
After World War II, America became more actively engaged in the world, shaping events and building the security, political and economic frameworks to make future conflicts less likely. But Katherine Simonds Dhanani ’81 H’16 said Trump represented the view that “this post-war consensus had been a trick” on Americans who had “been persuaded to go along with a set of beliefs and a way of behaving.”

KEY INSIGHT: A fundamentally changed world

“Even with a change of administration, we’re not going to pretend as if the past four years didn’t happen,” said Brose. “America’s share of global power is diminishing, relative to other countries. The rise of China, a pure competitor, is fundamentally different. It is integrated in the world economy, with a vibrant base of technological development and an ability to compete with us for a very long time. It changes the balance of world power.”

Seminar 5:
Information, Misinformation and Disinformation

The news industry is changing quickly and is increasingly seen as partisan. How well is the fourth estate doing to promote the engaged civic dialogue upon which democracy depends?

The Experts

James Blue P'23 is a senior content and special projects producer for PBS NewsHour. Davan Maharaj P'19,'22 is the former editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Times. Adam Rubenstein '17 is on the opinion staff of the New York Times. Geri Tucker '74 is a former deputy managing editor at USA Today. Matthew A. Winkler '77 H'00 P'13 is co-founder and editor-in-chief emeritus of Bloomberg News.

“It’s a great skill to be able to parachute into a place and shine a light on it. The light that my reporters shine on a story is going to be very different from the one a local Twitter person shines on a story.” 

PBS NewsHour producer James Blue P’23

Media Trust

A Pew survey conducted in 2019 found that only two of 30 major news sources (Fox News, ABC News) were trusted by at least a third of Republicans. There were 13 major news sources that were trusted by a third or more of Democrats. “Republicans consistently expressed far greater skepticism of the news media and their motives than Democrats,” said Bloomberg News co-founder Matthew A. Winkler ’77 H’00 P’13. “I dare say it’s probably no different now.”

News is dead. Long live the news?

Point: “In the last 15 years or so, we’ve lost about 2,000 newspapers. The fact that we have no watchdogs in these communities anymore has consequences, making them more susceptible to misinformation and disinformation,” said Davan Maharaj P’19,’22.

Counterpoint: “At least in my generation, there’s a hunger for new modes of obtaining news. Twitter fills that, and so does Nuzzel,” said Adam Rubenstein ’17. “There has been consolidation at the top, but democratization at the bottom.”

Gatekeepers and Credibility

Adam Rubenstein ’17: What is a newsroom and who fits in? Is it simply the credentialed? Yale graduates? The small liberal arts college graduates from Kenyon? Or does it include people whose perspectives might come from outside academia?

Geri Tucker ’74: When I got into journalism in the 1970s at the Akron Beacon Journal, there were stringers throughout counties surrounding Akron who helped report the news and reflect the communities they lived in — authentic voices. Papers like the New York Times, the Washington Post and Bloomberg have the dollars to invest. If they can better reflect the community, as opposed to parachuting in and trying to reflect a community viewpoint that they don’t really understand, I think we might make gains in increasing the credibility of the media.

James Blue P’23: It’s a great skill to be able to parachute into a place and shine a light on it. The light that my reporters shine on a story is going to be very different from the one a local Twitter person shines on a story. They’re both valid and useful.

Seminar 6:
America Voted. What’s Next?

The election didn’t turn out quite as the polls or the pundits predicted. While the implications may be debated for years, a few key trends can be illuminated by the data we already have.

The Experts

John Elliott H'17 is a professor emeritus of political science. Jon Green '14 is a co-founder of Data for Progress, a progressive think tank that uses data analysis to promote progressive causes. Sarah Longwell '02 is president and CEO of Longwell Partners, a Washington D.C., communications firm. Densil Porteous '02 is the interim executive director at Stonewall Columbus.

Is there a new partisan alignment?

The people calling themselves Republicans in 2020 “aren’t necessarily the same people who called themselves Republicans in 2016 or 2012,” said John Elliott H'17. This realignment includes “white, working-class voters who used to be in union households and would have been Democrats 50 years ago” but who now align themselves with Donald Trump Republicans, said Sarah Longwell ’02. Jon Green ’14 added that there is also “polarization along the lines of college education,” which trends to Democrats, and “protectionism versus cosmopolitan values.” While Trump “may have accelerated these trends,” they can be seen both in the United States and abroad. Will it stick? Professor Elliott is skeptical — at least for now. Such realignment is typically prompted by a “long-term crisis that is a dominant issue in American politics for 10 years or more.” A “policy shocker” like Trump raising taxes on the rich also could have produced more of a realignment than what has occurred so far.

The Next Four Years

While the last four years have taught Republican Longwell “how much American democracy depends on the honor system — and the honor of the people who are in charge,” she’s “bullish on Biden” because of his aisle-crossing bona fides. “He’s the first person who, instead of talking about ‘fighting,’ is talking about working together and reaching across the aisle. Not only is he talking about it, but his temperament is disposed toward it. He’s old-school about the need for bipartisanship.”

What's Next?

The past year was among the most difficult in American history, but many in the Kenyon community look at the years ahead with optimism. “I have a master’s of divinity degree, and the way I have experienced both politics and life is that there’s only ever the next pool of light,” said Jeff Bridges ’03. “You don’t know the full path. You have to trust that when you step into that next pool of light, a new pool of light will be illuminated for you. You have to trust that it’s going to be enough.”

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