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Panelists discuss next steps for American liberalism

| Monday, February 6, 2017

On Friday, panelists gathered in the Oak Room of South Dining Hall to discuss the future of liberalism, as well as the future of democracy, in an event sponsored by the Potenziani Program in Constitutional Studies, the Constitutional studies minor, the department of Africana studies, and the Notre Dame College Democrats. 

The panelists included Tim Roemer, former Indiana congressman and former U.S. ambassador to India, Rogers Smith, professor of political science and associate dean for social sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dianne Pinderhughes, chair of Africana studies and professor of political science at Notre Dame.

Roemer said American democracy has been in crisis for the past 15 to 20 years because of low government approval ratings, increasing polarization and flaws in the U.S. democracy.

“In the last election, 70 percent of the American people thought the country was going in the wrong direction,” Roemer said.“Congressional approval ratings are in the teens, some in the single digits.

“Imagine that — 8, 9, 10 percent approval rating. You’re in company with the leader of North Korea and cockroaches when you are at 9 or 10 or 11 percent popularity.”

According to Roemer, divides along partisan, socioeconomic and geographical lines have also contributed to a crisis in U.S. democracy. Roemer said Democrats need to imitate Robert Kennedy and unite diverse groups in the working class.

“We need to get back to that time of inclusive messaging,” he said of Kennedy.

Roemer said he also was concerned about American democracy because the Economist Intelligence Unit “downgraded” the U.S. from its status as a full democracy to that of a flawed democracy.

“We are now with Estonia, Chile, South Korea,” he said. “We are not that beacon to the rest of the world for what they all want to be like. So we have work to do.”

Smith said liberals must respond to President Donald Trump’s nationalism with their own narrative about American identity.

“…[In] this historical moment, and perhaps for decades to come, I think it is still necessary for those who seek to win authority to shape national policies in progressive directions, to build coalitions on shared accounts of national identities and purposes, what I call national stories of peoplehood,” he said.

Smith said liberals should try to emulate the abolitionist movement of the Civil War era.

“My argument today is that if liberalism is to have a future in the age of Trump, liberals and progressives must explicitly advance a rival vision of American national identity, one first set forth by the antebellum, anti-slavery Constitutionalists,” he said. 

“This rival vision argues that the nation’s first obligation is to its citizens, but it also insists that the nation exists in order to serve a still higher purpose: the gradual securing over time of the basic rights of the Declaration of Independence for all people, of all colors, everywhere.”

Pinderhughes discussed the effects of Trump’s policies on American democracy and African Americans’ relation to liberalism.

She said African Americans occupy a “distinctive space” in American politics, with the majority voting for Democratic candidates — though African Americans also critique liberalism.

“The fact is, whether political activists, academics or the man in the street, many African Americans point to the presence of racist politics and policies that did not very sufficiently [work] to make a change in their lives, even when the president is a Democrat or the governor is a Democrat,” she said.

Pinderhughes said Trump disregards the “rule of law” – laws and policies designed to check the president’s arbitrary power — and will have a long-term impact on American democracy and civil rights. According to Pinderhughes, ignoring the rule of law undercuts the efforts African Americans have made to have their civil and political rights recognized.

“If there’s no rule of law for some people, there’s no rule of law for anyone,” she said. “That includes African Americans. So, the assumptions that people have been operating under are being challenged.”

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