Peer Review

Reframing and Reclaiming Democracy: Higher Education's Challenge

At the end of May 2008, students, civic leaders, and faculty and staff in leadership studies and development from universities across the country came together for a national symposium on civic leadership education and democracy. These talented students were already passionate activists, organizers, and volunteers working to address a broad range of issues affecting their local communities. The group convened to discuss the scope and content of successful leadership education programs. While the group expressed some concern over “getting to scale” and involving more than “the usual suspects” on campuses, it was clear that many American colleges and universities have established some promising programs to educate the next generation of activists and organizers.

At the same time, there was little discussion about the normative values driving this work and a broader understanding of why students pursue education and experiences in civic leadership. Although the term democracy was in the title of the symposium, it was only toward the end of the two-day meeting that one student questioned the relevance of democracy to this work, and when she did, other students in the room nodded in agreement. One explained:

I am uncomfortable with the suggestion that we are doing this work to strengthen democracy. To me, democracy means partisanship, special interests, and corruption. I am not inspired to do this work as a way to advance democracy.

In some e-mail exchanges that followed, the students offered more explanation. Democracy is a theory and an idea that every person gets an equal and valued vote. In reality, elected officials are swayed by “money and large corporations” rather than citizen interests and needs. One said, “The term democracy makes me cringe.”

It may be troubling, but it should not be surprising, that students find democracy uninspiring if not ignoble. This generation has witnessed policymaking that is characterized by point-counterpoint exchanges among distant political elites. Matters of public interest are reduced by the media to incomplete or misleading information, often about the divisions between Americans based on political party, ideology, race, gender, class, geography, and religious beliefs, rather than about the issues’ merits.

The net result is a divided public. Despite unprecedented levels of engagement during this presidential primary season, researchers William Galston and Piertro Nivola reported in the New York Times (May 11, 2008) the results of a comprehensive study of the nation’s polarization. They concluded that not only are ideological differences between the political parties growing but they have become “embedded in American society.”

Nor is it clear that Americans are paying close attention. Fewer than half of the eligible voters actually vote. In response to a survey question, “Have you ever worked together informally with someone or some group to solve a problem in the community where you live?” only 20 percent of adults answered yes. In an annual survey that measures lifestyles, participants were asked whether they have worked on a community project in the preceding year. In 1975, 43 percent responded yes. In 2005, only 27 percent responded yes, and the responses in between show a steady decline. There are other surveys that measure civic involvement, and they demonstrate low levels in all indicators: membership in at least one group (around 25 percent); volunteerism (around 34 percent); protest (around 8 percent); contacting a newspaper (around 10 percent); donating to a political candidate (15 percent); raising money for a charity (27 percent) (Levine 2007, 58). In October 2007, the Civic Health Index, compiled by the National Conference on Citizenship, released its most recent findings. The Civic Health Index examines forty indicators of civic participation, such as voting, volunteering, membership in civic clubs and organizations, public giving, attending community meetings, and staying informed. The index showed that only about 15 percent of Americans take on significant civic responsibilities—the lowest number in a thirty-year decline (with a brief gain between September 11, 2001, and 2004).

When Americans do not pay attention, they risk supporting or challenging public policies based on false information. At the time of the 2004 election, a majority of Americans incorrectly believed that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had supported al Qaeda (Levine, 54). In a 2006 poll, two-thirds of the respondents said that the American government spends more on foreign aid than on Social Security, when in fact Social Security costs at least twenty-five times more money than foreign aid (Levine, 54),. Recent polls reveal that Approximately 15 percent of Americans erroneously believe that presidential candidate Barack Obama is Muslim.

In the meantime, while politicians increasingly distance themselves from the public by creating smokescreens, ignoring constitutional ideals, and abandoning basic civility, the nation’s problems grow. Consider facts reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in October 2007: In 2006, nearly 10 percent of American families lived in poverty and 17.4 percent of all children under the age of eighteen lived in poverty. By race, these numbers change: Among Hispanic families, 20.6 percent live in poverty and among black families, 24.3 percent live in poverty. The number of people without health insurance coverage rose one half of a percentage point from 2005–6. The number of uninsured children increased from 8 million (10.9 percent) in 2005 to 8.7 million (11.7 percent) in 2006. These are issues that should concern all citizens, not just politicians on one side of an imagined ideological fence.

Yet despite ongoing challenges over how to achieve it, democracy is commonly viewed as an ideal. All societies have problems. It is best to have problems within a democratic society.

Each generation faces social, political, and economic challenges that provoke a reexamination of democracy—a reframing. This generation is facing that challenge now, and the task is all the more difficult, and urgent, because of problems of citizen polarization and disengagement, adversarial politics and partisanship, and government inefficiencies, abuses, and secrecy. But to reframe democracy, this generation needs to also take ownership of it, to reclaim it.

Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to provide students with opportunities to grapple with these challenges. It is a charge to educate in ways that instill in students a renewed commitment to core democratic ideals, to inspire them to become actively involved, and to provide them with the skills that they will need for meaningful engagement in the democratic process.

The Movement to Advance a More Deliberative Democracy

This generation is experiencing and learning that democracy does not function well when citizen participation is limited to voting, volunteerism, and personal sacrifices, particularly when the levels of those forms of participation are relatively low. What is called for is a new way of doing democracy, one in which citizens are actively engaged in public affairs in ways that are meaningful and that influence policy choices, one that some refer to as deliberative democracy.

A deliberative democracy exhibits certain characteristics, including an educated and informed citizenry, fair processes, and active participation by citizens in policymaking at the local, regional, and national levels. In this form of democracy, ordinary citizens are skilled in sophisticated methods of democratic dialogue, deliberation, and public reasoning. They recognize origins of conflict and polarization yet commit to keep working together to find common ground and reach more acceptable outcomes. They understand the notion of shared governance and of citizens working together and with policymakers to generate fair laws and to effectuate social change. They work toward a common vision for American society, on that promises justice, equity, and freedom. Policymakers accept the responsibility for being accountable to the public for their choices and actions.

In a deliberative democracy, the responsibility for social, political, and economic change is shared. This is different from a system in which officials consult citizens before making decisions for those citizens. Instead, problems are considered from multiple perspectives: what can our policymakers or the government to do address a problem? What can others do—others such as nonprofit organizations, citizen groups, corporations, and faith communities? And what can I do as an individual? What changes can I make in my own habits and behaviors? What is my responsibility to address these concerns, and how do I live up to that responsibility? Imagine a society where citizens do more than vote or express themselves by writing a letter, protesting, or making a comment at a public meeting. Those mostly one-way forms of communications are frustrating and inadequate for what is called for now: a sense of shared responsibility for improving society.

Does it work? In recent years, thousands of American communities have been experimenting with intergroup and sustained dialogue programs, study circles, issue forums, public conversations, deliberative polling, electronic democracy, citizen juries, and other forms of deliberative democracy (see Gastil and Levine 2007). These are carefully designed opportunities for people with different perspectives and ideas to come together, study and talk about public issues, work through conflicts, deliberate, and act individually and collaboratively, with each other and public officials; to effect change for the common good.

These are promising practices that are described on Everyday Democracy’s Web site ( and in Matt Leighninger’s The Next Form of Democracy and David Schoem and Sylvia Hurtado’s Intergroup Dialogue. Oregon undertook an open and deliberative process to change its health care system (Gutmann and Thompson 2004, 17–20). In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, citizen study circles have become the foundation for democratic decision making and social change (see Portsmouth Listens, These plus thousands of other examples provide educators with a unique opportunity to teach not just from theory but from experience. People who engage in these processes post favorable testimonials on the Everyday Democracy Web site, which receives about 7,000 hits a month.

The evidence that it works is compelling, but it is also clear that deliberative democracy would be more effective if American citizens already possessed the skills they need to engage in this form of democratic process. Those skills are: democratic dialogue, public reasoning and deliberation, conflict management, and collaborative leadership. Colleges and universities can advance deliberative democracy by being intentional about teaching these skills.

Dialogue is an interpersonal relationship-building process that involves listening and talking and that has a purpose of gaining mutual understanding that then serves as the foundation for individual, social, and/or public policy change. Organizations and initiatives that seek to improve the way we do dialogue in American public life promote dialogue as a way to: (1) change individual behavior and attitudes, and particularly to increase intercultural understanding and tolerance; (2) confront and address historic and contemporary social and economic injustice; (3) increase civility and respect (addressing the claim that “our civil society is less than civil”); (4) build community and networks; (5) change institutions such as governments and workplaces; (6) manage and capitalize on the transformative nature of conflict; and (7) change the way laws and public policies are made (The Democracy Imperative FAQ).

Dialogue is not to be confused with everyday conversations and is more than “just talk,” which is why we usually characterize dialogue as “democratic.” Democratic dialogue adheres to certain principles. It is:

  • inclusive, seeks broad participation and diverse perspectives
  • facilitated, guided by a trained, neutral individual or two
  • respectful and governed by ground rules, agreements people make about how they are going to work together
  • guided by a discussion guide, framing paper, choices, and other approaches
  • grounded in personal stake, stories, and perspectives
  • part of a larger, communitywide initiative
  • attentive to outcomes, process, and relationships: personal commitment and action, improved intergroup relations, stronger communities, reasoned and more sustainable public policy decisions, political and social efficacy, a healthier democracy (The Democracy Imperative FAQ)

The term deliberation often brings to mind the judicial process and the role of juries: a small group of men and women charged with the responsibility of listening to evidence, giving that evidence careful consideration, weighing choices, and making decisions, all in ways that are intentional and not hurried. In a public deliberation, people come together to study a community, social, or political issue, identify possible solutions (choices), consider the advantages, disadvantages, and trade-offs for each choice, and make decisions about how an issue should be addressed.

Some might argue that dialogue focuses on the dynamics of groups and interpersonal relationship-building and deliberation focuses on issues and decision making. Others suggest that, in a public setting, democratic dialogue is the foundation for quality deliberation and sustainable decisions. Either way, the two are symbiotic.

The quality of this form of engagement can be enhanced by attention from the academy. When people deliberate, they engage in a process of collaborative consideration of (1) solid information, facts, and knowledge about the issue; (2) diverse viewpoints, including perspectives based on cultural identity, political ideology, beliefs, and opinions; and (3) multiple solutions, including individual and collective action. It is a process of public reasoning.

Consider for example how issues are currently framed for public discourse. The debate over whether it is legitimate to imprison someone indefinitely and without a judicial hearing—to deny them the right to habeas corpus—is framed by political leaders as “whether enemies of the United States deserve American justice.” Challenges to proposals to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are framed as efforts “to drive gases prices to record levels.” Critics of the Iraq war are accused of being “people who don’t support our troops” or “soft on terrorists.” Legitimate concerns over the extent and appropriateness and extended exercise of executive privilege are characterized as efforts to compromise national security. These framings are misleading and they defy the facts. They also present students with ideal learning opportunities to study an issue, critique the commentators, and reframe an issue for more civil discourse.

Ensuring that public discourse is welcoming to people of all perspectives is both an organizing challenge and a potential challenge in managing conflict. Students can learn not just who has a stake in the outcome of an issue—who deserves a seat at the table—but also how to make intergroup dialogue positive and productive. Respect, active listening, understanding, identifying common ground, creating ground rules for civil discourse, diffusing tension without censoring viewpoints, being attentive not just to outcomes but to process and relationships, issue framing, critical analysis, problem solving—these are critical democratic citizenship and leadership skills that colleges and universities advance. College and university classrooms, residence halls, local communities, and campuswide programs are ideal venues for citizens to practice democracy.

Reframing and Reclaiming Democracy

Despite promising developments in deliberative democracy nationally, there remain valid questions about whether deliberative democracy is realistic or even desirable. The foundations for truly democratic dialogue—inclusiveness, open-mindedness, informed participation, reasonableness—seem unattainable or unenforceable. True inclusiveness requires that those with power set it aside. Is it realistic to expect that level of personal integrity? A deliberative process can be time-consuming and impractical. For some issues, our pluralistic society makes it nearly impossible to find common ground. Too many conflicts, particularly those stemming from moral beliefs, are irreconcilable. These legitimate concerns are not reason to abandon the challenge. They call for continued study, experimentation, and discussion (The Democracy Imperative FAQ ).

Reclaiming democracy requires more than a theoretical reframing. It is a call for action linked to civic duty. It is a challenge to citizens to examine what works in American democracy and to experiment with and study alternative processes. It is a reminder to this generation of the core principles that guide this work: constitutionally grounded principles of freedom, justice, and equal opportunity.

The students at the leadership conference may be right about the state of American democracy. In his June 29, 2008, opinion piece, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote, “We are a country in debt and in decline—not terminal, not irreversible, but in decline. Our political system seems incapable of producing long-range answers to big problems or big opportunities. We are the ones in need of nation-building [at home.] It is our political system that is not working.”

Higher education can and should be a critical partner in Friedman’s “nation-building.” For the past ten or more years, colleges and universities have supported community-based student learning and engagement and have become more active partners in local community building. These efforts reflect a positive alliance of the university’s educational and civic missions. It is now time for higher education to focus directly on democracy both as a form of government and as a set of principles and practices that guide how people interact and work together every day to improve society. It’s time to help this generation reclaim democracy.


Gastil, J., and P. Levine. 2006. The deliberative democracy handbook: Strategies for effective civic engagement in the 21st century. San Francisco: Jossey Bass and John Wiley and Sons.

Gutmann, A., and D. Thompson. 2004. Why deliberative democracy? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Leighninger, M. 2006. The next form of democracy: How expert rule is giving way to shared governance... and why politics will never be the same. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Schoem, D. and S. Hurtado. (eds.) 2001. Intergroup dialogue: Deliberative democracy in school, college, community, and workplace. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Thomas, N. L. 2007. Educating for deliberative democracy: The role of public reason and reasoning. The Journal of College & Character, Volume IX, No. 2, November 2007. Accessed June 25, 2008 at

Nancy L. Thomas is the director of The Democracy Imperative at the University of New Hampshire; and a senior associate at Everyday Democracy.

Previous Issues