Damon Winter/The New York Times

President Bill Clinton discussed the importance of democratic norms at the first installment of the Milstein State of Democracy Address series.

March 19, 2021

President Bill Clinton Discusses Fragility of American Democracy With Cornell Professors

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Addressing the Cornell community Thursday, former President Bill Clinton voiced the problems he sees within United States democracy and how Cornell students can strengthen these institutions and norms for the future.

In the inaugural event in the Milstein State of Democracy Address series, Clinton argued that while the United States has always been divided, Americans must find a way to work together again. Clinton said he believes that democratic norms have long been damaged, and former President Donald Trump only exacerbated them.

Still, Clinton remains hopeful and optimistic about the future — because of students like those who tuned in to watch his Zoom webinar.

“[Democrats] are younger on average than our competitors, we are more diverse, we have the university network,” Clinton said. “But it is hard to keep a democracy going.”

Clinton voiced concern over the erosion of democratic norms, citing that just this year, over 200 bills were introduced in state legislatures to block marginalized groups from voting.

According to Clinton, political polarization continues to deepen national and interpersonal rifts. In response to a question that asked how to interact with people who hold different political views, Clinton advised Cornell students to connect with those with different opinions.

“We have turned so political that we have essentially turned people who disagree with us into two-dimensional cartoons instead of three-dimensional people,” Clinton said. “We are basically in a country with a big identity crisis.” 

Clinton encourages students to create a space where they can listen to opposing opinions and engage in dialogue. Clinton told viewers that they have to recapture the days when people could share each other’s company without caring about political affiliation.

Addressing the role of social media in modern day politics, Clinton acknowledged that it is a double-edged sword — giving people the opportunity to hear from others, but within echo chambers that reinforce their opinions by interacting only with like-minded individuals.

Clinton concluded the Q&A session by responding to a question about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, adding that most Americans, even Republicans who voted for Trump, were horrified by the violence. According to The New York Times, four out of 10 Republicans believe the Capitol rioter’s anger was justified. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 69 percent of Americans believed that it is very important to prosecute the Capitol rioters.

However, Clinton also said he thinks that some Republicans believe there are no democratic norms and believe what they hear from social media. Clinton spoke about one instance with a student who believed Clinton stole millions from his own foundation. 

“It was like I was hitting a brick wall. He knew what he wanted to believe and by God he was going to hold onto it regardless,” Clinton said. “I think he would be more likely to be honest and open up if one of his classmates got a smaller group of them together… and just started to talk.”

Rep. Steve Israel, director of the Cornell Institute of Politics and Global Affairs, then turned the discussion to the Cornell faculty panel. The panel began with Prof. Suzanne Mettler, government, who discussed the forces underlying the erosion of democratic norms around the world and in the United States.

Mettler and her colleague Prof. Robert Lieberman, political science, Johns Hopkins University,  concluded that there are four threats to democracy: political polarization, conflict over who belongs, economic inequality and the rising power of the executive. 

“It’s hard to keep a democracy going,” Mettler said. “It takes tremendous discipline.”

The panel turned to Prof. Rachel Riedl, government, who discussed the importance of protecting American democracy and addressing its fragility. Riedl stressed that the best way to reform democracy is to participate and be an active citizen.

The final panelist was Prof. Douglas Kriner, government, who emphasized the need to reform institutions from within. He argued that the rules of Congress can at times be undemocratic, pointing to the filibuster power as an example. Kriner views efforts to reform institutions like the For the People Act of 2021, which aims to make it easier for Americans to vote, reduce big money in politics and improve anti-corruption and ethics measures.

“A way [to preserve democracy] is by showing, through doing, that government is still effective and rebuilding trust [in our institutions],” Kriner said. 

The event returned to Clinton for closing remarks, concluding to viewers that to become a more effective and inclusive democracy, Americans need to stop seeing people with opposing ideologies as enemies and begin finding common ground. 

“We can’t give up trying to make the institutional framework of America work,” Clinton said. “It’s essential for the operation of democracy.”