Courtesy of Cornell University

Representative John Katko (R-NY) (left) and Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) (right) were two of the featured speakers at the the State of Democracy Summit.

May 31, 2022

Institute of Politics and Global Affairs Hosts State of Democracy Summit

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The State of Democracy Summit, hosted by The Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy on May 24 at the Cornell Club in New York City, brought together journalists, members of Congress, and other leaders to talk about the future of democracy.

The summit was a day-long event that featured a series of talks related to long-term democracy preservation in America in response to “historic changes in the media and technology landscape”. 

Dr. Colleen Barry, dean of the Brooks School, introduced the event, which commenced at 8:30 am EST, and emphasized the summit’s focus on “bolstering and safeguarding” democracy. 

The first panel, titled “Misinformation, Disinformation, and Democracy,” kicked off shortly after, led by Prof. Mor Naaman, information science, of Cornell Tech. 

In the panel, Karen Kornbluh, Senior Fellow and Director at the German Marshall Fund’s Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative and former ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development under the Obama administration, spoke on the ways social media companies, such as Facebook, contribute to the spread of misinformation.

“The mechanics of the platform are not neutral,” Kornbluh said.

Kornbluh went on to detail how what she describes as the “manipulation machine” can be exploited by domestic extremists as well as foreign state actors and scammers, sometimes perpetuating anti-Semitic and white supremacist content. 

Jacquelyn Mason, the director of programs at Media Democracy Fund, elaborated on how what she called “wedge issues” are being inserted into misinformation campaigns in order to divide people and increase polarization. 

Mason said that this has included “malinformation about voting within certain states and certain districts, about Asian American and AAPI communities who have had an uptick in real world violence over the past year.”  

The second panel, “Attitudes on Democracy: A Poll Briefing,” featured journalist Colin Woodard and Anna Greenberg, senior partner at GQR, who presented poll research in relation to attitudes on democracy in swing states and across America. Woodard shared a presentation titled “Balkanization and Unity”.  

Greenberg said that ideological polarization is harmful to American democracy and blamed political parties for increasing this divide. 

“Once you put [on] the partisan labels, you create the polarization,” Greenberg said. 

Similarly, Woodard spoke to the difficulty of passing legislation in the current political climate, even if the bill in question has overwhelming public support in addition to the perceived need for policy-makers to mobilize in order to create progress.

“Leadership is about seeing where people are at and moving them,” Woodard said.

One of the “Congressional Perspective” panels featured former Congressman Peter King (R-NY) and Congressman John Katko (R-NY).

Katko labeled himself the “first Republican that voted to impeach Trump a second time,” and spoke on the conflict it has caused between himself and other members of his party. 

“[Other members of the Republican party] would rather have a Democrat win than [Katko] win because [they] don’t want to compromise,” Katko said, all while referencing his attempts to compromise with his Democrat colleagues. 

Katko blamed both parties for the stratification that is occurring in the U.S. and said the biases perpetuated on cable TV and social media are the biggest issues behind this polarization issue.

The second “Congressional Perspective” featured former Representative Steve Israel (D-NY), who serves as director for the IOPGA and Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA). Israel and Schiff discussed passages from Schiff’s book, Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could.  

Schiff, who served as lead manager for the first impeachment trial of Former President Donald Trump, also discussed his perspective of being on the House Floor during the Jan. 6 insurrection, including an anecdote in which his Republican colleagues had urged him to hide as he was a target of the Capitol rioters due to his role in the impeachment trial. 

Schiff criticized the “constant attack on truth” by former President Donald Trump’s administration.

“You can’t be a part of this leadership if you’re willing to tell the truth,” Schiff said. 

The final panel, “Exposing Threats to Democracy”, consisted of Mark Zuckerman, president of the Century Foundation, and Barton Gellman, a journalist and author of The Future of Democracy, who discussed their experiences with Americans who question the legitimacy of the 2020 election. 

Gellman expressed concern that those who need to be mobilized to preserve democracy have not yet done so. 

“The people who need to believe [that democracy is in jeopardy] are not yet energized,” Gellman said. 

More information about the 2022 The State of Democracy Summit can be found on the Cornell University Events website