The Pew Charitable Trusts has spent much of its 75-year history seeking to bolster democracy and ensure that the public’s voice is heard. So, as it celebrates this anniversary year, the organization gathered keen observers of democracy—including filmmaker Ken Burns and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden—for panel discussions at its Washington, D.C., offices on April 24.
In her opening remarks for the “Strengthening Democracy in America” event, Pew President and CEO Susan K. Urahn acknowledged today’s fractured political landscape and said it underscores the critical role of fact-based work from organizations like Pew.
“I have seen how facts can become a common language that helps people with disparate viewpoints communicate with each other,” she said. “That’s why nonpartisanship is the cornerstone of everything that we do.”
“Strengthening Democracy in America” had an in-person and online audience of more than 1,000 leaders in government, business, and nonprofits, as well as other community members throughout the nation. As part of the event, Urahn joined Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress, in conversation about how to deliver facts to people, the importance of an informed citizenry, and the role of libraries in American democracy. Appointed in 2016, Hayden is the first woman and African American to lead the national library and has called libraries “bastions of equal opportunity.”
Hayden explained how the work of libraries has evolved in the modern digital age and discussed enhancements over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic to provide communities with important resources, noting that librarians “took their mobile units into communities so that people could connect to Wi-Fi.”
She said that she is a believer in the power of storytelling to bring people together, with libraries offering a special place for that. She cited a Library of Congress veteran oral history project as an example. Through the project database, the children of a deceased veteran connected with another veteran who had served alongside their father. “History is storytelling, and we are able to have individual stories as well,” she said. “You get to see what someone else might have felt or feels, and that’s why it’s so important to have these discussions in a nonthreatening place.”
Hayden and Urahn also discussed the ways libraries are valued as an open place for discussion about different ideas. Hayden said, “When libraries are challenged, when there is a move to close libraries, you are closing access, and in many communities, that’s the only access point.”
Reflections on today’s democracy
A second panel on April 24 discussed the challenges facing democracy, the influences on Americans’ current views, and how to improve the health of democracy moving forward. The conversation, between filmmaker Ken Burns and Pew Research Center President Michael Dimock, was moderated by professor of practice and director of Washington programs at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications Beverly Kirk.
Dimock shared new findings from the Center that show only 19% of U.S. adults are satisfied with the way things are going in the country today and that around 6 in 10 (58%) say that life for people like them is worse today than it was 50 years ago. And when the pollsters asked respondents to look forward a few decades, the results were equally stark.
“We asked some really specific questions about what people think about America in 2050, and the outlook was pretty gloomy, gloomier than we had seen in the past,” said Dimock.
According to the findings, 77% of Americans expect the nation to be more politically divided at the century’s midpoint than it is today.
Dimock cited the growing splintered political atmosphere of the past 30 years as a contributing factor. “Since the mid-1990s, pretty much every American election has been about the balance of power, and that makes every election feel existential when you think the other side not only disagrees with you on issues but will actually damage the country if they can hold the levers of power,” he said.
Given those findings, Kirk turned the conversation to opportunities for optimism. A longtime journalist, Kirk shared that local news sources could be a place to build common ground.
“People do trust their local news sources much more than they trust other media outlets,” she said. “And I think that’s a great place to talk about rebuilding trust.”
Dimock noted that technology, while sometimes a tool in spreading misinformation, is helping people to build community. Technology can be “deeply empowering for people to find their own communities, to find like-minded individuals, to realize that their life experiences are not just their own, there are other people in the world who share that experience,” he said.
Burns agreed, noting that individuals sharing their experiences can build community. “The novelist Richard Powers says the best arguments in the world won’t change a single person’s point of view,” he said. “The only thing that can do that is a good story. We forget that there are other things going on, there are stories, the ongoing dynamic of the arc of our own lives. Those are the lives of the people that we love, and our communities, and, by extension, the country that we love.
“While the U.S. is in a ‘fourth crisis’ on par with the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II,” Burns continued, “we can learn from those times of consequential challenges and come together again.”
And he added that high voter turnout made him hopeful about the future of democracy. “We’re looking at civic participation at levels that are just unbelievable; the last election, the midterm election, and who’s voting. In some ways, that might be a silver lining.”
Julia Barnes is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ institutional communications team.
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