The United States is the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, yet here and across the globe, democratic systems are at risk due to polarization, declines in institutional trust, enhanced partisanship, and a lack of understanding related to our complex systems of government.
A recent Gallup poll shows that overall confidence in U.S. democratic institutions sits at record lows, with only 27% of Americans expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in 14 major U.S. institutions, including the Supreme Court and Congress, as well as public education and newspapers. As a result, 61% of Americans say significant changes to the fundamental design and structure of government are needed.
Democracy, we are learning, requires constant vigilance and active participation from citizens to function properly. As CSU researchers, including Professor Martín Carcasson, have long argued, and we are learning in a very practical way in our contemporary culture, democratic systems require high-quality engagement, trust, respect, unbiased sources of information, and an inquisitive citizenry.
Teaching critical thinking
In the College of Liberal Arts, we are actively teaching, researching, and encouraging curiosity, thoughtful reflection and analysis, and engagement with others similar and dissimilar to us so that we can create a society where everyone has a voice, and individuals are empowered to overcome the challenges that we face.
Several of our centers – from the Center for Public Deliberation and the Straayer Center for Public Service Leadership to the Regional Economic Development Institute – provide opportunities for students to learn and practice the essential skills of critical thinking, listening, broad thinking, and deliberative dialogue in real-world settings guided by our faculty.
Researchers in history, political science, philosophy, ethnic studies, and sociology can help promote democratic institutions by examining the role of power and authority in society, understanding how that power is distributed and maintained, and promoting more equitable and inclusive political systems.
Members of the Departments of Journalism and Media Communication and Political Science research how social media has impacted communication, news consumption, the deprioritization of facts, and how it has facilitated the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Our faculty conduct detailed studies on how identity is constructed through online games or platforms and how social media algorithms shape users’ news feeds and affect their exposure to diverse perspectives.
Such important issues and interests are interdisciplinary. Faculty from the communication studies, journalism and media communication, English, and art departments focus on free speech, looking at how the First Amendment protects academic freedom and individual expression, and have explored the implications of restrictions on these rights. They also have examined the role of the press in holding those in power accountable and have analyzed the impact of government surveillance on freedom of the press. These researchers are contributing to the development of legal and policy frameworks that protect the rights of citizens and promote a more resilient democracy.
The 21st century brings new challenges, and one of the most important values we can instill in our students is the importance of democracy.
Benjamin Withers is the dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Colorado State University.
The 2023-2024 thematic year at CSU will emphasize democracy. Campus partners are creating a resource library, a series of events and learning opportunities, voter registration and promotion efforts for students, and civic education for all to engage with the topic of democracy and how to strengthen its building blocks so that we can weather the storms of autocracy and disinformation.