The upcoming Nov. 8 election will be the first general election since the January 6 attack on the Capitol. It is shaped by a rising tide of disinformation and distrust in the country’s foundational democratic institutions. Recent polls show that the majority of Americans—an equal percentage of Democrats and Republicans—fear for the future of democracy.
It was against this backdrop—particularly the number of candidates supporting the former president’s unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 election was illegitimate—that Eric Mlyn launched an eight-week DukeEngage program in Washington, D.C. this past summer, called “Democracy at Risk.”
“I have always told my students if we are going to save democracy, it has to be a bipartisan effort,” said Mlyn, Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics and Lecturer at Duke’s Sanford School for Public Policy. (Mlyn also served as DukeEngage executive director from 2007–2019.)
He organized the program so that students were constantly immersed in discussions of democracy, informed by perspectives across the political spectrum.
Seven undergraduates spent two months in Washington, D.C., working for organizations that seek to protect democracy in a number of ways: promoting truth in the media, defending democratic norms and institutions, and supporting voting access. Two students also supported the defense of democracy abroad, interning with Freedom House, a nonprofit, government-funded organization supporting political freedom and human rights internationally.
“Eric’s program challenged students to engage with our nation’s political and institutional development during one of the most important moments in the history of American democracy,” said Kelsey Zavelo, site coordinator for the project. A Ph.D. candidate in Duke’s History department, Zavelo helped students navigate the current political moment through immersion and guided self-reflection, drawing from her research on political movements in multiracial states and her work as site coordinator for DukeEngage Cape Town from 2016–2018.
Students took part in a weekly enrichment series, which included a talk by Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general, and a private discussion with Paul Teller, former assistant to Vice President Mike Pence. Students also sought out opportunities for enrichment on their own, attending events at the Washington Press Club, the French Embassy and the Pentagon. Two students attended a talk with Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of the two Republicans to serve on the House Select Committee on the January 6 attack.
To combat growing disinformation and uphold truthful reporting, rising senior Hana Stepnick interned with PolitiFact, a news organization dedicated to fact-checking media, political campaigns and elections. Stepnick wrote pieces on threats to election workers and the failure of Illinois’s red flag law to prevent the Highland Park shooting in July.
Stepnick’s supervisor and editor-in-Chief at PolitiFact, Angie Holan, described the organization as working on the front lines to define a new standard for information on the internet, with the project currently supporting independent fact-checking on Facebook and TikTok.
“We are facing an ailing information ecosystem in the United States,” said Holan, “and we are losing our ability and interest to read at depth.” Disinformation also helps fuel partisan divisions, which “are dangerous for our democracy, especially when people put party over the democratic process.”
Overcoming partisanship—and looking for opportunities for cross-party agreement—was a cornerstone of the program, students said.
“We need to frame this as a question of pro vs. anti-democracy, and we need voters to agree that no party is worth more than our democracy,” said sophomore Juliana Alphonso-DeSouza.
Alphonso-DeSouza spent her summer working with Defending Democracy Together, an advocacy organization defending America’s democratic norms, values, and institutions. Her supervisor for Longwell Partners, Carson Putnam, described their work as “looking at politics through a democracy lens, and not a partisan lens, with the goal of returning to a [Republican] party of ideas and values and not one of violence, lies, and culture wars.”
Defending Democracy Together’s sister organization, the Republican Accountability Project, was working to defeat extreme GOP nominees in key primary races this fall. Alphonso-DeSouza conducted data analysis and media outreach efforts against such candidates. She also helped promote testimonials by Republican voters supporting the project, which she believed to be one of their most influential tools.
“The question is, do we want a democracy?” Alphonso-DeSouza reflected.
Other students supported organizations like the League of Women Voters and Vote Early Day to help Americans access voting information across all 50 states. Rising senior Ian Acriche, who worked with Vote Early Day, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to early voting, remarked that “it was nice to find common ground and realize that the aisle is not as far apart as the parties would have us realize.”
Senior Abigail Phillips worked with the League of Women Voters this summer, fact-checking election rules on the Vote411 voter information website. She described her decision to work on democracy this summer as less of a choice and more like there was “a moral gun to my head,” but her work kept her encouraged.
“We must find reasons to hope,” she said. “We all have people and communities we care about and we owe it to those groups to fight for them.”
Lack of communication about voting rules drives voter disenfranchisement, and so do feelings of apathy and cynicism towards politics. Rising junior Randi Jennings offered that “It’s not as depressing if you’re plugged in. There are small actions you can take and ways to inform yourself without burying your head in the sand, even when it feels like too much to handle.”
Still, the political turbulence experienced this summer was nothing short of extraordinary, marked by the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe vs. Wade, the House January 6 Committee hearings, and mass shootings across the nation that prompted renewed pleas for gun reform legislation—all while the country gears up for a midterm election with democracy on the ballot.
Mlyn recognized this moment as “the right time and place to be working on democracy in the U.S.,” and added a sense of broader urgency to this challenge. “Not only is Washington the nation’s capital, but it has also been perceived throughout history as the global center and defender of democratic values.” Planning to expand the program next summer, with a larger cohort of Duke students, he hopes that it lives up to that promise.
Article by Tommy Klug, Communications Assistant, Kenan Institute for Ethics