What Are We Waiting For?

Promoting democracy is a key part of higher ed's mission, writes Eric Mlyn, so why are our leaders not forcefully calling out President Trump for attacking the integrity of our election?

October 1, 2020
 
 
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I am encouraged that Duke University is marshaling our vast resources to mobilize students, faculty members, administrators and staff members to exercise their democratic rights this fall, by promoting and facilitating voter registration and voting in the coming November election.

We are helping students navigate the legal and logistical complexities of identifying the appropriate voting site for themselves, as well as educating them on some of the ethical issues raised by their decision of where to vote. We are opening an early voting site and are doing repeated messaging urging members of our community to make a plan to vote this fall. Even Coach K has spoken to the importance of voting.

We are doing these things because we who work in colleges and universities rightly understand that promoting democracy has long been a central part of our mission -- both because of our obligation to educate citizens and because liberal democracy is necessary for the free flow of ideas that is an essential condition for our institutions to thrive. Why then are we stopping short of forcefully calling out President Donald Trump for his clear, longtime and unequivocal attacks on the integrity of our elections, the most fundamental element of all liberal democracies?

Allowing this to continue without condemnation from our leaders is an abdication of our responsibility as institutions of higher education to promote and foster democratic participation. The time is now, and the stakes could not possibly be higher.

Last month, for the first time in its 175-year history, Scientific American endorsed a presidential candidate, Joe Biden. It did so because the “evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people -- because he rejects evidence and science.” As I read that, what has bothered me for three years crystallized: it is time for leaders in higher education to rise to the challenge of defending liberal democracy, even if that means directly taking on Trump.

The Trump morass has had me flummoxed for years. I have been puzzled and disappointed that university presidents -- with some important exceptions -- have largely refrained from criticizing Trumpism as the threat to liberal democracy that it is. I know all the justifications for this: that we must, as institutions, be nonpartisan, that not much would be gained to call out the administration for its attacks on democratic norms and that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the administration would retaliate with new attacks on higher education -- including by jeopardizing important sources of funding for our work.

Be this as it may, we go into the fall elections with unprecedented challenges to the sanctity of our elections. Even without the background of a devastating global pandemic, Trump’s consistent misinformation about voter fraud and voting by mail would be an existential threat to our democracy. The story by this time is an old one. It started immediately after the 2016 elections when the then president-elect claimed, without any evidence, that he would have actually won the popular vote had it not been for “millions” of people voting illegally.

Administration attempts to undermine election security have continued unabated since that time. They have included everything from dismissing past and current attacks on our voting systems by foreign actors to a most recent call for residents here in my home state North Carolina to vote twice -- in other words, to commit a felony. In fact, the president is now repeatedly telling his supporters there are no legitimate circumstances under which he can lose in 2020. And since he has made every possible effort to delegitimize vote by mail (though he himself does so regularly), which will no doubt happen in record numbers because of COVID-19, he has clearly told us he is prepared to not accept the results of this election.

Former Harvard University president Derek Bok has thought carefully about when colleges and universities should speak out on major issues of the day. Despite his general aversion to doing so, Bok notes in Beyond the Ivory Tower, “We should not forget that the welfare of universities in the United States is ultimately dependent on the preservation of a free democratic society. If that form of society is in jeopardy, academic leaders cannot afford to draw their battle lines too closely.”

It is clear that the current circumstances meet Bok’s threshold for speaking out. Indeed, if the legitimate results of the November election are rejected and chaos ensues, it will be worth asking ourselves: What did we did do (or fail to do) with the privileged perch we inhabit at elite institutions like Duke if we do not call out this threat to democracy? And what will we tell our grandchildren when they ask whether we fought for liberal democracy itself when it came under assault?

Our leaders must speak out now -- repeatedly, clearly and without reservation to preserve the free and fair elections that are a necessary condition of liberal democracy. We must do so both for the sake of our democracy and for our integrity as civic institutions. Duke and other higher education institutions must continue their important efforts to facilitate voter registration and voting from now until Election Day. But this is not enough to fulfill our democratic mission. We must couple these efforts on voting with broader efforts to educate our students and broader publics about the assault on the integrity of our elections. This is not taking a stand on policy disputes, but instead is, as William A. Galston rightly notes, responding to what must be seen a “regime-level threat.”

Not only do we run the risk of being left behind as other unlikely defenders of democracy -- such as the military and an increasing number of Republicans -- rise up to defend our elections, we also risk losing the liberal democratic underpinnings that make our work possible.

What are we waiting for?

Bio

Eric Mlyn is a distinguished faculty fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics and a lecturer at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

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