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Always asking questions: Welcome to Democracy Pie – The Fulcrum

Willis is the founder and director of Oregon’s Kitchen Table at Portland State University and executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. She is the author of a textbook, a book of essays and two books of poems. This is the first in a new, regular monthly column called Democracy Pie.
As I launch this column, I might as well tell you the truth. I am a magpie, an enthusiast. I am forever pecking at some shiny piece of tinfoil I found on the sidewalk. Some of those glittering attractions are professional — citizen assemblies and popular education and mutual aid. Some of them are personal — embroidery and color wheels and kayaking. Often, I chase after these gleaming new attractions, learn whatever I can and drop them to pursue the next sparkly thing. But there are a few tarnished bits that I come back to again and again. And, given the title of this column, you will not be surprised that two of them are democracy and pie. A third, as you will see, is poetry.

Even if I think I am pursuing something new, often I discover that seemingly new thing is like a refolded newspaper. I crease and then un-crease it, revealing another section of a deep, old concern. A long-fussed-over worry. As I turn it over and over in my hands, I am reminded of the opening lines of Robert Haas’s poem “Meditation at Lagunitas”:

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In my case, a good deal of the new thinking — alongside a whole lot of the old — is about democratic culture and how democracy takes root — or doesn’t — in our day-to-day lives. How we live together in our homes and churches and synagogues and mosques and temples and workplaces and classrooms and grocery stores and parks. How we conceive of ourselves in a democratic society and how we might do a bit better at pursuing this elusive enterprise of self-governance. How our inner lives connect with the external expressions that make up our civic and political identities.
Our democracy has suffered a beating the past few years — contested elections, foreign meddling, record levels of institutional mistrust, existential polarization, a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, National Guard troops on the streets of American cities, including Washington, D.C. In a Pew poll released last year, nearly 60 percent of Americans said they are dissatisfied with how democracy is working in this country. A YouGov poll conducted right after Jan. 6 found that 62 percent of Americans thought the events at the Capitol were a threat to democracy.

I swing back and forth between mourning the loss of something vital and knowing — deep in my bones — that American democracy has never lived up to its self-concept. But, as Nikole Hannah-Jones asserted in her introduction to “The 1619 Project,” maybe both are true: “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie.” And ever since that founding, we have been gloriously and cruelly floundering in the space in between.
And yet, according to the 2021 Harvard Youth Poll, more than half of American young people are more hopeful than fearful about the future of the United States, including 72 percent of Black youth and 69 percent of Hispanic youth.
So considering all that, where are we in our pursuit of a more just and humane democracy? This is where I turn to the poets for comfort, or perhaps more accurately, for company. Adam Zagajewski — who was born in Lvov, Poland, in 1945, was displaced from his home both as an infant when Lvov was absorbed into Soviet Ukraine and as a young adult, when he emigrated to Paris and then to the United States. In his poems, Zagejewski frets over the particular losses of leaving and returning, grieving and fleeing the places that define him.
He begins the poem “Submerged City” flatly declaring, “The city will be no more,” and then eulogizes what is taken by the sea — summer streets and leafy avenues and church towers. At the midpoint of the poem, though, it turns toward the citizens of the city, surprisingly rescuing himself and all of us: “And still we live on calmly.”
Zagajewski continues:
I have read this poem dozens of times in recent days, stubbornly, blindly seeking how we might forge a democracy that serves all of us, straining toward how we might unearth a (more) perfect union, some final form of things. But that, as many have discovered before me, is a fool’s errand. As Zagejewski not so gently reminds us, that ideal democracy is always out of reach. There is no hidden key that unlocks the door to the holy destination we so desperately seek. Rather, of course, the submerged city —that imagined just and shimmering democracy — lives within our imaginations, ever elusive, and tirelessly exacting in demands that can never quite be met.

I suppose, in the end, that is what I will take on in this column — the questions we ask ourselves between fits of despair and the answers we stumble toward in our stubborn, broken humanness. It will be yearning for something better; it will be messy and imperfect and uncertain; it will be arguably wrong at least some of the time; but I am surely grateful to have you all for company.
Originally published by The 19th.
New research shows girls are being socialized early in life to believe they don’t belong in politics.
A research article published this month in the scholarly journal American Political Science Review found that young children perceive politics to be a space dominated by men. Girls’ perception of this is enforced as they grow older.
From late 2017 to early 2018, researchers interviewed children around the country to capture their understanding and interest in politics. More than 1,600 1st through 6th graders were handed crayons and paper and asked to draw a political leader at work.
The children were given open-ended prompts to describe what the political leader is doing in their drawings, what words describe them and what such a leader does on a typical day.
The drawings and responses ran the gamut, particularly for the youngest children. But older girls in particular were more likely to draw people with masculine traits. Research assistants sorted responses by noting whether children drew known political leaders, included clothing like skirts or used pronouns in describing the political leaders. They also coded the adjectives children used as masculine traits or feminine traits. (The study states there are limitations to its use of terminology and does not address gender identity or include nonbinary people.)

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Women remain underrepresented in elected office, making up just 31 percent percent of statehouses and 26.7 percent of Congress, but researchers argue it doesn’t have to be this way. Mirya R. Holman of Tulane University, one of the article’s authors, spoke to The 19th about the most surprising aspects of the research and the ways in which early intervention in how society teaches children about politics could make a difference.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Barbara Rodriguez: Why did you set out to explore this topic? Is it underreported?
Mirya R. Holman: This big research team that’s involved are all people that, before starting the study, mostly studied adults. Everybody studies gender and politics, and a lot of us study questions around political ambition: Why are some people interested in running for political office? Why are other people less interested?
[The team] kept having these conversations over and over again — there’s a lot of interventions that we’re seeing that are often very successful in trying to get more women to run for the state legislature level or local office. But we are not seeing dramatic changes in the actual overall level of women’s representation in the United States. By all accounts, we’re looking at maybe 2100 before we’re anywhere close to gender parity if we’re the most optimistic about levels of women’s representation.

We kept thinking maybe this actually starts much earlier than trying to recruit people that are in their 30s. So we set out to try to understand whether or not these gender gaps, in particular, in interest in politics and interest in holding political office, exist already among younger children, and we find that they do.
The research tests this new theoretical framework called “gendered political socialization.” What is that, and why is it important in understanding the effects of girls’ and boys’ interest in politics?
We theorize that as children learn about the world, they go through two processes at the same time. The first is that boys and girls learn about gender in the world. And this is very well established in the literature that boys and girls, as young children and then through primary school, observe how men and women act in the world, and through those observations learn what kinds of roles men and women are supposed to occupy in the world. So if you only ever see women as elementary school teachers, for example, and you’re a young child, you start to think, “Well, this is a role that women occupy in the world. And if I, a girl, am interested in having a role that is consistent with my gender then being an elementary school teacher is something that I might be interested in doing because it’s consistent with the messaging that I’m getting about who belongs in the world.” And we know from gender role theory that there is both internal and external pressures on kids to conform with these gender roles.
At the same time that this is happening — kids are learning about gender — they’re also learning about politics. So one of the things that comes out from our studies is that kids are paying a lot of attention to what’s going on in the political world as early as 6 years old. They know who political leaders are. They know who the president is. They’re learning about who holds positions in the politics world, and through the social studies curriculum … they learn that, “Oh, we’ve only ever had men as presidents,” for example.
In doing so, we argue that this process of gendered political socialization occurs, where they learn that politics is a space that’s primarily occupied by men. And in learning that, that reinforces to them that politics is this masculine space and girls start to believe, “Well that’s not really a place where I belong.” And boys start to believe, “Oh, this is the place where I belong.” And so we start to see these gaps emerge between boys and girls.

The research article concluded that children perceive politics to be a male-dominated space, and with age, girls increasingly see political leadership as dominated by male leaders. Was that surprising to you?
It confirmed my already existing expectations about what the world is like. One of the things that was surprising to me is sort of how early on this begins. We as a group had sort of discussed, “Well, maybe one of the things that happens is this starts to occur when we start to see student council elections. Maybe it’s middle school or maybe high school when kids start to think of themselves as political actors, maybe that’s when this begins.” But what we see is that this begins in 3rd and 4th grade among kids. Under the age of 10, girls are already sort of opting out of thinking about themselves as political actors.
Separately, the research indicates that as children grow older, they internalize gendered expectations. You’ve already talked about this a little bit, but can you explain it a little bit more in terms of what ramifications that has?
When we think about these gendered expectations, we might think about this as constraining our sort of daily behavior, right? What do people wear? How do they act? How do they treat other people? But it also constrains what they think about in terms of their potential roles in the future in society.
One of the bodies of scholarship we draw a lot on is from research from science education that’s really been trying to think about how to get girls more excited about STEM [science, technology, engineering and math]. And in that literature, they show over and over again that basically girls can’t conceive of themselves as being a scientist and doing the things that they want to do in their life. One of the sorts of components to this is that girls are socialized to be more interested in communal activities.
These are socialized roles that girls internalize over time. And they can’t necessarily see themselves as occupying those roles doing that work in a position like politics, because politics is seen as masculine. It’s not going to have those communal characteristics.
As part of the research, you and your colleagues asked children to draw pictures of political leaders. For boys, the probability of them at age 6 drawing a male political leader is 75 percent and drops to just 71 percent at age 12. At age 6, the probability of a girl drawing a man as a political leader is 47 percent; by age 12 that probability increases to almost 75 percent. What has happened in-between?
The drawings represented for us one of the more exciting pieces of the research, because the drawings themselves are very interesting and honestly incredibly cute. But they also represent for us a really clear example of this idea of, you can’t be what you can’t see. As girls learn more and more about the political world, and they learn more and more about who occupies the political world and who has occupied the political world, they see themselves less and less in it. So, as children age, boys just go along and they draw mostly pictures of men, no matter what their age. But girls increasingly draw images of men as they learn more about the political system. So as their political knowledge grows, they’re more likely to see politics as a space that’s dominated by men.
What are the consequences of girls losing political interest and ambition at such a young age?

One is, if we’re thinking sort of generally as a society … we’re going to have to think about interventions to get girls interested in politics at a far earlier age than we’ve been aiming so far. Often what we see is, maybe college students, sometimes high school students, but often adult women, we’re trying to convince adult women to be interested in politics or engaged in politics. And our research would suggest we may actually want to start far earlier on in the life cycle to get women interested in politics.
The other piece of it too, though, is thinking about sort of how we talk about politics and how we talk about who’s in politics. A lot of social science curriculum uses this really traditional historio-political context where they sort of go through the major political events in American history and point to who was involved in those. So we have many drawings of Abraham Lincoln in our sample because kids learn about Abraham Lincoln as an important political figure. Of course, Abraham Lincoln is an important political figure, but if kids are only learning about men as important political figures, we’re not going to have an easy way of sort of changing people’s ideas about who belongs in politics.
Was there anything else about the research that you found surprising or that you think would be important for readers to consider?
One of the things that we found that was pleasantly surprising is that kids think about political leaders as engaging in things that academics would consider communal activities: helping other people, caring for people, solving problems, going into the community — these things that are what we would want political leaders to be known for. And so we hope that means that people that are interested in hearing broadly about others in the community could see themselves as potential political leaders and kids that are interested in communal activities and potentially caring for other people could see themselves as growing up and being a political leader that helps change things for the better.
What are the potential solutions here? The research indicates that early intervention is necessary. What should that look like?
We’re trying to figure that out. That’s one of the sort of next steps for us. One of the things that we think is key is thinking about what these social science curricula look like and what kinds of lessons are kids getting in the classroom about who belongs in politics. The other piece of it, though, is thinking about making sure that kids are exposed to a wide range of political role models. We very much have a political system where we talk a lot about what is happening in the White House, and we have for the first time ever a woman as a political leader of the White House. So thinking about the opportunities that Kamala Harris’ position affords us might be something that’s really interesting. The other piece of it is making sure that, we know, for example, fathers are less likely to talk about politics with their daughters as compared to their sons, and girls’ political interests are more likely to be dismissed by their parents and role models, so making sure that parents and role models are thinking about the ways that they can have conversations about politics with their daughters as well as their sons, to make sure that their daughters are getting the full exposure to information about politics.

Griffiths is the national editor of Independent Voter News, where a version of this story first appeared.

Could ranked choice voting soon arrive ino the nation’s most populous state? That is the goal of a new coalition which officially launched earlier this week.

The California RCV Coalition introduced itself to the public Tuesday, at a point when ranked-choice voting is having a moment. RCV is the fast-spreading voting reform, and coalition members hope California will build on both the popularity and success of reform efforts.

“There has been a lot of momentum in the state,” said Tom Charron, who represented the group in a recent interview with IVN. “We’ve been seeing the results of ranked-choice voting, and the positive effects it has had on local elections, but what there hasn’t been is the momentum at a statewide level.”

Charron said the goal of the coalition is twofold: Over the long-run, achieve statewide RCV adoption, and, in the short term,offer support to local RCV campaigns to spread the use of the alternative voting method in the state.

Coalition members understand that getting RCV passed at the statewide level is going to be a long game. Garnering the support and resources to launch such an endeavor in the largest state will take time, accoding to Charron says.

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Voters in the Golden State are not completely unfamiliar with RCV, so the coalition will have some foundation from which to work. RCV is already used in a handful of municipalities, including two major cities: San Francisco and Oakland. Albany, Eureka, and Palm Desert are slated to implement ranked-choice voting in 2022.

RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference on the ballot. When voting is done, the first choice results are tabulated. If no candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote, an instant round of runoff is held. The last-place candidate is eliminated and their voters’ next choice is applied to the totals. This process repeats until a candidate has at a majority of the vote. Proponents argue that such a system ensures the winner represents a majority while eliminating the cost of a runoff election.

Advocates also say the new voting method can help temper the hyper-partisanship that has become a stain on the U.S. electoral and political processes. RCV changes the incentive system when candidates have to think about appealing to voters to earn second, third, or fourth choice positioning. They can’t tear down the voter’s first choice, and they have to find commonality with other candidates in order to get the attention of voters outside their base of support.

“It’s clear if we keep on this path, we’re in store for a less functional future,” he said. “Our government representatives are just going to be at each other’s throats.”

Opponents of RCV argue that the voting method is too complicated for voters to understand. Yet, advocates point to a history of exit polls in RCV jurisdictions that show voters like it and want to continue using it.

For example, New York City held its first RCV primary elections in June, and not only did the city see the largest turnout since 1999, but 77 percent of respondents said they want to keep using the voting method.

Charron also commented on the nonpartisan nature of ranked-choice voting. It is not a reform that explicitly benefits a single party, and it has garnered cross-partisan support. While some might point to the traditionally “blue” jurisdictions in which RCV is being adopted, it has also gained significant ground in traditionally “red” jurisdictions like Utah and Alaska, where it was adopted for statewide elections.

“Across the board, in terms of how [RCV] is implemented, there is no favoritism for one party or the other,” said Charron. “It is supported by groups and individuals and elected representatives who are forward-thinking, and are looking to get more accurate representation, and they come from the left and the right.”

Members of the California RCV Coalition also span the political spectrum, and the group will continue to bring in new members as they get to work on ranked-choice voting initiatives. The group’s launch was a big milestone, and Charron says he expects many new individual supporters and volunteers to come in that will work directly with the coalition.

“We welcome anyone who is interested in promoting RCV in California to become a supporter and a volunteer for our organization, and have a voice in what our strategy is going to be,” he said.
Willis is the founder and director of Oregon’s Kitchen Table at Portland State University and executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. She is the author of a textbook, a book of essays and two books of poems.
A fistful of blueberries, crabapples,
boysenberries, quince. Pink
currants, a sprinkle. Chokecherries,
honey, rum to taste.
A slosh of the miracle
that is vanilla
Then shroud our gaze and mutter
It must be done now, mustn’t it?
Our troubles bearing
down the narrow
end of a scope.
Mustn’t it?
Squinting at grackle
and rattlesnake,
flash flood
and cracked asphalt.
Whom do we petition?
Saint? Senator?
Titan of industry?
On second thought,
this is a day for a parade.
Let’s call a vote. But even two
cups of sugar won’t sweeten the pot.
Blackberries creep
over the back fence, tempting
as they ever were.
The ayes have it.
Four and twenty blackbirds
seem not quite enough now.
I prefer my fellowship at a distance.
Baking time: long and hot.
(Let us pray).
All of us jostling cheek to jowl
whispering sedition and joy
Bumping one against another—
the sharp elbows of rebellion,
the soft thighs of longing.
All of it, all of us,
here, together,
clouding our eyes.

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Oh, world without end!
(Let us pray. Or at least call the question.)
Who will caucus with the dead?
I’ll set the coffee on.
Today’s #ListenFirst Friday video focuses on the importance of overcoming political divides and coming together to combat climate change.
Americans’ approval of the Supreme Court dropped significantly after justices declined to block Texas’ controversial abortion law, recent Gallup polling shows.
Public opinion of the Supreme Court dropped to its lowest point in two decades after the justices declined to block Texas’ controversial abortion law, new polling shows, echoing poor marks for the other branches of government.

Two-fifths of Americans approve of the job the Supreme Court is doing — a sharp decline from July when 49 percent of people indicated approval, according to a new Gallup report released Thursday. Public opinion of the high court has been worsening since it last peaked at 58 percent — one of its highest ratings — just over a year ago.
Similarly, President Biden’s approval rating fell 6 percentage points over the last month to 43 percent, the lowest mark in his presidency, per a separate poll by Gallup released Wednesday. Congressional approval remains low, with just 27 percent of Americans satisfied with the job lawmakers are doing.
Americans across the political spectrum expressed disapproval of the Supreme Court. Democrats held the lowest positive opinion, at 36 percent. Roughly two-fifths of independents approved of the high court and 45 percent of Republicans indicated approval.
The Supreme Court’s ratings last dropped this low in 2016, after the justices ruled colleges could continue to use race as a factor in admissions and in 2005 after the court expanded the federal government’s eminent domain power. Both times the court received a 42 percent approval rating.

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The Gallup poll also found trust and confidence in the judicial branch fell significantly over the last year. The percentage of Americans who expressed “a great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the Supreme Court dropped from two-thirds in 2020 to 54 percent this month.
Additionally, more Americans see the Supreme Court as being “too conservative” — at 37 percent, it’s an increase of 5 percentage points from a year ago. The confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett last fall solidified the high court’s conservative majority.
Biden’s low approval rating comes on the heels of the United States evacuating more than 120,000 people from Afghanistan, ending the country’s longest war. At the same time, the Delta variant continues to drive higher Covid-19 infection rates nationwide.
For the first six months of his presidency, Biden’s approval rating hovered just above a majority, peaking at 57 percent after his inauguration and again in April. Except for Donald Trump, every president since Harry Truman has enjoyed a honeymoon period of high approval ratings during the start of their presidency. (In comparison, Trump’s approval rating in September 2017 was 37 percent.)

Although Democrats’ approval of Biden has dipped slightly, to 90 percent, they remain strongly in favor of the job the president is doing. Conversely, just 6 percent of Republicans approve of Biden. Independents’ views toward Biden have been steadily declining over the past few months, with just 37 percent approving — a 24-point drop from January.
For the first time, Gallup also asked survey respondents to rate how Vice President Kamala Harris is doing. Americans were split down the middle, with 49 percent approving and 49 percent disapproving. Similar to Biden, Democrats rate Harris very highly (92 percent) while few Republicans approve of her as vice president (4 percent). Nearly half of independents (46 percent) have a favorable opinion of Harris, explaining why her approval rating is slightly higher than Biden’s.
Congress continues to have the lowest approval ratings out of the three branches of government. Less than one-third of Americans are satisfied with the job lawmakers are doing, a number that has remained relatively unchanged since June but is down from the 36 percent approval rating in March.
This is likely due to the partisan polarization and dysfunction that has prevented Congress from passing a major infrastructure bill, a spending package, two significant voting and election reform bills, and a raise or suspension of the debt ceiling to prevent an impending government shutdown, among other important policy proposals.
For these surveys on public approval of the Supreme Court, the president and Congress, Gallup interviewed 1,005 American adults over the phone Sept. 1-17. The margin of error is 4 percentage points.
We need more voices like Fannie Lou Hamer, who asked tough questions at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, writes Rubin.
Rubin is an alumnus of the Bridge Alliance Leaders Mastermind Cohort. He is founder and principal of Bstory, an initiative that uses the power of collective story to breathe new life into our civic and moral imaginations. This is the first in a regular column called Civic Soul.
There exists something transcendent in the best of what the African American experience has to offer. It is reflected in the many cultural contributions made throughout American history. Africans brought to America have had a profound influence on the American civic landscape. I use “soul” as a metaphor to describe this sense of awareness. It can be heard in the music, from spirituals to hip-hop, and it strives to raise the consciousness of this nation.
When one encounters life from the underside of our society, it fashions a sensitivity to the political, social and economic inequities that exist. When people say that change happens at the margins, they are pointing to a certain set of circumstances that lead to the very essence of a solution. These life lessons are not found in ivory towers. To view life through a soul lens is to intuitively view problems from a different vantage point.
Too many fail to know her name, but we need more voices like that of Fannie Lou Hamer. While criticized for not being the most articulate, Hamer summoned a power to speak in a way that demanded attention. Hamer had a way of truth-telling and we need more people who will ask questions in the best interest of all, as she did at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. She asked, “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings?” Basic human dignity is an appropriate starting point, but unfortunately Covid-19 and the frequent recordings of police brutality have only exposed the gaps that many were already aware of.

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Reflecting on the state of things during the early part of the pandemic, columnist David Brooks wrote, “Everywhere I hear the same refrain: We’re standing at a portal to the future; we’re not going back to how it used to be.” I do not know if our visions are the same, but like Brooks I can see possibilities of alternate futures.
I know that many would like to return to “normal” because they argive only prepared to weather things that are predictable and it causes us to avoid what cannot be measured. I get it, risk is scary while business as usual is tangible and safe.

However, like James Baldwin said, “I do believe, I really do believe in the New Jerusalem, I really do believe that we can all become better than we are. I know we can. But the price is enormous.”
The possibilities that I see ahead require more than simply reform, but a complete reorientation of values. We must come to a point when we move past the idea of American exceptionalism that Princeton Professor Eddie Glaude calls “a lie that hollows out the nation’s soul and leaves its democracy flawed and threatened.” Too often we are grounded in a nostalgic remembrance of a past that never existed. There is much work to be done.
I was inspired by a question posed by the Rev. Andrew Wilkes. He authored the book “Freedom Notes: Reflections on Faith, Justice and the Possibility of Democracy,” which at its core is an exploration of how we get free. The question he asks us is, “What if all of us — not just politicians — are elected for public service?”
It is much easier to look to Washington to be the Change That We Can Believe In, or to Make America Great Again, but at some point there must be a groundswell of citizens who do not bow down and worship at an altar of exceptionalism or any claim of supremacy. Rather, we must tear down every false idol and replace them with visions that carry possibilities that awaken our imaginations and gives voice to the voiceless as we consider this present moment and beyond.
In his posthumous op-ed in The New York Times, the late Rep. John Lewis wrote, “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.” Therefore, I am excited to share this column with you. Beyond all the analysis, change starts with our collective individual beliefs and actions. As we journey together in civic soul, let us do it toward casting a vision that will redeem the soul of America.


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