Yale-NUS and Yale University experts engaged in a spirited discussion on the future of American democracy

22 January 2021

By Ethel Pang

The world is still reeling from the unusual circumstances that surrounded the 2020 United States (US) Presidential Election. From unprecedented voter turnout and participation rates, to the polarisation of the American political sphere, and finally the threat of violent insurgency––questions are being raised about the health and legitimacy of American democracy.

In light of this, the College hosted a webinar on the evening of 19 January 2021 to discuss these timely issues. Coinciding with the eve of the inauguration of the 46th US president, the Zoom webinar invited leading political and legal experts from Yale-NUS College and one of its founding partners, Yale University to discuss the “Future of American Democracy”.

The session was moderated by Yale-NUS Associate Dean of Faculty (Curriculum) and Associate Professor of Social Sciences (Politics) Nomi Claire Lazar. The panel comprised Yale-NUS Assistant Professor of Social Sciences (Political Science) Benjamin Schupmann and two other Yale academics: Professor of Political Science and Humanities Bryan Garsten and Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and Professor of History Samuel Moyn.

From left, clockwise: Assistant Professor Benjamin Schupmann, Professor Bryan Garsten, Associate Professor Nomi Claire Lazar and Professor Samuel Moyn.

Prof Garsten kicked off the session by stressing that American democracy was “not just about one country, but the ideals that one country represents”. He added that American democracy has long been upheld as a model for democracy across the world, which is why it is especially significant that the Trump presidency has exposed some of the weaknesses of the democratic process.

As an example, Asst Prof Schupmann highlighted the twin attacks to American democracy that were waged on 6 January 2021. Other than the infamous violent attack on the US Capitol, a much more sinister “legal revolution” was underway: Republican senators objected to the Electoral College certification process as a last-minute attempt to prevent Mr Joe Biden from being sworn into office. Asst Prof Schupmann explained that traditionally, this was a process that was regarded more of a formality, but was now being weaponised to wage a “successful revolution of democracy through legal methods”.

In a similar vein, Prof Garsten opined that “the greatest threat [to American democracy] comes not from its rivalry with other countries, but from within.”

Other than sharing their views about the challenges that lay ahead, the panellists also reiterated the role that public and private sectors had played.

Prof Moyn cited the recent ban of Donald Trump’s social media accounts by the social media companies, and explained that if the ban was justified, the censorship displayed the degree of power that private actors have in influencing political discourse.

Asst Prof Schupmann also highlighted the integral role that grassroots organisations played as well. He attributed the recent Democratic win of the state of Georgia, a long-standing ‘red’ state, to the efforts of community leaders like former Georgia House Minority Leader Ms Stacey Abrams who mobilised the votes of minority populations in Georgia, such as the Asian-American and African-American communities.

Finally, all three panellists highlighted the important role that institutions of higher education hold in educating individuals, precipitating important conversations and promoting the virtues of liberal democracies.

The webinar followed the success of the United States Presidential Election webinars which were held in October 2020 and demonstrates the College’s commitment to continue promoting a culture of learning and diverse conversations among its community. The event was part of a series of webinars that the College has planned for the year to bring together faculty experts from Yale-NUS, Yale University and National University of Singapore to foster lively exchanges that will engage the Yale-NUS community, as well as audiences in Singapore and across Asia. For more information about our upcoming events, you may subscribe to our mailing list.