Category Archives: Social Science Research Council

SSRC at Roosevelt House: “Anxieties of Democracy”

On May 6, 2014 Roosevelt House hosted the final installment of the series, “Anxieties of Democracy,” in partnership with the Social Science Research Council. Titled, “Are the people the problem?” the event brought together two distinguished panelists: Jane Mansbridge of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and author of Beyond Adversary Democracy, and Paul StarrProfessor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University and Stuart Professor of Communications and Public Affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. In a stimulating discussion, moderated by Jonathan,  the two scholars examined the role of human behavior in the political process–how it can both facilitate and hinder political and economic development. These are Jonathan’s introductory remarks. Video of the event can be viewed below.


SSRC, Anxieties of Democracy

“Are the people the problem?”

May 6, 2014

Good evening, I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute.

It is a particular pleasure to welcome to you to the third in a series of Roosevelt House-Social Science Research Council events on the pressing subject of ‘Anxieties of Democracy.’  Roosevelt House is devoted to public discussion of just such fundamental issues, so this partnership with the SSRC is based on deep affinities for the deployment of rigorous research and knowledge in the social sciences in the public interest.  Likewise, the Social Science Research Council, now entering its tenth decade, is devoted to advancing scholarship on the most critical issues of the day, and to promoting conservations within the academy and well beyond.  Together, both organizations are committed to an informed public sphere and to a robust civic culture.

The SSRC’s program on democracy asks how representative democracies can be strengthened to govern more effectively.  It is motivated by the sense that the core institutions of our democracy that connect citizens to the political system–institutions that include elections, mass media, political parties, interest groups, and social movements–are not working terribly well, and that the American people, both in particular groups and the citizenry as a whole, have lost a significant degree of faith in whether our democracy can address large problems such as  climate change, poverty, and personal and national security effectively, legitimately, and accountably.

Within the coming week, the SSRC’s work on ‘Anxieties of Democracy’ will launch its website on This digital resource will open the posting of think pieces on democratic dilemmas written by thirty leading scholars and journalists who participated in formulating the scope and direction of the program during the past year.

The prior two sessions in the current series conducted in this House–a home where Eleanor and Franklin thought hard about the role of government and its abilities to solve big problems–examined the causes and significance of ideological polarization in our political life, and why Congress has recently had so much difficulty in governing effectively.  The focus on polarization and the discussion of Congress largely concentrated on the beliefs, actions, and shortcomings of political leaders.  Tonight, we shift gears.  We are asking, to what extent are the people the problem?  Intentionally provocative, the question invites us to think about what citizens know, how they think, what they prefer, the ways they are informed, the character of public voices, the manner in which citizens act, and how each of these dimensions of civic participation shape the character and prospects of our democracy.

FDR would be pleased we are having this discussion in his home tonight. Hear his reflections on the state of our democracy in a 1938 Fireside Chat:

“We in America know that our own democratic institutions can be preserved and made to work. But in order to preserve them we need to act together, to meet the problems of the Nation boldly, and to prove that the practical operation of democratic government is equal to the task of protecting the security of the people.”

Then as now we face big, vexing issues.  It is my hunch that our two distinguished speakers believe that it is less the people who are the problem than the ways the media, the parties, and money in political life shape what citizens know and believe and affect how they behave.  But as theirs are rich and sometimes surprising voices, I, like you, keenly look forward to hearing from these two distinguished scholars and public intellectuals.

Jane Mansbridge, recently president of the American Political Science Association, is Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.  Her current work includes studies of representation, democratic deliberation, everyday activism, and the public understanding of collective action problems. She is the author of Beyond Adversary Democracy, an empirical and normative study of face-to-face democracy, and the award-winning Why We Lost the ERA, a study of social movements based on organizing for an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Paul Starr, the holder of a Pulitzer Prize, is Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University and Stuart Professor of Communications and Public Affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. His current interests concern the sociology of knowledge, patterns of technology, and information, especially as they bear on democracy. With Robert Kuttner and Robert Reich, he co-founded the influential magazine The American Prospect.  He recently published Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar American Struggle over Health Care Reform.

One further introductory remark:  I am substituting this evening for Ira Katznelson, president of the SSRC.  Ira has been awarded the Sidney Hillman Book Prize for his recently published Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.  At just this moment, the award is being conferred at The New York Times.  Ira, who sends apologies for his absence, asked me to step in to moderate the conversation that will follow the presentations by Professors Mansbridge and Starr.  They will each speak for about 15 minutes.  The three of us then will proceed to a conversation, followed by a period of questions.  Our program concludes about 7:20.  We begin with Professor Mansbridge.