“We find the following headlines in The New York Times: ‘World leaders face a new era in Washington.’ ‘Slamming media, Trump advances two falsehoods.’ ‘Defiant yet jubilant voices flood U.S. cities as women rally for rights.’ ‘Racial progress is real. But so is racist progress.’
“So much to talk about.”
Thus began Uta Poiger, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, in introducing the interdisciplinary panel discussion “Transitions in the U.S. Democracy: The Presidential Inauguration, Policies, and Protests” on Tuesday evening in the Curry Student Center Ballroom.
The panel provided critical insights into democratic institutions and our responsibilities as citizens in light of the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration. The varying perspectives of the four panelists provided rich context for understanding how we got where we are and what might come next. The panel comprised Stephen Flynn, professor of political science; Margaret Burnham, professor of law; Carole Bell, assistant professor of communication studies; and Jonathan Kaufman, professor of journalism.
Moderator Rebecca Riccio, director of the Social Impact Lab, highlighted some of the themes the speakers would address: “the fragility of political institutions, the changing media industry, the changing norms of civil discourse, global power shifts, growing inequality.”
“I encourage you not to think of them as isolated phenomena but to try to visualize how they are related to each other,” she told the students, faculty, and staff who packed the room. “Find the levers you can push to affect democracy.”
Be part of the process
Stephen Flynn, who directs the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern, offered an inside-government view, having served as the lead homeland security policy adviser for Barack Obama’s transition team in 2008-09.
Flynn emphasized the difficulty of pulling together a whole new bureaucracy, and how especially difficult that would be for the current administration given that instead of one chief of staff there are four major players at the top. “The power in Washington is largely the power of negation—to make things not happen,” he said. “It’s really hard to make things happen.”
On the flip side, he said, he’s observed the potential for great movement among the public in response to the transition. “I’m seeing enormous capacity within civil society to engage in ways that it has not yet engaged on so many important issues—and how that might be able to get us to a better place,” he said. To get there, he encouraged audience members to take action at the local and state levels. “Have your voices be part of the process,” he said.
Civic engagement a must
Margaret Burnham, who is founding director of the law school’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, stressed the “critical importance of civic engagement as we move forward.”
Citing Saturday’s Women’s March as well as many earlier demonstrations including the 1999 Seattle WTO protests and the Black Lives Matter and Occupy movements, Burnham emphasized both the negative and positive aspects of the current political climate. “It’s a moment full of crisis and opportunity,” she said. “It’s frightening, exciting, and demanding all at the same time. It’s a time when all things are possible.”
She pointed out that the Women’s March had no “titular head,” but rather was a collaborative enterprise representing a variety of political views. “It was value driven rather than issue driven,” she said. “We came en masse to show we are a community.” As such, the march presented strategies for future actions.
Marches can be the beginnings of movements, but they can also fail, she cautioned. The 2006 Immigrant Rights movement was one example of the latter. Looking to the future, we as citizens must embrace a host of philosophies, she said, noting the significance of Bernie Sanders’ run. “Radicalism in this election was as American as any other form of expression,” she said.
Whence public discourse?
For her part, Bell’s research focuses on where the media, politics, public opinion, and public policy converge. The Trump administration is not “business as usual,” she said, noting that the signature playing of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” at the Inauguration Ball was a “symbolic expression of who Trump is.”
How then, she asked, should we recontextualize the role of public communication and public discourse? Historically, presidents have a honeymoon period, with conciliatory media coverage and high public opinion ratings. Donald Trump, on the other hand, had a mere 45 percent approval rating as of this week, according to Gallup’s tracking poll. Press secretary Sean Spicer, in his first briefing, disputed the media’s report of the size of the inauguration crowd, noting the coverage was “demoralizing.
Bell asked: Where does that leave the media? Isn’t part of its mission to scrutinize, to provide checks on the facts? Why else would it be called the Fourth Estate?
The role of public opinion, too, may have to be redefined. “Cabinet appointees in the past reacted to public opinion,” she said, recalling the withdrawal of former President Bill Clinton’s nominees for U.S. attorney general—Zoë Baird and Kimba Wood—because of the public’s reaction to their employing undocumented workers to care for their children.
Learn the thoughts of others
Jonathan Kaufman, director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism, offered a historical perspective on the relationship between administrations and the press gleaned from his many years as a reporter and editor for The Boston Globe, Bloomberg News, and The Wall Street Journal.
“The press in general is having a very difficult time,” he said. “They don’t know what to make of Trump.” They have come under attack from administrations before, of course: Nixon and Agnew on the Pentagon Papers is just one famous example. “But Donald Trump uses his negative feelings about the press as a rallying cry, and the public by and large agrees with him,” said Kaufman. “And he is very media savvy.”
Media organizations today have new concerns: “The economics of the media are perilous,” he said. Newspapers—The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe—were family-owned outfits when Nixon went after them. But now Amazon’s Jeff Bezos owns the Post, the Red Sox’ John Henry owns the Globe. “They are untested,” said Kaufman. “What happens if Trump brings financial pressure on Amazon?” No one knows how these owners will respond.
There are important lessons from the campaign we can all learn, he said. “Break out of your bubble. We relied too much on pundits, on polling. Not going out to talk to people blinded reporters and editors. Now we see media organizations sending people out into communities.”
“Transitions in the U.S. Democracy: The Presidential Inauguration, Policies, and Protests” was part of “Conflict. Civility. Respect. Peace. Northeastern Reflects”: An educational series on civic sustainability for the Northeastern community hosted by Michael S. Dukakis in conjunction with the Presidential Council on Inclusion and Diversity. Informal follow-up forums, with a pizza lunch, will continue throughout the week: One will be held on Thursday from 12 to 1:30 p.m. at 909 Renaissance Park. Another will take place on Friday from 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. in the Sacred Space, 203 Ell Hall. Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.