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Democracy Initiative Podcast

We invite you to listen as leading researchers, teachers, students and practitioners consider the critical pillars of William & Mary's strategic plan. A special series designed to explore issues related to democracy, the William & Mary Democracy Initiative Podcast dives into the compelling ways democracy intersects with data, water and careers.

Officially launched in 2021, William & Mary's strategic plan tackles 21st century imperatives directly, expanding the university's reach in several key areas: data and computational sciences, water conservation, the history and future of democracy and career pathways for graduates.

Emily TavoulareasHost: Emily Tavoulareas

Tavoulareas '04 has worked at the nexus of technology and the public interest for nearly 20 years.

A government and international affairs major, she started her career bringing technology to underdeveloped countries. Today, her primary and full-time role is as Managing Chair of the Georgetown Initiative on Tech & Society — a whole-of-campus effort at Georgetown University to create novel approaches for interdisciplinary collaboration, research and education. Learn more about Emily.

Single column list of Democracy Initiative Podcast Episodes
Episode 1: Democracy x Technology

A discussion about knowledge as a public good and a look at democracy in the age of AI and mass media.

Podcast Episode 1 Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • What takes up a lot of space in your brain these days?
  • Why does it feel urgent now for the Democracy Initiative to ask questions about knowledge as a public good and rights and 21st century citizenship?
  • The Constitution has many protections built in to protect the public from government overreach, but lacks the same reach into the private sector. How do you feel about that?
  • What does knowledge as a public good mean to you? If and when knowledge is not a public good, what tension is there around that? When does our conversation about knowledge as a public good become less clear?
  • How should we be thinking about algorithmical influence?
  • Generative AI raises a lot of questions about the creation of knowledge. How do you think about generative AI in relation to knowledge as a public good?
  • What does understanding all of this better mean for us as people?
  • What do rights and obligations mean to you in an online context? How do you think about the tension that manifests online between rights and obligations either at the individual level, at the community level, or the company level?
Transcript

[00:00:01.55] CARRIE COOPER: Welcome to William & Mary's Democracy Initiative Podcast. Officially launched in 2021, William & Mary's strategic plan, Vision 2026, tackles 21st century imperatives directly, expanding the university's reach in several key areas-- data and computational sciences, water conservation, the history and future of democracy, and career pathways for graduates. My name is Carrie Cooper, dean of university libraries.

[00:00:29.39] GINGER AMBLER: And I am Ginger Ambler, vice president for student affairs. As cochairs of the Democracy Initiative at William & Mary, we are delighted to sponsor this Vision 2026 podcast. It is part of a special series designed to explore issues related to democracy as well as the compelling ways democracy intersects with data, water, and careers. We welcome you and invite you to listen as leading researchers, teachers, students, and practitioners consider the critical pillars of William & Mary's strategic plan. This episode will focus on democracy and technology.

[00:01:10.59] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: I'm Emily Tavoulareas, managing chair of the Tech and Society Initiative at Georgetown University. Also, I am a William & Mary alum-- class of 2004. So today I have the pleasure of speaking with three professors at William & Mary who are immersed in questions of democracy and technology and the relationship between those two things. With me today we have Professor Jaime Settle, Professor Elizabeth Losh, and Professor Margaret Hu. And I'd love to just kick things off by letting you all introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about what takes up a lot of space in your brain these days.

[00:01:54.12] JAIME SETTLE: Hi. I'm Dr. Jamie Settle. I'm an associate professor here at William & Mary appointed in the government department and in data science. My background is in political communication and political psychology, and I'm really interested in how people talk to each other about politics day in and day out, whether that's on some sort of computer-mediated communication like social media or face to face in person.

[00:02:19.26] I have two books. My first book came out in 2018 and is entitled Frenemies, How Social Media Polarizes America, and is a dive into the psychological processes that facilitate people in becoming more polarized when they interact with each other on social media sites like Facebook.

[00:02:37.35] And my more recent book just came out in 2022 called What Goes Without Saying, Navigating Political Discussion in America. And the best part of this book, in my opinion, is that it's cowritten with an alum of William & Mary, Taylor Carlson, who's now an assistant professor herself at Wash U in Saint Louis. And we started this project when she was an undergrad here at William & Mary, and we look at the social and psychological processes that affect how people make decisions in face to face communication.

[00:03:07.36] What I'm thinking about most right now is how the backsliding and erosion that we're seeing in the quality of our democracy in America is affecting the processes of how people talk with one another. And I'm really excited to be here today and talk about how technology may be helping or hurting those sorts of processes.

[00:03:26.65] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Excellent. Thank you. Thank you. Liz.

[00:03:29.90] ELIZABETH LOSH: So I'm Elizabeth Losh. I'm a professor of English and American studies at William & Mary. And I've written six books about the politics of digital media. My most recent book is a book called Selfie Democracy, The New Digital Politics of Disruption and Insurrection. And it's a book that looks at the relationship between White House-- the White House and big tech under both the Obama and the Trump administrations.

[00:03:59.89] And I'm arguing that, in some ways, Obama and Trump rose as political outsiders with a promise of using technology to get rid of the middle man essentially that might separate a leader from his or her constituents and this sort of promise of direct digital democracy, I'm arguing, in some ways actually undermines representative democracy. It undermines our faith in intermediaries. And I also-- I interviewed a ton of White House insiders and I even interviewed the man who taught Donald Trump how to tweet.

[00:04:42.13] And one of the other threads that I'm following in the book is how technology often reflects anxieties about race, gender, class, and ability and the ways that some times what seems to be about a technological issue is actually about other issues that involve categories of difference that divide us.

[00:05:06.70] And what I'm thinking about most right now is this question of trust. And we're living in a time-- like Jaime, I'm very concerned about the state of democracy today in which people lack trust in the government and they also lack trust in technology. And so often, when the government wants to use technology to improve democracy, there's actually a lot of mistrust of that.

[00:05:34.63] And you see that around digital voting systems. You see that around 5G. You even see it around questions of COVID digital certificates. You know, all of this anxiety about digital systems that are complex that maybe we can't entirely understand and consequently we can't trust.

[00:05:54.44] And so my next book is tentatively going to be called Start Up Nation. It's looking-- I was a Fulbright scholar last year living in Estonia and sort of looks at this very forward-thinking country in some ways. There are other ways that you actually see a kind of dark side of technological innovation when you're looking at countries that maybe are trying to move very rapidly in the digital space.

[00:06:20.21] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Absolutely. Thank you. And Margaret.

[00:06:23.47] MARGARET HU: It's such a privilege to be here. I'm Margaret Hu. I'm a professor at the law school, and I just joined in August. And it's so wonderful to be a part of this Democracy Initiative and to be here at William & Mary, a university uniquely positioned, I think, to have a role at the national level to engage in this conversation about democracy and especially democracy and technology.

[00:06:47.02] So my first book was an edited volume titled Pandemic Surveillance, Privacy, Security, and Data Ethics. It was published last year. And I have a book under contract, and it's tentatively titled Big Data Constitution. And what I try to look at in this book is the way in which our constitutional structure and rights were forged in a small data world. And we were looking at small data power and threats and the types of limitations that you needed to place on the government in light of those types of abuses as imagined by our founders.

[00:07:23.42] But you fast forward to the present day and you see threats looking very different in this current landscape. And what type of new reconceptualization do we need to embrace in order to make sure that our core first principles and our foundational commitments to rights and liberties and limited governmental power can remain and sustain in light of the types of technological advances that we see with predictive policing, for example, with AI-driven voter microtargeting, with misinformation, disinformation campaigns, with the ability to merge big tech with governmental power.

[00:08:10.28] It's a merger of power that, I think, rivals the fear our founders had of the merger between church and state. And I think that in order for us to really tackle things like mass surveillance and cyber surveillance and the weaponization of information in the digital age and our new information, society, and economy, we really need to look very carefully at our Bill of Rights, I think, in particular and the way in which we divide power.

[00:08:40.68] And so there's been a great deal of conversation recently about the need for an AI Bill of Rights, and this is something that I think we need to take very seriously at this moment of democratic crisis. I think that we really need to understand exactly what are the legal tools available to us in order to navigate, I think, what we see as a real inflection point for our democracy, especially in light of the insurrection on January 6th.

[00:09:13.60] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: I'd like to focus on that a little bit because one of the questions I had coming into this conversation was, why does this feel urgent now, right? Like for the Democracy Initiative, it has articulated very clearly that it's focused on knowledge as a public good, rights and obligations of 21st century citizenship. And I just wanted to start with a question about urgency, right? You've all touched on this in different ways. Why does this feel urgent to you now? And whoever wants to, please jump in.

[00:09:51.30] ELIZABETH LOSH: Well, in my first book about politics and digital media when I was looking at the White House, I was really talking about desktop computing, and I was looking at the question of what happens when digital files reach unintended audiences and get used for unanticipated purposes? And a lot of what I was looking at was really about issues around intellectual property.

[00:10:13.93] But now these devices are not confined to the realm of a workstation. These are intimate devices that know how many steps you've taken. They know where you've been. And I think ubiquitous computing combined with large-scale data-harvesting is really a paradigm shift. And then when you put AI into that soup, you get a particularly dangerous stew for democracy.

[00:10:48.40] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Yeah. And Margaret, you touched on a similar point here. I wanted to toss it over to you for a minute. What does that raise for you?

[00:10:59.55] MARGARET HU: Yeah, absolutely. I think that what we see with these new tools, with the massive aggregation, storage, and analysis of billions of pieces of data by both governmental entities and private corporations, that we have an unprecedented ability to engage in mass manipulation, I think cognitive shaping, and cyber propaganda.

[00:11:24.08] So it is, I think, such a deep threat to democracy right now where unless we find a way in order to try to maintain a sense of autonomy and individual, I think, intellectual capacity without that type of manipulation, that we are going to continue to see mass information, misinformation, disinformation campaigns of a scale that we have never seen before.

[00:11:52.23] And I think that January 6th is one of the symptoms. I think that foreign interference of US elections that we saw in 2016 moving forward is going to worsen. And one of these pillars and bedrock principles of democracy-- free and fair elections-- I think is truly under threat. And so when you said what is the urgency here, I think if we are not able to sustain faith and hope in free and fair elections and if we are unable to execute that pillar of democracy, all of democracy, I think, is under threat.

[00:12:30.84] JAIME SETTLE: Building off of that. I mean, I completely agree with that point. I think from the perspective of those of us who study American politics, we've always thought of elections as focal points and we've thought about how people interact with each other about politics in the context of a campaign. But one of the consequences of polarization is the campaign is essentially permanent.

[00:12:51.75] The salience of politics is always present. And so this is not just something that we think about in election cycles. This is day in and day out. The effects of what we've seen in terms of all of these malicious forces and what we've done to ourselves as a country in terms of how we've come to communicate with one another is not something that just flares up every two or four years. And so I don't think we can wait any longer. We have to be tackling it now, not waiting for something to come just in advance of a presidential election.

[00:13:24.37] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: What does doing something now look like to your minds? Is that-- do you have a sense of what that looks like, or are we still really in an exploratory stage where we're trying to understand what the options are?

[00:13:39.42] JAIME SETTLE: I think both. From my perspective, we have so much to understand about the root causes of what's driving all of these forces. We don't understand the problems fully, and it doesn't make sense to work on solutions until you have a good handle on the problem. At the same time, if you take that logic to its extreme, we will never start working on solutions.

[00:14:02.33] And so getting started now to me means effective partnerships between scholars who are taking a deep dive in understanding the why, working with practitioners who are much more focused on the solutions to make sure that they are implementing based on the most up-to-date understanding we have of the problems.

[00:14:23.66] ELIZABETH LOSH: And I think we're at an interesting moment where there is consensus among people both on the right and the left that something needs to be done. And what those regulatory forces might be-- I think legislation isn't the only answer. I think Supreme Court decisions aren't the only answer to these questions.

[00:14:45.82] But you know, it's a time that we could actually come together because I think that there is widespread agreement that our society has a problem. And yet to see the political dysfunction around actually moving forward with anything because of some of the issues that Jaime writes about is really discouraging sometimes.

[00:15:11.11] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Yeah. You mentioned the Supreme Court and I couldn't-- I can't help but touch on the Gonzalez v. Google case, which, of course, we heard the opening-- the opening arguments for last week. And for those who are listening, the case essentially is-- without going in into the details too much, has implications for content moderation and how information flows on the internet on these platforms.

[00:15:43.17] And were the court to make a decision that platforms would be liable for the content on them, one of the potential scenarios that experts point to is that companies would be incentivized to either undercensor or overcensor, which I think touches on a lot of what you all have been talking about, which would essentially lead to a mass surveillance system at scale.

[00:16:07.36] And what this leads me to is a question about protections that are currently built into our system. The Constitution has many protections built in to protect the public from government overreach but doesn't have the same reach into the private sector. And I wanted to know how you all think about that, particularly with these cases in front of the court and probably more to come.

[00:16:39.92] MARGARET HU: Yeah, I think that what's really fascinating is that we have this First Amendment that is intended to protect us, our freedom of speech, our freedom of expression, communication, and the free flow of information, especially with our press and our commitment to journalism and that we had Section 30 adopted at a time when we wanted to make sure that we had incentivization for big tech to be able to flourish and serve as a platform of communication and mass media and not be held liable for the speech of others in order to be that conduit.

[00:17:20.69] But I think what you see in that Google case is that technology has changed and that platforms have changed, and now with the algorithms that they develop in order to drive traffic and what we saw with the Facebook papers and Frances Haugens revelations is that there is a very concerted manipulation of the data and of exploiting user preferences in order to increase tensions and exacerbate, I think, the type of sowing of discord that pairs unfortunately very nicely with those foreign adversaries that are intending to do us harm.

[00:18:00.16] And so you suddenly have foreign threats merging with domestic threats. And I think there is something very distinct about the technology that is algorithmically-driven because it is not simply serving as a platform that is a conduit of information. It is taking the data and doing something with it that I think other nations, especially the EU, they are looking very carefully about what type of regulatory regimes you need once you do something with other users' data.

[00:18:34.92] And at that point, I would invite us in the United States to look at things like the proposed AI Act in the EU where it is a risk-based approach to emerging technologies. And so they look at the most dangerous technologies and they say, these pose an unacceptable risk.

[00:18:55.63] And so the types of technologies that do lead to cognitive manipulation or subliminal messaging, the types of AI-driven voter microtargeting, for example, that focuses on certain classifications of individuals, especially protected individuals, those are classified as very high risk technologies and posing unacceptable risks. And so I do think when you were saying, what can we do right now, I think that we can take very seriously a very close look at what type of regulatory models are out there that we might need to adopt.

[00:19:31.57] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Excellent.

[00:19:32.92] JAIME SETTLE: I always think about this when we're talking about complex issues that experts struggle to understand-- what do we think people understand about them? So I always remind myself, most Americans do not understand what the First Amendment actually protects. And so making this distinction between what the government is allowed to do and what the private sector is allowed to do, people blur that in their mind anyway.

[00:19:56.74] And historically, Americans have had a fair amount of trust in corporate America, and that's beginning to change as well, right? I mean, I think the shifts you've seen in the past few years in terms of how Americans evaluate the level of trust in these big tech companies-- and Liz is right, this is happening on both sides-- Democrats and Republicans-- for different reasons, but that decline of trust.

[00:20:21.40] Another way I think about this is, what does the average person understand about an algorithm, right? And if you think about folk theories of algorithms, how do people think-- what's going on? And they sort of get it, but they don't really get it. And we shouldn't be surprised because people who work at these companies also fully don't understand exactly why the algorithms produce what they do. So I don't think we can have this conversation without being realistic about how everyday people understand the nature of the problems themselves.

[00:20:53.23] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Absolutely. And there's so much about products and the algorithms that power them that we cannot really fully predict until they're out in the world, right? Until actual humans are using them in the environment that they live in. One of the things we've been circling around is knowledge and information. And I know that this was explicitly-- it's one of the things that the Democracy Initiative here at William & Mary explicitly points to as focusing on knowledge as a public good, which is latent with tension for me, right?

[00:21:29.68] It's like, who defines what's good, and what is the public, and what even is knowledge? So what I wanted to get your thoughts on this a bit-- I'd love, one, to know what knowledge as a public good means to you? And if and when knowledge is not a public good, right, or what tension is in there, right, when does our conversation around knowledge as a public good become complicated and less clear? So what is-- let's start with what does that mean to you and what does that raise for you?

[00:22:18.96] ELIZABETH LOSH: So the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere has this great saying where he says that politics is the distribution of the sensible. And I think that question of what rises to visibility and awareness in public conversations is something that I'm really interested in and the ways that that visibility is now being manipulated by technology.

[00:22:44.73] And particularly when we think about what people are aware of, what they're sensible of, they're often issues that have these high emotional investments, sometimes about things that, in retrospect, might seem relatively minor. But there's this sense of anxiety about profound losses that are often exploited in these messages, so a sense of there's an emergency that you've become aware of.

[00:23:19.95] Wendy Chen has this great formulation where she talks about status plus crisis equals update, and so this need to kind of constantly both be in a state of crisis where you have to kind of constantly update yourself and yet you also become really desensitized to this assault of new information.

[00:23:45.82] And I think-- when I think about William & Mary, there are a lot of people who've been part of the William & Mary community who've tried to grapple with the complexities of what's not visible, and so how do we think about things like lobbying? How do we understand things like regulation? How do we understand things like complex technical systems? And who gets particular kinds of resources? And how do we understand the material infrastructure of the internet and how it operates?

[00:24:21.49] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Absolutely. And Liz, I know-- Jaime, you live and breathe this question, I know. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

[00:24:29.14] JAIME SETTLE: Sure, sure. So I tend to think of the production of information in terms of news and thinking about what is political news? What is political fact? And political scientists have thought about news as an information good. It has distinct properties. It's produced by market forces.

[00:24:51.43] And as you've seen, the market for news changed dramatically in the last 30 to 40 years. The expectations we have for what information should get produced is just radically different. In a previous era, the production of news was a public good in a sense that was managed by a much smaller set of people who were making editorial decisions.

[00:25:15.19] We've seen the democratization of the production of news, but that's led to a very polluted information environment. And when you fold in all the ways that algorithms are built on top of human psychology, the kinds of information that's circulating most readily is not necessarily-- we don't expect it to be the most credible. But the very fact that it is circulating so widely is often giving it more credibility than it deserves.

[00:25:44.63] So when I think about the challenges of citizenship in the 21st century as it relates to becoming informed, the challenge is no longer accessing the information. It is parsing through the deluge of information you encounter everywhere you go. And so if we're thinking about information as a public good, we need to be thinking about our individual contributions but also how, historically, have we managed things that are collective action problems? How have we incentivized each other to not pollute a common pool resource and to make sure that we're not acting in our individual interest in a way that undermines the collective benefit?

[00:26:27.18] ELIZABETH LOSH: Often my students don't believe that there was a time that you would go a whole day without consuming news, that you would read the newspaper in the morning and then you'd watch the evening news at night before going to bed and that there was no news between those time slots.

[00:26:44.61] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Yeah. Oh, well, I don't want to make this about the Google v-- the Gonzalez v. Google case. However, we did-- we're talking about editorial decisions and I cannot help but think about algorithms here. And I raise the Gonzalez v. Google case because this is sort of part of the case in raising the question about editorial decisions, right?

[00:27:10.55] Like are algorithms making editorial decisions by the sheer act of surfacing information for you to consume, essentially deciding what people should see, what should rise, what should not? It's a piece of software that's doing it, not a human. Is that different? How should we be thinking about that?

[00:27:40.58] JAIME SETTLE: That's a tough one. I tend to think about this-- there is no algorithm with a capital A at any of these companies. And every user's experience is different in a way that reflects the choices that they have made. So for me, one key distinction is this is not-- there's not uniformity, right?

[00:28:03.76] These companies are not making editorial decisions that are the same for everyone. Nor are people themselves totally removed from the factors that end up influencing what they see. And so those two things to me really raise a lot of questions that this is not editorial decision-making as we think of it in a classic sense.

[00:28:27.52] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: I want to double click on that because I think this is something that gets tangled up quite a lot in conversation. And correct me if I'm misrepresenting this, but essentially what you're saying is that the algorithm is, on the one hand, programmed by humans to do a particular thing.

[00:28:45.75] And part of the thing that it does is it understands your behavior and your interests and it serves you up something that is based on what it's learning about you. So it's not the algorithm making an editorial decision the way an editor might, which is separate from consumer behavior, but directly tied to the behavior of the user. Does that sound right?

[00:29:12.53] JAIME SETTLE: It does. I mean, I would argue editors have always made decisions based on what they expect the market to want. But in this case, they have much better data. The algorithm has much better data on what people actually want to consume and that the value that's being maximized is engagement on most of these sites, whereas the traditional model of editorial control was balancing across a number of different values, not just increasing market share.

[00:29:45.31] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: So I want to come to AI real quick on this because generative AI, of course, raises a lot of questions about knowledge and the creation of knowledge. And I'd love to know how you think about generative AI in relation to knowledge as a public good.

[00:30:06.26] MARGARET HU: Yeah, I wanted to circle back because I think that that is such a critical question about what is knowledge in this era of AI and generative AI. But I think that it's important to think about these very deep ontological questions about what we think we even know.

[00:30:23.48] I think Jaron Lanier was the one who said that AI basically or big data, these types of technologies, it's like virtual reality, that it is so compelling because you might have more data available than you've ever had before to generate conclusions or correlations that appear to be so statistically accurate but that, at the core, we need to remember we're not looking at curated knowledge the way that we once understood knowledge that we once were able to verify or we had human-based judgment integrated into some type of verified conclusion or conclusion that a community of experts could agree upon as that being knowledge in and of itself.

[00:31:17.78] So when we are considering what is knowledge for the public good, I think that it's important for us to step back and understand that knowledge in an AI sense or a generative AI sense is simply not knowledge as we once understood it as a human-driven project.

[00:31:36.65] ELIZABETH LOSH: And I think the other hard piece of these personalization technologies is that they're convenient for many people. Many people prefer just getting the kind of news that they would like to consume. And so that's another factor that can inhibit genuine reform.

[00:32:00.97] But going back now to this question of generative AI-- because I think there are a lot of headlines around it and for good reason, although there have been text generators around for decades and composing in different genres, and so some of this anxiety about ChatGPT or LaMDA or Bard or some of these other systems might--

[00:32:29.32] In the historical stretch of things, there have always been assistive writing technologies of different kinds and that might be involved in certain kinds of I wouldn't say impersonation but this sort of sense of that divide between the human and the nonhuman has always been a kind of slippery one when it comes to these technologies.

[00:32:55.48] But I do think-- and now I'm putting on my hat as the cochair of the Modern Language Association's task force on this, and they're trying to figure out things like should you cite the AI tools that you use in your writing? I do think that these kinds of technologies are really powerful and they do have the capacity to disrupt.

[00:33:22.33] And here at William & Mary, it can affect everything from the kind of writing assignments that might be given to students. And remember, writing is a powerful mode of learning, so having students not necessarily write their own essays can have certain consequences. And things like translation, learning languages, like all of these things can really be profoundly disrupted. And so I think that, going back to this question of what is knowledge, if we outsource a lot of the hard work of becoming educated individuals in a community to a technology, there are going to be consequences from that as well.

[00:34:08.60] JAIME SETTLE: I've been thinking about this a lot in the sense that I teach a course, The Ethics of Data Science, for our degree program here. And the big news about ChatGPT came out right before the final exam. And you know, I should have incorporated it earlier into the syllabus, but I was caught a little off guard by the announcement, and I just-- I radically changed my final exam structure not because I was worried about the students doing unethical things but because I thought, how can I send these students off having taken a class in the ethics of data science if we didn't encounter this topic at all?

[00:34:45.68] And to me, that's the trick, right? Yes, these are disruptive. Yes, these have the potential to be really negative forces and we have to work through that. But they also have the potential to be helpful in a way to push students to think better. And so I think the task in front of us now as educators is to think, how do we want our students to understand the benefits of these, right?

[00:35:12.81] If we are sending them out as college-educated individuals, and not any college, William & Mary educated individuals, how should they be thinking differently about these tools, and how can they incorporate them in ethical, responsible ways to do even better, right? To reach more people, to be more efficient in their work, to be more inclusive in their work.

[00:35:33.12] And you know, we've just started scratching the surface. I mean, this will be something that I think will consume us for years to come. But I'm optimistic. I really believe in our students on this that we're going to find positive ways forward to make their education stronger than it could have been.

[00:35:51.28] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: That's great. It really-- it draws me to the rights and obligations side of the-- part of the equation we've been talking about here that the illumination of the rights and obligations of 21st century citizenship as a pathway to securing democratic ideals is one of the parts of this initiative that's really explicitly stated there.

[00:36:17.06] And part of what I hear you all pointing to is what understanding all of this better means for what we do as people and how we engage with each other and with institutions, et cetera. So I'd love to hear a little bit from you both what do rights and obligations mean to you in an online context and how you think about the tension that manifests online between rights and obligations either at the individual level, communities, companies, whatever direction you want to take that. And I know, Jaime, you think a lot about how people engage with each other and interact. How do you-- how do you respond to this?

[00:37:10.67] JAIME SETTLE: Yeah, I was hoping you were going to throw that to Margaret, but I can take a stab. So I wish people had a better understanding that the choices they make online have the repercussions that they do. And so I think most people understand that if they post something or they share something, that has implications. But even your choice to dwell on a piece of information or clicking on it in any way, you're generating data that is contributing to the problem.

[00:37:47.03] So in the Frenemies book, I talk a bit at the end about what would it take to change these individual-level behaviors to incentivize people to act in a more responsible way as consumers and generators of political information? And I don't think I have any really good answers there. I mean, I know it's going-- we're not going to get a solution from the government. We're not going to get a solution from the companies. And it's too big a collective action problem for individuals to solve without some sort of coordination.

[00:38:19.50] But I think those individual level choices do matter. So that's the responsibility, right? Sort of stepping up to think about how your actions, even your subtle ones, may be influential. The tension there is, I'm not sure we're having our rights met in order to expect us to step up with the responsibilities. I don't know what rights we really have in this space.

[00:38:48.11] But whatever they are, I don't think they're being as fulfilled and protected as they could be. And so I think-- thinking about this almost as a new form of social contract, what should we expect when we engage online but with that expectation of what we are entitled to, what are we obligated to? And I don't know that I have a good answer on that.

[00:39:11.60] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Margaret, you mentioned the AI Bill of Rights, and I know you spent a lot of time thinking about this. What does this-- what does this raise for you?

[00:39:18.89] MARGARET HU: Yeah, I think what this raises for me is a real, I think, need for us to think about the ways in which we are not able to operate under the same governance philosophies that we once did because we simply don't have the type of even playing fields that we once had. I think that there's too many problems of asymmetric power and asymmetries of information, including algorithms and who controls them and how and how it impacts our lives.

[00:39:51.63] And the way that one tech exec explained it to me, and I think that this puts it very well, is it's almost like we're pre-Magna Carta right now, that the power flows so deeply one way that it's created almost an impossibility for individual citizens to try to gauge and assert their rights.

[00:40:15.84] And it's hard even for, I think, the government to fulfill their obligations to enforce those rights because we can't even imagine the way that surveillance capitalism, for example Shoshana Zuboff's theorization about the exploitation of all of the datafication that we create because of the structure of our digital economy.

[00:40:39.28] And so unless we grapple with the superstructure that we now find ourselves living in in a way that we cannot separate ourselves from, that we cannot separate ourselves from that superstructure of surveillance capitalism, then I think that we are going to have a real hard time understanding what the First Amendment means, what the 14th Amendment Equal Protection clause means, what due process under the law means with algorithmic decision-making and automated decision-making, what even the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments, which are the amendments of our Bill of Rights that protect criminal procedures.

[00:41:23.80] So in a recent piece that I wrote about biometric data and the AI Bill of Rights, I look at facial recognition technology. The fact that you present your face and that data can be captured by governmental and private corporations alike, what does that mean for search and seizure? What's unreasonable search and seizure when somebody can capture your data? What does it mean to have a right against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment? What does it mean to be able to confront your witnesses under the Sixth Amendment?

[00:41:54.57] If you don't have access to the algorithms that are being used, then suddenly you find yourself swept into a criminal justice system and you're being told that there's definitive evidence placing you at the scene of a crime. And suddenly, I think, the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments just don't operate the way that it used to.

[00:42:17.10] ELIZABETH LOSH: And I think one thing I'm deeply concerned about is the ways that digital rights have been defined by their exclusions in many ways so that if you look at legislation, it's often about, say, excluding children from certain kinds of digital participation. So we have schools and libraries that have nanny software on them that prevents young people from getting certain kinds of information, that we have exclusions around sexual minorities, that we have exclusions around noncitizens, and that we're often shaping our discourse about digital rights around--

[00:43:00.46] I mean, the Google case is interesting because the terrorist and the child molester have often been the figures that we focus on when it comes to these questions of regulation. And by starting our discussion of rights with who should be excluded from having rights is a fundamental problem.

[00:43:22.31] And I love that you brought up the issue of responsibilities as well. You know, I wrote a book about hashtags and looked at four different countries and talked to activists and policy makers about the ways that curating data is actually an act of citizenship now. And so people talk a lot about slacktivism and clicktivism and sort of the laziness of slapping a hashtag onto something.

[00:43:50.51] But in some ways, especially with the rise of these sort of AI aggregation and sorting technologies, that human curation of information is actually an important responsibility that we have as citizens in order to really think about how we make information available to each other, how we make it findable, how we make it searchable, how helping people find common political conversations online where they can really talk about issues of concern where they might feel otherwise these issues are not getting surfaced. So I think that there are actually a lot of opportunities around those responsibilities that I think I have some hope around.

[00:44:34.55] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: That's great. I wish we could keep talking about-- I could keep talking about this for hours with you all, but I know you have things to get to today. So this has been such a rich and insightful conversation. Jaime Settle, Liz Losh, and Margaret Hu, thank you so much for joining me and for sharing your time and experience and perspective with us today. Thank you.

[00:44:59.75] ELIZABETH LOSH: Thank you.

[00:45:02.83] DREA GEORGE: This episode of the Democracy Initiative Podcast was produced in the Reader Media Center at William & Mary libraries. I'm Drea George. I'm the producer and editor of this podcast. Thank you for listening.

[00:45:14.91] [MUSIC PLAYING]

Episode 2: Democracy x Elections

The second episode of the Democracy Initiative Podcast delves into student engagement at the polls. In the midst of election season, the youth vote is among both the most sought after and the most volatile. Join our host Emily Taveloureas and guests Rebecca Green, Esther Jun Kim and Adam Gismondi as they discuss the significance of the national youth's role in American democracy.

Podcast Episode 2 Notes and Transcript
Transcript

[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING]

[00:00:01.82] CARRIE COOPER: Officially launched in 2021, William & Mary's strategic plan Vision 2026 tackles 21st century imperatives directly, expanding the University's reach in several key areas-- data and computational sciences, water conservation, the history and future of democracy, and career pathways for graduates. My name is Carrie Cooper, Dean of University Libraries.

[00:00:25.37] GINGER AMBLER: And I am Ginger Ambler, Vice President for Student Affairs. As co-chairs of the Democracy Initiative at William & Mary, we are delighted to sponsor this Vision 2026 podcast. It is part of a special series designed to explore issues related to democracy, as well as the compelling ways democracy intersects with data, water, and careers. We welcome you and invite you to listen as leading researchers, teachers, students, and practitioners consider the critical pillars of William & Mary's strategic plan. This episode will focus on democracy and elections.

[00:01:05.98] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: I'm Emily Tavoulareas, Managing Chair of the Tech and Society Initiative at Georgetown University. Also, I am a William & Mary alum, class of 2004. Today, I'm thrilled to be speaking with three people who have spent much of their professional lives focused on one of the most critical characteristics of a healthy democracy-- participation and engagement, specifically of youth.

[00:01:32.86] We are joined by Rebecca Green, Associate Professor of Law at William & Mary-- she's also the co-director of the election law program-- Esther June Kim, Assistant Professor at William & Mary in the School of Education, and Adam Gismondi, an alum from '05 who is the Director of Impact at the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University Tisch College of Civic Life. Welcome.

[00:02:02.41] Let's start with Rebecca here. I know you do so much on campus that is tied to the administration and implementation of elections and you run the election law program here at William & Mary. How do you view the problem, the challenge with this moment in American democracy, especially as it relates to the participation of young people?

[00:02:27.42] REBECCA GREEN: Yeah, so one of the most challenging aspects of this moment we find ourselves in is that people, especially young people, will look around and decide that our democratic system is beyond repair. And it seems like many Americans don't see political opponents. They see political enemies. And I think we're, as a result, witnessing a huge trust deficit that's infecting our politics and even our system of elections. I think instead of assuming good faith of fellow Americans, we're assuming bad faith.

[00:03:03.45] And I feel like a huge concern is that young people will be turned off by this level of division. When it comes to elections and voting, though, it feels like the realization is dawning among young people that voting really matters. And I think a good example of that was during the 2020 election when young people stepped up and volunteered to serve as poll workers at a time when the pandemic made traditional reliance on elderly poll workers impossible. So I think young people are seeing not only the power of the vote, but that they can play a real part in the democratic process at a very basic level.

[00:03:45.60] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Have we seen that enthusiasm and an engagement from 2020 continue since then? How does that look in the years that have followed?

[00:03:55.23] REBECCA GREEN: Yeah, I mean, you know, I run a program where we have sort of incoming law students every year. And I can kind of gauge the level of interest by how many reach out to get involved with the election law program. And I can tell you that it's been consistently strong for many years now. And it certainly didn't hasn't died off this year in any meaningful way. So, in fact, it's been even sort of more present. So I don't think there's any waning at all since 2020, at least from my perspective.

[00:04:26.16] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Is there something that you think is fueling that? If you had to unpack that a bit, do you do you feel like you have a sense of what's driving that interest?

[00:04:36.70] REBECCA GREEN: I think that it's the case that democracy is in the headlines much more. We can talk about why that might be. I think the election of President Trump in 2020 was certainly part of the fuel. I think that drove a lot of interest in how our democracy works. And both Republicans and Democrats have this steady drumbeat of headlines about our election process. And I think that that's been then sort of fueling interest in figuring out what's going on.

[00:05:18.72] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Thank you. Adam, your work bridges theory and practice. And I'd love to hear your perspective on this. You know, it seems like so much of what the organization you work with does is take scholarship and research and turn it into actionable and implementable assets. How do you how do you see all of this surface in the work that you all are doing?

[00:05:44.69] ADAM GISMONDI: Thanks for having me here today. So our office, the flagship project of our office is the National Study of Learning Voting and Engagement or NSLVE, which is the largest study of student voting in the country. And so what we use is we use that as kind of a pivot point for thinking about practice and thinking about who is participating in the political process and who is not and thinking about equity gaps on campus and how to close those. But downstream from the data-- we try to start with the data and inform our practices using that-- we do dig into all of those issues around student engagement, thinking about motivations, and thinking about barriers-- not just structural barriers, but motivational barriers.

[00:06:32.00] And I would agree with everything that's been said actually so far that the Trump presidency, whether someone was a superfan of his or vehemently opposed to his administration, it became a national civics lesson. And I think for the youngest generation, there was a level of engagement that, for us, folks that speak with students all the time and with administrators and faculty, what we heard was we have students on this campus that were campaigning and helping engage other fellow students around local judicial elections because of what they're watching happen in the Supreme Court. And they were thinking about the judicial pipeline for the first time. Or they were thinking about, who is the Secretary of Education? And they knew all of these folks by name. Whereas maybe if their peers had been polled years earlier, they might not know who the vice president was or something.

[00:07:34.95] And that's not to say that students weren't engaged for a period before that. But I think that there was certainly a period of heightened attention. And I think that politics essentially crossed over into pop culture. And it became a different style of issue.

[00:07:51.13] So I think that that earlier question that you raised about, is the engagement level continuing? I think that inevitably like some of it's going to continue for a while. But you do want to battle against that notion of complacency or wondering about, does democracy not even work? Because I think that that is a danger that we face.

[00:08:15.28] But, yeah, so what-- to get back to your earlier question, what we do is we take the millions of data points that we have around student engagement and elections. And rather than just kind of put it up on a digital or physical bookshelf never to be read again, is we try to take that and break it down into demographics and thinking in different quadrants about how this might play out. And then we work with practitioners to think about, what does it mean for my students to be politically engaged? What does it mean for civic action to take place on campus? And by informing it with some real quantitative data, I think that it changes the look of what practice is.

[00:09:05.87] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Have you gotten a sense of what you are seeing in your research and your data, how that compares to the broader public?

[00:09:18.68] ADAM GISMONDI: So, historically, the youth vote and the college student vote specifically has lagged behind the national vote. 2020 was remarkable. So in our office, we have leading up to each election and then through the time when we report out on the election, which takes months and months to do. We have a board on our office where all of our staff guests with the student voting rate would be. And we generally like, you'll see who the optimists are in the office and who the pessimists are.

[00:09:52.50] But in 2020, it was-- even the optimists were-- had lost out to reality. Actually, the student vote finally caught up with the national vote. About 2/3 of all students voted in the 2020 election, which was higher than any recorded year that we had. And there are some years where it's abysmally low. So in 2014, in the midterms-- which midterms are different than presidential elections-- but in that midterm year, students voted around 19%. And 18 to 21-year-olds voted at closer to 13% or 14%. And so when we reported that out to campuses-- that was the first time we had reported that data out-- there were shocked reactions.

[00:10:40.46] I mean, they were, like our campus is engaged. We have students that care. They have issues that they care about. And we were like, here are the numbers.

[00:10:50.26] And I think that that was a real wake-up call. And we had, in our study, we have around 1,100-- or well over 1,200 campuses now actually. And over half of all students in the country are in the study. So many of the campuses that there are the ones that you're like, oh, that's who I think of when I think of social activism. But then when you get the actual assessment data, it changes things. And but the good news is that over the last half decade or so the numbers have steadily increased.

[00:11:23.45] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: That's so interesting. And it also is a perfect segue to Esther's area of focus. Because I know, Esther, you are focused more explicitly on the role of civic education. And I see these two things colliding here. Can you share with us a bit about how the problem and the risk with this moment in American democracy shows up in your work? What are you seeing?

[00:11:51.34] ESTHER JUNE KIM: So in my work, there are two themes by which I would approach this. And it would be K through 12 education and then also with teaching and teacher education. So if I start with K through 12, I would say that much of the-- what we might call official curriculum actually perpetuates a lot of the conditions that breed the distrust that Rebecca talked about before, for example, in the form of mythologizing historical figures like the founding fathers as saints without any faults or this type of belief that we need to erase US imperialism and the histories of entire communities, especially communities that have historically and presently been targeted. So, in this moment, we see a silencing of Indigenous sovereignty, of Black Latine, Asian American histories. We see laws that ban and target LGBTQ narratives in schools.

[00:13:08.86] So what we end up with in K through 12 is this sanitized and literally a whitewashed version of the US that doesn't allow students to really grapple with how the US historically and currently fails to live up to an actual democracy, both within its borders and globally. And they don't get to see and really understand what has been done and what can be done to work towards those hopes and those ideals. So an example that I can think of is how voter suppression is not new. Racialized citizenship is not new.

[00:13:58.13] They've been a part of the US since its inception. And we continue to see this happening now. For example, Black voters continue to be targeted. And while this happens at these more macro levels, education scholars like LaGarrett King would say, the violence is in the streets, but the ideas begin in the classroom. So that's how I kind of would see it with K through 12 education.

[00:14:27.61] I think the second way that I see this in my work is with teaching and teacher education. And what we see at this moment is that we have really good teachers who are knowledgeable. They're experts in their field. And they're currently under attack by various groups who tend to be in the minority of thought, but are the loudest. And they're being attacked for caring for all their students and all the communities and for really trying to teach students how we might live together in a really diverse community.

[00:15:09.41] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: How do you see those two, those two factors playing into people's engagement in an election and in actually showing up either to vote or to volunteer and actually participate in the process in some form?

[00:15:27.24] ESTHER JUNE KIM: So I think a part of the way that education or kind of the lack of education plays into participation, part of that has to do, I think, with what Adam brought up, the different processes, like-- I think you called it something about the judicial process, right? And if students or if people in general don't actually understand or know how that works or the fact that their vote in this way can impact, not just like these big positions like president, vice president, but even mean something like the Supreme Court, which I don't know that people really thought through in the last elections. So without that knowledge of actual processes, how those processes sometimes fall short, and why, I think that's one way that we see a lack of civic education that is complete and that's honest really affects how people engage.

[00:16:36.73] And I think the other part is that there are a lot of communities, particularly marginalized communities, who learn these narratives at school that inherently they know, this is not right. And all these institutions and systems are not in place for me. And, instead, they're in place to disenfranchise me, to continue to marginalize me. And if we're never really taught how people have fought so hard to ensure that these rights are something that everybody actually gets to have, I think a lot of communities will think, what's the point of participating?

[00:17:24.34] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Yeah, sort of this throwing up of the hands, right? Like what's the point? Why would I even show up? It doesn't actually matter. This brings me to a question that I've been toying with for a while now around the narrative that's circulating around democracy.

[00:17:44.30] And I think anywhere you, anywhere you look, no matter what news you consume, what you're reading, there's a lot of conversation around what feel like a stream of warnings, right, about this perilous moment that we're in and why this is a dangerous moment and that even in extreme, extreme forms, this narrative of, quote, "democracy" is dead. And feeding into what you're talking about Esther, right, what's the point? If it's dead, if it's dysfunctional, if it's not working, what's the point of even showing up?

[00:18:19.54] And I'm curious how you all think about this. Is this narrative of democracy in either an existential crisis moment or as just completely dead in the water, is it accurate? I mean, you have front row seats to these issues. You've been studying them for so long. How does how does that narrative play out in your view?

[00:18:44.92] REBECCA GREEN: So I worry a lot about catastrophizing the present moment, so this idea that democracy is doomed. And, to me, it often feels like it's sort of a fundraising pitch designed to get people to open their wallets more than anything, which I think is really dangerous. At the same time, it's also galvanizing. You saw real backlash to some of the laws that came out, for example, requiring strict photo identification at the polls.

[00:19:15.99] You saw a lot of organizing among particularly minority communities to push back against that. And I think that drove, in a lot of places, higher turnout just because people were angry and felt targeted and they fought back. So I think-- I think catastrophizing does have that function. And, unfortunately, I think it motivates political parties to kind of dig their heels in deeper to try to galvanize their base.

[00:19:44.80] But I thought I'd share an experience that I had in 2022 where I went to Georgia to observe elections in Fulton County as part of a Carter Center delegation. And at the time, sort of in the weeks leading up to that election, many thought that there would be violence or sort of disruptions or protests or it would be sort of chaotic in Fulton County because there was this sort of national narrative that democracy wasn't functioning in that jurisdiction. So I spent the day with others in the delegation touring polling places and vote counting centers. And I felt really proud of what I saw.

[00:20:31.08] There were election workers at every polling place, you know, and counting location who were professional and prepared and eager in their work. Far from chaos and destruction that you see and read about in the headlines, it was calm, orderly, and, frankly, pretty dull. And it made me realize how different the echo chamber of vitriol on the internet can be from what happens in real life. And so I think the catastrophizing plays out in some different and interesting ways.

[00:21:08.34] ESTHER JUNE KIM: I think this idea of catastrophizing is so interesting. Because during the time when President Trump was rising to power, I was working with high school students thinking about, what is citizenship? And there were several students, particularly students of color, who were looking around and saying, this is nothing new. These are things that have always been present. They're just being exposed now. And I do wonder if there are more students who really understand that, and so then would agree very much with this idea of catastrophizing.

[00:21:52.78] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Now it's interesting, it seems to it seems to cut in a number of directions where at the same time, you have sort of the surfacing of issues that have long existed with this acceleration, and maybe amplification, of the implications of that for democracy as a system writ large. Do you think that or do you see that this has led to a change in behavior and engagement or is this still sort of in the-- is it still percolating is it still something that people are absorbing and talking about and thinking about? Or is it changing behavior?

[00:22:41.50] ADAM GISMONDI: The first thing I just wanted to add and I think it's a little bit implied in some of what's been said, but there have been anti-democratic behaviors and actions that have taken place, especially in recent years. And so, you know, I think there is a danger of being alarmist about it. But I think also there's a danger in not calling out what's happening. So I think that there's-- it downplays it to say that there's value in it, which is what my instinct is. There's value in it. But it actually goes beyond that. I think it's necessary actually for a functioning democracy to call out anti-democratic behaviors.

[00:23:24.43] So with that in mind, I think what I've observed in the students and the youth that we've engaged with is actually that, in some ways, how it manifests itself is students have more complicated complex political identities than what I think is sometimes commonly assumed. So there's like left-right or maybe like a horseshoe theory or even something simple like, are you a Democrat or a Republican or independent, you know, that sort of thing. I actually think that a lot of the youngest generation right now have view themselves in ways that completely defy what we think of as conventional political barriers.

[00:24:12.40] And so sometimes that makes for strange allies on certain issues. And sometimes it makes for pretty extreme views. But I think that what it does put in danger, in a sense-- and you can argue whether this is good or bad-- is traditional structures and institutions, including one of the biggest of all, which is US democracy, to the extent that it is a system that exists.

[00:24:41.46] And, actually, it brings to mind a book by a fellow William & Mary alum, Nicco Mele, The End Of Big, which I think about a lot, that book in this moment. Because what he talks about is that our digital systems have, in a sense, democratized engagement. But what it's actually done is eaten away at some of those large institutions. And it brings us back to that issue of trust. So why should I trust a big bank? Why should I trust a big business? Why should I trust big government?

[00:25:14.77] And so I think that when you start attacking issues from all these different angles, what can happen is that the system looks different and the people within the system look different in terms of how they are engaging with it. So I think we, in some ways, need to just rethink how we organize and understand political identities if this trend continues. So that's one thing I've definitely observed with some of the young students we've worked with.

[00:25:48.54] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: So well put. Esther, I see you emphatically nodding your head. Did you have anything that you wanted to add here?

[00:25:56.08] ESTHER JUNE KIM: I completely agree with Adam that the young people these days think really are pushing the boundaries that are constructed. And they're thinking about things in new ways that maybe we never considered possible before. And I think that does bring a lot of hope to older folks like me. And I think it's something that I hope will be nourished and encouraged in education.

[00:26:27.59] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: So there's so much, so much that you all are pointing to really implies the complexity of the moment that we're in, right, this double-edged sword that is, on the one hand, sort of yielding and surfacing real issues, real problems, real challenges, a real crisis moment, a real moment to reflect. And at the same time, that is creating a surge of interest and momentum in engagement. And I want to dig into what that surge of engagement looks like.

[00:27:13.72] There's a lot of exciting and innovative work underway to increase engagement and participation, not only at the moment of elections, but in the entire process. And there's a lot to dig into here. But before we get to the tangible and really visible field work, I wanted to take a moment to talk about the role of education.

[00:27:38.39] And Esther, you've started talking a bit about this already. You live and breathe this question, right? So I'd love to hear from you. Tell us more about what you see as the role of education in participation and engagement in the political process, and even more fundamentally maybe, in how they understand and how youth understand citizenship itself.

[00:28:06.18] ESTHER JUNE KIM: So think in a larger way of looking at this, public education-- particularly public education-- is incredibly important in any democracy. Because, in theory, right, when people have the power to shape government, to shape policies, to shape laws, we need to know and understand how things work, why they work that way. And we need to practice analyzing, who benefits from these laws and policies? Who is harmed and why?

[00:28:37.79] Now, in theory, that is taught and learned in schools. And, in theory, these schools are accessible and equitable for everyone. But we know that's actually not the case. So I would actually look at how students are being taught citizenship and then maybe how they're actually understanding and enacting it.

[00:29:00.28] So what we see in education, particularly within social studies, which is where civic education tends to live, is that there's these standardized high-stakes tests that prioritize just rote memorization, very little critical thinking skills. And we know that research shows that these policies actually tend to really narrow curriculum so that teachers end up having to teach to a test, rather than to, really authentic ways that students might engage with the world. And what we see also is that because of this emphasis on testing and accountability, social studies at elementary levels is actually disappearing across the US.

[00:29:44.67] But when it does show up and what we see, what are students being taught, what is citizenship, is that good citizenship is unwavering patriotism. A good citizen will follow rules. They'll obey authority.

[00:30:00.16] And what's so frustrating about this is that young people, and especially young children, have a real deep understanding of and grasp of what is fair and what is just. And, yet, they're not allowed to actually think through any of that in a safe school environment. For example, they don't get to think which rules that I'm being forced to follow are fair and just? And which ones might need to be changed?

[00:30:26.21] And so I think when you actually look at young people, they know and they understand that citizenship can and is much more complicated than that. But in the space where they're supposed to be allowed to think through that, to practice through that, they're really not allowed to because they have to memorize dates and figures for a very specific test. And a part of what also gets frustrated in civic education is that a lot of young people are viewed not as citizens right now, but as future citizens because they can't vote. But the truth is, young people who can't vote yet are still doing amazing things at the grassroots level, working in their communities in those really local levels.

[00:31:21.40] But you have a lot of young people working at the national level also. Because what we see these days is there's a real threat to their physical safety. And that's really brought out a lot of student activists. And so we know that we know that students understand what robust citizenship really does mean. But it's not really happening or being encouraged in school spaces.

[00:31:50.01] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Wow, you're pointing-- what I hear you pointing to is the muscles sort of needed to actually engage critically with questions, issues, and to think through, think through challenges in a real and a constructive way. Is it correct to say that what you're seeing happen, what you're seeing happening in K through 12 is that the ability to essentially build those muscles is eroding because they're not being given the opportunity to essentially practice that in a-- in an education setting--

[00:32:36.99] ESTHER JUNE KIM: Right.

[00:32:37.15] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: --because of the memorization? Is that right?

[00:32:39.22] ESTHER JUNE KIM: Right. The narrowing of curriculum doesn't really allow them to practice that. And what we also see is because schools are racially and socioeconomically segregated at levels that are actually higher than the 10 years after Brown v. Board, the ability for students to do this in schools and in places that are diverse and that actually reflect the US demographic is also disappearing.

[00:33:13.68] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Adam, the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts where you are really bridges theory and practice. Tell us a bit about the Institute and how it intersects with engagement and participation and, more specifically, what you see working in terms of supporting and boosting these types of activities.

[00:33:40.75] ADAM GISMONDI: Sure, so in our office, we do have a bit of a broad mandate in how we look at these things. Folks ask what we do and we're like, it's-- imagine everything that intersects between democracy and higher education and we've tried to tackle at least some of it. What we want to do in our office, I think, is, as I said earlier, inform practice using data, but use that in strategic ways to think about-- so, for instance, some of the people that are really engaged in this work are in student affairs on college campuses. And there's also great nonprofits that are out there in the space that support students and young people and faculty, of course, as we see here, that work in the space.

[00:34:35.64] But sometimes drawing the connections between those areas can be difficult. And so what we do is we try to help students and student affairs build connections using informed practice to work with faculty and other folks that really try to ground their work in known realities and in kind of data-backed methods. So that's kind of one of the ways that we do it. But we also try to think about, what is the broad scope?

[00:35:06.57] What are the threats to democracy? What does an aspirational democracy look like? And higher ed, which I think, in some ways, rightfully has come under criticism for, does it perpetuate inequities? Does it help advance some of these causes? I think those are all open questions.

[00:35:24.12] But what we ask is, how can US colleges and universities be part of the solution and working towards a point on the horizon at which we feel like we do have a functioning democracy and students are engaging at levels that are encouraging? And that it's not just looked at as the sort of top line numbers, but thinking, as I said earlier, about political equity and about closing some of those gaps, so that we have a government and representatives that look like the society that we have in the United States, which has not historically been the case.

[00:36:00.54] So one of the projects that we've undertaken is this report series called Election Imperatives. And in that, it actually derives from a need in the field. It's from colleges and universities asking us, what do we do? How do we make this work on our campus? And so those reports are recommendations actually for practice that are based on our findings and our research.

[00:36:25.97] And what we find are we find some pretty large themes that just jump off the page when you're reading through interviews and focus groups and some of the work that we've done to dig in on this. One of them is that on campuses that were participation exceeds what you might expect going in, political discourse is everywhere on campus. So it's not just in the political science classroom that you'd expect, but we have a math faculty member here even at Tufts who studies gerrymandering and thinks about using math to that end to think about fairness and equity and representativeness.

[00:37:09.55] In the civil engineering department, what it looks like is, what cities have wonderful infrastructure and which ones don't? And what does that say about power? And what does that say about the public implications of these topics that students are studying, where they may not always draw those connections between public relevance and what it is that they're studying on a day to day level? So that's one theme that we definitely see on campuses.

[00:37:34.24] We also see things including diversity as part of realized practice, that it's not just about checking boxes, but actually thinking about, well, the diverse perspectives and lived experiences that we have on this campus is what makes us excellent. It's not an add on to the work that we do. The campuses that are successful in this tend to make the big, quote, unquote, "political moments" exciting and active, that they do those things that make it feel a little bit celebratory. I realize on elections the past few cycles maybe, it hasn't always felt like a celebratory period for a variety of reasons.

[00:38:18.93] So some of the students we talked more about dread leading into an election. But I think that's something we could get back to. But that's what we've seen over the years is that you feel an increased amount of energy leading up to an election season.

[00:38:33.36] Students have a shared sense of ownership over their campus, meaning some of the administrators that we talked to say things like, we don't replace a set of chairs or the carpet and the student union without having student input on it every committee on campus has students involved in it. And so there's a hugely integrated sense of peer-to-peer student support and student voice and that decisions aren't always top down from a college or university. And that may seem a little bit afield from what we're talking about. But, actually, it really plays into the sense of political efficacy and for students to think about their own political agency to say, I have power. I can do this. I want to be part of this.

[00:39:16.85] And I think that that's so emblematic to me of why higher ed is important. Because there are these many publics in every corner of the United States that reach into every community. And there's very open access institutions. And those are the predominant type of institution around the country, not the ones that tend to get talked about in the media. And so I think that there's real opportunity there for students to learn, to grow, to engage, and to think about making decisions on that local community level and to understand that they do, in fact, have a political voice.

[00:39:58.84] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: I mean, that's-- I can't think of a more-- a more tangible way to build those muscles, right? What you're describing is essentially sort of a microcosm in the space that they physically occupy, in the space that they live day-to-day, in the environments that they interact with and engage with in day-to-day. So I think there's a really, there's a really interesting and direct line there. The question that it brings me to is actually back to something Esther said earlier about the absence of opportunities to build those muscles and to, essentially, demonstrate to students that they have agency and what that looks like at the K through 12 level. Esther, is there anything you see happening at K through 12, even if they're in small pockets, that does create that sense of agency that might be worth leaning into or replicating somewhere?

[00:41:02.25] ESTHER JUNE KIM: Yeah, I think that it happens, it really does happen everywhere. And it just doesn't always make the news. But you see it in you see it in school spaces when teachers have a little bit more freedom and a little bit more autonomy to really implement what they know is best practices, research-based, to what they know that the communities that they serve really care about. So you have, for example, a classroom in Richmond really thinking about, it's really hot here sometimes. There's a lot of asphalt everywhere.

[00:41:42.27] Why isn't there more green? Why aren't there more trees? Would that make a difference? And kind of bringing together like social studies and science and math and these really-- kind of like what Adam was alluding to-- these really transdisciplinary ways of solving a problem. And a lot of times, these problems we know are based on issues of equity and justice or inequity and injustice. And it's these approaches that where teachers can bring all these different subjects together, all these different concerns together are absolutely happening.

[00:42:17.08] And we see it kind of tangential to school where, for example, there are some youth in Texas and Georgia who have been advocating for Asian American studies. Because these students will go and testify in front of legislators in front of school boards and talk about how they have never seen a representation of themselves in school curriculum. And they're advocating for that change. They're finding teachers who are willing to teach it.

[00:42:42.84] They're working across state lines to figure out, what are you doing here? What are you doing there? And what's working?

[00:42:48.60] And teaching each other, this is what works for me. And this is how you do it. Here's how you can help draft or propose a bill. And so you see a lot of this happening sometimes with the encouragement of teachers and schools, sometimes in direct opposition to teachers and schools. But we definitely see it happening in pockets throughout the country.

[00:43:14.22] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Adam, did you want to add something here?

[00:43:17.67] ADAM GISMONDI: I just wanted to give a quick shout out to a class at William & Mary. So I'm William & Mary '05. There's experiences all across campus that I think speak to some of the things that we've talked about today. But I took a class-- they had started an environmental studies, I think, minor when I was in undergrad. And one of the best classes I've ever taken in my life was one of the pilot classes that they had.

[00:43:49.23] And it was sort of Intro to Environmental Science. And there was a lead professor who was an environmental scientist himself. But each day-- there were about five core faculty. So there would be a topic that we would talk about. And you would get, here's the environmental science perspective.

[00:44:07.61] But then a philosopher would come in from the philosophy department. Then a professor from the biology department and then an economist would come in. And it was, like you looked around the room and you watched the cognitive dissonance wash over the classroom. Because it would say, well, here's the perspective of this person. And here's the perspective of this person.

[00:44:30.75] And I think that's another class think back to as, this is the type of creative work that can happen in educational environments that isn't always possible just kind of in like day-to-day life otherwise. It has to be thought out. It has to be kind of an intentionally built space for students.

[00:44:53.63] And so, yeah, I just want to say that. Because that is a class I think about a lot of, OK, so you start heading down a path of here's my view on this topic. Here's what I think about it. Here's what I know about it. And then someone comes in and really challenges you to question your own beliefs. And actually what I think develops is this depth of understanding of more of a closer to a 360-degree view of an issue. Yeah, I wanted to commend my alma mater for that one.

[00:45:25.68] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Thanks, Adam. So much on so many campuses. And there's more to dig into there, I'm sure. Rebecca, you're involved in several organizations that relate to the implementation and administration, oversight, and even crisis response of elections. What are some of the things you're seeing make an impact?

[00:45:53.32] REBECCA GREEN: So I guess I'll highlight a few student efforts at the law school that I think are really exciting and promising and in terms of impact on democratic functioning. The first is called the Alliance of Students at the Polls, which is ASAP for short. And William & Mary Law students started it in 2020, in the summer of 2020 to address the problem of the poll worker shortage that everyone feared would cripple the 2020 elections.

[00:46:27.90] And the premise was that just like medical students ran to hospitals to volunteer their skills during COVID, ASAP saw a law-- a role for law students during the pandemic and the idea that law students could organize nationally to recruit a new generation of poll workers to step up and help. And since then, the project has evolved to address the problem of tanking public confidence in election outcomes. We have a system where there are so many guardrails in place in the law to protect the integrity of the vote in every state. And, unfortunately, those don't translate to the general public.

[00:47:18.47] Most people don't understand how elections are run and how there are many sort of checks and balances to ensure that the outcomes are correct. And so ASAP decided that there's a role for law students in translating what those protections are for the general public. So students are currently recruiting law students from law schools around the country to get involved in this effort. The group received a grant over the summer, which students think will really help them amplify their efforts. And the idea is that students are going to be creating kind of roadmaps in each state that help people in those states understand how their elections are run and why they can-- why they should trust them.

[00:48:07.80] Also, importantly, ASAP is working to build a pipeline between law schools and election administration offices, which are seeing a very alarming number of resignations. And so ASAP also feels like by building those connections, we might be able to encourage law students to go into the field or become involved as-- with election administration as part of their careers. So that's one project that I'm really excited about.

[00:48:37.80] Another I thought I'd mention is Revive My Vote. This is a project that I started with a Republican student back in 2013 when there was a Republican governor. And in Virginia, the governor sets the policy for rights restoration of people who have felony conviction histories. And so Revive My Vote was formed to help any eligible Virginian regain the right to vote.

[00:49:04.90] And the work has been incredibly meaningful. We have a hotline where people can call in and ask for help. And as the policies have changed from governor to governor, it's been easier or harder depending on the governor's choices. But I remember back in the beginning when we started this work, we were getting just unbelievable calls on the hotline from, for example, people in nursing homes who were saying things like, I haven't been able to vote for 50 years, but I'm determined to get my right to vote back before I die, I mean, like that intense.

[00:49:41.29] And the project has evolved as different administrations have held different policies. Currently, the current governor has obfuscated the process. And so we're not quite sure what the rules are at the moment. So it's an increasingly challenging environment to be trying to help people.

[00:50:06.16] But the students have been amazing. They've sort of organized around the state. They've been in touch with lots of organizations doing this work to figure out what best practices are and how to approach the moment that we're in. And I've been really proud to watch as they sort of organize and reflect and think about how they can have an impact. So I think those are two examples of ways, really kind of practical and concrete ways that William & Mary Law students have jumped in.

[00:50:39.15] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: I want to lean into the student engagement side of this. Because there's a lot of energy right now and a lot of interest. And if I were a student listening to this, my question would be, so what can I do, right? Or a parent of a student or a young person. So with so much underway, what can students do? Esther, Adam, whoever wants to jump in here, you know, Rebecca just mentioned a couple of specific organizations. Are there any organizations you would point for students or young people more broadly to look at, to dig into, to reach out to even?

[00:51:23.13] ADAM GISMONDI: So I would say that number one is to start figuring out what it is that you care about. What we see continuously is that we talked about the evolution of political identity. And I think what we see in the youngest generation right now is this movement towards issue-based activism and issue-based political identities. So campuses are a wonderful resource. And in many k-12 institutions and in higher ed, there are almost always places you can find folks where you can engage on those issues with. So I think that's a wonderful place to start and to think about, how do I begin to affect change in my community?

[00:52:08.76] In terms of more established resources that are out there, once you-- I think once you have your bearings or as you like you're starting to develop your center of thinking about what it is that moves you, that will help answer that question for you. But I think just know that there are folks on your campus in pretty much every campus in the country who are there to help you navigate those spaces and to think about this. So try to find your people. Try to find the people that you connect with.

[00:52:45.37] And sometimes that would be a faculty member. And sometimes that would be an administrator or student affairs, student activities. People like that can help you sort through. Because sometimes it can be overwhelming.

[00:52:59.78] I worked at Florida State University. And we had, I think, like 500 or 600 student organizations. And that didn't even count offices of student government. So there's no end to that space. And so it's kind of about finding your peer students and the people on campus who are those connectors who will help you find the places that you want to go. And then I think that will lead you to a lot of the national groups that are out there as well.

[00:53:32.54] ESTHER JUNE KIM: I would echo what Adam was talking about just in terms of starting locally, for example. I think for students, you can start with just schools. What do you want to change about your school, about your class? And right now, there's so much tension and controversy, for example, at school board meetings, at school division and school district meetings. And, again, there are communities and teachers being attacked.

[00:53:59.27] And so families, it would be great if more and more families showed up to support the folks who are under attack. And it may seem like such a small thing, but that really is, things have been shifting in schools because there's a vocal person or a vocal group moving between different school boards trying to enact certain changes that they think is appropriate. So even something as basic as just, I am a voice from my school, from my class, from my classmates and showing up in something as seemingly simple as a school board meeting.

[00:54:39.36] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Rebecca, I want to bring it back to you for a moment. You're at a law school specifically. And I know that there's a lot of interest among law students and some tangible ways to get involved in terms of implementation. Are there jobs available for law students who are interested in working in the democracy space?

[00:55:03.20] REBECCA GREEN: Yeah, so I have often heard the refrain, especially from election law professors at other schools, that election law is really interesting, but there's no real way to do it for a living. And you have to do work on the side for free if you want to get involved in this space. And I always cringe when I hear people say that. Because I think there are just a huge number of roles for lawyers in the democratic space. And, of course, we have lots of alums to prove it.

[00:55:35.12] So our students go and work in the federal government at places like the Federal Election Commission or the Election Assistance Commission. We have students who are working in the private sector at law firms, where most law firms, most big law firms now have political law practice areas. We have students who work at the legislative level, both at the state and federal level on the Hill or in state capitals working on election-related matters.

[00:56:08.50] We have lots of students who work at nonprofits at places like the Brennan Center and the Campaign Legal Center and others that are sort of working in the democracy space on various issues like campaign finance and voting rights and even just straight out election administration. And then as I mentioned earlier, I think another place where students who are interested in democracy work can get involved is at the state administrative level. In this country, elections are administered by the states. There's a very small federal role, if any, for actual sort of boots on the ground election administration. And so there is a real need for, I think, people with a law degree to step into those spaces and help make sure that elections are fair and accessible and are safeguarded. So I think there are just a huge number of ways that people with a law degree can make real impact in this space.

[00:57:09.64] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Thank you. Do any of you have any advice for students coming out of K through 12 who are going into the university setting? So a lot of what we've been talking about so far are our options and opportunities on college campuses. What can seniors or rising seniors in high school do as they prepare for their transition to a university setting?

[00:57:38.39] ESTHER JUNE KIM: The advice I would give to seniors and rising seniors-- or rising seniors-- would be as they're thinking about colleges as they're about to enter college to really be open to ideas, to ways of thinking that maybe are completely different from their own, to really kind of enjoy the different perspectives they'll learn about, and to take those risks. A lot of people might come into a university and think I'm this major, I'm this. I know exactly, I have my life planned out. And I think a lot of William & Mary students come in with a 20-year plan already in place. But then you miss out on classes like Adam was talking about. And I think to really open yourself up to new experiences and new ideas, that would be the advice that I would give.

[00:58:30.82] ADAM GISMONDI: Yeah, I would agree with Esther's advice. I think that allowing yourself to be surprised is a really important part of-- of that experience of transitioning into college and being willing to show up. That came up earlier. I think that is, in terms of affecting change, I think that is so underrated.

[00:58:58.88] I think that that's how change happens is you just show up and be persistent. And I think in terms of the college experience, to the extent that you're able-- and I realize that there's certainly, in some cases, privilege involved and how much time do I have for this or that-- I think that trying to take advantage of things if you have required core classes, like trying to reach a little bit outside of your comfort zone and to learn new things, engage with others. And if you have the time, to engage in some of the involvement opportunities.

[00:59:38.03] I also would note on one of the earlier questions was about advice for gaining experience and how do you do this in practical ways in the field. Once you've learned how to do it in a professional way, feel free to reach out to people that you admire or that you want to talk to and learn from. William & Mary has a great network. Pretty much every school that you go to there will be people that are out in the world that have forged a path that you might find interesting.

[01:00:08.02] So learn how to of do some outreach. And I know that's a little bit scary sometimes for students. But I think most people are pretty receptive to that and willing to help others. And if not, if you come across someone who's rude, it's a moment to take that lesson and be like, I'm not going to be that person in my life, you know?

[01:00:33.60] But I think that for the most part that it's worth doing. Because sometimes those service road, off-ramps, whatever analogy you want to use, some of those things are where your real path lies. You know, that's how you end up going where you were meant to be. So, yeah, that openness and willingness to try new things is really important.

[01:00:57.14] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: I love that you mentioned reaching out, Adam. Because I think this is such a-- it's an under-discussed both skill set, but also sort of area of confidence, right? It's like a muscle you need to-- you need to build as you enter the working world that you might be surprised by how many people will respond to you if you reach out just cold on LinkedIn or somewhere else online or via email. And it's worth it. It's worth just reaching out and seeing if you get a response.

[01:01:34.75] You might not. But that's probably more a reflection of what their inbox looks like than you. And I'll just say that from personal, from my own personal experience. But in terms of reaching out, there is also, on campuses, you all have you have pointed to faculty a couple of times. And I want to, since we have some faculty here, I want to ask, what's an effective way for students to reach faculty on campus who they are not taking classes with?

[01:02:06.33] I know everyone is just inundated. Inboxes are overflowing constantly. But how can students reach out to faculty and get engaged outside of their core area of study?

[01:02:21.81] REBECCA GREEN: I can describe at William & Mary Law School, how this works from my perspective. And this is a constant refrain of mine. So I've got it pretty well down. But really the best way I think is to get involved in student groups that matter to you. And there are so, there's an overwhelming amount of ways to get involved at William & Mary and, really, at any school.

[01:02:46.65] And find an issue that you're passionate about. Get involved in a student group, which is maybe less scary than going to meet a professor in their office hours. And I think you'll find, as you get engaged in student groups that are planning speakers or symposia or activism or whatever it is, you'll find that faculty at the school are drawn to working with students in those groups. And it's a great way to get to know faculty outside the classroom. So I think just getting involved is sort of half the battle.

[01:03:21.83] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: That's the showing up that Adam was pointing to, right, just show up and don't hesitate to talk to people, to reach out. One thing I'll just add here from my own perspective as well is that the word networking tends to be a really sort of loaded word for people, kind of feels a little icky for students sometimes. You feel like, oh, this is really transactional.

[01:03:46.61] And I'd encourage folks to think about networking more as relationship building. Because those are the most constructive, those are the most constructive relationships, right, when where it's not transactional, where you're just, you're meeting people where they are. You're engaging with them on things that you genuinely care about. And if you start thinking about events you're showing up to, the places that you show up, and the people that you talk to as an investment in relationships, those tend to pay off over time in many different arenas. Does anyone else have anything they want to add in terms of student engagement?

[01:04:25.76] REBECCA GREEN: I would like to say just a little bit about the moment that we're in. We're approaching a presidential election year. And I think it's an understatement to say that anxieties are heightened and the political climate is hot. And I think there are lots of ways, regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, to be a force for good as we approach 2024.

[01:05:00.17] And so I really encourage everyone listening, whether you're a student or an alum, I really encourage people to think about ways that they can productively and constructively contribute to a functioning democracy. And one of the best ways to do that is to get involved as a poll worker. You know, anybody can do it. I think there's even some jurisdictions where even if you're not 18, you can get involved, you know, I think for high school students, for example. But stepping forward and really thinking about how you can help your community ensure that polling places are accessible and that there are enough people to help administer the election in your community I just think is a really easy and obvious way to maybe calm some of your fears about how everything is going to go, just sort of step forward and get involved.

[01:06:00.92] EMILY TAVOULAREAS: Thanks, Rebecca. All right, well, I'm sure we could keep talking about this for several more hours. I have so many more questions I wish we had time to get to. But I want to be respectful of your time. I know several of you mentioned books, organizations, and other resources. We will link to those in the show notes and on the Democracy Initiative website at WM.edu.

[01:06:28.58] But thank you so much for joining us. Rebecca Green, Esther June Kim, and Adam Gismondi, thank you so much for sharing your time and perspective with us.

[01:06:39.63] REBECCA GREEN: Thank you.

[01:06:40.26] ADAM GISMONDI: Thanks for having us.

[01:06:41.04] ESTHER JUNE KIM: Thank you.

[01:06:44.36] DREA GEORGE: This episode of the Democracy Initiative Podcast was produced in the Reader Media Center at William & Mary Libraries. I'm Drea George. I'm the producer and editor of this podcast. Thank you for listening.

[01:06:56.41] [MUSIC PLAYING]

Episode 3: (Coming spring 2024)
Episode 4: (Coming spring 2024)