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Portrait of Deondra Rose
Deondra Rose, associate professor history and political science and director of Polis: The Center for Politics in the Sanford School of Public Policy. Photo by Chris Hildreth

Showing Up for Democracy

Public policy professor Deondra Rose gives us her perspective on what's happening this political season

Deondra Rose, associate professor of history and political science, directs Polis: The Center for Politics in the Sanford School of Public Policy. Polis (named for the ancient Greek word for city-state) was designed in 2015, she says, “to foster the development of engaged citizens … [and to] grapple with the most pressing political issues of our time.” With a political season getting rolling that seemingly everyone, regardless of political perspective, believes may be definitional for the nation, we asked professor Rose to offer perspective on what’s happening. She discussed the situation she sees and how her students are responding. Her answers (and our questions) have been edited for space and clarity.

DukeMag: We’re engulfed in a political season that nobody can take their eyes off of. Where do you find yourself as the next election approaches?

Deondra Rose: I find myself deeply exhausted. [Laughter] I’m a political historian, so the long arc of history is something that figures prominently in how I think about politics, policy, democracy, questions of equity, justice, and so on. Election years are always exciting. I love to vote, to fill out my ballot. The act of participating feels sacred and special to me. At the same time there’s a level of exhaustion. I can't help but reach back to the pandemic as a thing that I still feel sort of reaching us in 2024. That was a moment for me that really demonstrated the crucial connection between politics and policy and well-being. There were instances in which political forces shaped our propensity to seek help or to take care of each other or to listen to science. And I think for me, that created some lessons and avenues of thought that have really shaped who I've become in the years since, and I'm bringing that into 2024. I still don't know that we've grappled with that as a society. 

DM: What avenues of thought are shaping how you see politics now? What forces are causing this sense of crisis?

DR: Social media is this fascinating new force that has created a political landscape that is unlike anything we’ve ever known. And to be honest, I think this is having the same effect on so many areas in our society. Like college kids are going through their sort of coming-of-age moments in a culture where anything you say, or Tweet, or text could be public, and it could never go away. It could lead to losing a job; it could lead to all kinds of repercussions. So there’s a level of anxiety that just permeates our society. 

DM: That causes concern on a personal level, but how does it affect us politically?

DR: There’s this very pernicious sorting of information in a dangerous way. It can give the sense that the extremes are actually much more common or normal than they are, and I think that contributes to polarization. I think polarization is one of those forces that has created a lot of distrust among students. Those examples of extremism get a lot of attention. But that’s not it. There are actually some really powerful examples of people working in our democracy, working in political positions, who are doing great work. And, you know, like it or not, we need politics.

DM: We do, and it’s not clear we’re doing a good job of demonstrating how politics can work. What do you see among your students?

DR: Polis was established back in 2015, and it came out of conversations about how problematic politics was and how a lot of students didn't see politics as a possibility or a desirable vocation. They saw politics almost as a nuisance, or something to avoid if you're smart. So we hoped to create a center where we could actually help students find on-ramps to politics that would excite them, inspire them, energize them. That would, in some ways, ideally, redeem politics and maybe provide some valuable models for how we can engage in conversations across differences.

DM: Has that worked?

DR: When I started as director of Polis, I think the students who connected with politics liked it fine. But I think now there’s a level of enthusiasm and excitement but also real seriousness about not just politics but democracy that I’m seeing. For them, this is an existential moment. I’m tired. They’re hopeful. 

DM: Polis students came up with Project Citizen, an orientation program that focuses on citizenship. How did that come about?

DR: I learned this valuable lesson of really listening and asking the students and letting them take the lead. And so they built out this weeklong program that involved on-campus programming and programming in Washington, D.C. And the goal was to help incoming students think about citizenship, like what it means to be a good citizen, at Duke, in Durham, North Carolina, whatever state from which you hail, and nationally and globally. They also start developing skills that help them to not go the way of the problems in our political landscape: polarization, not being able to talk across differences.

I try to use the term “civic discourse” because I think the term “civility” is loaded. I used to teach this unit on civil discourse, and the students were rolling their eyes. They're like, not everything deserves to be met with politeness. They really pushed me to recognize that if I wanted them to take a conversation about civil discourse seriously, I had to acknowledge that it's not necessarily the only or the best way to have discourse. We talked about disruptive discourse and protest discourse, and lots of different types. Through those conversations, we realized we're on the same page, we're really talking about conversations across differences, where everyone is respected and permitted to bring their full authentic selves to the conversations. Some of my students thought that civil discourse just meant anybody can say anything, and you're gonna be polite about it.

DM: Students comfortably talk across these gaps we’re discussing?

DR: In the media, and in broader conversations, there tends to be this misperception that students, this younger generation, is so fragile, that they do not want to hear anything that is contrary to what they think or feel, that they are too sensitive to. It's definitely not easy for anyone in this political landscape to do those things. But I will say that the students I engage with at Duke are excited to delve into tough issues. You know, in most cases, they don't know exactly what they think to begin with: They will tell you, ‘I'm still figuring it out.’ So I saw this during orientation, and we've done these fascinating ’Braver Angels’ debates [part of a national program encouraging depolarization], where we use this sort of pseudo parliamentary structure. And we divide students and we come up with typically a pretty spicy resolution. Something like, ‘If a visitor to a college campus becomes controversial, should the college be permitted to disinvite them?’ Basically cancel culture. And we have the students debate both sides of those issues, offer speeches in the affirmative and the negative, in a really extended way. So students have a real incentive to pick apart both sides of these issues, and to really think about them from lots of different perspectives. And I think the thing that's been so striking is that they get into it, the students are so keen to talk things through, to hear others’ perspectives. They recognize that to be effective advocates for the things they care about, they have to understand how to wield the opponent's arguments or to really anticipate them and to think them through.

In class, students are very passionate, and they're very serious about fairness, and issues like equity. And they don't like to see people bullied and they don't like to hear perspectives that could be deemed abusive or harmful. So there's definitely this level of accountability. I think that when you're at a moment when you're trying to figure stuff out and work through things that can oftentimes create friction or tensions because, you know, the number one objective for a college student is to explore. Our job in the university is to foster exploration and really unpacking things and thinking things through.

DM: I’m glad students can see a way to think things through. What is going to happen for the rest of us, stuck in a gerrymandered system that seems to reward extremism, and polarized by that misrepresentation? What can change that?

DR: That is the crucial question. We really want a fair democracy, where every vote counts, but we have people who know how to shape the system to get the outcomes that benefit their team, and that’s not democracy.

People’s willingness to set aside their personal gain or their personal interests for this broader collective interest of democracy and preserving it for all of us is a big question. We are at a very powerful moment in terms of our identity. We are at a moment of identity crisis as a society where we have to ask ourselves, is democracy important to us? And are we willing to go to the mat for it, in a way that everyone will have to give something up in order to create something stronger and more resilient? It’s looking beyond one particular election cycle to think through how we’re showing up for democracy. 

DM: Showing up for democracy sounds like an apt description of this moment, so: Are we going to do that?

DR: You know, I think so much of it will depend on turnout. That's what I'm watching carefully, is whether we can sustain the focus and the momentum and the energy and stave off exhaustion, frustration, alienation, disaffection. That’s the tricky part: People have to be willing to give up some of their advantages to promote democracy.