Searching for democracy this election year

Many Californians are suffering from politics and election fatigue. Tired of partisanship, they are looking for action from politicians on the issues they care most about: the economy, schools and health care.


We keep hearing that the U.S. is more polarized now than it has been for some time. This polarization is promoting gridlock, instead of action.


Yes, our democracy is in trouble, but what action is needed? How can we, as members of an incredibly diverse society, effectively reach our political leaders to identify “the common good” and bring about the changes we want to see? As we reflect on this national election year, people need to come together to answer these questions and have meaningful conversations about the core values of our democracy.


These past few months I’ve been able to witness communities across the state begin this process by turning to a time-tested way to strengthen our democracy—through the humanities. This gives me hope that there are better days ahead.


We believe that by searching for democracy, using humanities as a tool, we can help uncover what is needed to build healthier communities and hold our elected officials accountable.


Consider that only a third of American adults can name all three branches of government, and a third can’t name any. Three out of 4 U.S. students lack a basic understanding of democracy, of how our political system works and what it means to be a citizen of this country.


This is essential knowledge for a populace that must be informed and engaged in order for our government and our nation to be successful. The humanities are well positioned to respond to this widening knowledge gap.


As part of our own Searching for Democracy initiative, we’ve brought Californians of different backgrounds and perspectives together to discuss the very nature of democracy itself. Through events, book discussions, webinars, conversations, educational curriculum and film screenings around California, we have helped people from different walks of life and political persuasions to deliberate not about candidates and ideologies but about the very state of our democracy.


The humanities provide the best way to deeply understand ourselves—through our history and values. At standing-room only events in Sacramento, Fresno and across the state, I have witnessed passion, hunger, thoughtfulness and commitment to this conversation beyond expectation, renewing my faith in our ability to overcome our current troubles.


The challenges we face today can spur us towards brilliance and prompt a course correction for our future. We must be both far-sighted and courageous in our thinking. We must invest in our schools and public libraries and, more broadly, in access to educational opportunities, meaningful conversations, knowledge building and civic engagement—essentially, the humanities in action.


This isn’t a short-term solution; but it is the best way to ensure the continued health of our democracy. In many discussions, the humanities have been framed as non-essential and something we can ill afford to support. This way of thinking not only handicaps our ability to resolve current issues, but jeopardizes and short-changes our future.


We look to the humanities—to history, literature, philosophy—to teach us critical thinking, to foster creative problem-solving and to provide context for complex issues. They help us learn from our past so that we can live better together in our future. Our founding fathers may not have been able to envision smartphones or hybrid cars, but they knew we’d need to be well-informed and able to adapt for this great experiment in democracy to work. In their time of crisis, they turned to the humanities to create a framework to guide our nation.


Through the humanities we can see clearly not just what is, but what might be. Time and again throughout our history in creation and crisis, the humanities have helped us to find better ways to think, live and govern together. What could be more essential?

Ed’s Note: Ralph Lewin is President and CEO of Cal Humanities, a non-profit that promotes the humanities as relevant, meaningful ways to understand the human condition and connect us to each other in order to become a better California.



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