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The State of Our Democracy

Dear Steinhardt Community,

Yesterday we witnessed an egregious violation of our democracy as an angry, violent mob descended on our sacred institutions in Washington, D.C. during the confirmation of electoral votes. As the afternoon unfolded, we saw how one leader can incite a community to rage and disorder through uncivil dialogue, taunting, and repetitive social media prodding. We sat in horror and disbelief unsettled by the attack and the knowledge of our vulnerability as a people and a nation. 

Last year brought us the coronavirus pandemic, protests against continued racism in our society, and a fight against voter suppression during our historic election. The anti-democracy insurrection we saw on television was another chapter in Donald Trump’s reality show, a performative exercise of one bad actor’s power to transform our American ideals into a chaotic, theatrical spectacle.

And yet, amid yesterday’s darkness, we also witnessed acts of beauty and courage. We saw our government rise from the ashes as our elected officials, shell-shocked and world-weary, returned to the chamber to complete the election count, certifying Joseph Biden as the 46th president of the United States. And when we think back on January 6, 2021, let us also remember January 5th, when the great machinery of our democracy was in action in Georgia. The results of that groundbreaking election will likely change the course of our country for generations to come.

Since our founding in 1890, NYU Steinhardt has been committed to equity, inclusion, and belonging. Those words may feel overused these days, but they encapsulate the values of E pluribus unum (Out of the many, one), the de facto motto of the United States. Our democracy fails us when, in the height of a violent, dangerous political coup, only a handful of people are arrested by police. It fails us when skin color motivates the police to arrest hundreds of peaceful demonstrators at Black Lives Matter protests. Our democracy fails us when leaders accept lies and false narratives to stoke the rage of racism and hatred for political gain.

As an institution of higher education, we are committed to open discussion, fact-based analysis, integrity, and respect for each other’s opinions. We have held firmly to these community values since our founding. Throughout the sweep of history, we have used evidence-based research, policy intervention, and civic discourse to help find solutions to our most pressing social problems. In short, the work we do at Steinhardt and NYU really matters. We must continue doing it. 

The next 13 days will be unsettling as we await the peaceful transfer of power on January 20th. I urge you to be patient and kind with one another and to reach out to those in need. You can learn more about the threat of authoritarianism by reading Anne Applebaum, The Twilight of Democracy: the Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. Education is the best tool we have to strengthen our American democracy and prepare ourselves for what lies ahead.

Jack H. Knott, Dean
Gale and Ira Drukier Chair