Post-Election Debrief Sessions Conclude with a Mixture of Caution and Optimism

March 8, 2021 @ 11:03 pm
By Communications Office

Given the profound changes to the American political landscape, what does the nation’s political future look like? Members of a cross-disciplinary panel share some ideas.

On January 27, the School concluded a three-part series of moderated discussions of the 2020 Presidential Election results with a discussion titled “Challenges and Opportunities for Change.”

The panelists—Mailman School of Public Health Donald H. Gemson Assistant Professor Merlin Chowkwanyun; Columbia Journalism School Dean and Henry R. Luce Professor Steve Coll; and CSSW Lecturer John Robertson—discussed the state of America’s democracy and considered how recent events, such as the insurrectionist invasion that took place at the Capitol on January 6, would influence policy reform. They also responded to questions about the role of social media in driving civic engagement.

Moderator Karma Lowe, CSSW’s Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and Community Engagement, started off the discussion by asking each panelist to comment on the unprecedented series of events leading up to Election Day: “Given the pandemic, the racial unrest, the political tensions, where do we go from here? How do we move forward in a way that will really result in action and policy change and a sense of healing?”

A few highlights from the panelists’ remarks appear below, and the video of the event is also available.

Words from the three panelists

On voting and democracy:
Chowkwanyun: Be aware of new electoral constituencies, particularly immigrants, and the direction that they go politically. There is an assumption among people in our orbit that immigrants will go for left-leaning candidates, but if you read immigrant newspapers a different worldview emerges…. There are voting blocs we shouldn’t take for granted and that are worth engaging, not just for elections but generally.

Robertson: We will be seeing increasing voter suppression. There are lots of forces in the country that want to remove the vote from people who voted this year. That happens not just in red states. In New York we see the multiple primaries, systems of disqualifying people from the ballot that have a lot to do with how much voice people have in shaping the direction. As social workers, we have a primary responsibility to make sure that everyone who wants to vote has access and can vote.

Coll: During a presidential transition, typically, journalists shift their machinery from one administration to the next and start looking to a new agenda. If that is all that our professional journalists provide to us, we are in deep trouble…. If you’re a journalist reporting on the country today, you can’t just accept the transition that we were able to effect. We have to step back and see democracy itself as a beat, as a subject that’s in a different condition than it’s been in every postwar presidential election we’ve had.

On clarifying priorities after the election:
Robertson: Things that happened before COVID still remain. What are we going to do about 114,000 homeless children in New York? And that story is repeated around the country. How are we going to cope with transforming the prisons and the correctional system into something that is not just a racism affirmation machine? People are going to have to know who’s working on what and stay with that: writing letters, testifying, being in the streets, posting on social media.

On causes for optimism:
Chowkwanyun: In 2018 there was a series of wildcat strikes by public school teachers in states like West Virginia and Arizona, where participants demanded not just more for themselves but resources for infrastructure deficiencies in schools. These strikes elicited tremendous sympathy because the teachers were not just looking out for themselves but for students and larger communities. This is something that some people in the movement call social justice unionism.

On free speech:
Coll: We have been living with an unusual structure of a public square owned by powerful private corporations that nonetheless adopted for themselves first amendment principles around speech that created a toxic and polluted environment but also a permissive one for new entrants and new voices. If that is about to change, that is a very dangerous, delicate moment that should be of interest to everyone who is involved in speech in the United States.

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Part 1 of the series, an initial debrief and processing of the results, took place on November 10, 2020, and can be watched here. Part 2, a deeper analysis on policy and key issues, took place December 16, 2020, and can be watched here.

The three-part series was cosponsored by the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, the Office of Professional Excellence and the Social Work Action Lab for Social Justice.

Related links:

Reverend Barber: Civil Rights, Voting, and the 2020 Election

CSSW Presses to Get Out the Vote