Campus Spotlight: Cal State San Marcos
The State of Our Disunion
As Americans grow farther apart, could shared concerns about the health of our democracy bring us together?
By Catalina Langen, Kimber Quinney, and Scott Gross, California State University San Marcos
In October, Senator Jeffrey Flake (R-Arizona) announced that he would not seek re-election. His speech is bound to be remembered as one of the more important speeches in recent American history, as it marks a moment of reckoning—and despair—with regard to the failing health of 21st century American democracy.
Beginning with the acknowledgement that “our democracy is more defined by our discord and our dysfunction than by our own values and principles,” Senator Flake went on to describe his deep regret for “the state of our disunion.” He criticized his colleagues for what he called the “disrepair and destructiveness of our politics” and the “indecency of our discourse.” But political divisions run deep outside of Washington, D.C. The data exists to remind us that Americans feel more divided than ever. More worrisome still, the evidence suggests that the divisions are indeed along party lines, but that divisions also exist within partisan coalitions. Americans are talking past each other. As Senator Flake observed, the state of our disunion is not good for democracy.
As campus partners in the American Democracy Project, we can do something to mitigate this serious—even dangerous—threat to American democracy. On our own campuses and in partnership with our regional communities, we can work to repair the divisions through conversation.
At Cal State San Marcos, we have decided that those conversations must necessarily be non-partisan. Moreover, in an effort to see eye-to-eye, we have opted to sit side-by-side to talk about what makes democracy work—rather than debate the issues that divide us—in a program we call Speaking of Democracy.
Speaking of Democracy is a set of monthly, drop-in conversations about the health of our national democracy. Intentionally scheduled during University-Hour—an open hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12:00-1:00 PM, when no classes are scheduled— the series is facilitated by a faculty member, and participants include students and community leaders who are alumni of the Leadership North County (LNC) program.
Managed by the Division of Community Engagement, Leadership North County is a network of over 400 individuals who are among North County San Diego’s most outstanding citizen leaders including mayors, city officials, college administrators and business leaders. Given that the objective of Leadership North County is to impact the region’s development by preparing an active network of exceptional leaders with diverse backgrounds, LNC alumni are the perfect community partners to engage with students in the Speaking of Democracy series. In our program evaluations, we asked participants “What was the most valuable experience or learning you had today?” One LNC community member responded, “I am hopeful for future generations.”
In the same way that LNC participants reflect the diversity of our region, so too do the students in the room. Although faculty are encouraged to send their students to the dialogues, students who participate are not from a particular course. They join the conversation from across disciplines and majors. And their diverse viewpoints, identities, and positionalities are essential to our conversations—just as they are essential to a healthy democracy. In response to the question, “What was the most valuable experience or learning you had today?” One student responded, “the most valuable experience I got out of this was the different perspectives on politics”; another responded, “learning how to navigate through a political discussion effectively”; and still another wrote simply, “listening.” That response made our hearts sing!
To determine our topics of discussion, we turned to the data generated by a survey conducted in February 2017 among over 1500 Political Scientists. The scholars concluded that democracy in America is strong, but is showing notable vulnerabilities. The New York Times reported on this data in an article titled “Democracy in America: How Is It Doing?” We decided that we should be asking our campus and off-campus community the same important question: How is democracy in America faring? Based on the data produced in this important survey, our topics of discussion have thus included areas in which American democracy could be doing better. The topics have included:
- Equal Rights: Legal and Political
- Private Gains from Public Office
- Questioning Patriotism
- Does Your Vote Matter?
- Checks and Balances on Power
- Consensus and Deliberation
Speaking of Democracy was launched with the intention of encouraging a democratic process in order to strengthen democracy: talking and listening to each other about the health of democracy. As Senator Flake reminded his colleagues in Congress, “We must respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values, comity and good faith.” For democracy to thrive, all Americans need to deepen our understanding of democracy. At Cal State San Marcos, we are committed to furthering that understanding by creating opportunities for our students and our community to talk about democracy. That process, in and of itself, is what makes democracy work.
ADP at CSUSM
The American Democracy Project at the California State University San Marcos is unique in its structure, as it is a prominent program of the Civic Learning Initiative in the Division of Community Engagement. Situating ADP in the context of community engagement allows us to implement programming related to the health of our American democracy in collaboration with our regional communities. It underscores the fundamental principle that a healthy democracy thrives in community, as reflected in our mission statement: ADP at CSUSM seeks to increase opportunities for CSUSM students to practice good civic leadership and to encourage spaces to openly dialogue about the health of our American democracy in partnership with community.
Catalina Langen is Civic Learning Coordinator in the Division of Community Engagement at Cal State San Marcos
Scott Gross is Associate Vice President, Community Engagement at Cal State San Marcos
 See “The Divided States of America in 25 Charts,” Atlantic Monthly, June 28, 2013 https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/the-divided-states-of-america-in-25-charts/277303/; and “America Really Is More Divided than Ever,” Washington Post, July 16, 2016; “America May Be More Divided than anytime since the Civil War,” Salon October 6, 2017 https://www.salon.com/2017/10/06/america-may-be-more-divided-now-than-anytime-since-the-civil-war/
 The data gathered by the Pew Research Center confirms deepening divides in recent years. http://www.pewresearch.org/topics/political-polarization/