Strengthening Democracy -- Chat Notes

from Zoom Gathering 4/13/22

This chat transcript was reorganized to group like comments together. (Thanks, Bill Wendell!)  Individual participant’s names have been deleted for anonymity unless otherwise requested.


  • Amazing session!
  • Thank you, Dr. Enrico.
  • Bravo Rico.
  • I was reminded particularly from our breakout group how interesting and accomplished our class is--thanks to the organizers for putting this together and giving us a chance to talk about issues we care about
  • This has been a fascinating session. I hope we can keep this kind of discussion going between reunions
  • Thanks all!
  • Thanks for the great session!


  • Very helpful to share names of organizations which are doing good works in these areas.
  • Invite Prof. Meredith Rosenthal to inform us about the Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellowship Program. Fantastic program for all of us at our stage!


  • inequality that is systemic needs to be addressed on a governmental level, and how to deliver better requires all of us to “show up” and actively participate.


  • Guaranteed minimum income?

Reports, resources & expertise

  • Link to OxFam report: s=20&t=FpQ4Ss8KeVOWxpVLaJ7GDw
  • National Academy of Social Insurance report forthcoming on Economic Security for the 21st Century.
  • Journalist Hedrick Smith has a website Reclaim the American Dream that does a deep dive into gerrymandering. He has interviewed reform activists state by state.
  • I heard some great speakers at the Bob Moses Conference last weekend—Imani Perry particularly articulated Moses’s idea about constitutional citizenship


  • So glad education was important in one of our groups—I believe young people do better with all of this stuff than older people do--so what is it that makes their capacities and willingness to engage across difference wane over time?

Civics and Civic Education

  • Danielle Allen's civics stuff is really good!
  • Civics education in schools.
  • Protect the vote!


  • I think finding ways to engage with young people would be good. I also want to thank everyone for a wonderful session.


  • Regarding the media/technology breakout group, it seems to me that we could come up with some action steps that we could pitch to the entire class. Focusing on truth in media, combatting misinformation, how to pressure social media companies to stop amplifying voices of misinformation and divisiveness.
  • Disinformation: [Get a] HLS speaker on regulation of social media companies (e.g. eliminating their exemption from being responsible for content)


Mail-in Voting

  • I worked for the Salt Lake County Election Office during the last election. 90% of votes were by mail and we had 90% turnout. Anyone wanting to vote in person could go to any polling place in the County, and there were a dozen locations for early voting. The majority Republicans and minority Democrats were all confident that the election had virtually 100% integrity. I was very proud to be part of this process and to see the care that the people actually running the nuts and bolts take to ensure an election with integrity.
  • Great example… -- what do you think are the factors that enabled that to be true?
  • In 2013, long before a national leader made mail-in elections a bogeyman, the Utah legislature virtually unanimously voted to establish mail-in voting. Both parties worked together to eliminate every possible barrier to any individual's participation.
  • It’s no accident that Utah and Oregon that has universal mail in voting are two of the most homogenous states in the union.
  • I think one of the best things will be to amplify the voice of our governor (who was our Lieutenant Governor and in charge of the last election). He went on NPR during the peak of the Republican complaints about mail-in voting and said he was proud of the integrity of the system here.

Voter participation / suppression

  • How do we get people to show up and vote? How do we reproduce Utah's experience?
  • I think Utah and Colorado have sufficiently homogeneous populations that it was easy to agree that everyone should vote. In Kentucky, for example, the goal is voter suppression.
  • Mail in voting empowers people and when there is a subset that the majority do not want to empower, suddenly mail in voting is very problematic

Ranked Choice

  • Ranked choice voting is also a seemingly viable option to encourage moderation.
  • Massachusetts surprisingly failed to pass the ballot vote on ranked choice voting!
  • The perfect example of the value of ranked choice voting is the Salvador Allende election shortly before we arrived at Harvard. He only won 34% of the vote; the second-place candidate won 33% and the third-place candidate won 32%. With ranked choice voting the outcome would likely have been very different.

Ranked Choice in Maine

  • Yes, that’s how Maine got Paul LePage (twice!!)
  • Actually, ranked choice voting in Maine was a reaction to the LePage phenomenon of a plurality electing the state’s Governor
  • We can work on unconfusing the voters, as we have been doing in Maine

Ranked Choice in Cambridge, MA

  • Cambridge had ranked choice voting back when we were students. Am I the only person in our class who went to see the vote count? Back then it took a week but was a great way for people from different political backgrounds to meet. I assume it is now computerized and much quicker if Cambridge still uses it. Does it?
  • Cambridge still has ranked choice voting and yes, it is faster — I think we had final results last Nov in 48 hours.
  • Agreed -
  • NYC recently adopted ranked choice - the major issue was confusion among voters.
  • Unfortunately, that assumes that those who hold power want to make the mechanism more equitable. They may not want this to happen.


Open Primary

  • Another solution besides ranked choice is open primary, like CA/WA
  • This from Jonathan Haidt: Encourage open primaries, as in Alaska. Lisa Murkowski’s vote to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the US Supreme Court may have been motivated by a desire to court liberal voters in the Alaska primary.
  • Open primaries are great but current office holders will be strongly opposed.



  • Having fair, honest dialogue with others starts with having one with ourselves. That means vetting our own views internally and trying hard to come to the right answer on issues we care about, or aspects of those issues. There are many points on which reasonable, fair-minded people can differ but there are many on which they can’t. Pushing ourselves to distinguish between those and develop a healthy self-criticism is the start to being able to genuinely hear to the views of others.

Trump supporters

  • I found a wonderful way to “listen” to two Trumpist friends: over our second Scotch! They felt Biden was illegitimate (“all those ballots in suitcases under tables”), January 6th was peaceful (“who designed the Capitol to be so easy to scale the walls?!?”), but surprisingly, they did believe in vaccine mandates!


  • Listening can be practiced. It's best practiced initially around topics that are a little less polarizing.
  • We are saying we all need to listen to the opposite points of view. How do we tactfully and effectively point out where the facts are wrong or there is illogical thinking and inconsistent argument?

Universal National Service

  • Our group discussed national service as a way for young people to meet and learn to respect those from very different backgrounds
  • Love that idea …
  • Dan ____ was the one who first brought it up


  • Facilitate putting concerns into ACTION
  • Let's try to move past 'admiring' the problem and focus on examples and ideas for constructive action
  • I love the idea of having time(s) at reunion for sharing ideas about what to do by the 50th—personally, as groups etc., to process these ideas, and to make commitments, even!


  • I love it. We are up to the challenge. An interesting group to join is Third, which is challenging our generation to get deeply involved in addressing the big challenges in our country and world.

Positive Role of Government

  • One other theme that came up in our breakout was the need to recognize a positive role of government in solving problems.

Call for Action Proposals

  • We should ask for a call to action, ie how do you fix the problem you identified
  • Let’s rally to get Harvard to give 1%/year for 10 years of its $52 Billion endowment to HCBUs: that would bring $5 Billion to HBCUs and be only a “drop in the bucket” or “pocket change” for Harvard. This can be analogous to the “divest from South African apartheid” momentum that Harvard had to address decades ago.
  • Volunteer to teach elementary school inner-city kids to read at their grade level. Reading Partners is a great way to do this.
  • The conversation group discussed respectful dialogue and using listening skills. DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy). Also funding groups that foster cross-aisle dialogue. Problem-solvers group.
  • Interest in working with high school students and college students—new voters. How to get them engaged and educated if Civics Classes too often don’t offer much
  • Focus on specific steps we can take, individually and collectively, to address issues of democracy. Think about a class project we could work on between the 45th and the 50th to help strengthen democracy.
  • IDEA STARTER shared with Inequality subgroup: How can our peers and homeowners who saw the value of their home equity surge by nearly $7 TRILLION in 2021, use their wealth to address inequality: 1493264704097206274?s=20&t=PPhocNQx4NJRYQpiN5shsQ

Demonstration projects

  • Look for evaluations of some of the local pilot projects on giving cash to low-income families to spend with no strings attached.

Using economic power for accountability

  • I’d like to explore strategies for holding institutions — as consumers and investors — responsible for their support of the various engines of disinformation.


Issues / opportunities to address

  • Structural problems of the American model of government
  • Open new pathways to participation for people who are not currently engaged in democratic action

Process going forward

  • It would be helpful to have small group discussions with classmates of different political persuasions.
  • Agree with Nathaniel that it’s useful to focus in June on organizations that are leaders in these various areas, so that we can consider how we can help support things that are already working, even if on a small scale.
  • Start small because small talk is relationship talk. Relationship nothing happens without relationship.
  • It would be great for each topic area to create a "survey course" of state of knowledge on both problem and solution. Then identify what forums/orgs there are where one can actively engage.

Civic dialogue as a skill

  • More on how to listen to others with respect and curiosity
  • Civics and critical listening.

Invite outside experts to address issues

  • Get Marc Elias of to speak.
  • HBS? Speaker on how investors and/or consumers can use their power to force more responsible behavior on corporations (e.g., pressure not to advertise on Fox)
  • RepresentUs would also be a good choice to invite to political education purposes. Focused on political reform nationwide.

Teachable moments at Harvard

  • How about this for a way to model civility and address some issues? Let's consider a debate, live at the reunion, between two teams of 3-4 of us on Harvard's behavior during this time of turmoil. For example, about the firing of a House master because he represented, as a lawyer, a defendant accused of bad things. We can show civil discourse, and maybe offer some advice, as wise elders, to our alma mater.
  • I like Dans idea of a debate.

Next steps

  • Carry this discussion over to the reunion in our personal discussions, then bring the best ideas from these discussions to a session on this topic.
  • Action plans by state?
  • What are things we can do at the scale we can personally influence that then have the potential to replicate or be amplified?
  • Continue the combination of personal conversation and personal evolution and problem-solving, resource-sharing conversations.
  • Urgent situations: Like people dying trying to immigrate across the border or the ocean