In this jointly hosted virtual seminar, Epidemic Ethics and The Hastings Center, discussed the latter's Special Report: Democracy in Crisis, which through a collection of essays, explores how the global rise of exclusionary populist’s movements, coinciding with the erosion of social cohesion, brought about by a lack of trust between individuals and within institutions, threatens constitutional democracies worldwide. This trust deficit is both a cause, and consequence, of the perversion of the information ecosystem through the distortions of social media, as well as the vast longstanding material inequalities particularly evident in American society. Strengthening democracy, requires the reconstruction of a sense of common purpose, through what the report terms ‘civic learning’ something which is relevant to all countries, not just the United States. 
Mildred Z. Solomon, EdD, President, The Hastings Center
Bruce Jennings, MA, Senior Advisor, The Hastings Center, Associate Professor of Health Policy, Vanderbilt University
Eduardo J. Gómez, PhD, MA, Associate Professor and Director of the Institute for Health Policy and Politics, Lehigh University
Michael K. Gusmano, PhD, Research Scholar, The Hastings Center, and, Professor of Health Policy, Lehigh University
Key Questions
1. How can ethics be bought into the public sphere to restore trust and confidence in policy makers, and encourage civic participation in decision-making and pandemic policy development?
2. How should we develop ethically-informed pandemic policies in contexts of societal distrust and polarised perspectives?
Dr Michael Gusmano began first by affirming the role of bioethics in establishing constitutional democratic norms. This not only because bioethics is the basis for developing public health policy, but because it’s a discipline that asks questions pertaining to value; what we collectively value, what we should value and how and why we value it.
Dr Gomez then spoke more broadly on strong and weak democracies. Strong, or robust democracies, have elected Heads of State who strive to achieve the needs of the people, free and fair elections, citizens (and by extension the Press) who are free to mobilise and voice their own opinions, without fear of reprisals, institutions that guarantee a space for citizens to have their views represented at all tiers of government, and finally a strong normative commitment to human rights and community needs.
Citing two examples of democracies under threat, Brazil and India, Dr Gomez first argued that since 1986 Brazil’s democracy has flourished. Despite the election of conservative president John Bolsonaro who’s disregard for prevention-based COVID-19 public health measures, has been mitigated by presence of participatory democratic institutions, which have allowed citizens viewpoints to be represented at both national and state levels of government. On the other hand, India has fared less well. The election of conservative internationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, has according to some critics created fomented widespread societal division. NGO and activist organisations have been marginalised, while citizens (including the press) have had their opinions suppressed through force. Finally, there are no national or sub-national institutions that guarantee representation of the citizenship is in a weaker position than Brazil.
Picking up on this, Mr Bruce Jenning discussed the role of civic learning in strengthening constitutional democracies. He began by highlighting the discrepancy between the civic everyday experience that democracy requires, which is orientated toward ideals of human mutuality and inter-dependence, and the transactional everyday experience, which prioritises competition and efficiency over equity, that most Americans now live with. Both civic and transactional experiences are modes of political learning, but the latter is disabling for appropriate democratic functioning, both individually and institutionally. This is because it precludes thinking seriously about equitable recognition or the common good. When culturally predominant for long enough the transactional mode erodes the perceived norms of justice and equality upon which normative democratic political theory is built. Dr Jennings argues this is what is happening in the United States today.
The remedy for transactional learning is to increase civic learning; not to supplant transactional learning altogether, but to offset its deleterious effects. This requires more than instructional education or even democratic forum opportunities; rather civic learning must be embedded within all levels of social life. Many areas of the United States have now become civic deserts, where citizens live almost exclusively transactional lives. A movement toward civic learning would seek to replace these civic deserts with civic place-making in homes, schools, workplaces, and congregations. Civic learning in essence is about recognising connections we have with each other, and with democratic governance, institutional structures and the cultural meanings and practises that predominant in everyday life. It must not only be concerned with democratic norms and ideals, but lead to a body-politic more capable of achieving social and economic justice. If we take this concept seriously it would mean new programmes of social and economic policy, to curb the political and economic concentration of wealth and power that have turned the United States into a constitutional minoritarian oligopoly.
Dr Gomez and Dr Gusmano were asked to respond to Dr Jennings comments. Dr Gomez returned to the presence of participatory institutions and democracies in Brazil; these institutions had in fact protected citizens from threats to democracy. Dr Gusmano on the other hand, argued that as strong as formal democratic institutions can be, they are not always sufficient. This was evidenced during the COVID-19 pandemic. He argued civic learning requires us to go beyond the formal institutions, to go to what Benjamin Barber called ‘strong democracy’, and toward social institutions which can inculcate citizenship, and where people are willing to think about collective action based on the common good. Material inequality makes it difficult for people to see a common good, because collective decision-making doesn’t appear to be aligned to it. This has a corrosive effect on the principles of robust democracies that Dr Gomez spoke about.
The panel then discussed what, in the present context, active citizenship might look like. Mr Jennings observed that in early 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took shape, there was a collective response of solidarity. This was motivated not only by self-interest but also concern for others. However, the politicisation of the science and public health measures particularly around vaccines, masks and social distancing, has weakened it to the point that transactional individualism rose and replaced it. Local civic renewal remains an active movement under the rubric of what we call civic learning, however the technological transformation of the geography, means the distinction between the national and local no longer applies. Social media has pulled the discussion away from communities, to the imagery of social and political identity. This has very real consequences, including violence. It’s not that local democracy opportunities have been lost, but that it has become significantly harder to put into practise.
The Panel then took questions from the audience:
Personal COVID precautions have reduced ordinary daily personal contacts at the heart of local democracy. However, contacts have not been reduced to those who are opposed to public health measures. Do we have any notion of a remedy for this civic split which has been exacerbated by our views on the precautionary measures used during the pandemic?
Dr Gusmano argued that the question is not how can we organise people on the opposite side more effectively, but rather how can we develop institutions which create a public space in which these two groups can have a conversation. Right now this is difficult, due to identity politics, and the bubbling feelings of unfairness and resentment, which are based in real material and health-based inequalities.
How can trust in science and scientific institutions be restored?
Dr Solomon referred to the Hastings Center Special Report essay Trust: The Need for Public Understanding on how Science Works, arguing science needs to be taught as a process which is developed and revised over time, according to evidence. Furthermore, critical thinking skills must be developed in order for people to understand the validity of various sources of information.
Mr Jennings, supplemented this question with a parallel one: how do we restore or rebuild the idea of trustworthiness, which is perhaps a better concept because it implies an active stance towards standards. Within a transactional society, we have allowed experts and professionals deregulated scope over self-determining activity which has often been abused. Standards should be collective, and hold people accountable, including those in office. Dr Gusmano argued that the erosion of trust in science has on occasion be warranted; he cites the 1932 to 1972, Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment on African-Americans as a prime example. Furthermore, the perception that the commercialisation of science, damages public confidence, and can be exploited for nefarious political purposes, allowing populists to deride it altogether. Mr Jennings, argued that the global rollout of vaccines acts as an arena where the transactional and civic values will be in full view. The pandemic, or pándēmos which means ‘belonging to the public’ should open up the role of governments and collective decision-making in managing public health crises, but it remains to be seen whether this will come to pass.
How do we educate people about integrity over all?
The panel once again returned to the concept of trust. Dr Gusmano argued that in response to authoritarianism, those who are pro-science, appeal to trust; that people should ‘trust the science.’ This unwittingly creates an impression that scientific learning is linear. However, this is not accurate. Good science involves responding to evidence. However, when changes do occur they are politicised. The term ‘trust the science’ therefore leads to accusations of inconsistency and even hypocrisy. Specific remedial actions for this must include broader scientific education.
Dr Solomon argued that schools also play a role in this; a commitment to civic education as defined by the ethos of civic learning would see school children working within teams to address a real contextually significant problem affecting their local community. Dr Jennings noted even within this paradigm, schools must work with pre-existing concerns in a robust and transparent way. Dr Solomon closed the webinar, by concluding that science must be integrated within the wider context of civic learning to ensure we can restore democratic norms, and ward off the threat of authoritarianism globally.
Barber, Benjamin R., (184) Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for the New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kaebnick, Gregory E., Gusmano, Michael, Jennings, Bruce, Neuhaus, Carolyn P., Solomon, Mildred Z. (2021). Democracy in Crisis: Civic Learning and the Reconstruction of Common Purpose. The Hastings Center Report, 51(1). DOI: 10.1002/hast.1221.
Solomon, Miriam (2021) Trust: The Need for Public Understanding of How Science Works, in Democracy in Crisis: Civic Learning and the Reconstruction of Common Purpose. The Hastings Center Report, 51(1). DOI: 10.1002/hast.1227.


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