To become the leading center for sophisticated and thoughtful inquiry into issues relating to the functioning of the democratic process.
To nurture Americans’ understanding of their own self-government by supporting continual scholarly examination of democratic norms, procedures, and institutions as they develop and transform over time.
“Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” is an ideal that has evolved substantially since the Founding of the Republic, and it will continue to evolve so long as it “shall not perish from the earth.” Democracy will evolve, as it must, in light of new technologies, new social circumstances, and new global conditions. And because democracy is inevitably dynamic in its historical development, it is continuously worthy of study. Indeed, as leaders from Thomas Jefferson to Sandra Day O’Connor have emphasized, the practice of republican self-government cannot endure through the generations unless citizens have a well-developed understanding of the norms and institutions that underlie and constitute its operation. For this reason, the great public universities of this nation—especially the land-grant universities, whose mission is to serve the public good—have a duty to nurture the people’s understanding of their own self-government. This duty requires continuous scholarly examination of democracy’s norms, procedures, and institutions as they develop and transform over time.
The Ohio State University’s new interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Democracy is dedicated to performing this public duty. Drawing on the perspectives of multiple fields of scholarly inquiry—including history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, and sociology, among others—the activities of the Center will focus on the norms, institutions and processes that make up the practice of self-government. Although democracy’s purpose is to address substantive issues before the polity, the Center will not focus on policy debates or on the merits of particular policy proposals. Rather, its mission is to better understand the methods and structures through which these issues are addressed and resolved—or through which they become issues in the first place. The Constitution and its procedures for amendment, the legislature and its parliamentary procedures, the executive and administrative departments of government, the judiciary and the rule of law, the media and its role in shaping democratic deliberation about policy issues and candidates for elective office, civic education and its role in preparing each generation of citizens for the rights and responsibilities of popular government—these are all examples of issues that fall within the scope of the Center’s mission.
The Center will focus its attention on democracy as it has been and continues to be practiced in the United States. Nevertheless, because the evolving nature of U.S. democracy requires attention to new ideas and alternative approaches, the Center will also study forms of democratic governance that exist elsewhere in the world. For the same reason, the Center will examine innovative philosophical and other scholarly approaches that offer insight into the values and social arrangements that foster and sustain democracy. For example, one underdeveloped and promising field of inquiry concerns the psychological conditions that make democracy work. As James Madison and John Dewey, among others, have recognized, both citizens and the politicians who lead them need to harbor certain attitudes towards the achievement of the public good, rather than just their private interests, in order for the enterprise of popular self-government to flourish. We might ask whether the psychological and social conditions in the United States are as strong today as they have been in the past, and if not what might be done to reinvigorate them.
There is also an increasing—indeed alarming—sense that democracy as traditionally practiced in the United States is not working as it should to address pressing national problems, such as the federal budget debt. “Dysfunctional” is a label that is now routinely applied to Congress, certain states, and other parts of the U.S. system of government. There has perhaps never been a more important moment in U.S. history to undertake the kind of sustained intellectual inquiry into the functioning and malfunctioning of U.S. democracy that this Center is designed to promote.
In creating this new interdisciplinary Center, The Ohio State University intends to become the leading center for sophisticated and thoughtful inquiry into issues relating to the functioning of the democratic process. As the flagship university of a state that plays a critical role in the political life of the nation, with substantial intellectual assets already on hand in many of the disciplines that will naturally contribute to the Center, Ohio State is well-positioned to become preeminent in the interdisciplinary study of democracy. It would be a fitting celebration of Ohio State’s sesquicentennial in 2020 that the Center be recognized by that time as one of the major contributions that the University makes toward realizing its historical land-grant mission. Moreover, it is realistic to expect that, when the nation commemorates the bicentennial of Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America (first published in 1835), Ohio State’s Center for the Study of Democracy will be a leading voice in that nationwide observance.