Upcoming conference will address America’s poor civic health


Casey Kelly, News Editor


Stetson will host a community engagement conference next week to address America’s problems with democracy and possible solutions from multiple academic perspectives.

The conference, “Democracy in America,” is scheduled to take place next Thursday and Friday and will feature multiple speakers who specialize in civic engagement, political science and history fields, among others. Their topic: How to fix the country’s community engagement problem.

America’s civic health has declined in recent years, as noted most famously by Political Science Professor Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone.” The percentage of Americans who vote, volunteer in their communities, and join membership organizations has steadily decreased over the years. Putnam argued that this would hurt

the efficiency of our democracy, and subsequent research tends to support this claim.

Dr. William Ball, Associate Professor of Political Science at Stetson, said that collaboration among different academic fields is what makes “Democracy in America” unique.

“It’s different than most academic conferences in a number of ways,” Ball said. “Most academic conferences are by discipline, but this one is on a theme.”

Speakers from Stetson and universities across the country will be giving various presentations on the issues of democracy today. Different academic subjects approach this topic in different ways. Some believe the problem lies with citizens while others think it is the role of government to preserve the country’s civic health.

“I would say a major problem with democracy in the US today is low voter turnout, especially for ‘off-year’ and local elections,” said Eliezer Poupko, a Ph.D. student at University of Texas.

Dr. Daniel Smith from the University of Florida’s Department of Political Science echoed Poupko’s thoughts.

“As I see it, the principal problem with democracy in the U.S. today is that for millions of people, this country is becoming less democratic when it comes to the fundamental right to vote.”

Another presenter, Steven Smallpage who is a Ph.D. student at Michigan State University, said the problem had more to do with people’s overall faith in the government to equally involve all citizens.

“The most pressing problem facing America today is the growing number of people who (rightly or wrongly) do not recognize our government today as one made ‘of the people, by the people, for the people,’” Smallpage said. “There is no greater threat to a democracy than if its people do not believe it is one.”

Other approaches to the issue will be discussed at the conference.

Multiple Stetson professors helped organize the conference,

including Professor of Law Jamie Fox, Associate Professor of Political Science David Hill, Associate Professor of Communication and Media Studies Michael McFarland, Associate Professor of Philosophy Joshua Rust, and Associate Professor of Law Ciara Torres-Spelliscy.

Dr. Peter Levine, author and Professor at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Affairs, will commence the event with a keynote address Thursday night. The presentation will be open to the public and a cultural credit will be available to students.

Presentations from other speakers will take place on the first floor of the Lynn Business Center starting at 8:30 a.m. Friday. Notable speakers include Robert Hackett, President of The Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation, Wendy A. Bach, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee College of Law and Dr. Vanessa B. Beasley, Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Director of American Studies at Vanderbilt University.