This Is What Democracy Looks Like
We are living in an age of unprecedented political change. The political conversation is full of new voices. Americans are off the sidelines, volunteering and donating in record numbers. Last year they voted in record numbers, too. Old traditions are getting trampled. News cycles last minutes. Those who had long been marginalized are suddenly center stage. A tweet can end a career — or inspire a movement.
This spring, we will explore the diversity and grassroots energy that is transforming American politics. We will discuss, debate, and listen to the views of those fighting for change.
This study group will not be unbiased. As a former mayor and candidate for governor of Florida, I’ve been inspired by activists and citizens from every walk of life. I led my city through two of the most powerful hurricanes to hit it in the last century, and during sleepless nights in the Emergency Operations Center I learned lessons about genuine, authentic leadership. I’ve also campaigned hard in the largest swing state in the nation, and I’ve discovered some truths and some challenges at the heart of the democratic process.
I was a young activist in college when I first heard the old call-and-response protest chant: “Show me what democracy looks like!” The crowd cheered: “This is is what democracy looks like.”
Soon after, I was leading those chants.
What does our democracy look like today? Why does it feel so broken? Why is it changing so fast? Who are the new players? Why are the leaders who inspire passion in their supporters so incomprehensible to the other side? These are some of the hard questions we’ll wrestle with in this study group as we look to understand our democracy — and hopefully, find an authentic and meaningful path forward for ourselves.
NOTE: Topics and guests to change are subject to change based on guest availability and current events.
Week 1: Who Are The Changemakers?
What has changed in society to allow the political conversation to grow more inclusive? Who are the people working to make change in our society? Probing deeper, we will consider what makes someone an activist — and what makes someone an effective agent of change. And we will look at who is still being left out, and what we can do to raise up the voices of those who too often go unheard. My own story — the son of a school bus driver and a construction worker who rose to become Mayor of Florida’s capital city — is key to my understanding of the answers to these questions. What is your story? This session will also provide an overview of our study group’s goals and topics for the coming weeks.
Week 2: The Activists
How do individuals transform tragedy into a cause? How does a single good deed become a movement? In this session, we will examine the ways activists fight for change — and the reasons they succeed or fail. Civic and political activism are at the heart of my own life: before I was an elected official, I was a student activist challenging injustice in my community. As an elected official and candidate, I sought to lift up voices I felt were not being heard. Together, we will explore the ways activism is changing — for example, how social media has amplified everyone’s voice — and the ways it has held constant.
Week 3: The Mayors
Led by a new generation of innovative and dynamic mayors, many of America’s cities are experiencing an economic and cultural renaissance. As Washington becomes a permanent partisan battleground, solutions to our nation’s pressing challenges are bubbling up in cities across the country. How are these mayors transforming urban life? Which public policy solutions can be translated on the national stage? Who will lead this change? And how much of this creative energy is the product of necessity, as the challenges of growth — such housing costs and income inequality — expose the vulnerability of those left behind?
Week 4: The South
Today’s American South is younger, more diverse, and more innovative — so why is it still largely a one-party region? Meanwhile, the South remains a hotly contested political battleground and key to both parties’ hopes of winning the White House. What are the legacies of the South’s history — cultural, racial, political — that persist to this day? While many southern cities have become centers of diversity and economic growth, southerners living outside of metropolitan areas are feeling left behind. As a son of Miami who grew up in Gainesville and Tallahassee, I will bring my lived experience to this session. If you are from the South, I hope you will bring your insight to this session. If you are not, what are the historical and cultural legacies where you grew up?
Week 5: The Women
The remarkable victories by female candidates last year came just two years after the defeat of the first female nominee for president. What happened to cause such a shift? In 2018, a record 117 women were elected to Congress — including the first Muslim women and the first Native American women elected to Congress. This follows a year in which more women ran for office for the first time. How will policymaking be different following these gains? How can we ensure they last?
Week 6: The Disruptors
When the game is rigged against you, is it fair to break the rules? How can you move from breaking the rules to writing new ones? This week, we will meet the disruptors, the rare members of society who are fighting injustice and raising awareness outside the traditional norms of political behavior. When the political stakes feel high, the barriers to toppling old institutions and breaching norms are low. Old and sacred traditions, such as the State of the Union, are suddenly up for grabs. But when the change you create is built on a foundation of disruption, what makes it lasting?
Week 7: The Artists
At every moment of crisis in our nation's politics, artists have turned into activists and used their craft to grab a nation’s attention. How are artists responding to this political moment? While elected leaders give speeches to hundreds or thousands, artists can reach millions with their words and actions. We live in a time of diminished trust in our democracy, and artists who engage in politics can inspire people beyond the reach of traditional political actors. In contrast to previous times of unrest, today’s songs, videos, and performances travel around across the country — and around the world — a matter of hours, creating rare moments of unity in a fragmented society.
Week 8: Your Turn
In the final session of our study group, we’ll turn the tables around and give you the microphone. What does American democracy look like to you? Is it a raucous mixing bowl, or a fractious food fight? How do you see yourself engaging in our nation’s democracy? With the lessons learned throughout the past sessions, can we each craft a path of authentic engagement in the events of our time. As we wrestle with these questions, there are no right or wrong answers.