Dr. Kenneth Ruscio and his students had dinner with Forum speaker Anne Applebaum

The future of democracy

March 18, 2022
Students confront the challenges to democracy in an era of increasing autocracy

To be or not to be. That is the question for democracy in an era marked by a decline in the world’s liberal institutions and governments amid a rise in autocracy.

It is also the question Dr. Kenneth Ruscio, senior distinguished lecturer at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, asks the 20 leadership studies and political science students in his 300-level class The Democratic Prospect. To help his students grapple with this topic, Ruscio takes a three-pronged approach.

“During the first part of the semester, we discussed what about the current challenge to democracy has people worried,” said the former dean of the Jepson School and president emeritus of Washington and Lee University. “We read books such as Anne Applebaum’s ‘Twilight of Democracy.’

“Then we spent several weeks debating whether democracy is worth saving, drawing on foundational writings by John Locke, the Federalists, Thomas Jefferson, and Frederick Douglass. Third and lastly, we will explore how governments and civil societies must come together if democracies are to survive.”  

The Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol underscored the existential threat to democracy in the United States, Ruscio said. He invited J. Michael Luttig, a former judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, to speak to his class via Zoom about the severity of that threat.  The renowned conservative jurist explained to the students the constitutional grounds on which he advised Mike Pence that he did not have the authority as vice president to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Shortly after Luttig’s virtual class visit, Russia invaded Ukraine. This war puts the global battle between democracies and autocracies into stark relief in a way few could have imagined only weeks ago. In a prescient turn of events, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Anne Applebaum, an expert on the Russia-Ukraine war, gave the March 15 Jepson Leadership Forum presentation, “Autocracy and Democracy in an Era of Nationalism.”

Earlier that day, Ruscio’s class watched a livestream of Applebaum testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on how to combat authoritarianism. Later, after her arrival at the University of Richmond, his students had the chance to converse with her over dinner before joining a capacity crowd at her Forum presentation. With Ruscio facilitating, Applebaum focused her Forum remarks on the war between authoritarian Russia and democratic Ukraine.

“Tonight’s Forum reminded me that the large, seemingly intangible ideas we discuss in class affect the lives of real people in significant ways,” said Kathryn Reda, ’23. “The younger generation needs to combat the polarization we are experiencing in the United States by working toward common ground and the toleration of other views.”

“The discussion made me think about all the people who are delivering food and gas to aid the Ukrainian defense,” said Aerin Kalmans, ’22, who identified herself as a descendant of a Holocaust survivor. “You can’t stand by. You have to act.”

An expert on democratic theory and author of “The Leadership Dilemma in Modern Democracy,” Ruscio said he agrees that citizens must act to preserve the liberties cherished by a democratic society.

“My students are going through a political coming-of-age,” he said. “They are forming impressions about politics and governance that will influence their perspectives and actions the rest of their lives.”

His students attending the Forum came down on the side of democracy.

“We don’t have the luxury of being pessimists,” said Nico Ellis, ’23, echoing Applebaum’s closing remarks. “What happens tomorrow is predicated on what we do today. The future of democracy is in our hands.”  

Photo: Dr. Kenneth Ruscio; Imani Mustaf, ’22; Kathryn Reda, ’23; Natalie Wittstock, ’22; Nico Ellis, ’23; Andrea Freitas, ’22; Anne Applebaum; and Katherine Asbeck, ’22