The Association of Americans for Civic Responsibility (AACR) held its Seventh Annual Roundtable Conference at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School Campus in Washington, DC on Wednesday, May 5, 2010. The theme of the conference was “Tocqueville in 21st Century: Challenges for Democracy in America” with a focus on four discussion topics -- Effective Governance, Equality, Multiculturalism, and Civic Engagement.”
Alexis de Tocqueville was an aristocratic Frenchman who studied philosophy and law in France before traveling to America under the pretext of wanting to study prison reforms in the country. His visit led to the first (1835) and later second (1840) volume of his most well known book entitled Democracy in America, a two-volume study of the American people and their political institutions.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Joy Cherian, Founding President of AACR emphasized the importance of civic responsibility in our lives and how it should be a core value in a civil society worthy of a noble pursuit during the 21st century.
Professor Michael Schneider of the Maxwell School and Mr. Chad Tragakis of Hill & Knowlton welcomed the “by invitation only” participants to the roundtable conference and briefed them on how AACR was playing an important role in cooperation with Maxwell School, and Hill & Knowlton, a leading national public relations firm in spreading an awareness about individual and institutional civic responsibilities through writings and conferences.
The format of the Conference consisted of four sessions, viz.: Effective Governance, Equality, Multiculturalism, and Civic Engagement in the light of what Tocqueville would have thought of the current situation on these topics.
The first speaker, Dr. Thomas E. Mann, Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations spoke on Effective Governance. How several factors such as problem of terrorism, decline of trust in government, fiscal irresponsibility, lack of consistent Immigration policy, divisiveness of healthcare programs, the Wall Street greed, and the failure of the “Bail Out” policy have negatively contributed to the effectiveness of governance in America. In response to a question of Dr. Lester A. Myers, one of the conference attendees, on the current mistrust of people with respect to governance of some authorities, Dr. Mann stated “We must find a way to regain the trust of American People in the Government and perhaps a Bipartisan Commission may pull the government together”.
In response to a question from Dr. Sambhu N. Banik, a community activist in Maryland about having a multi-party system, Dr. Mann outlined several factors in favor of the current two party systems. He also mentioned about the emerging influence of Tea Party and the Coffee Party movements in American political scene.
Dr. Christian Dorsey, Director of External & Governmental Affairs at the Economic Policy Institute spoke on Equality. Dorsey’s thesis on “Inequality of Opportunity” whether related to economic growth, race based considerations, or depending upon educational achievements highlighted the phenomenon of social discontent in American society. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the polarization of the country. To address the issue of inequality, he believed that trade unions do play an important role but unions’ approach is not an exclusive solution. He opined that de Tocqueville being a lawyer could have justified consensus policy either way.
The Third Session speaker Marc R. Rosenblum, Senior Policy Analyst at Migration Policy Institute and a former member of Obama’s Immigration Policy Transition Team gave a thorough review of Historical Perspective of migration to this country from the Colonial Period (1500 – 1760). He clearly indicated the various reasons for differing immigration policies suited to the particular period including ban on certain geographical regions or people such as Asian Exclusion Act of 1917. He further explained the reasons why at certain times there was a high volume of immigrants to this country and at other times the number was lowest. He also pointed out migration through Slavery – involuntary migration and the historical importance of Civil Rights Movement.
During the question/answer session a heated debate ensued when Dr. Piyush Agrawal of Florida, Vice President of GOPIO- North America, made the distinction between “legal” and “illegal” immigrants and branded the “illegal immigrants” as “law breakers.” On an inquiry, Prakash Khatri Esq., the former Ombudsman at US Citizenship & Immigration Services at the US Department of Homeland Security ( one of the conference attendees ) informed other participants that if a Mexican wishes to migrate to USA today legally, it would take him/her more than 100 years to get an appropriate visa. Participants wondered aloud “no wonder the US-Mexican Border is broken” and US has miserably failed to protect its borders. Dr. Schneider remarked on the “Politics of Immigration” and how it has created a “divisiveness” and “tension” in our civil society.
Dr. David M. Anderson, Senior Vice President, State and Congressional Relations, the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars spoke on Civic Engagement. Dr. Anderson started with a dichotomy of Civic Engagement and Digital Technology Isolation and posed the question “Is internet helping USA to solve America’s social problems?” To him, technology is “value neutral” but has been effectively used by terrorists, used in identity theft, used in influencing political outcomes. At the same time, it has been put to some good use in civic engagement; for example, 46% campaign contributions during 2008 elections came through internet. The internet system has made a great impact on volunteerism. He talked about a few models of citizenship that are based upon civic engagement, party loyalty, well Informed and virtue based model of citizenship. He highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of each model and how they serve the citizenry through civic engagement.
Throughout the Conference the idea of what Tocqueville would have thought of USA today vis-à-vis his thoughts of USA as written by him in his book “Democracy in America” published in 1835.
The Conference was hosted by Syracuse University and Sponsored by Hill & Knowlton.