Is there something seriously wrong with public debate in America?

And, if so, can the problem be remedied? Hyperbolic vitriol seems to fill the media and the internet, boorish hecklers interrupt public speeches, and strident partisans hurl ad hominem accusations at one another. Documented facts often fail to sway large segments of public opinion, and an imperative to “feed the base” seems to block almost all Congressional actions needed to address this country’s most salient and complex problems.

Has debate in America really taken a turn for the worse or has it merely returned to its historical norm, after a period of unusual consensus during World War II and the Cold War? Are most Americans becoming more extreme in their views or are politicians and pundits becoming more polarized—and more polarizing? If public debate is indeed in trouble, from a democratic perspective, who or what is to blame? Whatever the causes, what remedies are available given America’s historic commitments to broad civic participation and free expression?

The David and Lyn Silfen University Forum, hosted by Penn President Amy Gutmann, asks whether political and public discourse in America is truly in trouble and, if so, what might be the causes, consequences, and antidotes. Eminent Penn faculty members Kathleen Hall Jamieson, John DiIulio, and John Jackson, Jr. join the distinguished chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and former Congressman Jim Leach, and NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell in a robust exchange about the apparent deficit in mutual respect and surplus in political polarization of American public debate and political culture in our times.

Press release:  Penn President Amy Gutmann Convenes Panel Examining the State of Public Discourse in America

2010 Panelists

The panelists of this David & Lyn Silfen University Forum include Amy Gutmann, John J. DiIulio, Jr., Kathleen Hall Jamieson, John L. Jackson, Jr., Jim Leach and Andrea Mitchell. Please see their biographies below.

Amy Gutmann, moderator

Amy Gutmann

Amy Gutmann became the eighth president of the University of Pennsylvania on July 1, 2004. She has become a prominent national advocate for equity in higher education, and advises the U.N. Secretary General on a range of global issues, including academic freedom, mass migration, international development, and the social responsibilities of universities.

An eminent political scientist and philosopher on ethics, justice theory, deliberative democracy, and democratic education, Gutmann currently is the Christopher H. Browne Professor of Political Science at Penn, with secondary faculty appointments in Philosophy, Communication, and Education. Her books include Why Deliberative Democracy? (2004 with Dennis Thompson), Identity in Democracy (2003), Democratic Education (revised edition, 1999), and Democracy and Disagreement (1996, with Dennis Thompson).

Gutmann is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Education, and a W.E.B. DuBois Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

John J. DiIulio, Jr.

john diIulio

John J. DiIulio, Jr. is the Frederic Fox Leadership Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Faculty Director of the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program. After graduating from Penn in 1980, he received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University. For thirteen years, he was a professor and research center director at Princeton University, but came home to Penn in 1999.

DiIulio recently won Penn's Lindback Award for distinguished teaching. He is the author of a dozen books and co-author of American Government: Institutions and Policies, now in its 12th edition. He has led Penn undergraduates in over 1,000 weeks of service in post-Katrina New Orleans.

He has directed research centers at the Brookings Institution and other think tanks. He served as the first director of the White House Office of faith-based initiatives. He recently won the Spirit Award for lifetime service to an inner-city school. He serves on the boards of numerous community-serving nonprofit organizations.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson

kathleen hall jamieson

Kathleen Hall Jamieson is the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Walter and Leonore Annenberg Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Jamieson is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Political and Social Science and the International Communication Association. She is the author or co-author of 15 books including: Presidents Creating the Presidency (University of Chicago Press, 2008), Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment (Oxford, 2008) and unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation (Random House, 2007).

Dr. Jamieson has won university-wide teaching awards at each of the three universities at which she has taught and political science or communication awards for four of her books. Her forthcoming book, co-authored with Kate Kenski and Bruce Hardy, is The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Messages Shaped the 2008 Election.

John L. Jackson, Jr.

john l jackson

John L. Jackson, Jr., is the Richard Perry University Professor of Communication and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Before coming to Penn, Jackson taught in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and spent three years as a Junior Fellow at the Harvard University Society of Fellows in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jackson received his BA in Communications (Radio, TV, Film) from Howard University in Washington DC and his PhD in Anthropology from Columbia University in New York City.

As a filmmaker, Jackson has produced a feature-length fiction film, documentaries and film-shorts that have screened at film festivals internationally. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Harvard University's Milton Fund, and the Lilly Endowment (during a year at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina). He has published three books, Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America (University of Chicago Press, 2001), Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity (University of Chicago Press, 2005), and Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness (Basic, 2008), which came out in paperback February 2010.

Jackson is currently writing a book on global Black Hebrewism (under contract with Harvard University Press). He is also working on two ethnographic films, one about contemporary conspiracy theories in urban America, another examining the history of state violence against Rastafari in Jamaica.

Jim Leach

jim leach

Jim Leach is the ninth Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Nominated by President Barack Obama on July 9, 2009, and confirmed by the Senate in early August, Leach began his four-year term as NEH Chairman on August 12, 2009.

Leach previously served 30 years representing southeastern Iowa in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he chaired the Banking and Financial Services Committee, the Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and founded and co-chaired the Congressional Humanities Caucus.

After leaving Congress in 2007, Leach joined the faculty at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, where he was the John L. Weinberg Visiting Professor of Public and International Affairs until his confirmation as NEH chairman. In September 2007, Leach took a year's leave of absence from Princeton to serve as interim director of the Institute of Politics and lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Leach graduated from Princeton University, received a Master of Arts degree in Soviet politics from the School of Advanced International Studies at The John Hopkins University, and did additional graduate studies at the London School of Economics.

Leach holds eight honorary degrees and has received numerous awards, including the Sidney R. Yates Award for Distinguished Public Service to the Humanities from the National Humanities Alliance; the Woodrow Wilson Award from The Johns Hopkins University; the Adlai Stevenson Award from the United Nations Association; the Edgar Wayburn Award from the Sierra Club; the Wayne Morse Integrity in Politics Award; the Norman Borlaug Award for Public Service; and the Wesley Award for Service to Humanity.

A three-sport athlete in college, Leach was elected to the Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and the International Wrestling Hall of Fame in Waterloo, Iowa. Leach resides in Iowa City and the Washington, D.C., area with his wife Elisabeth (Deba), son Gallagher, and daughter Jenny.

Andrea Mitchell

andrea mitchell

Andrea Mitchell, the veteran NBC Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, currently covers foreign policy, intelligence and national security issues, including the diplomacy of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for all NBC News properties. She is also the host of MSNBC'S Andrea Mitchell Reports.

Mitchell covered the entire 2008 presidential campaign, broadcasting live from every major primary and caucus state and all the candidate debates for NBC News and MSNBC programs, including Today, Hardball, and Meet the Press. She also covered Barack Obama's trip to Iraq, the Middle East, and Europe during the presidential campaign.

In 2005, Mitchell authored Talking Back, a memoir about her experiences as one of the first women to cover five presidents, congress, and foreign policy. She has received the prestigious Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism from the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Radio-Television News Directors Association's Leonard Zeidenberg Award for her contribution to the protection of First Amendment Freedoms.

Mitchell received her bachelor of arts in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania. She currently serves as a Penn Trustee, a member of the Executive Committee, and Chairman of the Annenberg School Advisory Board.