A photo of Justin Kirk
As a communications professor at UNL specializing in presidential rhetoric, public policy and public debate, Justin Kirk thinks a lot about democracy. Photo courtesy of Justin Kirk
This is one in a series of Nebraska News Service stories about election and voting issues in the state and the efforts of people and organizations who are working to strengthen democracy. This series is part of a national initiative — USDemocracyDay.org — in which more than 300 news outlets published stories on Democracy Day, Sept. 15, to bring attention to the crisis facing American democracy.
Justin Kirk thinks a lot about democracy.
It is part of his job as a communication studies professor specializing in presidential rhetoric, public policy and public debate.

As the head coach of the UNL debate team and avid follower of politics, he would be thinking about it anyway.

Kirk believes in democracy as empathetic deliberation, where people cooperate to share and distribute resources. Though in the current political climate, he sees enemy creation becoming more common.

He said he thinks if Americans don’t change the way they view other people, conditions will not improve.

“There is a rising level of dissatisfaction with the governance of the late 20th century, which has caused a lot of distrust in democratic forms of government,” he said.

He said he thinks the nation’s current democratic system doesn’t work for everyone, he said. A barrier for many people is institutional, where wealth disparity makes it harder, if not impossible, to participate in decision making and politics.

The importance of democracy lies in the distribution of resources. Kirk said resources will always be distributed one way or another, but it is necessary to engage in open and productive dialogue.

“Democracy is important in the way it distributes resources,” Kirk said. “When you’re engaging in a project of taking wealth from one group of people and distributing it to those without it, these things are democratically negotiated in collective bargaining sessions.”

Kirk has a simple suggestion: be empathetic.

“Extend empathy to others in situations where resources are at stake,” Kirk said.

To practice empathy, Kirk said it is necessary to practice constructive deliberation. He said the author Henry Giroux refers to how major problems can only be solved in a productive way if people practice constructive dialogues and work to stay informed.

“Giroux’s central claim is that practicing democracy, voting, practicing forms of argument that don’t treat the other as an enemy produces a kind of citizen that can engage in deliberative negotiation to solve bigger problems like climate change,” he  said. 

MicrosoftTeams image 300x300 - UNL communications professor says democracy needs empathyIf Americans do not change how politics looks and functions, Kirk said there is not much chance of the situation improving. 

While it may not bring about immediate change, Kirk said there is a major benefit in taking steps to become an informed and empathetic person. 

One way to do that is through debate education, which provides benefits such as critical thinking and the ability to separate truth from misinformation, he said.

Debate requires people to not just find evidence, but to compare evidence against another person’s. Kirk said this is helpful in understanding how to give and take when discussing decisions that affect others. 

“Building the skills and practices of research is one of the main ways to become an informed citizen,” Kirk said. “Debaters are trained in the art of compromise; there is good on one side and good on the other side.”

Empathy and perspective are only possible when people can view other people, even those with different political positions, as teammates as opposed to enemies. 

“Debating somebody as an opponent and not an enemy is one of the things debate teaches very well,” he said. “At the end of a debate tournament, most of them are really good friends.” 

Kirk said it is also important for people to become more involved in their local communities. 

“Donate to causes you believe in, participate in local governance,” he said. If you have kids, attend school board meetings.” 

He said it is important to follow city council meetings because these meetings directly impact peoples’ lives. He also noted how the values and policies being discussed at national levels are normally formed in local government first. 

“City council meetings are really where the rubber meets the road for most citizens,” Kirk said. “As much as we pay attention to national or state politics, it really is the local level where values are built up over time.”

Kirk recognizes that it is easy for people to be cynical, especially when they  feel like they have very little control over their government. He said people shouldn’t view democracy as an end state, but instead something they constantly engage in. 

Kirk said he remains is hopeful. He said he has seen signs that  change is possible. 

“Look at all the young people involved. Look at the Parkland kids, look at groups like Moms Demand Action,” Kirk said. “These groups created social movements that resulted in real gun reform legislation, despite being told that the NRA is impossible to lobby against.”

When people create groups to rally for changes they wish to see to help others, Kirk said, it is a great demonstration of empathy. 

Ultimately, cooperation only happens when people extend empathy to one another and engage in an open and honest exchange of ideas, Kirk said. 

“Being empathetic towards others in these discussions and realizing that everyone is giving up a little will help foster a sense that people aren’t your enemy.”

Read more Nebraska News Services stories about democracy here and national Democracy Day stories here