I rolled up to the Ohio Statehouse wearing a suit and tie. Entering through the giant glass doors, I met other students in the same professional attire. After being corralled into a large event hall, we were greeted by a giant mascot with a nut as a head who high-fived me. He was later tackled by man in a bearcat costume as students laughed and cheered.
The clock struck noon and a panelist of legislators came to the podium – the main event of the day was about to begin. It wasn’t just any day at the statehouse. It was the Buckeyes and Bearcats Day at the Statehouse
This event, hosted by the alumni associations of The Ohio State University and University of Cincinnati, was an opportunity for students and alumni alike to engage with our Ohio senators and congressman. The event consisted of a town hall meeting with local and state representatives followed by breakout meetings with state legislatures. The breakout meetings were the hallmark of Buckeyes & Bearcats Day – it gave an opportunity for students and alumni to speak on behalf of issues directly related to higher education and funding.
After attending, I came to realize that the takeaway of the event was clear – political engagement and advocacy events such as these ultimately promote democracy and prevent it from backsliding.
Throughout the day my fellow students, alumni, and I lobbied and engaged with our state legislatures regarding several issues directly affecting our universities. These issues included the Ohio capital bill that provides appropriations for repair, and construction of university facilities. Additionally, we advocated for increased funding for research for our schools. We felt that these issues were important to higher education in the state of Ohio.
Tom Rogan of The Guardian cites in an article that “the freer the speech, the stronger the democracy.” He highlights how political engagement events, like Buckeyes and Bearcats Day, can allow for individuals to express their freedom of speech and voice their concerns to their government. Through this engagement process, democracy becomes stronger as more people are represented and have a say in government.
This perspective can certainly be true with the case of Buckeyes and Bearcats Day as well. This engagement event allowed for students to meet with legislatures and express their speech, ultimately strengthening democracy.
Is there any way that democracy can backslide even if there are engagement and advocacy events? Researchers Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg state in their work that one way stealth authoritarianism could be accomplished is through distorting the public sphere. By providing misinformation about statistics and budget information, such as how much a government spends, leaders can manipulate the public and democracy could backslide. Because, our advocacy points were based on research and statistics given to us by the Ohio Statehouse, I checked to see if this concept could be applied to Buckeyes and Bearcats Day.
Our research and stats we used included current state budgetary measures as well as future budget plans that were provided to us. This information was clear, concise, and checked for accuracy by internal and external review processes for the public to use. I had no reason to suspect that the state government was attempting to distort the public sphere and give us any misinformation whatsoever. Providing accurate information is one example that shows that democracy is being preserved.
Additionally, Jan-Werner Muller comments in his book What is Populism that populists gain the support of groups that do not feel like their voice can be heard, their needs are met, or those who feel left out. This is true in the case of Donald Trump of the United States and Marie Le Pen of France who were populist candidates that gained the support of these groups. Muller ultimately concludes that populism causes democracy to backslide and is dangerous for democracy itself.
However, as students and alumni our voices were heard through Buckeyes and Bearcats Day. We did have the chance to meet with legislatures who were for the most part in agreement of our advocacy points and wanted to help. Because of this event, there is a lower probability of a populist candidate deciding to run in an election, being elected, or even gaining support from us.
The current state administration is meeting our needs and hearing us out. There is no reason to suspect a populist candidate would run based on our desired policy points. This is another way in which this event can be seen to prevent backsliding and preserve democracy.
Lastly, researchers Maria Stephen and Erica Chenoweth state in their work that non-violent means of engagement are more successful than violent means and also preserve democracy. Violent protests are less successful and can be seen to lower the quality of democracies after regime changes. This concept, in a way, can be applied to this event.
Buckeyes and Bearcats Day was a non-violent form of engagement that, according to Stephen and Chenoweth, has a higher success rate of succeeding and promoting democracy.
After attending, I came to realize that the takeaway of the event was clear – political engagement and advocacy events such as Buckeye and Bearcats Day ultimately promote democracy and prevent it from backsliding. As mentioned above, the freer the speech, the stronger the democracy. Allowing an opportunity for students and alumni to express their views is constructive to the democratic process and preserves its values.