Week Five Letter From the President

This summer continues to move at a lightning pace. How in the world did we get to Week Five of our Summer Assembly, the midpoint in Chautauqua’s journey of the 2022 season? This week, we may be tackling the most controversial issues facing recent history in the United States: the issues of voting, democracy and what it takes for a society to function as such. Benjamin Franklin, when asked what kind of a government the new Constitution had created, said: “A Republic … if you can keep it.” 

This somewhat menacing question of whether our democracy can hold runs through its most fundamental tenet — the vote. Coming off an election cycle where voting itself was part of a fierce debate, Week Five at Chautauqua affords a critical conversation and also an answer of what we can do to keep Franklin’s admonition at bay. Speaker after speaker in our first four weeks have answered the question of how we might help myriad issues in our society with a one-word answer: “Vote.” 

This week, we frame this issue through a simple title with a complex thesis: “The Vote and Democracy.” In the first months of 2021, hundreds of bills have been introduced in state legislatures aimed at restricting, expanding and protecting voting access for millions of Americans. Following the 2020 election, what is the state of the American franchise? Is our system truly one person, one vote? How can we ensure that every eligible voter has access to the polls, and that the vote is trustworthy and secure — particularly from the threat of foreign intervention? We’ll also examine what distinguishes America’s elections, especially the state-by-state approach to navigating and employing systems of voting, and carrying out mandatory redistricting following the 2020 census. 

Our morning guides for these very thorny questions include a dear friend, Trevor Potter, who serves as president of the Campaign Legal Center. I’ve gotten to know Trevor over the past couple years, and we couldn’t ask for a more thoughtful lead to our week. He will be followed by Linda Chavez, chairman at the Center for Equal Opportunity; Jelani Cobb, the newly appointed dean of the Columbia Journalism School and an accomplished journalist in his own right; Michael Li, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice; and Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America. This quintet will unpack the questions above, and more, with a brilliant blend of historical grounding, theoretical framing and real-world experience. 

While our morning lecture series focuses on headlines ripped from the news, our companion Interfaith Lecture Series goes to a more fundamental part of the conversation, as we explore “The Ethical Foundations of a Fully Functioning Democracy.” Building upon work begun in 2021, Chautauqua again shines a light on Socrates and his student Plato, who entered the discourse on ethics by way of a question that became central in Greek thought and is still relevant today: What is the relation between virtue, excellence of character, and a functioning society that provides for personal and societal happiness? For the flourishing of a democracy — as in “demos,” meaning “the people” — the Greek philosophers believed in reverence, justice and the objectivity of goodness as the links for knowing what is good and doing it. In this week, we discern the ideal ethical foundations of a system of government by a population that believes in reverence for life and justice. 

Tackling this heady assignment is Sherman J. Clark, Kirkland & Ellis Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School; Diana Aviv, senior adviser on election protection at Issue One and former president of Independent Sector, a leading nonprofit focused on the intersection of public and private works; Adam Jortner, the Goodwin-Philpott Eminent Professor of Religion at Auburn University; Anthea Butler, author of White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America; and Wajahat Ali, author of Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American.  

These two conversations are perfect lab experiments for us at Chautauqua. Literally at this writing, in our media headlines, we are still debating the nature of voting in our last election and the U.S. Congress is debating laws surrounding our future votes. If our first four weeks of speakers, teachers and artists calling us to get out and vote is one of the most important things we can do to shape our society, I trust Chautauquans will enter into vigorous dialogue about the right path forward. I can’t wait to join you.

A few other things to watch out for in Week Five: 

Last week, I was honored to participate in a ceremony marking a very special gift from the Kay Hardesty Logan Foundation that will endow our Chamber Music Series. There are always so many things going on at Chautauqua — some might say too many things — but we really present some of the best chamber music in the nation. If you are here for the first time or haven’t caught any concerts yet, check out Quatuor Danel on Monday or The Tempest Trio on Saturday. It’s such a special gem to have this artistry here. I hope you’ll join in celebrating Kay Logan’s legacy and all who love chamber by taking in one of these. 

As many of you know, Bishop Gene Robinson retired as our senior pastor and vice president of religion last year. One of the rich partnerships that Gene brought to our lives was to unlock the tremendous wealth of gifted preachers who had gone through Auburn Seminary. This week we are blessed by the witness of the Rev. Emma Jordan-Simpson, the newly appointed president of that distinguished institution. I look forward to her words in such an important week. We all know that the chaplain of the week can be a soothing, and sometimes agitating, force in a week here. I hope Emma is both. 

My husband, Peter, and I have become dear friends with Chautauquan Roe Green, who has funded and lifted up our New Play Workshops for years. Many of the plays that have started here have gone on to further performances, including to Broadway. This week, we again celebrate the New Play Workshop as a critical component of Chautauqua Theater Company’s efforts to foster important new American playwrights and to provide a safe and stimulating playground for artists to develop new work for the theater. Thanks, Roe, for all you do, and I hope to see you all there. 

As we look toward the end of the week, I hope many of you will get up early on Saturday, July 30, to join me for the annual Old First Night Run/Walk. I don’t promise to be in stellar shape for this one, but the point is to enjoy one another, get a little exercise and celebrate Chautauqua. Put on your running shoes, and I’ll see you at the starting line (and the finish — God willing). 

Thank you all for animating the incredible gift that is Chautauqua.Welcome to Week Five! 

Tags : From the President
Michael E. Hill

The author Michael E. Hill