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Partly-cipating or fully participating?

Consumers or Citizens

Curated & Moderated by:
Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou
From “partly-cipation” to participation: Join the conversation on civic engagement and civil discourse
Wednesday 29 May 2024, at 5pm EDT
The Queen Theater, Wilmington, Delaware

On May 29, 2024, SNF Dialogues, in collaboration with the University of Delaware, hosted a public dialogue at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware, on the impact of political marketing and the commodification of politics in democracy. SNF Dialogues featured two panel discussions—one from an academic perspective and another on the professional practice of political marketing—as well as a keynote address by Valerie Biden Owens, the first woman in the United States to have managed a presidential campaign.

“Many times, we talk about saving our democracy, but there's something bigger here. It's about fighting for our own humanity. We are at the point where we have to talk about the need to civically engage in a civil manner,” said Andreas Dracopoulos, Co-President of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), in his introductory remarks. 

As part of a series of open discussions from SNF Dialogues on civic engagement and civil discourse in the US, the discussion examined, with experts and renowned political strategists, how the proliferation of political advertising, paid campaigns, and marketing strategies has reshaped contemporary political discourse. This conversation built on the Spectators or Citizens? discussion on the media's influence on active citizenship held in September 2023.

Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou, Executive Director of the SNF Dialogues and moderator of the two panels, opened the event posing the question of whether there is an “over-commercialization of politics, and where we as citizens stand in this environment with regard to the quality of the message we receive from politicians and from the team around them which uses new tools, rules, and methods.”


Democracy is something you do.”

Timothy Shaffer, SNF Ithaca Director and SNF Chair of Civil Discourse in the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware, noted that “we don’t often talk about party platforms. We talk about sound bites, and what will be good for this audience or the other. The real challenge is that we don’t exist in a place, like universities, where slow and thoughtful interrogation of issues takes place, but we are navigating an environment that is shaped in seconds rather than days or hours.”

Shaffer participated in the first panel discussion alongside Hahrie Han, Director of the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and Sigal Ben-Porath, Presidential Professor of Education and Director of the SNF Paideia Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Democracy is something you do, not something you have. Right now, we are treating it like something we have.”

Han Hanrie SNF Dialoguer Profile

Hahrie Han, Director of the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University

On the question of how fair elections are in an era when political campaigns are dominated by data analytics and microtargeting, Han answered that "One of the challenges of data analytics is that it assumes that the past is a good predictor of the future. In the past, it used to be that your identity was a good predictor of the future, but it’s not necessarily true in the moment we are in."

Ben-Porath, highlighted the crucial role of universities and higher education in distinguishing between commercial products and the political message. “We have to model a commitment to facts and truth in a way that is not always underlying our marketing of consumer goods”, she commented adding that “this commitment has to be distinct from marketing and campaign efforts which are not necessarily committed to be reflective of knowledge and truth about the world.”

Valerie Biden Owens, Biden Institute Chair at the University of Delaware Biden School, stressed in her keynote the need to safeguard democracy, as well as the media’s responsibility in this effort. “Politics is the art and science of learning to live together peacefully in a world with limited resources and to figure out the allocation and distribution of those resources in a just and equitable way. And we choose campaigns as a vehicle to do that.” She added that:

"Democracy is best when it's built on empathy, understanding, and a genuine human connection." 

Valerie Biden Owens, Biden Institute Chair at the University of Delaware Biden School

Valerie Biden Owens, Biden Institute Chair at the University of Delaware Biden School

Jennifer Palmieri, political and communications strategist and Senior Advisor at Emerson Collective, and Mark McKinnon, political analyst and media producer, shared their experience in the field in a lively discussion that touched upon the practical issues of political campaigning.

Palmieri said, “The problem is trust and with disinformation and just the internet it’s so easy for people to bind to disinformation, which is really bad for democracy. The problem for democracy is that authoritarian leaders want you to believe that nothing matters and think that you can’t trust institutions.”

McKinnon asserted that:

"The problem is that the tools we have now amplify anonymity and encourage warfare like we have never seen before. We become tribal for lots of different reasons. The problem is that if people cannot agree on facts, how can they even have a discussion?"

Mark McKinnon, political analyst and media producer

Mark McKinnon, political analyst and media producer

The SNF Dialogues discussion kicked off the Media & Democracy Summit, hosted by the SNF Ithaca Initiative and iMEdD in Wilmington, Delaware.


The SNF Dialogues are held through the journalism non-profit organization iMEdD (incubator for Media Education and Development).