How Knowledge Fortifies Democracy

  • August 13, 2018
  • by Rebecca W. Rimel

Editor’s Recommendation

More Notes from the President

August 1, 2018

In its earliest days, Pew supported places of knowledge—colleges and universities, libraries, seminaries, and research organizations. More recently, we have expanded our reach and sought new ways to share the facts we learn in our research and policy work, harnessing the power of video, the internet, and social media to reach broader audiences.

Open and robust debate is essential to American democracy and the bridge to a more perfect union. But the starting point for any discussion—and especially the search for common ground—must be an acknowledgment that facts are discernible and reliable. Indeed, our Founding Fathers recognized this when forming our fledgling nation, seeing the pursuit of truth as essential to our democracy. James Madison declared that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Thomas Jefferson put it more simply: “Light and liberty go together.”

Pew’s founders shared this vision, believing it necessary to arm the public with the facts—and then to trust the people to deploy that knowledge wisely. This commitment to informing the public and strengthening democracy has thus been part of our mission since our founding 70 years ago.

In its earliest days, Pew supported places of knowledge—colleges and universities, libraries, seminaries, and research organizations. More recently, we have expanded our reach and sought new ways to share the facts we learn in our research and policy work, harnessing the power of video, the internet, and social media to reach broader audiences.

The magazine you have in your hands—or on your screen—began two decades ago, and this edition of Trust marks the 20th anniversary of that first issue. Trust has enabled us to report on Pew’s nonpartisan research, global policy work, and strategic partnerships, and to profile people and organizations that are using the power of knowledge to solve problems, serve their communities, and advance civic life.

In this issue, we take a close-up look at Pew’s elections work, which has been based on the Founding Fathers’ premise that an informed citizenry is the bedrock of democracy. In 2008, Pew determined there was no standardized, reliable, nationwide source for basic information voters need to cast their ballots. This research led to the Voting Information Project—Pew’s partnership with major technology companies that allows voters to use their computers and mobile devices to quickly access critical election data, including where and when to vote. In the 2016 election, Americans searched the project’s site more than 123 million times.

Pew also helped create the Electronic Registration Information Center, which developed a sophisticated matching tool that states can use to maintain accurate voter rolls. Since 2012, ERIC, as it has become known, has identified more than 8 million voters who moved but didn’t update their records and more than 145,000 duplicate records. Today, 22 states and the District of Columbia are members of ERIC, each helping to strengthen American democracy by removing voters who should no longer be on the rolls—and encouraging millions of others to register and let their voices be heard at the ballot box.

Pew’s expansion beyond America’s shores is also part of our 70-year history. Today, the ocean floor, with its rich mineral deposits, is on the cusp of a gold rush. Pew is collaborating with the International Seabed Authority to ensure that strong, science-based rules are adopted to balance well-regulated mining with the important task of protecting biodiversity in the deep ocean. You can read more in our cover story, including how the discovery in Japan’s seabed of a very large deposit of rare earth minerals, used in everything from smartphones to battery-operated cars, could affect the global economy.

This issue also covers the Pew Research Center’s recent study of migration patterns from sub-Saharan Africa. The number of migrants from eight of these countries grew by 50 percent or more between 2010 and 2017. And the share of sub-Saharan migrants living in European Union countries—along with Switzerland and Norway—rose from 11 percent of the population in 1990 to 17 percent in 2017. In the United States, the share increased from 2 percent to 6 percent. What accounts for this mass migration to Europe and the U.S.? The report noted that there were multiple factors at play, including struggling economies in many African nations. But it also found that the chance to escape political instability and conflict motivated many to leave their homes.

This wish for freedom is truly universal. But with liberty comes the responsibility for each of us to seek “the power which knowledge gives.” We hope this issue of Trust—like those that preceded it—brings our readers closer to that goal.