Is Democracy in Decline?

Monday, March 15, 2021
Johannes Simon / Getty Images

Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University School of Public and International Affairs; Author, A World Safe for Democracy; CFR Member

Founding Director, Center for Effective Public Management and Senior Fellow, Governance Studies, Brookings Institution; CFR Member

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, The People vs. Democracy@Yascha_Mounk


National Political Correspondent, NPR; CFR Member

Panelists discuss the future of democracy in the United States, including the actions that led to the siege of the Capitol and the threats facing U.S. democracy in its wake, how the Biden administration should address democratic backsliding, and the potential consequences for U.S. and global democracy.

This meeting is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

LIASSON: Thank you very much. Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting. The title is, "Is Democracy in Decline?" I'm Mara Liasson, I'm the national political correspondent for NPR, and with me is our esteemed panel. You'll find their full biographies on the CFR website, but first we have John Ikenberry. He is the Albert G. Milbank professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, the School of Public and International Affairs. He is the author of the book, A World Safe for Democracy. Elaine Kamarck is the founding director of the Center for Effective Public Management and the senior fellow in the governance studies at the Brookings Institution and she is the author of Why Presidents Fail. And then we have Yascha Mounk, who is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The People vs. Democracy. This meeting is part of the Council on Foreign Relations' new Diamonstein-Spielvogel Foundation Project on the Future of Democracy. The Spielvogels are here with us today, thank you very much for sponsoring this. We have many members signed up, actually I'm told hundreds of members registered for this virtual meeting. And we're going to do our best to get to as many questions as possible during the question-and-answer period. You just got the instructions on how to ask a question.

And I would just like to kick this off by saying that, for the past four years our democratic institutions in America have been undergoing a stress test. We saw, we've seen an assault on truth, on norms, we saw a literal physical assault on the U.S. Capitol and on the election of 2020. So the question I want to ask first is, given that the founding fathers, who were very brilliant and knew that it was possible that we could eventually elect a president with demagogic tendencies or they would have said monarchical tendencies, they created a system full of checks and balances, full of guardrails and norms that they thought would prevent that person from doing a lot of damage if he did get into office. So my first question to Elaine is, how have democratic institutions come out of this period? Are they battered but still resilient? Or are they teetering on the edge? What do you think?

KAMARCK: Thank you, Mara, and thank you for the Council and having us all here. I do miss doing these things in the beautiful building in New York, but one of these days perhaps soon. I think that the institutions of democracy passed the stress test quite well. But that doesn't mean that they'll pass the second stress test and let me go through some of these just very quickly, to set the context. Start with the courts, okay. First of all, I think it's important to realize that conservative judges, people you disagree with on policy, doesn't necessarily mean anti-democratic judges. In fact, if you look at the Trump efforts to overturn the results of the election, Trump and his campaign filed sixty-two lawsuits. Only one did they win. The rest, including ones filed in the Supreme Court, they lost. If you look at the four years of his attempts to roll back regulations, 90 percent of his deregulatory actions have been stopped in the courts for a whole wide variety of reasons. In other words, Donald Trump not only did not control the courts, he was actually stopped and checked by the courts.

Look at Congress, right. Congress, we always talk about how oh, those Republicans were the lap dogs of the administration. Well, on domestic politics the big win was the tax bill. Now, I'm sorry, I've known Republicans, I'm a political scientist, I followed this for years and years. Republicans love to cut taxes. They didn't need Donald Trump to cut taxes. There's nothing anti-democratic about cutting taxes. And then if you look at foreign policy, from Syria to Yemen to Russia, Republican senators have actually stood up to Donald Trump. And of course, the Democratic House impeached him twice, but the Republican Senate did go ahead and hold a trial, they did not try to do anything that was extra-constitutional.

Look at our federalist system protected by the Tenth Amendment, where governors and states have a lot of authority independent of the president. Here when it came to several areas, but most particularly the handling of COVID and the election, the governors and the states stood up to Trump quite well. At one point when Trump was trying to convince the governors to open up, he threatened to withhold medical aid, medical aid for medical devices from the states. It never happened, it was quickly pointed out that that was illegal to do so. He backed off of that, as he did from so many things. And of course, when it came to the election itself, we had these heroes like Brad Raffensperger in Georgia, like Mike Shirkey in Michigan, who basically said to, who were Republicans who voted for Trump, who said to him, no, we can't do this, that is outside the law.

Look at the bureaucracy, alright. There's a wonderful, untold story about the Food and Drug Administration from just several months ago, just from last year, where the White House tried to stop them from issuing a process, or promoting a process that would have led to the delayed emergency use authorization for the vaccines, which we now have. FDA scientists went bananas over this. And they proceeded to essentially issue these regulations themselves in open defiance of the White House, and the White House really couldn't do anything about it. They bowed to the scientists at the FDA.

And finally, of course, there's the press. As far as I know, there have been no new libel laws even introduced into Congress, let alone passed. The press, as far as I can tell, seems more than happy to insult Donald Trump or criticize Donald Trump, but his threats didn't seem to hurt them. We do have a more polarized press. But a polarized press is not the same as a press that has been constrained. So I actually think that we passed the stress test fairly well. The issue, which I think we'll talk about more, and my colleagues will, has been the denigration of norms, particularly norms of presidential behavior. And there, you know, the frightening thing is, what if we had a competent demagogue? What if we had a competent demagogue who in fact used his power and use the bully pulpit to actually start to undermine some of these laws and some of these guardrails as, and I'm sure Yascha will talk about and John, as demagogues and dictators have in other countries. That I think is something that we Americans saw for the very first time. And that I think is the challenge before us.

LIASSON: Well, speaking of that, let's go to John Ikenberry to talk about what's happening to democracy around the world where more skillful demagogues, as Elaine mentioned, Viktor Orbán or Erdoğan in Turkey, have been more successful at undermining these institutions. Is it because they were more competent? Or because these institutions weren't as strong as ours to begin with? What's the international view of this?

IKENBERRY: Well, that's a great question. I think we can kind of pull back a little bit and look at the broader scene. It's not just the Trump stress test, I think liberal democracy more generally is under a test. Freedom House has said it's been fifteen years of continual regression of democracy around the world. So it predated Trump. And I think the deeper sources that brought us Trump and that are bringing us Erdoğan and others are still there. I think there are really three crises that are simultaneously kind of a perfect storm hitting us. One is a breakdown or erosion of the model, we'll call it the Western model of liberal democracy that had its golden age after World War II, partly because of economics. The new generations of young people are not doing as well as their parents, this is new. Democracy has been around for two hundred years and this is really the first or second generation where we've had this kind of lack of what we might call it progress or movement forward, and a more general breakdown of growth coalitions, the social contract, consensus on fundamentals. And Mara I think what you were getting at the kind of deeper kind of, you might call it a breakdown of shared understandings of the facts, not just the values. Values is hard enough, but facts are in a kind of epistemic crisis. So liberal democracy more generally, like in the 1930s, has to be reimagined I think and rebuilt, as it was then, during and after the New Deal and into the post-war era.

But there are two other crises, I think that are making it even more difficult. One I'll call the geopolitical crisis, which is the centuries in the making transition from, we'll call it West to East, from a world dominated by the Anglo-American countries that have been the sponsors of liberal democracy to a world where at least one of the superpowers is going to be an illiberal state—the rise of China—with a very different, increasingly a different project, a modernity project, where the world should go. So we have a competitor now, which will be as big or bigger than the United States. And that leads me to something I hope we can talk about later, and that is how democracies might cooperate.

But the third crisis is what I'll call the crisis of modernity. Which is, intensification of economic, technological, human, environmental interdependence. Climate change, pandemics, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, artificial intelligence, quantum mechanics–quantum physics. All of these twenty-first century challenges are making it more difficult for societies to be open societies in an open international system. Think about how difficult that is and how unique that is, in world historical perspective, having open societies in an open international order. And it's going to be more difficult because we are going to be at risk from each other more and more. So democracy at home is going to depend on cooperation abroad, and cooperation abroad is going to depend on rebuilding liberal democracy at home.

LIASSON: Okay, so Yascha Mounk, you've got the kind of glass half full view from Elaine. What John Ikenberry just said sounds much more pessimistic. Are there any obvious solutions to this?

MOUNK: Well I think—

LIASSON: Is there anything we can do to strengthen democratic institutions, and what's your big takeaway?

MOUNK: Yeah, it just depends on the analysis in the first place. So it's worth still spending a moment longer on that I think. You know, I think Elaine set out a very good case for the things that went right. But I think if you do step, take a step back. There was this very large debate four or five years ago, when some of us started writing about the crisis of democracy and the way in which populism and the rise of these authoritarian populist figures around the world might actually be a challenge to democracy. There was a real debate about what makes our political system stable, whether it is constitutional systems and the particular sets of laws that we have in place, or whether it is a democratic spirit, a commitment to democracy among people as a whole but particularly among a kind of political elite, that agrees to some significant standard to be bound by the same rules of the game. Francis Fukuyama in the months after the 2016 election wrote that from the perspective of a political scientist, the election presented us with a wonderful natural experiment that would allow us to precisely see whether the United States has always been a country of the rule of law or the rule of men. Which of those two things have historically been responsible for the stability of American democracy?

Now, you know, I think the last four or five years are a mixed record in the way that Elaine sets out. Clearly some parts of institutions held, including the judiciary. Other parts of institutions I think were rather more seriously damaged than perhaps would be obvious from Elaine's remarks. I think the extent to which we arguably have had the first non-peaceful transfer of power in the United States in a very long time does deserve mention and more serious concern. The extent to which many breaks, not just with norms but also with certain rules and laws, was tolerated by the political system. The extent to which the independence of barriers, of parts of the American state has been undermined over the last four or five years. All of those things are very serious. They don't mean that we're close to the collapse of American democracy. I think because Donald Trump is a less disciplined, less talented, less strategic authoritarian populist than people like Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, we were never in the end that close to collapse. But the reason for that is that there were still judges who had a real commitment to the Constitution, that there was very courageous individuals like Raffensperger in Georgia who were not willing to be intimidated by political forces.

And so I think the pessimism that I draw from the last years is that the answer to Fukuyama's questions about the natural experiment has become very clear. The United States, and every other country in the world, is in the end a country of the rule of men. It always depends on what the people are. I don't mean this, obviously, in a gendered way, this is an old phrase from Montesquieu. But it always depends on what public officials actually do, on whether the voters actually punish politicians for breaking democratic rules. And I think as we've seen a kind of democratic disenchantment, as we've seen people in many democracies around the world feel that the systems aren't delivering for them, we can rely on that less and less. And that I think is a very serious reason for concern in the United States and helps to explain why, as John pointed out, according to all of the latest data from Freedom House we're not just in the fifteenth consecutive year of a democratic recession, not just in the fifteenth year of more countries moving away from democracy rather than towards it, but we're actually in the steepest moment of a democratic recession in the last fifteen years.

LIASSON: So just to follow up on that. When you say that Fukuyama's question has been answered definitively, that we are a country where it's the rule of men, not law. So you're saying what you're surprised about is that there weren't more Raffenspergers, that there were two-thirds of the House Republicans who voted to overturn the election. In other words, you'd come down on the pessimistic side of that.

MOUNK: Yeah. So look, I think that there were some very courageous individuals. And there was a lot of people who were not at all courageous, who didn't stand up for the institutions. But what is most important is that this idea that even if everybody was cowardly, even if everybody just followed their electoral incentives, the system somehow is so clever and sophisticated that it will always sustain itself—

LIASSON: Yeah yeah, right.

MOUNK: irrespective of where people (inaudible) has been disproved. Now, I think we can see the glass half full and, you know, point to people like Raffensperger, or you can see the glass half empty and point to the fact that two-thirds of House Republicans did not vote to certify the election. It's not clear what the right answer on that is. But what is clear is that it does, in fact, depend on the choices of those individuals, and we can't take for granted that the system will somehow always take care of it in such a way, that even if everybody is being cowardly, our democracy will nevertheless survive.

LIASSON: So that leads us to the next obvious question, what is to be done? We understand a lot about the forces that are undermining democracy, the crisis of truth, the Facebook algorithms that reward people who disseminate disinformation. But what are the things to be done to make it so there are more Brad Raffenspergers, or that these institutions are stronger? And that the system is perceived as fair because if it's not, you're going to have more people questioning it. And you know, when I talk about the difference between minority rights, rights for the minority party, and minority rule, people can generally buy into the idea that the minority party should have rights. But if you have too many elections where the guy who wins the fewer votes gets to be president, well, that's minority rule and people lose faith in that. So what are some solutions to this?

KAMARCK: Well, on that question, Mara, you can start with getting rid of the electoral college. Okay. The electoral college was a deal to keep the thirteen colonies together, to keep the small ones in with the big ones. And for much of the twentieth century, by the way, for all of the twentieth century we never had this situation where the winner of the electoral college did not win the popular vote. Part of that reason was that the population was more dispersed. I did a graph on this not too long ago, showing the increase in distance between the largest states and the median-sized states in the country. And it grows over the course of the twentieth century, so surprise, surprise. We get to the twenty-first century, and we find twice, already, the winner of the popular vote does not win the electoral college. Now, most people take the idea of a constitutional amendment and they say, nah, that doesn't work. However, everybody forgets that the rules for allocating electors are based in the states and state law. They're not federal. There's nothing federal about them, Congress didn't pass those laws. States can do what they want to do. So obviously, the easiest thing would have 270 states representing 270 electoral votes decide that they're going to give their votes to the winner of the national election.

LIASSON: Which we, there is a process we're up to what, 185 or 190—

KAMARCK: Yeah, we're up to about 190-something—

LIASSON: —that's the national popular vote compact, it's a movement. States have passed laws on this.

KAMARCK: Yeah, that's the easiest one. There are variations on that theme around, okay, and it's clear that we've just got to do something about the electoral college. I also think we have to do something about our nomination system. Okay. It used to be that the nomination system was totally controlled by politicians and by party leaders. Now, it is totally controlled by the public and voters in primaries.

LIASSON: Hmm, that sounds more democratic.

KAMARCK: That's right. (Laughs.) It does sound more democratic except that—

LIASSON: So what's wrong with that? Yeah.

KAMARCK: —there's no vetting process, right. There's no vetting process. And when there's no vetting process, just look at the people who have run for Congress. I mean, for president. A spiritual leader, hello, Marianne Williamson. Nice liberal Democrat. I'm sorry, lady, you had no business running for president of the United States. Look at the pizza entrepreneur in the Republican Party.

LIASSON: Yeah, yeah.

KAMARCK: In other words, running for president has now become this game, where you do it to sell books or to get a spot as an anchor on Fox or CNN. It's not serious. And I do think the parties need to reestablish their role in the nomination system. I'm not saying control the whole thing. I'm not saying get rid of primaries. But this business of celebrities running for president to increase their celebrity status. We've got to stop that, and the only institution I can think of to stop that are the political parties.

LIASSON: So, Yascha?

MOUNK: Yeah, I think I would look at it sort of from a few different angles. So one is, you know, what are the driving forces of populism, not just the United States but in many countries around the world that don't have the specific institutional problems that the United States has but that end up with for a time populists winning power just the same. I think John started to mention some of those. It is the stagnation of living standards for ordinary citizens. It is obviously the rise of internet and of digital technology. It is also the sort of very rapid transformation of countries that used to be monocultural, monoethnic, or that had a very steep cultural or racial hierarchy into more egalitarian, more diverse societies and sort of a portion of a population that rejects that. All of that helps to explain what's going on. And in my last book, The People vs. Democracy, I argued that there are sort of solutions for each of those. And none of those are easy, but there's things we can do to ensure that we have economic growth that actually goes to average citizens, where people feel a sense of optimism about the future. There are things we can do in order to cultivate a kind of inclusive patriotism a sense that we are in this together, that includes obviously immigrants, especially in Europe, and ethnic minorities. And that there are ways to tame the negative impact of some technologies and social media without giving up on core values like free speech or the First Amendment in the United States.

I think, at this point, I would go one step further and say that these policy questions are very important, and they speak to what scientists call output legitimacy and that really matters, people need to be able to see when institutions are working for them. I do also think that culture and cultural questions are more and more at the core of our democracy. And I think at the moment, both sides often feel like they're going for total victory on the kind of culture war that is dominating the headlines. And that includes many of my dear friends and many other people in the more sort of liberal and left-leaning circles that I naturally run in as an academic, and so on. And I really think that that that is the way to (inaudible). If there's a feeling that elites are trying to impose their set of values and cultural preferences on the whole of the population, there is going to be a very strong counter-reaction against that which will just result in the election of more people like Donald Trump. I think that Joe Biden, personally I think Joe Biden has been very good at trying to avoid that. I think some politicians are not always good at avoiding that. And I think whether or not we manage to ensure that we don't have a return to power of Donald Trump or people like him, depends a lot on whether we can give people a sense, hopefully on both sides of the political spectrum, that we may have differences about important questions or values but that neither side is going for total victory and that all of us in the United States are going to be able to live happily and comfortably under whoever the next president is.

LIASSON: So it sounds like you're saying broadly shared prosperity, a capitalism that does what it's supposed to do, some kind of civics education that can help people tamp down the culture wars so politics aren't zero sum. So all those things sound like they're actually interwoven. They all kind of have to happen together. John, is there an example around the world where democracy has been repaired after it's been undermined, and how did they do it?

IKENBERRY: Well, yeah, I think I'll take the long historical view. I mean, the U.S. and the other Western industrial societies after the 1930s rebuilt their societies, and my answer to the last exchange is, the most important thing the United States can do to help the prospects of its own democracy and those around the world is to solve problems and renew the social contract and do the sorts of things you've been now kind of summarizing. The attention to social and economic inequality and re-establishing class bargains and move towards showing that the system works. In the long (inaudible), we know something political scientists do about when liberal democracy expands around the world and when it contracts, and the single most important variable is having a leading state that is committed to protecting and showcasing liberal democracy and doing well at home. So we really do need—

LIASSON: That's us. (Laughs.)

IKENBERRY: —the United States to reestablish itself. (Laughs.) And then secondly, in that period, when the U.S. and the other liberal democracies really were at an extinction moment in the late 1930s, when you had maybe seven democracies left on earth, the return was reimagining the liberal democratic system, doing new things, establishing something that went beyond the old nineteenth century laissez faire society, thinking more about liberal social democracy, and creating a container, a set of countries that would work together. That they couldn't go it alone. And you saw Roosevelt and those around him, one thinker that I've always been drawn to, Vera Dean, a woman who was head of the Foreign Policy Association during World War II, wrote a book called Struggle for the World [The Struggle for World Order]. And what she was saying was that the fate of American liberal democracy and those of the others around the world were tied together and needed to have a kind of renaissance of rethinking. A new concept, so to speak. And I think that they did it. They did it after 1945, the generation that came later had seen the world fall apart. Fascism, totalitarianism, the Holocaust, total war, the atomic bomb. And yet that generation of activists, of thinkers who were reimagining liberal democracy, picked up the pieces. So it can be done.

And one final point. All of our Orbáns of the world find it necessary to wrap their authoritarianism in democratic language. And that tells you that they know they're being hypocrites. But hypocrites are—

LIASSON: At least they have some shame.

IKENBERRY: —bowing to the underlying broader consensus that democracy, we the people, is something very powerful.

LIASSON: Except that Orbán is absolutely happy to say his democracy is illiberal. In other words, he doesn't feel like he has to pay any lip service to liberal democracy. Right, doesn't he sell his program as illiberal democracy?

IKENBERRY: This is where the community matters. EU, the logic of conditionality. If Orbán wants to be an active legitimate participant in the EU, he and his democracy are going to have to perform and the liberalism is going to have to be brought back to liberalism. So I do think that left to his own devices, we aren't going to see change. But in the broader context, we can build a framework where a thousand things can happen in ways that can move us in the right direction.

LIASSON: So we're going to move to questions. But we'll talk more about this. You know, first of all, how profoundly is the Biden administration seized with these questions? How willing are our European partners to work with us on this, as opposed to doing business with China and Russia? So we'll get to all that.

So here's my instructions. At this time, I would like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. As a reminder, this meeting is on the record. The operator will remind you how to join the question queue. And that's going to happen right now.

STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.) We will take our first question from Joseph Nye.

Q: Thanks, that was a great set of views, which I strongly agree with. But I want to push a little harder on the remedies that Mara asked about particularly in relation to the internet and social media. Elaine, you and I worked on a book together twenty years ago at the Kennedy School at Harvard, Why People Don't Trust Government. At that time, there were one million people around the world on the internet. Today there are four billion. And we've seen the profound effect of social media algorithms, which reward extremism, which exacerbate these cultural roots, of the kind of dilemmas that we're facing, not just in the U.S. but globally. The question is, what's the remedy for this? It's one thing to say, well, it's great that Twitter took down Trump's account. What's the lesson that sets for Erdoğan or Modi? Or Orbán, who you've already mentioned many times. What should we do about the fact that social media are now based on algorithms, which reward extremism? But as we intervene to do something about that, aren't we playing into the hands of the would-be dictators who would love to imitate us?

LIASSON: That sounds like censorship. What do you guys think?

MOUNK: Yeah, I strongly agree with Joe and it's an honor of course to have you in the audience for this. Look, I take the role that social media plays in disrupting democracy seriously. You know, I think one way of thinking about this is that we used to be in a world of one-to-many communication twenty, twenty-five years ago. So in order for one person to reach a large audience, they had to be positioned, normally, at a geographic center and they had to have access to a huge machinery, right. To a network television or to, you know, a newspaper with all of its printing presses and delivery trucks. Today, you can reach a vast audience just by sitting at home on your very affordable device and typing something into Twitter or Facebook that somehow strikes a fancy with people and boom, a million, two million, ten million people might see it in the next hour or so. And that, of course, does allow the spread of a lot of information and a lot of hatred, and that's a concern we should take seriously.

The problem with a lot of the solutions that are now popular is twofold. The first has been that they are very easy to emulate by authoritarians around the world that say, well, how is what you are doing differently from us? If you can ban a sitting president from speaking, why can't we use it with the opposition leader who in our eyes is not an opposition leader, but a terrorist or dangerous criminal, right? Very difficult to argue against those sorts of things if we are doing versions, for reasons, but versions of this ourselves. And the second problem is simply that, you know, I think a lot of people when I was strongly arguing for this, and in my circles that's we need total consensus for which to go for something like this, are a little naive about who it is who’s going to make those decisions. Absolutely there are (inaudible) that are worthless, and I'd be very happy if they weren't around. Sadly, I'm not going to be the censor who decides what can be heard and what can't be heard. And I'd much rather that there's some ugly things poisoning about public discourse, than that I delegate the decision-making power to any group of enlightened citizens, much less to unaccountable executives in Silicon Valley. So I have slowly come inch towards the solution for, I'm not 100 percent convinced of it yet but it's the best I can come up with it this time, that especially in a management context, what Facebook and Twitter and so on should do is to say that they will voluntarily be bound by the First Amendment. There's no reason to have to be bound by the First Amendment, they're a private company, but that they will say, you know, whether or not we take a post down, it's going to be governed by substantively the same kind of consideration that First Amendment jurisprudence would suggest. And that way, we are freeing ourselves from political pressure to say, but this is disgusting, that is bad. If it would be allowed under the First Amendment, they would proclaim it will be allowed under their terms.

I think the second step is hopefully going to happen in our collective response to this. I do think that over time, people may get sick of the toxic content on platforms like Twitter and find more appealing some of the algorithms on other social media platforms, like Reddit actually, in which what you see is a comment that has the biggest Delta, the biggest difference between upvotes and downvotes. So rather than seeing the thing that is most controversial, that creates the most engagement of someone saying this is exactly right and other people saying this is disgusting, you are foreground the things that most people say, oh, that's pretty reasonable, I enjoyed reading that. If we all migrate to platforms that actually adopt this, if we will, sort of make the choice to actually seek out content that isn't aggravating, that isn't fueling all of these sort of battles, but rather ones that make us feel good at the end of the day, that will create a very real incentive for social media companies to shift in that direction. I do hope that over time, people may just become more attracted to online environments that have that nature, and that might change the kinds of distribution mechanisms that we're all dealing with.

LIASSON: So wait, cute pictures of cats get put at the top of the queue, and white supremacists go down to the bottom? Wait, I'm a little unclear on that. (Laughs.)

KAMARCK: (Laughs.)

IKENBERRY: (Laughs.)

MOUNK: Well, so I'll give you an example that I recommend to all of you, I went down a rabbit hole on this and I think it's really a wonderful forum. So, one of the most popular fora on Reddit is something, and I apologize to the organizers for swearing, called "Am I the Asshole?" And what happens is that people post situations from their lives in trying to figure out, I think I did some of those okay but people seem to be mad at me, was I the asshole, or was it okay? And people give you sort of standardized responses, you are not the asshole, you are the asshole. You know, everyone is shitty here, no assholes here. The point of it is that— (Inaudible.)

LIASSON: Oh you're frozen.

MOUNK: —I like this response, some people say I don't like this response, it's going to come at the bottom of the queue, you can find it but you have to go far down. If you have a response with fifty people say, I like it, and one person says, I don't like it, it's going to have sort of a net of forty-nine upvotes, right. And that's going to be far higher. And as a result, responses to these really fascinating life situations that people face are nearly always humane, thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent. It's one of the favorite things that I read often when I wake up, I spent ten minutes on this. And I think it's a symptom of a power of what social media can do when the algorithm and the incentives go in the right direction rather than wrong direction. And now I promise to shut up about Reddit.

LIASSON: (Laughs.) I thought that the extreme content keeps people on longer and makes these companies more money. And that's why they the algorithm is tilted towards extreme content and disinformation. Yeah.

MOUNK: So I think that's partially what's going on now. But what we see is that people spend a lot of time on Twitter, I spend a lot of time on Twitter, and it makes me less happy and I get aggravated. So the hope is that social media companies might shift the algorithms a little bit and, because they realized that actually their customers aren't very happy customers, and that hopefully we as customers become wiser and say, no, I'm not going to keep going back to the platform that actually makes my day miserable. Let me go and seek out platforms that perhaps sort of don't draw my attention quite as much, but that make me a little bit more content and that actually gives me content that I enjoy rather than content, that just, you know, drives up my adrenaline.

LIASSON: Let’s have another question. Oh, go ahead, Elaine.

KAMARCK: Yeah, I just wanted to say, Joe, it's so great to hear from you. I want to pose a slightly different way to look at this, which is what I call the reality test. And I want to have you think about the weeks between January 6th and Inauguration Day. And in that period of time, the entire protest movement disappeared. Now, part of that, of course, was 25,000 National Guard troops around the Capitol. But I think the other thing that happened there was that reality set in. That you had a group of people who were led to believe that the election was stolen and that Donald Trump was all-powerful, and that somehow this could be overturned, and all they had to do was come to action, etc. And what happened on January 7th and January 8th, they started getting arrested. They started getting arrested and indicted and their employers, because some of these people, you know, had no criminal record. And all of a sudden the FBI is knocking at their doors. We now know that they began to talk to each other and say, oh, my goodness, has the FBI contacted you yet? I think there's a reality component that somehow, and I'm not quite sure how, this isn't really my field, somehow the world of the internet needs to reinforce reality. When it's extreme, when Donald Trump gets up there and says that we ought to drink bleach because maybe that would help COVID-19, you know, the internet was filled with warnings. No don't do this, don't do this, don't do this, right. So there's got to be a way, perhaps using the internet itself, to stop the craziest ideas and the most dangerous ideas from going forward.

The last example I'll use is South Dakota, allowed that mammoth motorcycle rally to take place in August. 250,000 people coming into a state, by the way, that's not that much more than that. And of course they were, Governor Kristi Noem is very, very Trumpy and has been Trumpy in her whole attitude towards COVID. And what happened? Right, in about six weeks after that North Dakota and South Dakota had enormous, enormous numbers of COVID-19 cases. Reality sets in. So I don't know, somehow there needs to be a way that the internet is also used to hit back at the nonsense that is all over it and the calls to do things that are illegal, that in fact get you arrested and get you a criminal record.

LIASSON: Let's take another question.

STAFF: We will take our next question from Matthias Matthijs.

Q: Hi, everyone. Matthias Matthijs, I'm a senior fellow for Europe at the Council and like Yascha actually, an associate professor at SAIS at Johns Hopkins. Last week in my undergrad seminar we discussed Dan Nexon and Alex Cooley's book, Exit from Hegemony: The Unraveling of the American Global Order. And so what my undergrad students, seniors all of them, senior capstone students, emphasize that, and we read this in opposition to John Ikenberry's work right, they all emphasized that it was interesting how Cooley and Nexon kind of said, well, basically, the game is up, right? I mean, Russia and China are rising, they're a real alternative for many countries. So there's a kind of exit from above, from below, and even from within. Especially they were struck by, if you look at international NGOs, how many kind of non-liberal international NGOs had been popping up everywhere, right. And so I guess my question to the panel is how much does the United States still control this? Right, I mean, there's a kind of, especially in Washington, DC, people like to think if only we do these five things we will then set the tone again. But is it too late? Is the West no longer in control of kind of global democracy? And how can they convince, I guess, third countries, the rising powers, I mean, China, to a lesser extent Russia, are not good alternatives? Or I guess, and I'll end on this, how competent are their rivals in this case? Because that's another question I think worth asking. But great panel, thank you very much.

IKENBERRY: Yeah, I'll jump in. It sounds like it was a good seminar. I wish I had been there, if only to defend myself—

LIASSON: To defend yourself. (Laughs.)

IKENBERRY: (Laughs.) But I think that is one of the great questions of what is left of the liberal international project in a period where the West itself is a shrinking fraction, in relative terms, to the larger world system. And China and Russia and those who are illiberal are growing. Certainly China is, and you can imagine, ten, fifteen, twenty years from now it's not simply a peer but it's a mega-economy that is double the size of the United States. This is why I think this is an international problem, not just a Trump problem or an American problem. It's a kind of critical mass project of making sure that that there is a global system with a critical mass of liberal democracies that can work, if not to structure the entire system, the entire global system, to drive reform of rules and institutions that bias the direction of global politics towards liberal democracy. So I think that, you know, nine of the ten largest economies are, if you have a generous definition, market capitalist democracies. So it's not as if China has ideological partners that are of its weight. So there is a case to be made for a coalition of democracies working informally, perhaps led by the United States or the EU, it's really an ensemble, an ensemble leadership is what would be needed. And it's precisely because the United States is not a unipolar power who can direct all things, not that that was ever possible or even desirable, it's precisely because the U.S. is less than it used to be that it needs partners and coalitional alignments that, again, bias the direction of rules and institutions towards reinforcing rather than undermining liberal democracy.

Democracies are different in many ways. They have something that China doesn't have, a kind of problem-solving ethic, as John Dewey said, about democracy, at its heart it's a kind of laboratory for solving problems. Partnerships are clearly the alignments of world history over the last two hundred years, the story is about democracies finding themselves on the same side, not just shared values but the capacity to cooperate, they have special interest on human rights, on political economy, on environment. So I do think that's what the next phase of world order, if you are a champion of liberal democracy, will want to try to make possible. I think Biden and his team realize that, that you need partners and it's best to have those who share your agenda and who, in a world of democracies, they are more likely to find themselves and work together and respect each other. And so that's—just one final thing about that. Remember the time when we were ruining American leadership on Iraq, unilateralism. The Europeans, our democratic partners, were saying, the Iraq War, this is not a good idea. Cooperation among democracies can help the United States be a better great power, by working with others, learning from others, exchanging ideas, and taking each other's advice. So I think, you know, that's where the future lies, if you think there is a future beyond an ever-growing illiberal world system.

LIASSON: Yascha?

MOUNK: I think all of that is right. I do think that, well, a couple of things. The first is that, you know, China works very well in practice, ore somewhat well in practice, it doesn't work very well in theory at all. And so, you know, even though we have very, very serious competitor, in terms of power, even at some level in terms of appeal, in terms of its ability to have output legitimacy, we don't actually have an ideological competitor. Because, you know, if you're sitting in a bunch of countries around the world that might democratize tomorrow, or at least that might throw off a dictator, and you think okay, how should we reform our country? And someone says, you should become China. Well, what does that mean? Unless you have the Communist Party lying around for sixty years, but it's now sort of become state capitalist in a complicated way, it’s just not going to be able to do that. And that saves our skin a little bit in the current situation, but we shouldn't allow that to make us complacent. And so it is really important that that influence of trying to protect more than promote democracy around the world is used in a much more concerted manner. I have an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs trying to argue some of the core things we need to do for that, but I think it does involve going beyond the traditional diplomatic playbook. You know, at the very minimum, is that we actually demand of the members of the most important international organizations we have, that they sign up and stand up for their founding values. It makes no sense to have a quasi-dictatorship in the heart of the European Union that is supposed to be a club of democratic values. Now, a few days ago, finally, Viktor Orbán's party Fidesz self-ejected from the center-right European People's Party in the European Parliament after it became clear that they may be booted out, but the fact that they were allowed to stay there until a couple of days ago is an absolute shame on European politics.

You know, the Biden administration, I think, is taking a lot of the right steps in this direction. But it will face a real dilemma in how to treat backsliding democracies that are important in the fight against authoritarian countries. What do you do with India, which is no longer classified as free according to the latest Freedom House report, if you're also trying to contain the influence of China? What do you do about Poland, which is dramatically veering away from democracy, if you need assistance in relation to Russia? And I think there's no easy answer to this, but one has to be very upfront about this tradeoff and just say that we will of course engage in strategic cooperation with countries that have backsliding democracies, but the highest tier of cooperation, the highest tier of true friendship and partnership, is premised on the respect of the rule of law and countries like Poland and India no longer qualify for that at this stage.

And then the third point very quickly is that you know, we need to be willing to reform, and if necessary to re-found, key institutions like the European Union and NATO in order to ensure that their members actually live up to their values. If that's not possible under current institutional rules, we have to put all of the effort in to change those rules. And if that doesn't work, we have to recounter that these institutions will over time lose purpose and legitimacy. If the EU becomes, for example, just a regional trade bloc but is perfectly happy to house dictators in its midst, that will not work. And it's better to deal with that problem head on now than to let it slide, and erode for the next ten, twenty, thirty years.

LIASSON: Let's take another question.

STAFF: We will take our next question from Jennifer McCoy.

Q: Hi, Jennifer McCoy from Georgia State University in Atlanta. So I wanted to come back to the U.S. and the problem that I see is a chicken and egg problem. All the solutions that you talked about addressing the policy issues of the underlying grievances that give rise to populism, the institutional reforms, it looks like, you know, we can't address the policy issues with our current polarization. That our institutions are incentivizing the Republican Party in particular, given the way we've sorted, to attempt minority rule. And the institutions also foster polarization. So we've got the electoral college, the filibuster, states voting rights, primaries, some of these things you've discussed. So the question is we can't do the policies without necessarily changing some of the institutions, the institutions are stuck because they're incentivizing the Republican Party. So does the solution all depend on the will and the courage of Republicans to resist that logic and to change and move toward John Ikenberry's 'revisioning of democracy'? That is, the rule of men Yascha Mounk talked about?

LIASSON: Elaine?

KAMARCK: Yeah, listen, it's a good that's a great question, Jennifer. And obviously, you're sitting there in Georgia, which is like a petri dish for this whole thing. My take on this is that there is a demographic end to this version of the Republican Party. This Republican Party, particularly the Trumpy piece of the party, is old, they're white, they're men. And frankly, if you're looking to the future of democracy, you want to look at the young party, not the old party. And the young party is the Democratic Party. They've, ever since 2008, the numbers in presidential elections of young people going for Democrats is much, much more than older people. So I think there's that.

I also think, as you see in Georgia, right, there is demographic change. It is at a snail's pace for some people, but it is happening. And I think that what needs to happen is that once the tipping point is reached, I think the Democrats have to move quickly to make the institutional changes that will prevent minority rule. And I would advocate that for the House of Representatives, I think in 20, either this time or in 2022. They ought to move as fast as they can to make the District of Columbia a state. Okay, and then there's issues on redistricting coming up. There's issues on voting, different ways to cast your votes in the electoral college. I think as soon as the tipping point happens, Democrats have to act quickly to make the institutional changes. And I see that happening in Georgia, I see it getting close in Arizona, and miraculously enough it is getting close in Texas, as well. And so I think if people act promptly, we have a chance of getting out of the vicious circle which you so accurately described.

LIASSON: Losing elections really matters. I mean, if the Republican Party loses another national election, they will change because parties want to survive.

KAMARCK: Nothing, nothing focuses a party's line like failure. (Laughs.)

MOUNK: I was going to say a very similar thing, and I think that is the optimistic answer to Jennifer's excellent question, which is that what Democrats do matters as well. The best solution is that a reasonable conservative wins the Republican primary election in 2024, the Republican Party returns to having respect for basic democratic rules and norms. If that doesn't happen, then the best thing that can happen is for Democrats to beat whoever the Republican nominee ends up being in 2024 very, very soundly. But whether or not Democrats will beat them does depend on the actions of this administration, and so on. So there is agency that Democrats and the majority of the left can have, not just on the Republican side.

LIASSON: Do we have time for another one?

STAFF: Certainly.

LIASSON: Yes. Good. Okay.

STAFF: We will take our last question from Audrey Kurth Cronin.

Q: Hello, this is Audrey Kurth Cronin, I'm at American University in Washington, DC. I would just like to return to the question of technology and the role of government. My impression from the panel thus far is that the panel believes that, particularly the U.S. government should play little or no role in regulating technology. But that is at odds with what is happening with European governments, who are moving in the opposite direction. So if we're trying to work together as democracies, is there no smart role for regulation of technology in the United States?

LIASSON: Who wants to take a crack at that? Yascha?

MOUNK: Sure, look, absolutely, there are certain kinds of regulations that are appropriate. There certainly are things to ensure that there isn't as much monopoly power in tech. There are ways I think, to ensure that when actual crimes happen on social media, including sort of actual death threats and other things that are illegal in any context, that social media networks take greater action. I think if regulation is a code word for censorship, and particularly for government-mandated censorship, then I'm strongly opposed. Because for I do see that it has certain positive impacts, I think, both the danger for that being used in the interests of tech companies rather than the general public in the long run, first reason. Secondly, the danger of that really raising political tension in an extreme way, so that every election feels like it is a fight for survival, rather than for who gets to rule for the next four years. And thirdly, the point that John made of the danger of that justifying very anti-democratic measures and very liberal measures around the world is just too big to be worth paying.

LIASSON: John, do you want to...?

IKENBERRY: I'm good.

LIASSON: Elaine, do you have anything to add to this?

KAMARCK: No, other than I think it's—

LIASSON: Your more pro-regulation, right?

KAMARCK: —Well, I'm really ambivalent about it. And the reason is, I'm a big First Amendment fan. And I also think that, as with advertising, I kind of see this like we saw advertising, you know. Advertising on television, when it first came out, everybody was like, really worried people are going to be brainwashed. Well, Americans in about a generation got pretty darn sophisticated about figuring out what was right and what was wrong, and what product was good and what product was bad. I think we need some sophistication about the internet. I know that there are some colleges and universities offering courses on news, on how to tell, you know, what's the source of the news? Where's it coming from? How can we tell what's true and what's false? I think we've got to pay a lot of attention to educating every generation, including by the way us old folks, on what on earth can you do to figure out the garbage from the true stuff that you're finding over the internet? And I think that's very important. And that's, as far as I can see, the only way that is somewhat consistent with our, you know, open Madisonian, you know, freedom of the press and First Amendment rights.

LIASSON: Right. We're trying to figure out what is the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater.


LIASSON: And what isn't. I think it's now one o'clock, which means I'm supposed to conclude the meeting by announcing this: thank you very much for coming to today's virtual meeting. Thank you to all of our speakers. It was a great discussion. The audio and the transcript of today's meeting is going to be posted on CFR's website. I don't know how quickly but you can certainly find it there. And thank you very much to everyone who participated and listened today.


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