The Future of Democracy symposium was held on April 9 and 10, 2019. The event convened CFR scholars and experts from think tanks and academic institutions to examine the state of democratic governments around the world, the roles of economics, identity, and technology in empowering or undermining democracy, and what steps governments can take to protect and promote democracy at home and abroad.
Presented as part of the Rita Hauser Annual Event, the symposium was made possible by the generous support of the Hauser Foundation.
LINDSAY: Good evening, everyone. I’m Jim Lindsay, director of studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations. It is my great pleasure to welcome you all to the opening session of the Future of Democracy Symposium.
I’d like to begin by singling out the person who has made this evening possible. That’s Rita Hauser. Rita has been a longtime supporter of the Council, and this symposium is made possible by the generous backing of the Hauser Foundation. So I personally want to welcome Rita and her husband, Gustave, here tonight, and again thank them for the very generous support. So if you can join me. (Applause.)
We are very fortunate to have as our keynote speaker this evening Ambassador Thomas Shannon. Ambassador Shannon is currently senior international policy advisor at Arnold & Porter. From 2016 to 2018 he served as U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, and from 2010 to 2013 he was the U.S. ambassador to Brazil.
What I’m going to do is ask you to join me in welcoming Ambassador Shannon and our moderator, the impeccable Deb Amos of NPR, to come the stage. (Applause.)
AMOS: Good evening, everyone. I’m glad that we have dispensed with the introductions so we can begin.
Tonight we are raising a more dire question than the future of democracy. It is: “Are Democracies Dying?" And if we’re asking that question at the Council on Foreign Relations, then it’s a real question. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, we have republic if we can keep it. As I was researching the topic there’s a lot of people who say that we have not been challenged in democracies since the ’30s as much as we are now.
I wanted to open with a question that intrigued me. I was looking at polling data, and democracy is not terribly popular with Millennials. They say that—only 19 percent agree that a military takeover is not legitimate in a democracy. A quarter of Millennials say choosing leaders through free elections is unimportant. And so I wanted to begin by asking you what you make of those numbers. And do you think it is a reflection of this question, is democracy dying?
SHANNON: Well, thank you very much for the question. It’s an easy one. And thank you very much for—(laughter)—for the opportunity to be here tonight with all of you. It’s a great honor to be at the Council and to have a chance to talk about something that matters deeply, I think, to everybody here, but also broadly to our republic and to all our partners around the world.
I’ve served in the American Foreign Service for nearly thirty-five years, beginning in 1984, and most of my career was built around the process of democratization in Central America, South America, and in South Africa, and the beginnings of the de-democratization of countries like Venezuela. And so I’ve had a chance to see both ends of the process or the equation and the way in which the United States has engaged on behalf of democracy around the world.
Your question is an interesting one, not only because of how Millennials respond to the kinds of questions they were posed in the poll that you mentioned, but also if you look at the support or popularity for democracy over time it’s been declining for about two decades in the United States and around the globe. And I guess the question that we have to ask is, does democracy require democrats? And do people’s feelings about democracy affect the functioning of democratic institutions, democratic processes, and do they affect values? I think the obvious answer is yes.
But what’s striking, not only about Millennials but about polling in general, is that the decline in support for democracy over time is also matched by a decline in support for almost every institution that we’re familiar with, whether it’s the press, whether it’s our Congress and elected leaders, whether it’s churches. And I guess I would argue at one point that there is some countervailing data such as the turnout in the last midterm election. And when I put this question to my children, who are just a little beyond Millennials, they looked at me as if I were out of my mind. For them there was no doubt about their commitment to democracy, no doubt about their commitment to the processes that define our democracy. But I think they understand political processes in a different way than many of us grew up with in the sense that they understand democracy primarily not in institutional terms, but in the terms of outcomes. And they’re—because they have never known anything but democracy and they’ve never really understood a(n) anti-democratic challenge, because if you look out into the world today communism and fascism do not present themselves as anti-democratic forces the way they have in the past.
And even though you mentioned the military in your remarks, the reality is is that militaries for the most part have been walled off from many of the systems that are affected today. And in fact, the irony of the Venezuela issue is that we are calling on the military to salvage a democracy. This is the first time we’ve done in this in thirty or forty years. It’s quite—it’s quite a remarkable phenomenon.
But I guess what I would say is that I think you can argue that democracy is in crisis in many places, but it’s a crisis of efficacy. It’s a crisis of effectiveness. And this does not mean that we should not be worried about what sits in front of us, but I would argue that, as with every moment of crisis, there is a great opportunity here, and an opportunity to build new kinds of political leadership and new kinds of political processes that are going to be more reflective of the challenges we are going to face in the twenty-first century.
AMOS: But there have been other periods in American history where it seemed like democracy was dying. Certainly, after the Civil War we had a rough patch. Are we—is this decline over two decades reflective of a transition to the information age, to a different kind of economy, to a world that feels that it’s in chaos? Is that part of the explanation for why there is some decline?
SHANNON: This is my hope. (Laughter.) My hope is that what we’re seeing is a reflection of the profound social and economic changes that have swept across the United States and elsewhere; and recognizing that politics tends to lag behind economics and social development and transformation, and catches up with it late, that we are in effect in a moment of time in which people feel that our institutions are inadequate for the larger challenges that we’re facing, both domestically and globally, and looking for new kinds of political leadership that are going to act as bridges into what comes next in our society.
AMOS: You know, you mentioned fascism as an ideology, communism as an ideology, people understood what they were and they have been rejected. But there is a phrase that I hear now a lot, illiberal democracies—populists who use the law to narrow what is possible in a democratic society. And they’ve done well. And in fact, you could argue that in Europe they’re expanding territory rather than contracting. They don’t look like what we consider a democracy. And so are we—are we going to have to have some new definitions of what we say democracy is?
SHANNON: We probably will have to. The challenge whenever you add qualifiers or adjectives to a word like “democracy"? is that over time you become less and less precise. And to a certain extent, having a broader conversation about what the components of democracy are and what democracy means to people I think could be positive and healthy.
But what’s striking about what you just said is that if there are enemies of democracy out there, they cloak themselves as democrats, at least while they’re achieving power and establishing themselves in power. And I think one of the larger challenges that democracy faces and one of the reasons we’ve developed terms like “illiberal democracy"? or “authoritarian democracy"? or “populist democracy"? is that we’re trying to mark a democracy which is majoritarian in nature, does not have protections of minority rights or individual rights, and does not have structures of alternation of power that are reliable over time; and that in societies that are riven, in societies that are profoundly polarized, and without those kinds of institutional checks or balances, that achieving power allows a leader to then create an environment in which it is very hard for an opponent to win an election.
AMOS: Indeed. And we have seen this, you know, in Europe, so—it’s very difficult to get those parties out of office. So they will be with us for some time. Does it present a challenge to American democracy that these methods—they learn from each other. The Italian watches the Hungarian. The Hungarian watches the Turkish leadership. These are tactics, and they are effective. And some of them you can even see here.
SHANNON: They’re effective in the short term. The question is, are they going to be effective in the long term? And in many ways I think the question of Venezuela is going to very illustrative because this is a country which, beginning in 1998 with the election of Hugo Chavez, went through a slow but steady deinstitutionalization and centralization of power in the person of Hugo Chavez and then in the person of his political party, the PSUV, which when transferred to Nicolás Maduro then began to clamp down on an opposition which had emerged as a viable political force, something it had trouble asserting during the early years of the Chavez government. And now we find ourselves in a situation where there’s a constitutional crisis with two presidents competing for power, and all competing around the single institution that has the ability to make or break a government, which is the armed forces. But at the same time, there is an entry into the Venezuelan dynamic of external players who are working directly with the security services to limit what an opposition can do. And in I think in many ways this is going to become a large challenge for us and for democracies in the region that are supporting the presidency of Juan Guaidó, and to a certain extent our European colleagues who are also participating in this because they’re going to have to determine whether or not they can help indigenous forces inside the country actually face off against a limited regime, kind of a cornered regime, but one which controls security services. Which is a bit different from what we’re facing elsewhere in Europe when it comes to illiberal democracies, but it could create a level of longevity that we did not expect.
AMOS: Indeed. It’s interesting how long this has gone on. Do you agree with the policy as it’s laid out now?
SHANNON: I agree with recognizing Juan Guaidó. I agree with the use of our diplomatic capabilities to build through the Lima Group in Central America and South America, in the Caribbean a strong group of countries that support Juan Guaidó, and reaching out to our European partners also. That’s important. I also think understanding this problem in humanitarian terms and understanding the larger humanitarian crisis that the Maduro government has provoked is important.
I think it’s very important for the United States not to become the primary belligerent. I think that especially the Latin American countries and Venezuela’s neighbors—in particular Brazil, Peru, and Colombia—have to take a leading role in this. And we have to find a way to help the Venezuelan people become the protagonist in this event and not just outside forces calling on a military to flip or continuing to grind down the economy in the hope that that will collapse the presidency of Nicolás Maduro because I think in that sense we’re going to find ourselves in an even worse situation going forward.
AMOS: A failed state.
SHANNON: A failed state and a failed economy, which means a failed society. And in many ways Venezuela is a society in crisis and has been a society in crisis for some time. But I think—I think we started well. But now, as it becomes apparent that we’re really in for a larger stalemate or a political siege inside of Venezuela, I think it’s very important to try to find a way to begin to prepare for a longer game, which means using political mobilization to create political structures inside Venezuela, but also beginning to insist that our South American partners take a more prominent and assertive role in this in our diplomacy.
AMOS: I want to take the occasion to ask one more question about this. And that is, how much do you—as I watch the Trump administration, you know, work on this, it seems that Cuba is more their target than Venezuela. And I wondered if the restoring of democracy in Venezuela is at risk because it is tied to Cuba.
SHANNON: Well, they’ve made Cuba a target because of the important role Cubans are playing now inside—in kind of counterintelligence terms, inside the Venezuelan government but also inside the Venezuelan military. And the Cubans have played an important role in countering efforts to organize opposition to Maduro inside the armed forces. There’s no doubt about that.
But my own view is, is that by focusing too much on Cuba, you actually begin to dilute some of the support you’re going to have elsewhere in the region and elsewhere in Europe, especially as we begin to contemplate taking steps like not waving Title III of Helms-Burton, which would allow for claims to be brought against foreign companies that are trading in expropriated properties inside of Cuba. That’s going to seriously undermine Mexican support for what we’re doing. It will seriously undermine Spanish support for what we’re doing, French support for what we’re doing. And so we need to be very careful in terms of how we link the two.
But I also think that you don’t have to speak publicly about Cuba in order to make your point because Venezuela in many ways is the tip of a triangle. It connects to Colombia and to Cuba, Colombia because of its border and because of the way in which the FARC, when it was an insurgent group, and the ELN which is still an insurgent group, have used Venezuelan territory for their own enrichment and for rest and recuperation when they’re not fighting inside of Colombia, and the extent to which Venezuela has played such an important role in supporting the Cuban economy through provision of gasoline and cash. And so if you can focus on resolving the problem inside of Venezuela, you’re effectively going to resolve issues along the Colombian frontier and inside of Cuba.
AMOS: Let me go back to the theme of democracies dying because one of the reasons for the support of populism, it seems to me, is a reaction against immigration. That was true in the Brexit vote and it’s been true in Hungary, certainly in Poland. We are at a moment in history when there are some seventy million displaced—forcibly displaced migrants on the planet, and we had a talk today with the head of UNHCR who pointed out to all of us that we are less able to resolve these conflicts than ever before and so those numbers will only rise. And the time that people spend in refugee camps is now close to seventeen years. So that crisis doesn’t go away. And if that is what fuels populism and the next step is illiberal democracies, then how do we get out of this? I mean, what comes first? Do we have to tackle immigration or populism or illiberal—you see what I mean? It’s like a—it’s a chain problem.
SHANNON: I understand, and it’s a great question and a really big issue.
I guess I would start by making a couple of kind of definitional points. For me, populism is not anti-democratic. It’s a democratic phenomenon. In many ways populism is the floodplains of democracy. It’s what happens when institutions can’t channel all of the political energy that exists in a system and when institutions can’t resolve conflicts. Then it bubbles over and it becomes kind of a wetlands where all kinds of creatures grow up. (Laughter.) And we see these creatures, and they’re all of different stripes. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be anti-democratic, but it responds to the immediate concerns and fears of populations. Sometimes those are economic. Sometimes they’re about social class and inequality. Sometimes they’re about culture and identity, which is where immigration and refugee issues come into play.
When you talk about the United States, however, it’s important to recognize and understand, you know, we consider ourselves to be an open country and we love to look at the Statue of Liberty and quote the poetry that lies at its base. But I think everybody recognizes that our history on migration is mixed. We have periods of great openness and we have periods where we’re closed. And you know, we are in a moment in which we’re trying to understand what migration in the twenty-first century looks like, and how it’s going to affect the United States, and how it affects other countries.
And let me tell you a story. The last G-7 leaders summit that I participated in during the Obama administration was in Ise-Shima, Japan. And at the very end of that summit there was a dinner for all the leaders of the G-7 countries, and it was a private dinner, and it was only the leaders. But of course, being good bureaucrats, we made sure that we had the sound from the dinner piped into the room where those of us who were in charge of our country delegations, the negotiating teams, were also dining, so we got to listen.
AMOS: Did they know?
SHANNON: Yeah, I think so. I hope so. (Laughter.) But we had a chance to listen to the conversation. And in the course of the conversation the then-prime minister of Italy, Renzi, raised the issue of refugees coming out of Africa and the Middle East, and what he considered to be the heavy burden that Italy among other countries were bearing because they were countries of kind of first entry into the European Union. And he was complaining about not getting any help. And Angela Merkel piped up and said, wait a minute, we took a million of them, and then she talked about the difficulty of managing a European Union in which many of the newer states in the European Union had no interest in taking Syrian refugees or refugees out of central Africa or refugees out of elsewhere in the Middle East.
And as this debate was going back and forth, President Obama suddenly interjected and he said, listen, he said, Prime Minister Renzi has a point. There’s a huge flux of migrants out of the Middle East and Africa, and the countries that are on the Mediterranean and are receiving these as countries of kind of first touch really do face big problems. But the reality is, is that Germany certainly has shown a willingness to help. And then he praised Merkel and he praised the German people for the humanity they showed in taking these immigrants on. But then he said, much to everybody’s amazement, he said, but this has to stop. And he said this has to stop because it’s going to have a profound political impact, and the liberal institutions and the open society that have defined European countries and have made them so attractive to so many people are going to be at risk because there’s going to be a political backlash to this and people are going to retreat behind their walls. They’re going to retreat behind their identities and their own sense of themselves and their own nationalism, and they’re going to—they’re going to push away these people. And he said, so unless we find a way to share the burden well, and not only in the European Union but elsewhere, and unless we find a way to really make this a problem that all of us are dealing with, he said, there’s going to be a huge backlash. And this was quite prescient on his part because that backlash really hadn’t started in the form that we’re seeing now.
AMOS: Well, that was then, and here we are. There’s been no solution. It is likely that the European Union elections will go to the right further than it has in the past. The refugee issue still fuels that kind of populism. None of this has been solved. The Italians solved it by just banning everybody from landing on their shores, so now it’s Spain’s problem. So, what? How does this get solved? Even when the European Union tells everybody that they have to take a quota, the more populist governments tell them to stuff it.
SHANNON: Right. And at one level the U.N. effort to negotiate a global migration pact was part of that. But one of the larger challenges we’re facing now in our multilateral diplomacy is the difficulty of coming to broad global agreements. We’ve seen it first on the trade side, then on the environmental side, and now we’re seeing it on the migration side. And when a country like the United States decides to step out of that process and then is followed by a few other countries that also have doubts about whether they’re prepared to make international commitments regarding migration, it becomes a big problem. And in that regard we’re—I think we’re going to be in a period of time in which, absent shared strategic understandings of how we address this, the most we’re going to be able to hope for are some regional solutions or bilateral solutions similar to the agreements that Italy did with Libya in order to convince the Libyans to act more as a—kind of a cork in a bottle; or the kinds of agreements the EU reached with Turkey, where they’re paying for the Turks to hold migrants for a period of time.
But then there becomes—if that is going to work in any way, there has to be a big focus on addressing conflicts, on addressing the origins of these refugees. In other words, not dealing with them at the back end of the problem but trying to prevent them from even leaving. But again, that’s going to require a cooperative or a collaborative approach that is absent in many areas right now.
AMOS: I’m going to ask one more question and then I’m going to open it up to the audience. Let me come back to the United States. I want to talk to you about voter suppression. How do you convince Americans to keep going to the polls if it becomes more and more difficult to register and sometimes the will of the people is not reflected in the final tally? I mean, we’ve had elections in this country where people have won the popular vote and not been elected. It’s a problem here. And how do you stop democracy from dying if you can’t allow people to vote?
SHANNON: Well, obviously, suffrage is something we’ve been working on for a long time—(laughter)—and it’s—we started with very limited suffrage and it has slowly grown over time, sometimes expanding, sometimes shrinking for any number of issues. We were discussing earlier the importance of women’s suffrage and the dramatic impact that had on American politics. The same is true with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which continued to expand the universe of voters.
But I think it would be foolish of us to assume that there will not be efforts to suppress voters. I think in the kind of polarized environment we have today in the United States, I think in the evenly balanced voting that we’ve seen in elections, that political parties are going to look for advantage. And regrettably, efforts to suppress votes have been part of that effort over time. And the only response is to recognize it for what it is and then to address that problem frontally and try to convince people that it’s—that it’s not only a right, but a duty to vote, which is tough in the United States.
There are many countries where you are obliged to vote and if you don’t vote you are fined. That is not true in the United States. We—
AMOS: Should we move it to Saturday?
SHANNON: Well, make it Friday and make it a holiday.
SHANNON: But I believe that while there is suppression, it is technical. In other words, people aren’t being hanged. They’re not having their homes burnt out. They’re not facing the kind of physical danger or intimidation that at different times in our history people have faced when they’ve tried to vote. And so this really is a question of understanding the law, challenging suppression when it appears, but then mobilization, because at the end of the day democracies require mobilization. And I think the last midterm elections should be a very positive sign; in other words, the number of people who participated in the vote was at a record high. And I think that we are going to be facing something similar come 2020. I think the number of people who will be voting in that presidential election is going to be quite remarkable.
AMOS: One more, and that is we are talking about the dying of democracies. The rise of China has been interesting as a model. And you see in the Middle East, certainly in Saudi Arabia, that is a much more attractive model than opening up suffrage. And because of money and power and market share, this has become a model. And that is a little daunting for those of you who are democracy supporters—not that I’m not, but you know, there is an alternative model out there.
SHANNON: Yeah, you know, I wouldn’t call it a model because it’s different in each country that you mentioned. I mean, China’s nothing like Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is nothing like Russia. These are examples of authoritarian governments and what they can accomplish and what they can do based on the kinds of social and economic and political considerations they face. So I’m reluctant to say that there is a competing model to democracy.
What I would argue is that there are political leaders who recognize that in order to accomplish what they want to accomplish they have to concentrate power, they have to reduce the potential for disagreement or conflict within their society, and they’re prepared to do so by denying people fundamental rights and privileges, and by denying them a voice in choosing national leadership. And I think the response of democracies in this regard should not be in fighting authoritarians; it should be in supporting democracies. And it should be trying to show clearly that democracies not only create a space in which people can express themselves, but that democracy is not a status quo power, it’s not about protecting privileged classes, that democracy has the capability of being socially transformative, that you can—you can conduct revolutions within a constitutional democratic environment while maintaining a degree of order and stability and peacefulness and purpose in a society. And we have seen this. We’ve seen it in Brazil. We’ve seen it in Colombia. We have seen it in Chile. We’ve seen it to a certain extent in Nigeria and in South Africa. And I think that trying to find a way to highlight the successes of democracies, and highlight their ability to have productive relationships especially with the United States, and making democracy a component of how we conduct our foreign policy and how it is we relate to other countries, is really the answer to what you’re talking about.
AMOS: Are we doing that?
SHANNON: Not as much as we should be. Let me put it that way. And some of this has to do with obviously this administration’s belief that previous efforts at democracy were too intrusive and too intent on shaping and forming other countries, instead of letting them adapt to their own political environment. But a lot of it has to do just with the fact that we are in a period of time that I call the big shrink, which is where the United States recedes from a previous kind of global position to focus internally and wants to do so without the distraction of having to engage to other people’s political systems.
AMOS: All right. Now I am going to open it up. Remember, please, that this is on the record. If you will stand and state your name and your affiliation. And where are the mics? OK, this man first and that woman second.
Q: Thank you for this fascinating presentation you just made. I’m Dick McCormack. I’m from CSIS in Washington.
SHANNON: You’re more than that.
Q: Well, thank you.
SHANNON: Former undersecretary for economic and business affairs from the Department of State.
Q: When you talk to central bankers these days, they all express deep concern about the management of this huge debt buildup that’s occurring in China, and Japan, Italy, the U.S., everywhere, and concern that this is going to end up in a train wreck unless we’re very careful. If that happens, the problem that we’re talking about this evening is going to be increased in severity by orders of magnitude. And I would just welcome any comments you might have on that.
SHANNON: Well, thank you very much. Well, what an honor to see you, sir. Thank you for being here.
Without a doubt, so much of the turmoil that we’ve seen around democracies has been generated by the economic conditions we find ourselves in, of one sort or another. And even in U.S. history, at grave moments of economic distress, whether it be in the late nineteenth century or the early twentieth century, our democracies have been threatened at one point or another, either by anti-democratic ideologies and forces or by people who are trying to reshape our institutions in dramatically different ways. And our institutions have always found a way through that, have always found a way to manage the conflict. But it’s not just our institutions. It’s also the kind of political leadership we’ve had at very precise moments in our history. And in this sense, we can consider ourselves lucky. But there’s no guarantee that we’re going to see that kind of leadership, should we stumble into another period like this.
But I guess in many ways, my biggest concern at this point is that the Chinese economy and the kind of debt that China has been incurring, especially internally, and what impact that could have on the Chinese economy, and what impact a failure of the Chinese economy would have globally—which I think would be significant, to say the least. And, I mean, I came from for years in country, Brazil, which, you know, found its way through the international economic recession largely through the Chinese market, largely by selling proteins, and minerals, and energy into the—into the Chinese market. So absent that market, Brazil would not have been the incredibly productive place it was for that period of time. It would have been something quite different.
And what worries me is that given the adversarial relationship that we and the Chinese are busy working on—(laughs)—we’re not going to have the level of connectivity and engagement that we need to help address that. And I’m not saying that we should not be viewing China as a competitor. I just think that both we and the Chinese are working ourselves up to a problem that doesn’t need to be a problem. So.
AMOS: Here and then here.
Q: Maryum Saifee. I’m a State Department Foreign Service officer. So thank you for your service. You’re a legend to all of us. I’m currently doing the CFR international affairs fellowship.
My question is on the intersection of diplomacy and democracy. Your colleague, Undersecretary Burns—or Deputy Secretary Burns, wrote a book called The Back Channel on making a case to modernize the foreign service. What do you see as sort of the biggest challenges for American diplomats, particularly in the effort to sort of promote democracy overseas?
SHANNON: That’s a great question. And, you know, John Kerry, when he became secretary of state, in his first global chiefs of missions conference asked all the ambassadors when they returned to post to write to him a memo describing what they considered to be the biggest and most important issues facing American diplomacy in the countries they were stationed in, and what they needed in terms of resources to get things done. And what was striking, David Wade, his chief of staff, and I were the ones that received these memos and then processed them for him and tried to draw kind of generally what our diplomats were thinking about at the time. And nearly all the ambassadors went back to their missions and sat down with their staffs. In other words, they didn’t shut their door and write it—the memos themselves. They tried to make it a much larger exercise. And the vast majority of them also spent some time with younger diplomats, such as yourself.
And what was interesting for me is that what came out of those discussions was the commitment of young diplomats to political values. And not just to democracy, but also to an open society, to supporting the LGBTQ society—communities in the countries they’re operating in, and to find ways to promote human rights broadly. Not just human rights as political rights, but economic rights, cultural rights, social rights. And I was quite surprised by this, because the typical way people understand diplomats is that you get captured by the countries that you’re in, and by the interests of the people that you deal with, and that ultimately you’re all about a smooth relationship in whatever country you happen to be serving in.
But what came through loud and clear in the memos we were receiving from ambassadors is that wasn’t the case. In fact, people were ready to fight. People we ready to really kind of make a statement about what American political values are, and not shut down relationships with countries that didn’t agree with us but try and find a way to use those values to define how we engaged and to set a tone for the relationship. To send a clear message like, OK, Uganda, you’re important to us because you’re a bulwark against terrorism in Central Africa, and you’re helping us address problems in South Sudan and in Sudan. But guess what? How you address human rights issues is actually going to affect what we think of you, and how confident we are in dealing with you. And we’ll work with you up to a point, but we won’t work with you beyond that point.
And I think that has to become an important part of our message. But I think there also needs to be an understanding that at the end of the day we’re not dictating change. We are trying to empower people who are looking for ways to create that change themselves, because for change to be enduring and sustainable—especially in complicated political environments—it has to come from the inside. I spent four years in South Africa. And the international community, through sanctions and any number of other activities, put a lot of pressure on the national party government to end Apartheid and create some kind of open political system. And at the end of the day, the South Africans had accomplished that.
But I spent four years on the ground there working with the trade union movement from 1992 to 1996, which is when everything happens. Mandela’s elected in ’94. And what struck me is, as important as important as external pressure was, it doesn’t work if the internal dynamics aren’t there. And South African society changed because of what South Africans did. And I think the extent that we can understand that, we can then help shape our diplomacies in ways that empower those people who are trying to make change, and then try to convince those who are resisting change that the extent to which they can engage across their society, they have a chance of surviving the changes that are going to come.
AMOS: Rita. Wait for the mic.
Q: Thank you. Rita Hauser.
You mentioned along the way, en passant, the importance of institutions. I’m very much struck by the demise of political parties. When I first, as a young student understood politics, you understood it through the prism of parties. And how if you look across all the liberal democracies, parties have disappeared. The Socialist Party is no more in France. It’s pretty much gone in Italy, in Israel. Our parties are shadows of what they were, without any kind of leadership. And people sort of take pride in saying, well, I’m an independent. Well, what does that mean, you know? That you like to pick the person you like? You have no attachment to positions, to ideas, to values? I don’t know if you have any thoughts about that, but it has struck me greatly as one of the things that has happened in the last years.
SHANNON: Right. It’s a great question, and a great topic, because without a doubt the decline of traditional political parties has fundamentally affected how political systems work. And there was a time, especially in large cities like New York, where political parties weren’t just about political affiliation. They were about how your neighborhood ran. They were about what church you went to. They were about who celebrated your birthday, and who came to the baptism if your kind, or—you name it. I mean, it defined life in many aspects.
And for me, what’s most striking, not only here in the United States, but especially in Latin America, where I spent a lot of time, is the slow destruction of social democratic parties. And that really, I believe, reflects profound economic changes and social changes. To a certain extent we’ve seen something similar in the United States, in the sense that with the decline of trade unions and the way in which our industrial base has fled the United States, and the way in which work has changed, that the Democratic Party that reflected the trade union movement and the New Deal has largely disappeared.
And in fact, at my firm Senator Chris Dodd works there. And in the run-up to the midterms, in watching several of the rallies that President Trump was holding, Senator Dodd made the remarkable statement that as he looked at the rallies he realized that a lot of the people at those rallies would have been at Democratic rallies twenty years before, ten years before. But they weren’t anymore. They were someplace else. And a lot of it has to do with the way in which parties have come undone. And I actually believe that social organization has the capacity to respond to this.
And my own belief in the United States is that we’re rebuilding our parties from the grassroots up, and that we’re doing it in a way that is generating a lot of new leadership. I think we saw that during our midterm elections. And that this is ultimately going to be good for the United States, because it’s going to create parties that are much more reflective of American society. In the process, it could highlight our polarization or at least our division. But again, we’ve lived through these collapses of parties before. We did it in the early 18th century. We did it just before the Civil War when the Whigs blew up and the Republicans came—were then created. And in many ways we’ve done it through political shifts throughout time.
So I’m pretty confident that the United States is going to find its ways out of this. But in Latin America, I think that—without kind of going on a world tour—but in Latin America I think it’s going to be much harder to rebuild parties that reflect the new kinds of societies, because they’re still highly unequal countries, with profound differences between the wealthy and the poor.
AMOS: Woman who had her hand up back there.
Q: Hi, Ambassador Shannon. I’m Janine Zacharia. I was a long-time reporter for The Washington Post and Bloomberg. I covered you at the State Department when you were assistant secretary.
SHANNON: No secrets. (Laughter.)
Q: Just I wanted to clarify something, and then ask another question. You talked about the role of U.S. diplomacy being to empower those who are trying to make change. But in my reporting on this issue, you—sometimes this undermines the organizations that you’re trying to help, if they’re tainted by funding from NDI, IRI, you know, one of the USAID organizations, or something. How do you—how do you deal with that? How do you help these people abroad without tainting them? And this is playing out in Venezuela now too. And one of the institutions that the United States I’ve watched try to help is a free press. Can you talk a little bit about the president’s attacks on the media and how that undermines the institution of the free press internationally and emboldens dictators, autocrats to attack the media? Thank you.
SHANNON: Thank you. But tainting, you mean tainted in the view of whatever country we’re trying to operate in?
Q: You know, the—any number of leaders now adopting the language of the enemy of the people, journalists being killed. You know, one of the—you talked about the institutions being important as one of them being a free press. So how the role of our president is undermining that.
SHANNON: Thank you very much.
You know, in regards to the entities we’ve created to help fund democracy promotion—you know, whether it be NDI, and IRI, and others—you know, we did this coming out of the Cold War and recognizing that our funding for political parties and for political action groups should not be covert. It should be overt. And that we should be able to show that by using these institutions to help fund political activity and political organization in other countries, that we’re actually doing this as part of a broader U.S. policy. I still think that is important and I still think that’s good. And I don’t think we should shy away from it.
I recognize that there are many countries who now understand the dynamics of democratization within their countries and are trying to control it and limit it. And they are trying to do that by lessening not just the influence of American NGOs, but also foreign NGOs broadly speaking. And so we’re seeing legislation in Russia, in Egypt, and elsewhere, that—even in Brazil—that are going to try to control the extent to which foreign entities can fund and direct, or work alongside, NGOs.
And I think that the response to that has to be that we have to stay engaged, and that we have to find a way to ensure that people understand that we are going to continue to work with them to the extent that we can, because to do otherwise—to step away at this point, to slink away at this point, I think would leave these NGOs in the countries we’re dealing with very vulnerable.
In regard to the press, you know, obviously from my point of view a free press is understood as if not an institution of a democracy, certainly an important component of a democratic system, in which people have access to information and can have broad public debates through the media in order to reach their own conclusions and promote their political views and their political activities. And it is profoundly worrisome for me that journalism has become such a dangerous profession, and that we have not found a better way to articulate how important it is, in our democracy but also broadly in democracies around the world.
But also beyond that, I think in having a larger global debate on issues. One of the biggest challenges we’re going to face as we get deeper into the twenty-first century is that as countries step away from institutions of global governance, as they begin to view them as increasingly remote and irrelevant, and as we rely increasingly on bilateral relationships to share information, as opposed to regional and international organizations, it’s going to become harder and harder to build shared strategic understandings about what’s happening in the world, and why it’s happening, and how you address it.
And I think in that kind of environment, a press that people can turn to—not only for facts, but also for differences of opinion and debate—is hugely important. And I think that by not finding a way to highlight the importance of that, we’re actually going to hurt ourselves in the long term.
AMOS: Wait for the mic, please. She’ll be right there. There you go.
Q: Oh, thank you. Ken Lipper. Lipper & Company.
We spoke earlier about the fact that you need democrats for a democracy. And how do we cope with the fact that public education is now being viewed essentially as preparation for a trade, and therefore civics and some of the, quote, “soft courses,"? like history, are being eliminated? How is that affecting the prospects for American democracy?
SHANNON: That’s a great question. And it’s a great question, because from the very beginning the United States has understood public education as an essential part of shaping citizens, and shaping civic association, and civic discourse. And in many ways, our public schools—especially through the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries—late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was really about creating citizens. It was really about being a point in which children from diverse backgrounds, and especially children of immigrants, would have an opportunity to engage with others in their community, and to be taught what it means to be a citizen of the United States. Which is why we have—our school day has—at least when I was growing up—had so many civic events, like pledging allegiance and singing the national anthem, and why baseball games start with a national anthems. It’s quite an indicator of how alive we are to the newness of much of our population, and how we have to try to draw them into a civic understanding of what it means to be an American.
And in this regard, I think that what you’ve talked about is vitally important. Although, I’m not against using schools to promote trades. I think the idea that everybody needs to go to university is not a good thing. (Laughs.) And I think our own economy could use an artisan and a trades-craft very similar to what the Germans have, and to a certain extent what we had in the United States at one point in our industrial period. But independent of that, I think that what you’ve highlighted is using public education not just to teach the important science, engineering, and math, and technical subjects, but also to find a way to ensure that people have a broad and clear understanding of American history and our political system is hugely important.
AMOS: Can I go back to something that you said about Chris Dodd and his observations of a Trump rally? My guess is those people voted for Obama last time, many of them did. And they voted because they wanted a better deal. And at the last election, somehow they thought that better deal would come from a billionaire working-class hero. Inequality in this country is growing. And I wondered if you thought that our tax codes contribute to the dying of democracy, that this gap—growing gap—is dangerous for us?
SHANNON: I think inequality is dangerous for democracy over time. Whether or not the tax codes are the cause of that, I will leave that to larger minds. But I think that in many ways the odd marriage of democracy and market economies—which is not a natural marriage—is the product of mediating institutions that over time leveled society to a certain extent and ensured that there was a sustainable middle class. And that was the deal in the United States. It was the deal in Canada. It became the deal in the U.K.
And as democracies became not just an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon but actually expanded broadly across the globe, most of the—of our partners and allies in Europe, and Japan, and elsewhere were able to build market economies and democracies together because they had mediating institutions—like trade unions and collective bargaining processes—that ensured that there was a broad group of workers who were receiving the income necessarily to live a decent life and the benefits necessary to live a decent life. And the extent to which that breaks down, and the extent to which you begin to see inequality grow and wages stagnate, then we are at risk.
Q: I’m Steve Friedman from Pace University.
Mr. Ambassador, I’d like to go back to Venezuela. You pointed out that U.S. sanctions have reached the point where they’ve become counterproductive. And you said that it was time for countries like Brazil to play the long game. So what are the tools available to those countries that are not available to us?
SHANNON: That’s a great question. Thank you for that.
And it’s not that tools are available to them in a way that we can’t access, it’s just that when they exercise them it’s understood differently, because they’re South American and because they are neighbors of Venezuela. And the Venezuelan vice president is in the United States right now. And before I came here, I was at a lunch that the Brazilian ambassador in Washington, Sergio Amaral, gave for the Brazilian vice president. And what was striking in his comments on Venezuela was, first of all, a clear commitment to the broad strategy that the United States and the Lima Group, that Central American and South American countries have put together, but also profound concern about Russia’s recent intervention. Because the South American countries do not want to relive a Cold War conflict or confrontation in South America, especially along the greater Caribbean basin.
And in this regard, the Brazilians, along with their partners in South America, are busy sending very strong messages to the Russians and the Chinese that they cannot view Venezuela only as a place in which they can tweak the United States or challenge the United States. That they have to understand that their relationship broadly in South America is at risk if they continue along this line. So this is a message that they can deliver, that we can’t. And interestingly enough, I’m sure you noted, that the Chinese were going to hold the annual meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank. But that that meeting was cancelled. It was going to take place in Chengdu. That meeting was cancelled because the Chinese would not grant a visa to Ricardo Hausmann, who had been chosen by President Guaidó to be the governor for Venezuela in the Inter-American Development Bank.
And the decision by the IDB not to go to China was a profound decision and felt deeply by the Chinese. And they had overstepped in that regard. By attempting to control South American behavior during an Inter-American Development Bank conference in China. And whether—how the Chinese understand that lesson, and how they make it their own, we’ll have to wait and see. But similar communication is being directed to the Russians now. But also, the Brazilians and the Colombians, in this regard, have remarkable influence along the frontiers, because Venezuela’s actually a large country. It has the population of Iraq, but it’s three times bigger. Think about that if you want to invade it. But it cannot control its frontier.
So if South American countries were to determine that they really wanted to assist the Venezuelan people through humanitarian assistance, you would not direct it through the bridges in Cucuta between Colombia and Venezuela. You would put it in through any number of places along that frontier, all well-known to smugglers, to all the people who run fuel, and weapons, and illegal gold, and logging along the Brazilian and along the Colombian frontiers, in ways that Venezuelan authorities could not address. And you could do it in a way that was really all about humanitarian assistance, all about getting food and medicine into Venezuela and to the Venezuelan people. So I think that creative minds can find many things to do, if they so choose.
AMOS: Here. You hand your hand up. One of the two of you did.
Q: (Off mic)—ask the question—(off mic).
AMOS: OK. Yeah, I knew your hand was up. (Laughs.)
Q: Jan Guatanem (ph), Citi.
Aren’t we jumping the gun a little bit here, in the sense that, you know, are we facing a crisis of democracy or really are we questioning how effective governments are? And to the point that many people raised, you know, we are not effective in terms of debt control, immigration, inequalities, et cetera, et cetera. Should we be looking at the performance of government and not be surprised that some people say, well, you know, Singapore is better because it’s run more like a company, or China looking at more and more big data tools against their own citizen, but as a way to become more effective?
SHANNON: And that’s a great question. And, you know, the title of this discussion was: Are Democracies Dying? And you could say it—you could use that same plural for: Are democracies are crisis? Because there are some that aren’t. But there are others that are. And so I think that it’s really about discerning what generates a crisis. But what you’re talking about, the efficacy or the effectiveness of democracy, I think can create a crisis. And it won’t necessarily kill a democracy, but it can certainly change it. And therefore, I would say we’re not jumping the gun. We are recognizing that democracies face very significant challenge. And we’re trying to make sure that we understand those challenges, and that we’re in a position to address them in the different democracies that exist, with a recognition that there are some democracies that are going to get through this all just fine. In fact, they’re probably going to be better for it. But there are going to be other countries, like Venezuela, that are going to be ground to dust unless something is done. And I think that’s what we are trying to struggle with right now.
AMOS: One more question.
Q: I’m Larry Bridwell from Pace University.
And I want to ask you a diplomatic question. I come from California. And I grew up in Southern California. So I’ve been actively involved with Mexico and South—Central America. And when you described this incident involving President Obama, I thought: I don’t want Angela Merkel or President Macron commenting to us how we should deal with immigration from Central America, because it’s our hemisphere. So I was a little concerned that President Obama is talking to Europeans about how they should deal with Africa and the Middle East. So as a diplomat, I would like to ask you, what should diplomatically—Europeans should do about the western hemisphere, and what American presidents should do about migration issues in Africa and Europe.
SHANNON: Yeah. No, thank you for that. You know, when I told the story, I guess the point I was trying to make is that immigration or migration, especially uncontrolled migration through the movement of refugees, has political consequences. And when those consequences are felt in countries that are our NATO allies, that we have a very real interest in them. And especially if we think that in some instances Russia is actively promoting the movement of people—which was certainly true into Sweden and Norway—in an effort to generate some kind of social confusion, and add a few more drops of venom to political processes that were already in the midst of trying to understand a phenomenon that many of these countries had not faced in living memory.
But as far as migration in our own hemisphere, especially migration to the United States—the president has been very clear about how he understands this. And he’s also been very clear that he’s not terribly interested in other countries’ points of view. He wants to find a way to send clear messages, not only to countries of origin but also to countries of transit, like Mexico, that he expects greater cooperation. And that absent that cooperation, he’s going to rethink not only foreign assistance but also how we do our trading relationships. We’re going to see if this works as a tactic.
You know, the Obama administration in the last half of its second term faced a similar crisis along the frontier. It did not reach the proportions that the current crisis does, largely because we got in front of it. But we were—I traveled to the southwest border several times. And I can tell you, we were just a couple hundred migrants away from what’s happening right now—a couple hundred migrants a day away, where our system just kind of freezes up because you can’t hold any more people.
And it shifted because we understood the important role that smugglers were playing in this. We understood the important law enforcement component of this that had to be addressed, not only in the Northern Triangle countries but also along Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. And we also understood how if we didn’t begin to generate some sense of hope within the countries involved about those governments’ ability to address the conditions that were driving migration.
Which were in El Salvador and Honduras all about gang violence, an in Guatemala largely about economics, especially in the western highlands which is a largely indigenous area in which young men and women were departing to the United to finish an education and to try to have a bigger life for themselves than they could hope for in their communities. So unless we began to create some reason for people to hope that things would get better, they were going to leave.
And I think that this is what we’re missing right now. And I actually think that President Trump at this point in time would be uniquely capable of articulating that if he chose to. And he would find real willingness on the part of the four governments—Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—to engage. And I’ll use Mexico as an example. I think that President Lopez Obrador has done an incredible job of managing what could be a huge crisis in northern Mexico right now with asylum seekers and with a number of Central Americans that are coming through. And his willingness to focus on the importance of positive relations with the United States and positive relations with President Trump, and avoid a conflict with President Trump, is indicative of his political strength and how he is viewed in Mexico. I don’t think that his predecessor could have done this.
But this is a short-term approach. And I think that the Mexicans in particular understand that the migration coming out of Central America now is no longer just a transit. It’s no longer young men going to the United States to work. It’s now about families. And it’s about teenage girls and boys moving through areas controlled by cartels, where many of the girls are filched for trafficking purposes and many of the boys are filched to become sicarios, or their runners, their killers, the—kind of the busboys of drug trafficking. And in this—and many of those who are coming through Mexico find the journey sufficiently difficult that they stop. And then they look for places to stay in Mexico.
And so the Mexicans now understand that migration is no longer a costless exercise for them, that it actually has a significant cost. And therefore, I think they would be very open to working with us, if we could find the right way to engage with them.
AMOS: I would like to thank all of you, especially Ambassador Shannon.
SHANNON: Thank you. (Applause.)
AMOS: Thank you, Rita Hauser, for supporting this event. And I hope all of you will come back at 8:00 in the morning for the Future of Democracy. (Laughter.)
ROSEN: So welcome, everyone, to this morning session on our first full day of the conference. We are here at the Council on Foreign Relations Symposium on the Future of Democracy. This session is entitled “The Global Democratic Recession"?
This symposium, I should note, is made possible by the generous support of the Hauser Foundation. Thank you so much.
I’m Gary Rosen. I edit the Weekend Review Section at the Wall Street Journal, and I will be trying to gather a view of the world from our experts here today. So we’ll talk for I think forty-five minutes or so amongst ourselves and then we’ll open it up for questions, so start thinking about what you want to ask our panelists here.
So we have a very distinguished group here circling the world with their expertise. We have Michelle Gavin at the far end, who’s a senior fellow for Africa studies here at the Council. We have Matthias Matthijs, who’s at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he teaches international political economy. Shannon O’Neil, vice president and deputy director of studies, and also senior fellow for Latin American studies, here at the Council. And Dan Slater, who is the Ronald and Eileen Weiser professor of emerging democracies and director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan.
So each of them—each of them has a regional specialty, as you might note, so I thought it would be constructive for us to start with a kind of overview. And so for each of our panelists here I was hoping we could start and say a little something about issues of concern, worrisome cases in regions, but also—and this is important to keep in mind, I think—some positive things that are happening in these parts of the world. It’s very easy to be, I think, led by headlines about troubles into thinking that it’s all bad news about democratic development in the world. But you know, for all the talk, very real talk about a democratic recession, about democracy in retreat—which was the name of the title of this recent report out from Freedom House—that we do stand today at sort of a high point just in the count, basically, of governments that are meaningfully democratic in the world. And that’s a useful perspective, I think, to have on all of this.
So, Michelle, I thought we would start with you for a few minutes on Africa and developments there.
GAVIN: All right. So it’s always dangerous to generalize about Africa, right, because there are an awful lot of different African stories. But the big headline is that democracy hasn’t been doing very well in Africa over the past decade or so, and the Freedom House report indicates that there have been year upon year of democratic decline sort of sliding us back to where Africa was in the early Aughts in terms of number of strong democracies. And you can see this really clearly in states like Tanzania or Zambia that used to be pretty solid on the democratic spectrum and now are looking more and more authoritarian. And I think that there are a whole range of reasons for why this is happening, but I’m going to—I’m going to talk about two of them really quickly.
One, I think that something we’re seeing a lot on the continent is a real divide between the form of democracy, largely in the form of elections, but with certain window dressing and bells and whistles around the elections, and the reality of people actually being able to in a rule-governed system choose their leadership, hold that leadership accountable, and have recourse when the rules are ignored. And I think you see this really clearly in recent elections in Cameroon, for example, where, you know, in parts of the country almost no one was able to vote because of insecurity, no one had confidence in the independence of the electoral commission, and you even had a phenomenon of bizarre sort of fake international election observers who were paraded before news cameras as members of a Transparency International delegation—but Transparency International, never heard of them. So this kind of Potemkin Village democracy, right, where you increasingly have these elaborate sets.
And you see it as well in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, right, which finally, after a long wait—President Kabila’s mandate had ended in 2016; they just had their elections at the end of last year—you have a situation where it’s pretty clear that the person who got the most votes was not the person who was sworn in. But you went through this big exercise, and for some people that appears to be enough. And you do have some members of the international community, including the United States, welcoming the new democratically elected leader. We can welcome the new leader, but he sure wasn’t democratically elected. So you have this strange form versus substance thing going on.
You also have, I think, a real tension in some African democracies, including some that people feel very strongly about that have a strong kind of emotional resonance for a lot of Americans, like South Africa. So one really interesting piece of information from the recent Afrobarometer round is that over 50 percent of South Africans would trade some democracy away if they could just get some better service delivery. So while overall on the continent there’s still a strong majority that favors democratic government over other forms, wants more democracy—and there is, in fact, a deficit in terms of what’s being delivered—in some states that we think of as kind of intrinsically democratic there’s a real debate going on about whether this is working for people and delivering what they really want.
Now, for thirty seconds I’m going to shift to there’s also some really exciting and positive news on the continent. There are new—one thing I’m really excited about, there are new political actors coming into the mix. There’s actually been quite a bit of leadership turnover in Africa in the last few years, and you can see it in all kinds of states. Sierra Leone and Liberia leap to mind. The Gambia, right, tiny I realize, but one of these places governed for such a long time by a repressive and autocratic leader who actually was ousted in an election that basically he forgot to rig, and then the rest of West Africa refused to let him stay in the face of those electoral results. That’s exciting, and that West African consensus around principles and enforcing them is really exciting.
You know, you have younger political leaders emerging into this space, and I think that that’s really powerful too. So you know, Uganda is no model democracy, that’s for sure, but it is really interesting to see new political voices emerge that come from a different generation and are based—their political message is based on a different idea about political legitimacy and a fundamentally more democratic one. So it’s not I delivered you from the civil war years ago or—you see this also in Southern Africa—it’s not I delivered—this is the party of liberation, and therefore we have a right to power. It’s much more about connective tissue to an electorate. And I think that that’s really exciting and worth watching.
Matthias, do you want to tell us, you know, briefly about all of Europe? (Laughter.)
MATTHIJS: Thank you. Thank you, Gary. I’ll continue this impossible task.
So I think what’s the most striking about Europe in the last ten years is just the extent to which the European Union—the EU—has become politicized in most of its member states and in just all of the European space. And the word “differentiation"? is the kind of buzzword that Juncker and the Commission and the Council like to use, and the idea is that, you know, we should have multiple speeds, we should have variable geometry. And I think the crisis of democracy that you see in many member states are kind of part of this, right?
So if you look at the three—what I think the three most problematic cases right now is Brexit Britain, Salvini’s Italy, and Orbán’s Hungary, and they’re—all three are tensions with the European Union, right? So there’s differentiation in the single market, which the Brits tried to do by limiting freedom of movement or by, you know, differentiating on services and trade deals, and it looks that actually rather than unity and diversity Europe is much more of an ever-tighter union. The rules are very strong. And these are political choices that were made and that European officials feel very strongly about, right?
And so what you see in Britain is this tension between popular referendum democracy, which they rarely hold, and now the representative part of democracy, and so the split of both parties. And that’s why count me very skeptical that Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn can come to a deal because it’s just—in peacetime it’s unprecedented, right, in kind of postwar British history.
So then, if you go to Italy, I mean, I see this populist experiment with government, very unnatural alliance between Five Star Movement, which is a kind of radical center, radical left—well, it’s not quite clear—with a kind of traditional, you know, hard-right party that’s anti-immigrant and pro-tax cuts and so on from Salvini. And that really is a reaction against a lack of differentiation that’s possible in the eurozone. So they want to do—what do the Italians do traditionally when they’re not growing? They devalue and they stimulate demand, right? And these are two things that the rules of the eurozone don’t allow them to do. Renzi tried to do it, was voted out because he couldn’t, and now we have kind of the real deal trying to do it.
And then the last part of differentiation, I think, goes to the heart and is the most problematic and gets probably rightly the most attention, is Hungary, because there what you see is they try to differentiate in the rule of law and in freedom of the media and so on. And that really is a values issue, and for the EU as a community of values. But again, there’s nothing that Orbán has done so far that has been done illegally, right? He’s kind of used his power in the constitution to change it and move that way.
And these three are really—I mean, if you’d have told me about this ten years ago, it would have been really hard to see.
So what is the—what is the good news? And there I think there is maybe a little too much—and maybe that’s a generational thing, and I include myself in that older generation now—that tends to be too heavily focused on traditional labor parties, social democratic parties, right? If you look at Germany today, every single poll shows you that the Green Party is consolidating its place as second after the Christian Democrats. So I think after Merkel it’s very likely that her successor—which is again a very mild-mannered, very pragmatic, very centrist woman with centrist instincts; she veered a little to the right on immigration, but I think that’s where the country wants to go—and you’ll see a coalition with the Greens. And I think that could be a very progressive force. You also have good stories coming out of Spain, for example, where there’s a kind of rejuvenation of their own social democratic party. And then, finally, I would mention Portugal, where you had a government that kind of defied the European Commission in its economic policy, didn’t really do austerity, and proved very successful.
So that, I think, is the kind of six cases of Europe in a nutshell.
OK, Shannon, Latin America, please.
O’NEIL: Just a few countries. (Laughter.)
So, well, let me start off saying, you know, we can look at the last few years and talk about the problems, but if you step back, forty plus years ago Latin America was generally undemocratic across the board. Most of the big countries and many of the small countries were ruled by military regimes or other authoritarian leaders. And you look today and for the last—since the 1990s this is a region that is—the vast majority are democracies. They have some challenges. They have some weaknesses. But they are democracies, and they have remained democracies through economic and financial crises, through huge corruption scandals, through even the election of public officials who are not particularly publicly minded in their own. But they’ve managed to retain these institutions. And I think that’s something to point out and also to recognize globally because these are mostly middle-income with some lower-income countries as the World Bank defines them, and it shows that democracy is not just a luxury for wealthy OECD countries; it’s something that can proliferate and remain even in places that have economic exclusion, that have inequality, that have real challenges for big sections of the population. So that is the general good news, I would say.
But we also see, as you look at the examples in Latin America, you see the challenges that democracy is facing, and the variable ability of countries and political systems, democratic institutions, to face those challenges. So I thought just in this initial I would talk about three cases: so sort of the worst, Venezuela; Mexico I’ll put in the middle; and then Brazil, where I actually see some positive signs in terms of the institutions of democracy if not the leadership of the country. So let me just talk a bit about each.
So Venezuela is the case of really the death of democracy in Latin America. This was a longtime democracy and now it is no longer a democracy. And you saw Hugo Chavez and then his successor, Nicolas Maduro, the current head of the regime, they were able to undermine the free press, they were able to undermine the checks and balances, the electoral commissions and courts. They were able to use the judiciary to go after opposition, to jail opponents, go after—you know, put people in jail politically. And then they were also able to use the security forces to physically repress political opposition, and exile or put them in jail. So here we have seen the death of democracy, so it’s distinctly possible and has occurred in Latin America.
Mexico I would say we have a new—generally new administration there, four months in, and I see worrisome signs. This is a country that over twenty-five, thirty years built up democratic institutions a little, bit by bit, and we have a government that is systematically trying to undermine those checks and balances. So López Obrador has proposed expanding the Supreme Court in number so that he can fill it right away with his loyalists. He has gone after the independent institutions—the transparency agency, the electoral agency, and antitrust agency—any parts of the government that are independent of his party, trying to get—to undercut their budgets or get rid of the people who have been put in there that are independent operators. So getting rid of those checks and balances. And he’s used his majority in Congress to push through lots of other things that I do think limit the ability or begin to limit the ability of political opposition to voice their opinion. And he also has gone after the press. So he’s doing the kinds of things that would limit this democratic sphere.
And then, finally, let me turn to Brazil. For those of you who have been following Jair Bolsonaro, the president, his rhetoric if not his instincts are not democratic, we might say. (Laughs.) That’s not where he comes from. But at least in his first three months Brazil’s democratic institutions seem to be holding up, to me. One of the first things that he decreed was a decree that would limit the information that went out to the public, would make more things secret and classified, and the Congress stuck it down so he couldn’t control the information that was coming out of the government. One of the other things that’s been happening is his son is being investigated for campaign finance and money laundering allegations. He or others tried to shut down this investigation and the courts said no, this will continue. So he hasn’t been able to protect his own family, and so—and the courts asserted their independence there. And other parts of Brazilians—the federal system, the states—are able to so far maintain their independence. So while I don’t think he is particularly a—you know, a hard-leaning democrat, or at least that’s the way he portrays himself and his followers respond to, Brazil’s institutions, to me, seem to be remaining very strong, which is what you ask of a democracy—a consolidated democracy, is that you’re able to stop the worst tendencies of leaders if you need to.
ROSEN: Very good.
And finally, Dan, Asia, please.
SLATER: Asia’s the simple part. (Laughter.)
SLATER: So I think, as with the other panelists, I mean, Asia is many, many stories, and there’s a lot of bad news going on but there’s also a lot of—a lot of good news.
I think one thing I’d stress from the outset is just that Asia is a lot more than China, and I think a lot of the attention we pay to Asia gets sucked into a narrative we have about China. And I think that it’s certainly the case that you have sort of one branch of authoritarian regime that persists in East Asia, which is the single-party dictatorships of China, North Korea, and Vietnam, and that’s obviously one very big part of the story. But I think there is a tendency to read what’s happening around the region as if the region is in the thrall or under the influence of China in some major way, and in fact I would argue that in some ways China is more successful at projecting its influence across the globe than it is in its own backyard. So if you go to places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, where in particular China would love to have a lot more influence, Beijing is deeply, deeply unpopular, and people—there’s a lot of resistance to Chinese influence. So I would just sort of say we should as a starting point kind of remove China from the center of our view in some ways.
Even just staying within Northeast Asia I think it’s really important to recognize that the developmental states of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan remain very much thriving democracies. You know, we might remember just a few years ago South Korea went through a massive corruption scandal, huge protests, impeachment. These are the kind of things that could lead to, you know, crisis in a lot of contexts. It was handled quite peacefully, constitutionally, and we still, again, in South Korea have two parties basically competing peacefully for power with each other. So these are—these are massive, wealthy countries in Northeast Asia that remain really thriving.
Now, as we move more to Southeast Asia, the region that I study most closely, I would say, again, I think it’s probably mostly bad news. But I would emphasize one point, that I think there are two different kinds of bad news, and I think that this is not just true in Asia but around the world, and I think we should distinguish them. So I think that when democracy erodes or backslides or recedes, I think it can do so in two very different ways.
So one way is in the direction of what we might call electoral authoritarianism. And in electoral authoritarianism, the idea is that whoever has power will basically do whatever they can to keep winning elections. So the target of their repression, their cheating, their fraud is really their opponents, so the political party opposition, OK? So that’s one way these things can happen. And if we think about places like Singapore, Cambodia, if we look at what’s happening in Thailand today of just trying to move toward an electoral authoritarian dispensation in which there will be elections but the people who are in power are not going to be losing those elections, right? And that’s the way this works.
But that’s very different, I would say, and can be very distinct from illiberal democracy. And illiberal democracy, I would say, is the second sort of way in which democratic recession can rear its ugly head. And here it’s not so much that people in power will do anything to win elections; it’s they’ll do anything they want after they win them. And so here what you have is situations like the Philippines with President Duterte, where it’s not as if Duterte is going after people in the organized political opposition, not trying to build some kind of ruling party that will last for fifty years. Essentially, he’s elected, he has a mandate, and says, you know, I am democracy, I will do what I want; if you get in my way, you are against democracy. And what you have then—and you see also signs of this in places like Myanmar, in places like Indonesia, where electoral democracy does not necessarily lead to the kinds of protections for minorities, people from disfavored religious groups for instance, and so you see a lot of abuses in these cases which really undermine the substance and democracy and lead to democratic breakdown. But I would just make the point this is a very different kind of malady in those sorts of cases, an illiberal democratic pattern, than we see in the electoral authoritarian pattern.
But again, I think there’s—we have to keep our eyes on the positive stories. I mentioned South Korea a moment ago; also Malaysia. The long-ruling, dominant authoritarian coalition of Malaysia was voted out of office after fifty years in power just in the past year. The question of how quickly the new government is going to move toward meaningful political reform I think is still—it’s still early days, but I think it certainly shows—and if you look at a place like Turkey where you’re seeing electoral setbacks for Erdoğan, that in these cases that have electoral authoritarianism, as Malaysia did for fifty years, you really see that elections can still provide an avenue for surprises and for opposition to come together, to coalesce, and actually make surprising headway against regimes which seem extremely entrenched. And I would say that’s part of the lesson for Singapore looking forward as well, is that there are lots of signs—I mean, civil society I think is getting stronger in Singapore. There’s a lot of real pushback against this new fake news law that you might have heard about in Singapore right now. And so I think that pressures that—so even as democratic recession is going on, the pressures for democratic advance and emergence I think are not going away, and I think we see them across Asia.
So, to broaden out our discussion and make it a little more thematic, compare things happening across regions, Michelle, you made a very interesting point about the form of democracy versus the reality of it. And in many of these places that are new to democracy, the legitimacy of democratic institutions, ways of doing things, is not really fully established, right?
ROSEN: And so what does it take and how hard is it in these different cases to establish a view not just among the people, but among elites that democracy is, in a sense, an end in itself and not just an instrument to other ends? Because democracies, in my experience of them here and elsewhere, often don’t perform well and don’t deliver the things you want, so there has to be a deeper underlying commitment to democratic ways of doing things. So can you—can you talk about sort of that logic and that approach in what you’re seeing?
GAVIN: How that happens.
ROSEN: Or all of you. I don’t mean to—I don’t want to proceed down our line again, so let’s open it up a little more.
GAVIN: Right. It’s a—it’s a really interesting point, and I wish I knew sort of what the magic formula was, right, for how a society comes to a consensus that we want these rules to govern regardless. But I think that I would point to a couple interesting places that maybe are going to start to tell us about that going forward.
And one is Ethiopia, right, where it was definitely an example of electoral authoritarianism—and maybe still is; it’s hard to say. But what’s happened with new leadership in Ethiopia is Ethiopia has gone from being sort of, along with Rwanda, the African embodiment of the Chinese model to something really, really different. And there’s a kind of liberalization, more political space, a very different approach to the rule of law, to key appointments, a different approach to press freedom in Ethiopia right now.
Right now it’s wildly popular, as dramatic change often can be wildly popular. And so what’s really interesting to me is to see to what degree is it going to be possible for Abiy to kind of consolidate these reforms in the face of ruling party leaders who are losing out and embed this in the kind of emerging middle class in increasingly-urbanized Ethiopia in such a way that there’s a bulwark against backsliding. And so I think that—I don’t think there is a more interesting place to watch on the continent right now.
Just really quickly I would—I would also say, though, in places that, similarly, where the ruling party has been sort of the be—where it’s—where it’s inseparable from the state, right—where it’s very hard to draw the distinction, like, Angola—you are seeing these liberalizing changes, and it’s for political survival. So there’s clearly some internal pressure even in an incredibly poor state. Most Angolans—Angola as a country is rich. Angolans as a people are desperately poor, right? But there was enough pressure, I think in part because of the demonstration effect of what’s happened in other Southern African states, that there is—leadership is moving in this direction as a—as a means of survival. And so, you know, watch this space. We’ll see what happens.
ROSEN: Right. Right.
O’NEIL: You know, let me—let me add, because I think it’s interesting in Latin America this idea that democracies don’t deliver, and that—and that is true, and that is one of the challenges. But I think there’s enough recent history there that at least some voters know that actually the more authoritarian or populist regimes don’t deliver either.
So some of the people who are in power—in particular, Argentina is the best example of this. Mauricio Macri came in to sort of clean up the economic mess of the previous populist government. Now, the—Christina Kirchner, who was running the country, she was not an authoritarian, but she—but she did circumscribe a bit kind of some of the aspects, made it a pretty big state, and was a populist, and led the country really into financial crisis and ruin. And today you have a country that has very high inflation, is in recession, has all these economic problems, and Macri’s still running even in the polls with an opposition figure so far despite that. And part of it is I think there is a sense, at least among some there, that we need to get away from this more controlling hyperpresidentialism, as they call it in Argentina, and to have a bit more of this back and forth. So it’s—I don’t think necessarily that there’s this idea that authoritarian regimes are these benevolent sort of far-seeing economic thinkers.
And even the one Latin America case that people always point to as that—they point to the Pinochet regime in Chile. And we tend to forget that actually Pinochet in the first part of his tenure got the economics horribly wrong and led to the worst economic recession in Chile’s history. It was only later on that he fixed the problem and led to the, quote/unquote, “economic miracle"? that we all point to.
ROSEN: Right. Right.
SLATER: Yeah. I mean, I would say, I mean, I think most—I think most people are contingent democrats rather than consistent democrats. But I think that the real issue is whether those who are invested with political power behave responsibly and actually try to—try to use their power with some kind of restraint. I do think that if just consistently people seem to believe one regime delivers better results than another, then over time you’re going to see a lot more support for that kind of regime. I don’t think that’s a new phenomenon.
But, you know, I was sort of—I should have mentioned the Indonesian case a little bit in my earlier remarks in terms of when we’re talking about good news. You know, the largest Muslim country in the world, thriving democracy, has been for twenty years. We’re about to have elections in the next few weeks. You’ve probably heard nothing about it because they’re not exciting, because it’s—whether one or two wins this is really not—democracy is not at stake.
And I do think, to push back a little against my own point I suppose, is that in Indonesia what you really see is there is a real—there’s a very deep commitment to democracy not so much in some procedural highfaluting reading, you know, Locke and Rousseau kind of way, but people just adamantly insist that politicians pay attention to them. And when politicians do not pay attention to them, they throw them out. They will vote against them without any hesitation whatsoever. And if you talk about taking away people’s right to throw out politicians who they can’t stand, they would go crazy. Like, they would really—they would not accept it at all, and rightly so.
And so I do think—now, is that—like, does that make you a principled democrat? I think that the idea that government should be responsive to the people in some way—and of course, in Indonesia they had the worst economic crisis of any country we’re talking about here in the late 1990s under the auspices of authoritarian regime, and the economy has grown very robustly and quite well throughout the 2000s as a—as a democracy. And so I think there is—we should look for popular support for democracy at the mass level. It may not take the form of what we teach in political theory, but I do think that it’s very real and when you talk to people you can, you know, sense the desire to have some control over—to not be lorded over by politicians who ignore them.
MATTHIJS: All right. Well, on process versus substance, I mean, in the end the Brexit referendum is the most fascinating case study, right, because first of all they made a mistake by giving a choice of A or not A, and not A could be B, C, D, E, F, G, right? (Laughter.) And so once that vote of the people had spoken, we leave the European Union, then they never really had a proper discussion in the beginning after the referendum in July 2016 on kind of, you know, what would—this is going to look like.
But you do feel, I mean—and of course, in Britain, the U.K., I mean, it’s UKexit rather than Brexit, right? I mean, the additional problem is that Scotland voted 62 percent to stay, Northern Ireland voted 56 percent to stay, and then, you know, everybody who we talked to in London all voted remain, right? So it—and there is this problem. I mean, there is more than seventeen million leave voters who many of them for the first time voted and feel always ignored and they never win, right, and finally they won, and they want to see this delivered. And you see this quest of this current government, as far as it can last, to deliver on the people’s vote being incredibly hard because it’s a lot more complicated, right?
And I do think it’s important in the U.K. that people have kind of lost their faith in democracy, at least the leave voters, because they see this watered and watered down. And then Remainers feel that this is still—they are trying to ignore new elements and new data and whatever in trying to reverse this, which also would make this incredibly hard. So there’s no good outcomes there.
ROSEN: Right. So thirty years ago, when the most recent democratic wave began, democracy was at this high point of prestige, right? The Soviet Union had collapsed. China looked to be troubled, struggling with the aftermath of Tiananmen. And you know, people in the United States and Europe were thinking that democracy now would spread and become consolidated all around the world, and of course we have experienced very different things since then. How much is what’s going on in these different parts of the world influenced by the troubles that mature democracies have faced here, in Western Europe? How much of it is influenced by the rise of China as a kind of alternative? Again, on this question of legitimacy versus performance, a very different model there. So, you know, don’t expect—don’t expect to have any say in what’s going on, but we will deliver and we will show great competence at the highest levels of government, we will lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, we will do things that the increasingly incompetent mature democracies can’t do. How much of that is influencing what’s going on in the rest of the world, where would-be autocrats are saying, you know, democracy just doesn’t work anymore, look at the world?
GAVIN: So I would say—
SLATER: Thank you. (Laughter.)
GAVIN: I would say two things spring to mind.
One, I think that, you know, pointing to the China model, it’s done as a matter of convenience, right? So this is a helpful shorthand and backstop if you want to make an argument about authoritarianism, essentially. (Laughs.) But I think the kind of—the motives of those who want to make that argument are very much internal to the country, right? So I think that these global dynamics can be useful sort of support systems, but that’s not—they’re not driving these changes.
But one thing I would say is that they’re—on the tactical level, the tactics of repression certainly, the tactics of delegitimization, those are very much being shared globally. And so the—you know, everything from the kind of social media shutdowns that are becoming more and more regular in more and more African states as a means of control, the kind of fake news wars, an awful lot of that phrase has escaped the lips of a surprising number of African leaders, right? So I do think that there’s a kind of global contagion of some of these tactics, but I really do believe that in almost every case the kind of internal political dynamics are in the driver’s seat in terms of what’s happening in these African states.
O’NEIL: I would add for Latin America I definitely see the tactics, right, and the fake news, or in Mexico the president likes to call the press fifis, which is sort of snobs or what have you, so sort of very dismissive.
You know, what’s interesting on this sort of the influence of these outside players is, you know, Venezuela is a very cautionary tale for a lot of countries. So anyone who begins to do some of the things that happened there gets immediate pushback because you see just the desperation and the poverty. And even in our own country Venezuela’s coming up in our elections—we don’t want to become Venezuela, right? (Laughs.)
But the other interesting thing is you actually—it’s not just demonstration effects, but you actually have China and Russia involved in Venezuela. And Russia’s involved in a different way, but China has been bringing particularly that surveillance aspect over. So ZTE has been building these what—they’re called the, you know, country cards or whatever, so all of your identification and your information that you have and that allows you to get a box of food every month and those sorts of things. The Chinese are setting up sort of the biometric system to harvest all of that data, much like they’re doing in their own country. So I do think there’s some just real transfer—not just demonstration, but real transfer—of what could be oppressive systems to some of these autocrats who want to use them.
ROSEN: Yeah. On that subject I would recommend, to put in a small plug, a big piece we ran just a few weeks ago called The Autocrat’s New Toolbox by Richard Fontaine and Kara—oh boy—Frederickson (sic; Frederick) at the Center for a New American Security. And again, a lot of it is just about these very concrete tools, these very particular and increasingly powerful tools that the Chinese are happily developing for clients all around the world. So it’s a—it’s a real issue.
SLATER: I guess—I mean, I think I would focus more on the loss of American prestige than the rise of Chinese prestige. I think that—I don’t believe there is sort of a China model, first of all, that people are drawing on. But I don’t think there was ever really just a single American model that people drew on. I think that the desires people expressed for democracy, you know, in the—in the ’90s and beyond were homegrown and wasn’t sort of some desire to duplicate the United States. And I think that particularly the debacle in Iraq I think has really, really just delivered an enormous blow, just an unbelievable blow to the idea that the United States is a positive actor in the world trying to actually advance human freedom rather than its own interests. I mean, America’s reputation in the world I think is really in some ways getting to an all-time low, and I think that gives us all a moment to, I think, sit back and reflect a little bit, and try to approach the world with a little bit more modesty and a little bit more supportively of people trying to, you know, push for political change.
And I think that we should also be more honest about the fact that, you know, it’s just not the case that—you know, that only democracies can solve problems, right? It’s not the case that democracy in and of itself is what’s going to give you clean water, is what’s going to give you vaccinated children, is what’s going to give you—you know, give you all these good results. Those things can happen under democracy; they can happen under dictatorship. And that’s just—that’s just the reality. And I think what that means is, for those of us who want to defend and push for democracy, we have to do so on its own terms, to actually make the case that democracy is an intrinsic good and something worthy of pursuing, and that those who do pursue it around the world, that we’ll support them.
But I don’t think that’s best done by acting as if the United States is the be-all, end-all. It’s clearly not. And I think it’s not best advanced by, I think, intellectually dishonest claims that, well, if you’re authoritarian you’ll never—you could never have these good things unless you have democracy.
MATTHIJS: And yet since—the big difference with the ’90s, it seems to me, is that the West has seen kind of stagnant wages and, you know, much widening inequality and so on, which has created a nativist reflex. I mean, you see this in Hungary. You see this in the U.S. You see this in the U.K. But I think the politicization of migration—and this is true for immigration and emigration—so one kind of sinister case is Hungary, right? So Orbán comes to power in 2010. Since 2010 about—anywhere between a half and a million people—half a million and a million people, of Hungarians, have left, right? They’ve left the regime. These are younger people. They’re educated. They’re the natural opposition. They’re the media, right? They’re the intelligentsia. And they can leave—they have the exit option in the old kind of Hirschman Exit, Voice, and Loyalty fashion—because the single market, right? So they go to Berlin. They go to Vienna. They go to London. And that then creates the backlash there of too many Eastern Europeans, right, taking our jobs.
So I think that’s kind of one of the unintended consequences of globalization, is that we on the one hand are so focused on nativist sentiment in the West and the problem of immigrants taking, you know, blue-collar jobs or low-skill jobs. But it seems to me the countries that see a lot of emigration also then see a quick, rapid deterioration of their own democracies, right, because of the brain drain and the kind of—the people that would push back against these authoritarian tendencies. And that’s something I think Europe, especially, didn’t have to deal with before 2004, right, because it was the Europe of twelve, fifteen relatively rich Western countries. And now it’s a very different, much more heterogenous place.
ROSEN: Right. Right.
Well, just on a concluding note, we tend—as we talk about trends across the globe, we tend as social scientists to talk about these great trends and economic/social trends, whatnot. How much of what’s going on in these different places depends very much on individual leaders and decisions that individual leaders make? Obviously, in the case of Brexit, for instance, certain decisions were made at the highest levels of the Conservative Party that led to these events whose resolution is still unclear. In the case of Ethiopia you have a case of a remarkable leader doing interesting things. So how much of that kind of underlying legitimacy that transcends performance depends in a way on the political drama as it’s played out and as leaders choose to do it? How much of it depends on a George Washington or a Nelson Mandela to give, you know, obvious historical cases of extraordinary behavior? But does it require that sort of factor beyond what you can see in the rise and fall of economies and other issues like that?
MATTHIJS: Yeah, I mean—(laughter)—
ROSEN: Yes. OK, good. That’s what I was looking—I was looking for a yes, so.
MATTHIJS: No, and—but I would single out one leader is Alexis Tsipras in Greece, right? So he comes to power as this firebrand lefty. He has this motorcycle-riding, jeans-jacket—sorry, letter-jacket-wearing finance minister that shakes up the whole world, right? And then finance minister is now gone and he is making deals with North Macedonia and he’s acting as a great statesman now. And Greece is actually, you know, for all the drama we’ve had in the last ten years, quite—and I think in the end he’s kind of reinvented himself there. But there’s just—I think there’s more bad stories than there’s good stories.
SLATER: Right. Well, on that point, I mean, I think I’m guilty. I too often think of the world through parenting metaphors. But I think as a parent, you know, you realize you can’t make your kids happy, but you can certainly make them miserable. (Laughter.) And I think that—I think the same is largely true of democratic leaders as well, right, that there is—it’s not the George Washingtons; it’s the ones who can really do a lot of damage. And so I think that—the real question that—I think that confronts us is how lasting the damage that gets done by leaders who lack democratic norms. And I think there we don’t know.
And in fact, the—one of the bigger stories, I think, right now is we just don’t know what happens to democracy as it ages. There are just no democracies in the world that have—I mean, empires last millennia. We just don’t know. We’ve kind of been assuming for a long time that, well, once democracy gets past the rough—you know, the rough early stages, then it consolidates and it’s—but we don’t know. We don’t know if democracy can last five hundred years.
ROSEN: Right, and especially in the face of, you know—you know, outrageously bad leadership even in consolidated democracies. So we will see.
O’NEIL: Can I say—let me just say one thing.
ROSEN: Oh yeah, of course.
O’NEIL: Is that, I mean, the hallmark of democracy and the sign of a good democracy is you don’t let leaders do all that much, right? So you don’t let the good ones and you don’t let the bad ones do all that much. And so that’s why we get so frustrated, is you know, we know we need this reform or that reform, and we just can’t get a clean one through the Congress or through the court system. And that is frustrating when you have a great leader, but then it’s reassuring when you have a terrible leader. And I think that’s the tradeoff, is democracy is in the best cases muddling through.
ROSEN: Right, right. OK.
Well, with that, we would very much like to invite our members here to ask their own questions. I would remind you that our session today is on the record, and I would ask you please to—so yeah, so you know, carefully, carefully compose your questions. (Laughter.) And I would ask you please to wait for the microphone to come to you. I’ll recognize you, some nice person will bring you a microphone, and please state your name and affiliation. I would also ask, please, to keep questions to moderate length and make sure they’re questions so that we have time to get lots of people here.
Q: (Off mic)—questions, and very quickly. Federico Rampini with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.
SLATER: You’re first.
ROSEN: That was very, very well put. OK.
SLATER: That was very longwinded, sir. (Laughter.)
MATTHIJS: That’s a—so there’s a question mark, right, at the end? France, question mark?
So, yeah, I think Macron just got incredibly lucky, right? I mean, he was standing in the middle and, you know, the left and the right self-imploded. And I am very skeptical that this—the current situation can last long because he simply doesn’t have a party apparatus, right? So I don’t quite think the Parti Socialiste is dead. I don’t quite think the Républicains are dead. It’ll be interesting to see how well they perform in the European elections.
And again, Marine Le Pen is not gone, right, and the questions she’s raised are not gone. I mean, after three months of grand débat—and this—an American audience will appreciate this—after three months of going around the country, Macron has discovered one thing: people don’t like paying taxes. (Laughter.) And so that is, like, his finance minister’s big conclusion yesterday—(laughter)—that, well, maybe, you know, the fuel tax and all these kinds of nice things we tried to do for the environment, actually they disproportionately fall on people who don’t particularly care about it.
And so it’s going to be—I see a big confrontation coming between a very pro-EU French president and the European Commission when inevitably growth will disappoint and deficits will be bigger. And then it will be interesting to see how he—how he deals with that.
SLATER: India. So I think India is, I mean, my earlier remarks on Indonesia, you take that and you add fifty years. I think that India is a place that, again, is a democracy, that’s not going to stop being a democracy anytime soon. I think that like Indonesia, it’s going to—it’s vulnerable to real illiberal democratic tendencies. I think that the question—these foundational questions of, you know, are we a secular nation, are we a Hindu nation, dividing things into first-class versus second-class citizens, these will be enduring problems in India to deal with. But as in Indonesia, you know, my sense people really, really value and—not take for granted—but people absolutely fundamentally insist that they will continue to have the right to choose politicians who are more responsive to them and reject ones who aren’t.
And I think very much to the point on—like on Brazil, for instance. There was so much panic about Narendra Modi becoming prime minister. And I think there was, for a very good reason, lots of worries about his nativistic and Hindutva tendencies. But I do think that as in—it sounds like, as in Brazil and hopefully in the United States—that in India that the constitution and the democratic system have served as a kind of constraint and a kind of check on Modi in India, such that I think people are much less worried than they were when he first took office.
And just to finish it with the Indonesia point, you know, in a week or so—it’s a long shot—but this former general, former son-in-law of the old dictator, this guy Prabowo Subianto, it’s possible, in a shock, he could actually win the election. Five years ago, people were very, very panicked about what that would mean. I think now people are much less so because, again, he’s basically stopped speaking against democracy in a way that he did five years ago. He realizes the Indonesia people value democracy, just like Modi recognizes the Indian people value democracy. And so basically the—in the sense that these things are likely to persist in the form that they are, which is not necessarily performing very well. Democracy doesn’t bring all good things. But I think democracy itself is enduring and is health in both of those massively important cases.
ROSEN: Let me go to the back of the room, this gentleman here.
Q: Ricardo Tavares (sp) from Tech Policy, visiting from California.
It’s hard to think about the markets here without talking about civil society. Civil society’s a fuzzy concept, but I think about this—the role of ACLU in the United States, an organization that sues the government, but it’s not harassed for doing that. So how—what role civil society has had in the case that you are discussing, if any?
GAVIN: So I’ll just say really quickly that civil society, you know, different—is at different levels of maturity in different places, different levels of strength. But there are really big demographic trends in Africa, right—extremely young, incredibly rapidly urbanizing—that lend themselves to stronger civil societies. And you do see, whether in Burkina Faso, right, when they went through their transition, you know, sort of professional guilds being incredibly popular. You see in Sudan right now, at this moment, a professionals association. It’s not the political opposition that has led Sudan to this kind of moment of decision, but really it’s civil society. It’s a set of organized professionals and neighborhood networks.
So I think that civil society, while it’s being quite deliberately suppressed in some states, it is—it’s on a trajectory to grow stronger. And I think that bodes well for democratic trends in the region.
O’NEIL: I would just add that, I mean, what civil society can do in—it can do lots of things . But I can be the watchdog on governments. And so particularly if you already have a democratic structure, it can make sure that politicians do what they say they were going to do, or make sure—or try to catch them if they are doing the wrong things. And so, you know, when I look at Latin America, there are places where civil society has played a huge role. Particularly in the 1990s, it was civil society that pushed a lot of this democratization organizations. There were a lot of human rights organizations and the like that were pushing.
Today, the ones that are—that are sprouting up are the ones that I see are ones focused on corruption and going after corruption issues. So you have in several different countries when they feel that the, you know, prosecuting attorneys or the justice system is not acting in the way it should, there are civil society organizations that will put together whole cases, go out and have investigative journalists and others, and put it all together and basically dare the, you know, prosecuting attorney not to take the case. And so I think there are some advances there. I mean, the challenge always, though, for civil society is that you’re outside of the institutions. You’re trying to press those in the institutions to do the things they’re supposed to do, but you’re not part of the institutions.
SLATER: And I think—in Asia, I would say, that they’ve been monumentally important. So if you think of the cases of, like, South Korea and Malaysia, in particular both cases you just had enormous levels of civil society mobilization against highly corrupt leaders and help facilitate, you know, political transitions, and certainly in a more democratic direction in Malaysia, for sure. But I would say the limit in some ways, and this is a lesson, I think, for all of us at the moment, is civil society—it can become a much more dangerous factor when it becomes highly polarized.
And so if you look at a case like Thailand, where civil society was also incredibly active in the mid-2000s, but became very, very deeply, perniciously polarized—I mean, kind of almost ala a Venezuela kind of scenario between these very, very different visions of politics, then that much more civil society action—or, Egypt, for that matter, as well, right? When high levels of civil society are involved in politics, when things become really deeply polarized, can really have—can create political crises. And there are times that the temperature needs to come down, and some kind of common ground needs to be found.
MATTHIJS: So in Hungary—just quickly—in Hungary I would say civil society has been systematically been shut down by the Orbán government, right? I mean, and that’s—and all the people have left. But in the Brexit case, you see all these great activists, right? I mean, the Gina Miller case. The reason why we’re here is because this meaningful vote was pushed on them—on the Parliament by the courts, right, because Theresa May never was going to put this to a vote. She was just going to make a deal and just call it a day, right? And just—and so now that it was forced on Parliament to be debated, I think, yeah, it probably is a check on that kind of government that would have done things that maybe people didn’t want.
Q: Stephen Blank.
A question of deliver. Looking forward, delivery is likely to become much more difficult I think in the near and foreseeable future. For example, technology—technological change, which is the changing the structure of employment, probably increasing inequality, or climate change which will have enormous financial impact at least, maybe changing the structure of agriculture, for example, or coastal cities. Population, aging, medical costs in some countries, and certain huge population increases in sub-Saharan Africa. Is democracy the most resilient way of dealing—you think of dealing looking forward—with these profound, powerful issues that will affect wide ranges of populations across the world? So you’ve talked about democracy now. Look forward a bit and suggest, will we—will we have this discussion in five or ten years, or twenty years, and wonder democracy really couldn’t make it?
MATTHIJS: Who wants to answer that one? (Laughs.)
O’NEIL: You know, I would say—just a very brief answer to that. Amartya Sen, who’s a famous Nobel prizewinner, economist but also a philosopher, has this idea that you don’t have famines in democracy. And why don’t you? Because you don’t exclude those people. You actually bring them into the conversation because you have to, because of democracy. And as our world goes forward and faces all these incredibly challenging things that you just laid out, I do think a system that includes more voices than fewer voices will be more resilient over the long term than those that just take particular views, and push through leaving so many to the side. But it’s not going to be a smooth ride.
SLATER: I mean, I don’t think democracy exists to solve those problems, right? I mean, the state exists, and markets exist to try to solve these problems. And states and markets can function effective under democracy or badly, and they can function effectively under authoritarianism, or they can function miserably under authoritarianism. So I think the main answer to your question is not about whether it’s democracy or not. But I do think one thing I would really highlight from your comments is how we think about inequality, right?
And I think that we tend to think of inequality in terms of the rich and poor. I mean, I think increasingly now inequality is largely intergenerational. I think this question of the fate of people in my generation, the generation of people in this room, versus our children and then their children is just a massive issue that we have to be really rethinking. And I think the urban-rural divide as well. I think that’s what we see kind of across the world in a way that we’re not necessarily picking up when we talk about the 99 percent and the 1 percent. There’s a very big urban-rural divide that is going to be hard to deal with through any political institutions, democratic or authoritarian.
GAVIN: I would just throw out there that, you know, right now already in African democracies, in over half of them, right, if first time voters voted as a bloc, they would decide every election, because they’re that much bigger than the rest of the enfranchised population, if you look at African population pyramid. So—and I think that’s essential, right, because what comes behind them is even bigger, you know? The youth bulge isn’t tapering off anytime soon. So back to Shannon’s point, right, there’s got to be a form of inclusion. But where I think your point also raises some interesting questions is more around kind of the international architecture and international institutions, and while it’s hard to call them democratic necessarily, but a voice for African states in these institutions as they cope with climate change, as they deal with the hugely youthful populations. That’s going to have to change, because it doesn’t—it certainly doesn’t look just from anybody’s perceptions in Africa.
ROSEN: More questions. More questions. Sir, back here in the blue tie.
Q: Jiang Munya (ph) with McKinsey.
I have a question for the panel about talent, because I would argue the issues that chief executives today are facing are much more complex than they are. And, you know, I was at the—with the Chancellor in Germany and visiting Macron. They were reflecting that to this issue you need talent to some extent, because they are more complex. What’s your assessment about talent going into politics, going into government? And is it not a marker, in a way, that can help us to save democracy?
MATTHIJS: I think anybody would be crazy to go into politics these days. (Laughter.)
ROSEN: No one ready to stand up for the noble vocation of public service and political office?
GAVIN: Oh, God. (Laughter.) It’s my secular religion. No, I very much believe in public service. I think—I think a lot of people in America do. And I—you know, one thing that I highlighted at the top is you do see a lot of new actors kind of entering the political space in Africa. Younger voices, tired with this kind of gerontocracy that characterized a lot of African states. And so there’s, you know, certainly no shortage of talent on the continent. And I see more political participation—you know, it would be interesting to sort of see this in a rigorous way. But my impressionistic sense is that it’s happening.
Now, in a state like Nigeria, for example, tremendously complex and hard to generalize about, I see kind of a worrying trend the other way, right? Less voter participation, a sense among some of the most talented Nigerians that this is a—that this is not where it’s at, that politics are not going to solve the problems, they’re not going to create the solutions. But there are plenty of counter-examples elsewhere. So I think it’s a mixed bag.
SLATER: And thinking talent doesn’t have to reside in people who are elected, right? I mean, that the talent we expected to come from the public service, from the bureaucracy, from the—kind of the hard apparatus of the state which persists throughout different electoral cycles. So we certainly need talented people who are doing politics, but politics is bigger than just who you elect. And that’s one reason, again, to my point why it’s not necessarily about whether it’s a democracy or not that then gives you these downstream effects. Like, are we going to solve the gig economy problem? Are we going to solve these—I mean, these are just questions for people who are in bureaucracy, people who are, you know, in different ministries, different—you know. And those—you know, so we need people to be recruited to that, for sure. And, again, just goes to show you that politics is—you know, not just about who we elect.
ROSEN: I wonder—so, again, to raise the alternative model, maybe not, but the alternative of China at this point and, again, those who would advocate for how China handles these things is, among other things, that China is very good at cultivating, identifying, training very capable people to rise up into the higher regions of policymaking and politics. So, again, is that an aspect, at least, of what China does, and does to some good effect obviously in the fruits of that system? Is that something that others elsewhere in the world look at and, again, see as an advantage of a system that is less completely democratic in how it finds expertise, finds talent?
SLATER: Since you’re in Asia, I’ll start. Well, if you’re—if you’re in Africa, or Latin America, the Middle East and you want to look to Asia for lessons of how do you solve problems, you don’t have to look to China. I mean, go to South Korea. Go to Taiwan. You know, I mean, go to—you can go around the region. There are—you have lots and lots of effective states—you know, well-run bureaucracies. Go to Japan. You think in Japan they don’t know how to solve technological problems? Japan’s been a democracy, you know, since the 1950s, right, consistently, without being under challenge. This is not a problem. And they have demographic problems, but guess what? China’s about to have that too—maybe even worse, with the One Child Policy, right?
So there are—again the question of whether or not a place is well-run is completely distinct from the question of whether or not it’s a democracy. So you can look to authoritarian models, if you wish, but that, I think, is often—you know, I think, back to Michelle’s point, this is a selective reading for your own strategic political purposes. But there are plenty of examples around the world, especially in Asia, I would say, certainly in Europe, to have incredibly well-run democracies. And so it’s just a question of which models we look to, if we want to look to models at all and how we generate support locally for, you know—
ROSEN: Good. Actually, let me take more questions, because we have many of them. This gentleman in the far back there, yeah. Oh, I’m sorry. I was actually pointing to this man here. Sorry.
Q: Thanks. Alex Pascal with Macro Advisory Partners.
I wanted to just pick up on a question that I think many of you have been sort of touching on about the role of people in democracies identifying as small-D democrats, and how important that is for the resilience of the democratic system, with respect to generationally the continuity of a democracy?
O’NEIL: I mean, it’s, I think, very important, right? And one of the challenges of increasing polarization that we’ve seen in a lot of places is that people aren’t playing to get sort of wonky game theory—they’re not playing an iterative game, right? You think this election is the last election. And if we don’t win this election, then it’s closed off to us forever. Well, if you’re a small-D democrat you say, OK, I really want my candidate. Bummer that I lost. But we’ll be back again in two years, or four years, or whatever the timeframe is. So I do think that idea that there’s a consensus of loyal opposition, right? That you’re going to play the rules of the game. OK, you know, even here in the United States we may try to gerrymander, we try to—we try to move the scale a little bit here and there. But in the end, we’re ready to kind of pick back up and enjoin for the next day, and we play generally by the rules. And as we’ve seen in some places, that’s not the case. So that small-D democratic is obviously vital for that—for that way of thinking about democracy.
GAVIN: I would maybe just say, you know, going to the sort of stable African democracy that I know best, Botswana, right, there is an interesting system of kind of civic education, right? So as young Botswana learn their national history, they are also kind of getting a set of civic values, right, that are intended to become part of their identity. So there is a fairly deliberate effort, right, to tell young people that this is—you know, in addition to all the other identities and hats that you wear, you are a, you know, patriotic member of this country. You participate. And we are democrats. And for them, their big thing is all about the rule of law. They really—they love their rules. It’s a very Hufflepuffian kind of—(laughter)—in a terrific and admirable way, place.
MATTHIJS: Alex forget to mention he’s also a graduate of SAIS, Johns Hopkins. (Laughter.) And then, just—I do like to think that there’s some reports that young people value less living in a democracy today than, let’s say, a generation ago. And I think they may not give it ten out of ten . They may give it nine and a half or nine out of ten. It still means they value it highly. But I mean, I’ve kind of been impressed with the activism that you’ve seen amongst young people all over Europe, especially when it comes to climate. And even the marches all over U.K. and so on. Young people are now suddenly realizing that not voting has consequences, right, and that there is this kind of big chunk of their grandparents’ generation that do vote.
And I think it’s kind of—I mean, a great story is actually Ireland the referendum on gay marriage, right? You had thousands and thousands of young people convincing their grandparents that this was the right thing to do, that they had gay friends, why shouldn’t they get married? And they convinced them even that it was a conservative thing to do, that, you know, this was good and to be married and be, you know, in a family structure, and so on. So I think—I’m hopeful. And nobody speaks up for the Millennials these days. So I hope like occasionally we should. (Laughter.)
Sir, in the front row.
Q: Gordon Bell. Legacy Growth Partners and Bed Stuy Restoration.
So I have a question, listening to all this, it seems that maybe democracy could be charged with remaking the state to be effective for its people. And if that’s so, then is democracy doing the right activities with the modern era? Meaning there’s information, there’s education, as you look at the different groups—the young people, the old people—are we, in fact, remaking the state? Or are we getting stuck in politicians getting reelected? Because it seems an awful lot of attention in our US of A is fake news, alternative facts—folks trying to get reelected, as opposed to the conversations that we really should be thinking about that include participation in the markets.
And if so, if this is all possible about remaking the state, the follow-on question—which may be far-fetched, admittedly. I’m not a politically guy necessarily, although I’ve been here, like, thirty years. Should we be doing more mergers and acquisitions? Should interested countries say, well, you know, by myself I don’t have a shot at participating as fully as I’d like. What if I did an acquisition/merger agreement—you could call it NAFTA, call it whatever you want to call it—but should there be a lot more not just trade agreements, but real binding ties that give people a sense of, you know, how to move forward in a vast, moving world? Thank you.
O’NEIL: So the three Mexicos should actually become part of Mexico? (Laughter.)
GAVIN: So that’s the idea of a lot of kind of sub-regional organizations in Africa, where they have these grand visions that eventually lead to some form of political union, right? But we’re a long way from anyone even really wanting to implement those plans. But certainly on the economic side, integration is where it’s at in Africa. And it is—you know, we just had the last country sign the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. It’s going to come into force. You have—you know, the EAC was sort of the model—the East African Community was sort of the model of a regional integration that was moving forward in exciting ways. Now there’s a lot of—but the politics get in the way, right? Now there’s a tremendous amount of tension between Rwanda and Uganda, and Kenya and—there’s a lot—a lot of drama. A lot of drama in the EAC that’s making it hard to move forward. And so politics gets in the way. And I think it’s a very long road to integration.
MATTHIJS: I think Europe is a cautionary tale there, right? I mean, when I started graduate school Europe was kind of a model for the—they thought of themselves as a model. There was books being written about the united states of Europe, the European dream, and America was stuck in Iraq. And it seems like such a long time ago. So I think the balance really is now, especially in a monetary union, in an economic union, since the mid-’80s, and especially much of this has happened between the mid-’80s and the mid-’90s which is kind of an extraordinary period of policy consensus on economics, which is gone now.
European member states gave up competition policy in the single market, trade policy, then monetary policy, much of its fiscal policy. Now they’re giving up their banking regulations. So there’s a lot of policy levers that different member states no longer have, and different countries—different democracies have different needs, right? Different wishes—left wing versus right wing, you know? And so if governments want to be responsive to their people, they need the policy levers, and they need the shock absorbers. And so I think you need to find the balance between the things you can do together, like climate policy and so on where Europe has done quite a bit, and things like, you know, labor market and fiscal policy, where I like to think that countries still need much more flexibility and policy discretion. So you can also take this kind of rule-based order a little far. And I think Europe has done this. And a lot of the backlash you see and the Euro-skeptic movement you see is part of that.
Q: Ken Wasserman. I’m an attorney.
For Dan initially, could you offer your thoughts on the concept that there might be radically different legitimate models of democracy, including East versus West, and perhaps comment that there—even in China are at the local level elections, multi-person elections?
SLATER: I think that people tend to define democracy differently in different places, for sure. I wouldn’t draw a sharp East-West divide on that. I think that what I described in Indonesia of—you know, and I think in India as well—people just really demanding that politicians pay attention to them and help, you know, deliver what they need, and to listen to them. I mean, I think that that exists in China as well. And to a large degree, the—through a kind of fragmented form of rule that the CCP has been able to give a sense of being able to deliver. And people in China protest like mad. Like, there’s enormous amounts of protest in China when local politicians fail to deliver.
So I definitely think it’s true that we need to kind of work in two different veins. I think that in one vein we work, as political scientists, to say there’s something that we define as democracy. And we can say is it advancing, is it receding around the world? But we also—you know, with our other ear, or something, we need to be able to say, well, how do people in a local context think of what democracy is? How do they feel about how their government is performing? Do they draw this sharp divide between the procedures of democracy and the good outcomes that people, you know, hope democracy’s going to produce? And so I think it’s a different story in a lot of places.
I would not—I don’t think that Japan, and South Korea, and Taiwan, or Indonesia are merely Asian democracies. They’re fully blown, full-fledged—they’re, you know, full-fledged democracies. And I think the hubris that came with saying that somehow Western democracy was the best, I really, really hope we can get rid of this by this point. I mean, I just think it’s so manifestly, obviously untrue. So I hope we’ll be looking to—I hope we’ll be looking to Asia for models or for lessons—I hope we all can learn lessons from each other. We should be looking to Asia at least as much as Asia should be looking to the, quote/unquote, “West"?
Q: (Off mic)—from Goldman Sachs.
I just wondered if you could speak about the role of multinationals in preserving or sustaining democratic institutions, and whether you’ve seen any kind of a shift over the last—as we are seeing some places with democratic recession—whether you’ve seen a shift in the role of multinationals? Thank you. (Laughter.)
O’NEIL: I’ll start a bit. So in Latin America there’s many famous examples of—especially historically—of multinationals asserting their will and actually asking for—or forcing a change in government, even a democratic government. So multinationals have not always had a great reputation in terms of supporting democracy, let’s say. And one thing I have found quite interesting as, you know, we enter a world of global manufacturing and global supply chains, and all these sorts of things, is that you have constituencies in the U.S., or in Europe, and others, demanding that the multinationals, at times, you know, do practice—have good practices in other countries that may not be quite as democratic or quite as robust in their democratic institutions. So, you know, example are the apparel industry, or Nike, or others who get shamed for not following rules.
So I think you have this interesting dynamic where at times multinationals—sometimes multinationals, their overall budget is bigger than the GDP of the country they’re in, right, or their revenue lines are bigger than GDP. So they have a huge amount of weight. And sometimes they can use that to undermine or to make things easier for themselves, that might undermine sort of democratic practices, or a more inclusive way. But sometimes they actually force these countries to kind of go up the scale in terms of transparency and professionalism, because they don’t want to get caught in either—you know, that their goods were made by slave labor. They don’t want to get caught in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. And so they won’t bribe the governments or they won’t pay off things.
So I think multinationals can play a pretty nuanced role for good or sometimes for ill in sort of supporting institutions. But I do think that, you know, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which was here but the U.K. has an even stronger one, that some of these overall rules that then big multinationals have to follow or else they get in trouble in their—in their home bases, have raised the standards, at least on this, in terms of government procurement, or overall private sector practices in a lot of the emerging markets that I look at. So I think that part has been good.
ROSEN: Thank you. I am mindful of the rules and norms of this particular place. And so I know we have many more questions, and probably even many more answers to this particular question. (Laughter.) But we should wrap it up. Please join me in welcoming—welcoming, in thanking—in thanking our panel. (Applause.)
BUSSEY: Well, welcome back, everybody. We’re going to—we’re going to get started. Welcome back from your coffee.
So our next panel is entitled “Economics, Identity, and the Democratic Recession."? That’s what we’re here to discuss: Brad DeLong from Berkeley; John Judis has written on populism and nationalism; Catherine Rampell from the Washington Post, my hometown newspaper—what we refer to at the Wall Street Journal as Brand X—is also somebody who has written on this topic extensively.
So, Catherine, let me—let me start with you. So the U.S. has had, in its history, populist and nationalist moments. This is—appears to be one of them. What got us here? What were the forces that led to this particular episode?
RAMPELL: Well, obviously, there has been a lot of discussion of economic anxiety, so much so that it’s almost become a punch line. You know, whenever a journalist gets a racist email it’s, like, oh, there’s that economic anxiety at work again. But I will say that my views on the extent to which the economy and, particularly, the financial crisis have played into the rise of populism on both the left and the right is shaped by two things. One is more anecdotal.
So I’m currently an op-ed columnist at the Washington Post but in my previous job I was an economics reporter at the New York Times and I was writing about the Great Recession as it was ongoing and its aftermath, and I interviewed during the course of my duties there many unemployed workers.
And I was frequently struck by comments that they would make that were unsolicited about the real reason why they couldn’t find a job is that—if they were young it was that employers only wanted older people. If they were old, employers only wanted younger people. If they were white, employers only wanted minorities. If they were a member of a racial or ethnic minority, they only wanted white people, et cetera.
I mean, the real problem, of course, was that there were just no jobs to be had. But that was not how people who are in this position necessarily saw the situation—that there was this great—and this, obviously, wasn’t true of everyone I spoke with but it was common enough that I felt that there was this—there was this—if not desire there was a perception, at the very least, that somebody else was winning out at their expense, and I think that that helped radicalize some people and made them feel like their group was being unfairly punished, some other group was being unfairly favored, and that helped drive some of the political polarization.
The other thing that has shaped my views, at least on this question, is more data driven—you know, a larger sample, I would say. There was a really interesting paper written by three German economists that came out a few years ago that looked at the aftermath of systemic financial crises over, I think, the last 140 years, like, 800 elections, and something like—I don’t remember how many countries—several dozen developed countries, and they found that after systemic financial crises, although not after normal recessions, there was a rise in political polarization and the fracturing of political parties.
There was a rise in both left- and right-wing populism after these kinds of crises but right-wing parties—right-wing populist parties tended to benefit much more. I think something like, on average, the vote share for right-wing parties went up by 30 percent after systemic financial crises, and there were other things that they documented including greater social unrest and greater government turnover and things like that.
BUSSEY: Similar to what’s—I mean, we’ve just heard kind of a description of what’s happening in Europe and other parts of the world—similar to what’s going on in Europe what’s happening in the United States?
RAMPELL: I certainly think that there is overlap. I mean, every country, obviously, has its own forces, as people in this audience know, that shape what happens in its domestic politics. But we have seen in lots of European countries the rise of far-right parties. We have seen the rise in populism, a desire to scapegoat ethnic minorities, elites, immigrants, amongst others, and we have seen this, I think, especially in countries that were touched by the financial crisis.
BUSSEY: Yeah. Brad, walk us through some of the economics of this. Would you—you’ve got some numbers for us. We’re going to put them up on the screen but we also have a handout.
DELONG: I do. It’s my job as the economist. OK, the numbers. Say, over the past forty, fifty years we’ve seen some alleviation of call them gender hierarchies. You know, if you look at women, even women who are high school dropouts—the red line—they’re making more money in real terms adjusted for inflation now than women were back, say, in 1981, and spreading up so that the group that’s done at least as well as anyone else are women with advanced degrees in America. For them, America is fulfilling the promise that people thought or expect to have of it.
By contrast, men who do not have advanced degrees have been getting it in the neck over the past forty or fifty years—that their incomes now are barely above or are substantially below the incomes of their counterparts back in 1980. What they expected their lives would be like their lives aren’t like, and this strikes them as a substantial disappointment of rising expectations. And so it might not be economic anxiety but it’s that somehow some promise was taken away.
And it’s not in any sense that, you know, racial and ethnic hierarchies have been overturned. If you kind of look across the racial ethnicity groups, you don’t really see any one group that’s doing significantly better than one would have expected, given patterns of and differences of forty or fifty years ago, say, for black women with B.A.s. Black women with B.A.s are doing significantly better, it looks like, than pretty much any slice you have.
It’s not that things are being overturned in terms of the gap between black and white unemployment becoming less with the exception of the gender kind of thing. We, basically, are where we were forty or fifty years ago at least in terms of the economics, not in terms of a sociology. The economics may be less important.
But the fact that people—look, I mean, people believe that they have rights to a good life. People believe they have rights to stable communities that support them and that don’t disrupt and overturn their lives. You know, look at my neighbors south of Berkeley who are horrified at the idea that they might want to tear down a single-family house and build an apartment building for students.
People think that they have the right to the income that corresponds to the profession or the occupation that they have worked hard to become part of and people believe that they have a right to continuity of employment—that their job shouldn’t suddenly vanish because some financier three thousand miles away decided it doesn’t make a cost-benefit test. And, look, the only rights the market respects are property rights and the only property rights that are worth anything are those that help you make things for which rich people have a serious and unsatiated jones.
The fact that the American economy over the past forty years has not been delivering substantially rising living standards for everybody that means that the market’s failure to deliver these other forms of nonproperty rights becomes the source of call it economic anxiety, becomes a potential problem.
BUSSEY: So let me ask you, John. That’s the economic argument. Identity is in the title of our program. Walk us through some of the other driving forces. Identity suggests race. It suggest tribe. It suggests tones of immigration. Walk us through some of the other driving forces, in your mind, and also tell us how much you buy the economic argument behind this.
JUDIS: Well, I buy the economic argument in this sense, that the process of globalization—you know, automation, trade, all these things—has produced very uneven development in the United States and in Western Europe and some extent also in Eastern and Central Europe where you have very prosperous metro areas—finance, technology, electronics, big health, all this stuff—and at the same time these very large pockets of deindustrialized America where you have, you know, Wal-Mart. You have an office economy, but things aren’t the way they used to.
Now, if you go to a—I was just in Sherrod Brown’s hometown—Mansfield, Ohio. You know, it used to be an extraordinarily prosperous town. Tappan Westinghouse, GM, Empire Steel—they’re all gone—big empty lots. The people there aren’t necessarily suffering. They’re not—you know, we’re not talking about Appalachia.
But what we’re talking about is a way of life that has disintegrated over the last thirty or forty years where people expected their children to have the same jobs that they did, where they took pride that they worked for GM or Empire, where they were members of unions, where they were particular churches, neighborhoods, knew the people there, often the same ethnic group, and what’s happened is that for people in those kinds of areas—Erie, Pennsylvania, Muncie, Indiana—I can go through all of—Greensboro, North Carolina—their identities have been stripped. And for them, what becomes most important and, again, this is not something that’s different from us but it’s more important—family, home, religion, nation.
If you go now to New York or Washington, D.C. or San Francisco or any of these places, much more prosperity but also a much more fluid identity. People who think of themselves—again, the term is they could live anywhere—they could live in London or Brussels or whatever—they have—I used to make a joke with myself when I first moved to Washington, D.C., in 1982 and went downtown to meet people how long it would take these big shots to tell me what college they went to.
You know, if they went to Salisbury State I would not hear about it. But if they went to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, within the first five or ten minutes—and maybe even after that, a prep school—what law firm they were members of, who they knew. They had a much greater—it wasn’t like they didn’t care about the nation. You know, my heartstrings plunk when 9/11—I wanted to go fight in Afghanistan. So did—you know, so does almost everybody in America. But it’s much less important to us. It’s not way at the top the way it is for somebody in this other part of America whose way of life has really been decimated.
So, again, I wouldn’t think of it narrowly in terms of economics but it has an economic foundation on top of which you have culture and on top of which you have a real culture war between these two parts of America because I think, very accurately, that people in small-town America see themselves as objects of contempt from the people in the metropolitan area—
BUSSEY: So you’re describing—
JUDIS: —and vice, you know—
DELONG: Well, Harvard Ph.D. Harvard B.A. Harvard B.A ancestors back to 1686. Sidwell Friends School and before that, you know, Cal Tech nursery school. But my wife grew up—first generation in her family to go to college—in a Portuguese neighborhood of Fall River, where everyone’s parents and grandparents worked in the textile mills. The textile mills of Fall River were stripped by Greensboro. It was Greensboro, North Carolina, that took the textile mills of Fall River away and stole from the Portuguese millworker immigrants of Fall River their identity, and their grandchildren are absolutely fine with that.
They are part of this greater Boston cosmo elite and yet they are grandchildren of millworkers and they do not think that they want those jobs, that particular identity, back. They think they have a better one. They think they have a new one. Why didn’t Massachusetts politics turn this strange weird Trumpist flavor back in the 1950s and ’60s?
JUDIS: Look, did you ever hear of Louise Day Hicks?
JUDIS: That’s a lot of—Ed King, 1980—you’re talking about grandchildren. In Greensboro now—I used to put this graph up when I would—you know, I actually sometimes do use a graph—of where the most manufacturing was lost from 2001 and 2016, and I’d say, well, what do you think was—you know, Michigan was number one but what do you think was number two, and it was North Carolina—furniture. But those are the—those aren’t the grandchildren now. The grandchildren and the children are all going to Raleigh-Durham but the people who were left there now are pissed off and those are the Trump voters.
DELONG: And 2001—the 2008—the furniture workers who lost their jobs were getting new jobs in construction building up Raleigh and Durham and no one was unhappy at all about the economic transformation of the Carolinas in the 2000s—
JUDIS: Yes, but that’s not where the Trump votes came.
DELONG: —until late 2008 when all of a sudden it turned out that a great many securities rated AAA by Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s in fact had no business being sold to anyone at any price at all.
BUSSEY: So John—Catherine, John’s talking about identity in terms of the deindustrialized sections of the United States—and Angus Deaton has written on this as well quite a bit, the Nobel Laureate—and what that did to destabilize social life.
BUSSEY: You know, all of the institutions that people had come to depend upon just weren’t there, you know, any longer. And, yet, we’re in a(n) economic growth period. That’s not inconsequential. We have historically low unemployment and the discussion is very often race related. Why are these kind of racial tensions coming to the surface in the United States now when there’s fairly strong economic growth across the sphere?
RAMPELL: So I would say that the economic growth has not been equally shared, as Brad has pointed out in this chart, amongst other data points. Wage growth has been relatively weak—it’s ticked up a little bit recently—but that your typical worker for whatever reason, even though there are more jobs to be had across the country, across the country you are not seeing upward pressure on wages, and then even where you are seeing upward pressure on wages it’s, again, not equally visited upon all of the parts of the country that we’re talking about including areas that have been hollowed out because they’ve been deindustrialized or what have you.
So I think there’s, in some sense, potentially lingering resentment about the fact that, hey, why do the—why does it seem like everybody else is getting rich or at least moving up in the world except for me. When you have people who feel like they—not only did they lose a lot in the Great Recession and the financial crisis—maybe they lost their homes, they lost their jobs, you saw an acceleration of the kinds of structural changes including the decline in manufacturing, amongst other industries.
But even in the recovery, I’m still not—I haven’t recovered the ground that I have lost, and I think, to some extent, that is motivating this perception that other people are getting ahead and I’m not. Maybe those other people are Washington elites. Maybe those other people are immigrants who are either if not stealing my job stealing my wage gains because they’re flooding the market or what—you know, that’s the perception, in any case. So I think that’s part of it, certainly.
I will say that I take exception to the idea that people in, you know, Rust Belt towns have a monopoly on patriotism. I think that patriotism is more evenly distributed than perhaps John—
JUDIS: It’s not patriotism. It’s they get much more upset when Colin Kaepernick doesn’t kneel for the National Anthem. That’s not necessarily patriotism but it is—
DELONG: They get upset when he does kneel.
JUDIS: —emphasis on nation and what’s important.
DELONG: When he does kneel.
RAMPELL: I mean, maybe that’s the motivation. I think you could attribute other motivations to what’s been going on, particularly since the fact that the figurehead for Trump voters—Trump himself—likes to pick on outspoken black people, whether they’re talking about patriotism or otherwise. But that’s a whole other can of worms.
But in any case, I think that what’s interesting is that, like I said, I have been ascribing the rise in this populism, authoritarianism impulse within the country to the fact that we had this very traumatizing event—a systemic financial crisis—but even ten years out we’re still feeling the lingering effects of that and the question is why. And is it because people don’t feel like they’ve recovered? Is it because politicians have played up whatever scapegoating inclinations voters may have already been leaning towards and have sort of enhanced—you know, the temptation to try to otherize people who they think are getting ahead at their expense so even when the economy is doing better they still, you know, feel drawn to those political arguments? I don’t know. I do wonder if, as the economy continues to recover, if we see stronger wage gains will some of that effect fade, and I think we don’t know.
BUSSEY: Yeah. Brad, let me ask you a different question. Let me ask, so should we take solace in the fact that there’s been other periods in U.S. history that we’ve had this kind of sort of reflex?
DELONG: And French history, and the German—
BUSSEY: The—in the 1930s—yeah, the 1930s is a good example of that. We had Father Coughlin on radio. We had a nationalist kind of, you know, surge and yet we got through it. Should we take solace in the fact that, you know, we’ve muddled through in the past?
DELONG: No. No. No. No. I mean, Louis Napoleon used these kinds of feelings to overthrow the French Second Republic and establish himself as emperor. You know, Francis Fukuyama wrote an excellent article about how the communist kind of belief that socialism, public ownership of the means of production, and the free society of associated producers was a big idea that had crashed and that the only big idea left was that of liberal market democracy.
But he made the key mistake that there was a third challenge—that there had been a third challenge. That is the idea—you know, it’s basically a Roman idea—it’s that, like, we are—each of us is individually a stick, very weak, but if we can unite ourselves in a big bundle of sticks and if we can tie ourselves together in leather thongs, we then become a powerful force that, in the hands of our strong leaders, could bruise our enemies.
And Francis Fukuyama thought that this political movement was dead and buried, had been dead and buried by 1945, and it looks like he is wrong. You know, if you look at Hungary, as we saw before, if you look at India today, where the government seems to be trying national Hinduism, although casting the Muslims of India in the role traditionally ascribed to the Jews, if you look at an awful lot of place, the idea that we’re going to distract people’s attention from the fact that they rightly believe they aren’t getting their fair sharing of the system by pointing to internal or external enemies that you can despise or blame, this seems to be a remarkably powerful movement that shows up whenever.
You can’t guarantee rapid economic growth so that pretty much everything thinks, well, I’m living significantly better than my parents, and the fact that we’ve seen this before and come out of this before doesn’t mean we should say this is no big deal. It’s always been a big deal. So far, at least, the United States and Britain, at least, have been very lucky whenever these political movements arise.
BUSSEY: John, we are—our title of our session presumes the democratic recession—economics identity and the democratic recession. Are we in a democratic recession or is it a moment when one side is really mad at the other side for winning?
JUDIS: Well, I—you know, I’m not a public speaker but I do a lot of book talks lately and so I never look closely at titles, and I thought it was about democracies in the recession, not the democratic recession. (Laughter.)
BUSSEY: All right. Take it either way and give it your best.
JUDIS: My view is entirely the opposite. I think we’re in a period where a flowering of democracy, an efflorescence of democracy, driven largely by the internet—the development of the internet. You know, go back to the printing press, what, fifteenth century. You couldn’t have had the Bourgeois revolutions of, you know, 1688. You couldn’t have had the French Revolution without the printing press.
DELONG: You couldn’t have had two centuries of near genocidal religious war.
JUDIS: But you couldn’t have also—yes. No, just don’t interrupt because I’m about to say exactly what’s coming out of your mouth.
JUDIS: But you also had two centuries of religious wars, which were also. So what it means—again, what the printing press means, what the internet means, is a much greater participation by a much larger group in politics. The Tea Party isn’t a—wasn’t a sign of democratic decline. It was a sign, again, that people who might not have otherwise been involved in politics were suddenly getting involved. I used to do—
RAMPELL: A lot of that was astroturfed, though.
JUDIS: I used to do—no. No. No. I did—I did that work. I interviewed people. To take even the campaigns—Dean, Sanders, and, on the other hand, Trump—all, again, driven by this—by the possibility of this much larger diffusion of information. And just one final thing. I used to do trade policy. I used to write about trade in the 1980s—Gephardt, you know, all this stuff, what is—Section 301. I can’t even remember all these names.
But there were, like, five hundred people in America who even knew about this stuff. Now, you know, again, that kind of information is diffused throughout the society. You know, some of it’s fake news. Some of it’s false. But we have the possibility of a much greater level of participation in our society and in our democracy than we had before. So, again, I don’t see—I don’t see a recession of democracy. I see a boom.
BUSSEY: Catherine, Donald Trump, maybe even the Tea Party before Donald Trump, a decline of democracy or an exuberant deployment of democracy?
RAMPELL: I think there could, theoretically, be elements of both. What worries me is the claim that Trump is representing the people to oppress specific groups. Is that democracy? I would say no. He would say that he is—he is capturing the will of his voters, that he represents, you know, the essence of their democratic wishes.
But he is using that rhetoric to try to take rights away from people to vote or at least his—many of his people working on—you know, what was his—what was Kris Kobach’s election fraud commission thing? But, you know, using—I would say that that would represent the lessening of democracy. He is claiming the mantle of, you know, of democratic flourishing in service of reducing democracy, right, I mean, and taking away the right of people to vote, in trying to take away the First Amendment from people.
You know, he talks frequently about the media as being the enemy of the people, about wanting to take away broadcast licenses of news organizations, including ones that I work for, that he does not like. Does that represent a flourishing of democracy? I mean, I’m sure Trump would claim that it is. I’m sure his voters would claim that it is.
But I do not buy that argument that this actually represents a greater participation of the many people within our nation and the many voices within our nation if, in fact, the actual policies that will result mean silencing people both at the polls and in their ability to speak their mind.
BUSSEY: Yeah. We’re going to go to questions in just a minute. But I want to ask Brad one last question. So looking at your numbers, what are the longer-term consequences of that type of trend line—inequality, stagnation? Does it lead to kind of a mindset of, you know, what the hell, I’ve got—I’ve got nothing to lose if I pull this lever or if I don’t pull this lever or if the next president doesn’t let me pull a lever because there’s not a next election? Does it lead to that or does it lead to, in your mind, more engagement democratically—people feeling more need to be part of the process?
DELONG: I would say we really don’t know because it wasn’t this bad before—that it’s never been this bad and the distribution of income continues to get worse. We did have, in the thirty years before the New Deal, a very much whipsaw—the rise of the progressive movement as lot of people, even people for whom America is doing very well, begin to say, wait a minute, this can’t go on. There’s something fundamentally wrong. And so you have Teddy Roosevelt attacking malefactors of great wealth. You have Andrew Carnegie saying he who dies, dies disgraced and that in fact if you leave anything at all to your children you should be ashamed.
But then we have the whipsaw in Harding and Coolidge and the business of America is business and our real problem is we have many—too many of these Italian and Polish and Jewish and other immigrants who really are not white at all and shouldn’t be counted as such. And then the whipsaw back in 1933 with inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt and the decisive decision that wasn’t the way that we’re going to do.
It makes politics unpleasant. It doesn’t guarantee a good outcome, especially—I mean, look, we’ve been tiptoeing around President Trump so far this morning and it’s a really strange situation with a lot of if he were nots. If he were not president, Trump’s family would already have moved for a guardianship ad litem, given the quality of decisions he’s making. If he were not so authoritarian, we would be profoundly sad that someone—hate him, love him, simply be amused by him—has been such an entertaining celebrity who has left such a mark on the city of New York.
And if he were not so deranged we would be in the streets demanding the constitutional order be observed and wondering just what we should do when someone begins taking him seriously and literally when he says that the Washington Post and Catherine here are the enemies of the people, when he says what we really need to do is get rid of the judges and just have the bureaucrats kind of and law and security agencies do their thing.
RAMPELL: Not the deep state, though.
DELONG: It’s not a world—yeah, it’s not a world I ever thought that I would live in in America, I must say.
BUSSEY: Let’s go to questions. Can we start right here—right in the front row?
Q: Yes. One of the basic definitions of democracy is the consent of the governed and the knowledge of civic authority and civic tools and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights known to all, and we haven’t taught a comprehensive civic curriculum since 1980. That’s forty—almost forty years of disconnect between ourselves and what we value. We have no idea what we value anymore.
We have no idea what we stand for anymore. We have no idea if there are any gestures whatsoever that connect us to the nation as opposed to a local community or an identity politics. We ignore this completely, for some strange reason that I have not a clue about, prior to any economic decisions has to be that the people of the United States are educated to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
BUSSEY: So your question is about should we have more civics lessons?
Q: My question is why do you think this has been ignored. This has been the most important subject in America and it has been ignored for forty years.
BUSSEY: John? We’re not teaching enough civics. Is that our problem?
JUDIS: Teaching civics? No. I don’t—you know, again, the Tea Party, which actually did exist—they used to give out Constitutions at rallies—I mean, copies of the Constitution—I don’t know quite—I guess there’s some—where I would sort of reorient your question is towards immigration in the sense of one nation and how important, from my standpoint, it is in order to have a kind of advanced welfare state and the kinds of things that we are talking about now, let’s say—Medicare for anyone or Medicare for all—to recapture this view that we all are one country so that we don’t have this kind of thing that happened with Obamacare where some people think, well, I don’t like it because it’s for somebody else and not us. And what we are suffering from and why immigration, again, I think is such a big issue in 2016 and continues to be is the sense that we aren’t—we aren’t one, and that’s something that we had more of when I was growing up than we have now. So that’s—I’m sort of readjusting your questions.
BUSSEY: Let me—let me—let’s go on. We have other questions.
RAMPELL: So one comment I would have about the Tea Party passing out Constitutions, I think I got mailed at least one of these, by the way, when I was—I think when—probably when I was at the Times—you know, there’s a lot of stated reverence for the Constitution but it’s kind of like a—like almost an abusive relationship. It’s, like, I love you. You’re perfect. Now change, right.
I mean, the Tea Party was talking about the Constitution above all, and yet was calling for constitutional conventions because they thought that some of the core components of the Constitution including birthright citizenship, for example, or the lack of a balanced budget requirement—that those were major deficiencies with the Constitution. So that’s the first point that I would add that, you know, the Constitution does allow, obviously, for mechanisms for changing it. But there’s this sort of love-hate relationship with—like, it is sacred and yet we should change major portions of it.
The other thing I would mention is that there was a really interesting article a couple of days ago in the New York Times about a fight over the civics curriculum in I want to say Minnesota but I don’t—I don’t—was it Minnesota?
DELONG: I don’t remember.
RAMPELL: Michigan. Thank you. Over whether it was proper to call the United States a democracy versus a republic and that this became a very politicized fight for whatever reason. But there were also disagreements over whether the curriculum could mention major portions of American history including the gay rights movement, references to climate change, which is not squarely within the domain of civics, I realize.
But there is, I think, a very lively debate that recurs over how to teach children about how their—about their country’s history and the political underpinnings of how the country should work. Whether we have more or less attention to that I’m not sure is going to solve all the problems that we’re talking about today.
BUSSEY: I saw a question over here. One right over here. Sorry.
Q: Thank you. Niso Abuaf, Pace University.
Professor DeLong actually mentioned the notion of property rights. But property rights are not given by God. They are assigned through the political system. If we go back to the biblical story of Solomon where two mothers present themselves with one child and to whom does the child belong, to the biological mother or to the mother that has taken care of the child, Bertolt Brecht’s response to that is the mother that has taken care of the child.
So it seems to me that the Right will give the property right to the biological mother, the Left to the mother who has taken care of the child, and that’s where the system is going towards. How will this political system assign the property right—the owner or the taker care of—the caretaker?
BUSSEY: Who wants to play Solomon here?
JUDIS: No, not me. I didn’t understand a word of it. (Laughter.)
RAMPELL: I didn’t quite understand the question.
JUDIS: Yeah, let Brad do this. He’ll—(laughs).
RAMPELL: Do you want to take it? (Laughter.)
DELONG: The idea that, you know, that property rights are a convention that we assign each other for some—for social utility in some sense rather than something that is given to us by God, that was indeed the point of what Solomon was doing back there, right—that we always should take a look at how our property is divided and say, is this in fact serving our interests or not.
You go back to the Torah and you find there as one of its institutions is the Year of Jubilee, right—basically, abolish the debts and redistribute the land. And, in fact, when Jesus Christ preaches his first public sermon, he’s reading in the synagogue and he’s given a scroll from the Torah which has this verse about how God has sent me to bring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, health to the sick, and to bring the acceptable year of the Lord or the year of the Lord’s favor.
And, actually, what that means in the original Greek—and we think of the Aramaic behind it—is foreclosure relief, and yet, somehow, that Jesus’ first public sermon involves Jesus saying, God has sent me to bring, among other things, foreclosure relief this day—is this verse fulfilled in your hearing—not something that usually makes it into the American Evangelical view of the world.
BUSSEY: Other questions? Yes, over here, please.
Q: Is this working? OK. Charlie Landow.
Thanks for the discussion. We’ve heard a little about economic discontents from some of you so far. I would imagine, although I could be wrong, that one of the economic discontents among some folks in the country in the last several years has been not only do I not have as much as other people in the country but because of that or related to that I also don’t have as much political influence. So the system is working in favor of the people who have more resources.
To what extent do you think that is true and, if so, what does that say about campaign finance or other types of things that might be helpful to look at in the context of democracy in this era? Thanks.
DELONG: It’s not—it’s not clear to me that pretty much anyone who thought they had a lot of political influence twenty years ago now thinks they have more save, possibly, for Sheldon Adelson and save possibly for our strange modern analog of the Earl of Warwick, kind of Rupert the king maker. But even Rupert—that is, look, the basic—the basic business model of Fox News is there were a lot of people in America whose view of the world was not being validated by any of the major networks and there was a market opportunity here and so Rupert Murdoch pursued this market opportunity. The form in which Roger Ailes and company pursued it basically took the form of scaring the piss out of old people so their eyeballs would stay glued to the screen so they could be sold fake diabetes cures and overpriced gold funds. (Laughter.)
But, you know, it’s not clear to me that even Rupert the king maker thinks he’s in control now if only because of the fact that there are other people willing to play the game more so with other alternative channels.
DELONG: That Fox News tried to go in against Trump and found itself very quickly reversing course in the last election.
BUSSEY: John, does it—if you have more money does—you have more political influence and that’s the destabilizing force here?
JUDIS: It’s an important influence and it’s one of the reasons, oddly, again, that we have so much political activism in the country. You know, the breakdown—after Watergate we had campaign finance reform and that effort, beginning in 1976 with the judicial decision, has just completely broken down. But in response to that, you have things like, you know, what, three of the Democrats now are not accepting donations from political action committees and, again, kind of the Sanders revolution in terms of financing campaigns.
So it is an enormous problem in our society. I mean, we do have something resembling an oligarchy in terms of our campaign finance system and we need a, you know, political revolution if we are going to accomplish certain kinds of things, especially having to do with providing more economic security for our people. So yes, a huge problem but, again, the source of a lot of activism right now in response to it.
RAMPELL: Well, so I would say this—that there is plenty of political science research to suggest that people who are well off their views are much better represented by policymakers or in the actions of policymakers than people who are not. I think Marty Gilens at Princeton has a whole book on this, if I remember correctly.
And to some extent, Trump ran on harnessing their frustration and resentment about that, and there’s a bit of an irony in that he ran saying he was going to represent the forgotten man against this rigged system, and yet with the exception of certain areas including trade, for the most part he has continued to perpetuate the same kinds of policies that that supposedly rigged system that helped the very wealthy was oriented toward.
Like, I can’t imagine that the forgotten man was really agitated for big tax cuts for corporate jets, right, or was really agitated about we really need tax cuts for pass-through corporations or, you know, we really need to repatriate all of this money from abroad so we can have big share buybacks. Like, I don’t think those were the populist issues that Americans cared so much about, and yet, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was—is to date the biggest and, basically, only major legislative achievement that Trump has under his belt.
So he’s a guy who ran against this rigged system, who said, I’m not going to be controlled by these big donors. Remember, at one point, he said he was going to self-finance his campaign and then, of course, he changed his mind quite abruptly. But that was the narrative he ran on. Of course, if you look at his actual record, again, with some exceptions, pretty much he’s still doing the bidding of Sheldon Adelson and Rupert Murdoch and others who were, you know, controlling the purse strings before.
BUSSEY: Other questions? Yes, right back here in the middle.
Q: Hi. Dan Slater, University of Michigan.
So I think as with a lot of these conversations there’s maybe a conflation of the marginal Trump voter from the average Trump voter and we’re focusing a lot on the marginal Trump voter. I’m sort of wondering, given that the average Trump voter was wealthier than the average Clinton voter, how does that fit into our story of economic anxiety decline and the rise of Trump.
JUDIS: I can talk to that a little. Again, if you’re talking about 2016, my back-of-the-envelope breakdown based on, you know, polling—there’s a woman at Cato, Emily Ekins, who’s terrific on this stuff—the core activist Trump voter who cared a lot about his immigration, trade, and stuff, maybe 25 percent of—20 percent of the electorate.
A lot of his vote came from Democrats—I mean, from Republicans who did not want to vote for Hillary Clinton. Again, very traditional Republican base. Or, again, the Evangelicals who were worried about the Supreme Court and issues like that and the promises that Trump had made to him—made to them.
So, again, this core is not that—I don’t think is that large. It’s 20, 25 percent, and in the 2018 election you could see Trump’s problems in terms of the—and the Republicans’ problems because they’re losing some of those voters that voted for him just because they couldn’t stand Hillary. Now they are worried—you know, now they can’t stand him so they’re shifting away to the Democrats.
BUSSEY: Yes, right here.
Q: Thanks very much. Matthias Matthijs—I was on the previous panel—Johns Hopkins.
If we can believe demographers, by 2040 they predict about 70 percent of Americans are going to live in fifteen states and the other 30 (percent) are going to live in thirty-five states. So that’s—is that a problem for American democracy, going forward?
DELONG: It doesn’t have to be a huge problem.
RAMPELL: I don’t have a strong opinion on this. So I’m happy to turn it over to Brad.
DELONG: You might well say that the thirty-five states that will elect seventy senators and yet have a decreasing share of the population, that these are overwhelming communities in states that are being left behind by the economic engine of American world globalizing value chain whatsit and that for a political logic to over represent those people to offset the fact that the economic logic is grossly under representing them might be something that is not totally unfair.
BUSSEY: A bit of a stretch. A bit of a stretch.
DELONG: But this requires—this requires that the senator from Nebraska, say, actually be interested in policies that tend to bring money and wealth into the state of Nebraska rather than the senator from Nebraska cheering the nominations of Herman Caen and Steve Moore to the Federal Reserve Board on the grounds that it owns the establishment.
BUSSEY: So it sounds like—it sounds like, Brad, you’re saying in answer to Matthias’ question, yes, it is a problem?
DELONG: It could well be a problem. If we had normal politics, if we had normal interest group Theodore Lowi polyarchy politics, it could be fine. But if it, indeed, becomes some kind of identity politics in which Ben Sasse wins reelection by owning the libs, in which whoever the current governor of Kentucky is—I forget—wins reelection by taking Medicaid away from his own voters, then it will be a serious problem.
RAMPELL: I think—so I don’t have fully articulated views on this question. But I would say that my inclination is to agree in the—
DELONG: Thank you.
RAMPELL: You’re welcome—(laughter)—in the sense that I think it’s already problematic for a democracy that, as a New Yorker, my vote does not count as much as it did when I lived in Florida, right. Like, why is that the case? We’re currently having a big debate about the future of the Electoral College. I’m not sure I really genuinely believe it’s going to change anytime soon. But this is a major issue in the Democratic Party, partly, maybe, because Democrats have now lost multiple—won multiple popular votes at the presidential level and still lost the Electoral College.
So some of it, you know, may be some bitterness about that. But I do think it’s a fundamental question about democracy. Why is it—why is it that because I don’t live in a swing state my vote doesn’t count? I don’t think that enhances democracy to, basically, tell people in, you know, deep red or deep blue states that their votes don’t matter, which is, effectively, what happens now.
BUSSEY: Yes. Right in the back there.
Q: Thank you. Mark Hannah, the Eurasia Group Foundation.
The political sociologist Michael Mann wrote about the dark side of democracy when one part—one essential element of democracy, namely, majority rule, overtakes the other—respect for sort of minority rights, tolerance, pluralism, and that’s a big fear right now in the Trump era.
I wonder whether there is any concern that you might have for the inverse of that occurring where the respect for—sort of appreciation of tolerance, inclusion, pluralism, all those things, overrides majority rule, to some extent, and I’m thinking about the kind of identity politics happening in my Democratic Party and some of the ways in which the Tea Party seems like a response to the, you know, their voices not being heard or their ideas not being represented by political elites. Thank you.
JUDIS: I didn’t understand the question.
BUSSEY: So are we too focused on identity politics—race, gender, other aspects of identity notably in the Democratic Party—to the exclusion of majority interests?
JUDIS: Well, you know, there’s a political question. I mean, I think that the problem with the Clinton campaign, if we’re going to get into this, in 2016 was that they really did count up—I’m partly responsible for this. Ruy Teixeira and I wrote this book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, and I think people have drawn certain conclusions—you know, you wait for minorities to become the majority and then automatically you’ll have—you’ll win the election.
And the Clinton people really did calculate that there were going to be these X group here and Y group here and if you appeal to all of them you would win, and they did win a popular majority. But they didn’t go to Wisconsin. They didn’t go to—they ignored, again, parts of Michigan that were crucial and they lost the election.
So, you know, our—the test of our elections and successful elections in this country have been who can—who can speak for the, quote, “common man"?—the average person—and Trump won that battle in 2016. Again, we can go into this whole election debate at length but I’m not sure if that’s what you want to do.
BUSSEY: Other questions? Yes, right over here. Yes, sir?
BUSSEY: Yes, please.
Q: Bo Cutter is my name.
I’d like to go back to the democratic recession and as the title implied, not the way John thought it might mean. There was a clear tendency in the last panel to talk about democracy and the democratic recession somewhat more in institutional terms and in this panel, particularly Mr. Judis has talked about it a little bit more as a—the capacity for self-expression to flourish, and I’ll grant that that is an aspect of it.
But I’m interested in the panel’s view about what the economic issues, as Brad underlined, the identity issues that may emerge in part from that, as the panels discussed, and then the sort of hyperization of it by our president has implied for the actual institutions of our democracy. What do you think is actually happening?
DELONG: Again, I think you have to separate out—need three different meanings of democracy. And the first one would be Alexis de Tocqueville’s democracy is where everybody can kind of stand on their own two feet and look everyone else in the face—that so and so was not a peasant who’s supposed to put his eyes down because he’s face to face with de Tocqueville—the lord of Tocqueville—about how during the French election of 1849 the villagers of Tocqueville said, you have to be at our head because you’re the lord, and he said, no, no, no, this is a democracy.
And then there’s kind of John’s thing, who has the ability to speak with a megaphone in the public sphere; who can stand up and actually be heard in the public sphere, and then there’s the third—to what degree are the material and ideal interests of the people properly represented and aggregated in the kind of decisions that we collectively make as we govern our own destinies.
And I think that overwhelmingly the first two, right—social inclusion, on the one hand, and the ability to speak on the other—you know, are important and are valid but that the first panel and I think this panel and the next panel, too, really should be devoted to the third, right.
I mean, it was eighty blocks south of here in November 1787 that Alexander Hamilton wrote to the middle class of New York saying the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy produces feelings of horror and disgust. Small intervals of felicity are overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage. And that is how the rest of the world looks at us now in the age of Brexit and Trump.
Few among middle classes abroad, certainly, and maybe not that many among middle classes at home think that Anglo-American democracies have it right with respect to this third properly bringing the arguments and interests into the governments. Now, Hamilton and Madison, they had plans. They had plans for republican remedies to the diseases of republican government. It’s pretty clear to me that their plans are running out. We need new plans. What are our new plans going to be?
BUSSEY: Bo, does that answer your question? Does that get to it?
RAMPELL: I have some thoughts on what’s happening to our U.S. institutions. I missed the first panel so I apologize if—
BUSSEY: Please do.
RAMPELL: —if some of this territory was already covered. But I think that we are seeing a systematic hollowing out of our institutions in the name of representing the people and I think, again, in the same sense that I was talking about before—you know, claiming the mantle of democratic flourishing to attack various kinds of out groups—I think you’re seeing the same kind of thing happening with our institutions including the—you know, the judiciary, the Fed right now, which I have a lot to say about.
Not that the Fed is, you know, a high example of democracy. It’s, literally, delegating very important policy decisions to a bunch of technocrats, right. These are not democratically elected officials. But Trump is trying to hollow out the Fed in the name of, you know, of his—of helping the forgotten man or what have you, when in fact what he wants to do is just impose his will upon the Fed in the same way that he wants to impose his will upon the judiciary, upon, you know, various apolitical civil servants.
You know, he’s trying to hollow out the deep state, which has come to mean people who are trying to both undermine the president and, you know, hurt America somehow—that they’re all conspiring against real Americans because these are, like, career civil servants who want to protect the environment or they speak foreign languages or what have you. I mean, there’s been a huge hollowing out of lots of very apolitical jobs.
BUSSEY: But, Catherine, the last panel said—Dan, Matthias, I’m not sure whether it was either of you two—that said that the hallmark of a great democracy is that you don’t let leaders do too much and by that they seem to be suggesting that the rule of law is the ultimate parental supervision. You don’t think that that’s happening here in the United States?
RAMPELL: Say it again.
BUSSEY: You don’t—you don’t think that there are hedges against the president going too far? That our system doesn’t allow our leaders to do too much—it protects the system?
RAMPELL: I think to the extent that Trump has not been able to do a lot of the things that he has said he wanted to do including, you know, bar asylum seekers altogether from seeking asylum, I think that reflects upon the fact that we do have—we still have rule of law. We still have some checks and balances.
That said, it is a constant battle. I mean, Trump is purging his entire DHS right now and a lot of the reporting—which I have not done, to be transparent—but a lot of the reporting that’s come out from my paper and from others has suggested that part of the reason why he’s trying to get rid of all these people is because they have told him, you can’t do X, Y, and Z because it would be against the law, and he’s saying, off with your heads, essentially.
So to what extent—you know, so who’s going to replace this group of people who have now been purged? Are they going to be people who are no longer willing to hold the line and maintain rule of law and say, we’re not going to violate a judge’s order, for example? I don’t know. I think it speaks well of our institutions that they have managed to last throughout Trump’s authoritarian impulses and maintain a check against them. But I am not so confident that if we had four more years of Trump that they would persist.
BUSSEY: I have to be mindful of the time. We’re going to have to make that the last word. Brad, Catherine, John, thank you so much. Join us for coffee. (Applause.)
VAITHEESWARNAN: I want to just start first, I thought. There are multiple questions we can get into, and we will, but one of the interesting and important questions of the age—and not least because I just spent five years covering China, technology and business for my publication before returning here to the U.S.—is the rise of a splinternet and techno-authoritarianism. We do we see how technology and some of the newer tools are being used—are being applied rather than to liberate, but rather to suppress and entrench authoritarian governments.
I wanted to ask, maybe starting with Shanthi, can you give us a little bit of a picture of how you see the rise of techno-authoritarianism?
KALATHIL: Sure. So, you know, I’d start by situating it within the context of how we view the role of technology and democracy today. I think if you go back ten, fifteen years ago it was a very different picture, as you’ve alluded to. So, for instance, the information wants to be free trope, the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace from John Perry Barlow in the late ’90s. And there was really a sense that technology and democracy just went together. And I think as a result of that, democracies were underprepared for the ways in which technology would be used actually to enhance authoritarianism. And so at the time that John Perry Barlow—
VAITHEESWARNAN: It was a beautiful dream.
KALATHIL: It was a beautiful dream. And it’s not to say that it can’t be used for those means, absolutely. I don’t think that it’s the case that technology inherently empowers authoritarianism. But even as John Perry Barlow was, you know, writing his declaration in the late ’90s and so on, authoritarian regimes were already looking at how they might use this technology to control information, to control and manipulate conversations and discourse, because that’s what authoritarian regimes do. And in China, and Russia, and other places, the control of information and communication has always been central to the maintenance of the regime. So of course, they would try to get on top of it.
And I think China and Russia approach this in different ways. And that continues to inform the ways that they act globally. But you pair the rise of authoritarian regimes and their increasing ability to control and manipulate discourse within their borders and beyond their borders with the emergence of a few central platforms and technologies, which have built into them certain features as part of their business model that can exacerbate some of those trends of techno-authoritarianism.
And we can get into this a little bit more during the discussion, but for instance when we used to think of the public square, and the ways in which that would be perhaps enhanced by technology and be aided by technology, we think of the public square as analogous to a real physical space in which you’re walking around with people and interacting with people that you know, with your neighbors, and so on. Nowadays, the public square is populated by people look like our neighbors, and they will have conversations with us that are designed specifically to appeal to us. But if you look more closely you can take off the masks and see that maybe they are not people we know, or they’re not even people at all. (Laughs.)
Those dynamics were not even thought of back when democracies were thinking about these initial issues and how to approach them. And the business model has been part of that, sort of bringing to the fore the importance of engagement but not the importance of reasoned discourse that would aid democracy.
VAITHEESWARNAN: You put down some markers on some issues we’re going to pick up. Let me—let me turn to Laura. Can you talk a little bit about one of the important actors on the techno-authoritarian front? That’s Russia. How do you see their particular experience based on their history of how they got to the use of these technologies? And we’ll come to China in a moment.
ROSENBERGER: Sure, yeah. I mean, within—as Shanthi alluded to, both Russia and China have started, you know, sort of internally with exploring how they can use some of these technologies for surveillance and control. For Moscow, that goes back to well before the advent of the internet. You know, Moscow during the—during the Cold War under the Soviet Union developed some very early surveillance and collection technologies that it deployed pretty widely in order to maintain a net of both surveillance and the potential control over its citizenry, recognizing from early days that information was actually really essential in terms of its ability to control. And of course—
VAITHEESWARNAN: And distinguish this from propaganda, per se. Because propaganda is nothing new. It’s age-old, isn’t it?
ROSENBERGER: Yeah. Well, I mean, the Soviet Union also had quite a history with its use of propaganda.
VAITHEESWARNAN: That’s what I mean.
ROSENBERGER: Yeah, of course. I think there’s two sides to this. Propaganda is probably the outward push. In its modern incarnation what Moscow has been able to do is to use sophisticated technology to sort of weaponize what used to simply be propaganda into what I now talk about in terms of information manipulation. Much of this isn’t necessarily about content that is true or not. It’s not about necessarily actually trying to convince somebody of one particular argument. Sometimes it’s about censorship. And I think that’s something that Moscow has been adopting internally and pushing out externally.
But it’s also something where, you know, if we sort of fast-forward to modern times with the internet, with social media platforms driven by algorithms, the engagement model that Shanthi talked about, Moscow has actually learned very quickly how to manipulate the information domain. So essentially to make certain pieces of information to seem far more prevalent then they may actually be to push conversations further to extremes, to essentially distort the boundaries of conversation so that it’s not necessarily even about injecting something. It may be essentially just trying to manipulate the contours of the debate, or essentially to undermine the very idea of truth by injecting a whole bunch of contradictory narratives.
So I think—but what I would note is that there is this connection in modern techno-authoritarianism between the surveillance and control aspect of what we saw, you know, going back a long time in Moscow, and this ability to manipulate the information space, given the importance of data, given the importance of understanding what people are talking about, how to target things in particular ways, how to insinuate to particular audiences. And so there much is a connection between the inward collection and the outward push around information.
VAITHEESWARNAN: Adam, you follow China very closely on this topic. How would you distinguish what China’s doing in this realm from what we’ve heard about Russia’s history and experience?
SEGAL: Well—(coughs)—excuse me. I think—I think with the Chinese case we’re at this important point between—and inflection between internal and external. So for a long time we were focused on what the Chinese were doing internally to control the flow of information. You know, we talked about the great firewall and the building out of censorship technology to keep information from the outside, and a regulatory environment based on intermediary liability, right? So Chinese firms had to take the information down.
They had to hire tens of thousands of censors to make sure the information was taken down. We saw an evolution of the type of information that China took down. You know, first from just kind of anti-government sentiment to a much more sophisticated direction of taking information down that promoted organization. So you could get away with saying, you know, we don’t necessarily like the government. But if you say, we don’t like the government and meet at McDonald’s tomorrow, that came down almost immediately. Other stuff might have a longer half-life.
So we saw that primarily focused internally. And we’re at an inflection point now where the Chinese have increasingly begun to thought about how do we shape the global cyberspace.
VAITHEESWARNAN: What are a couple of examples of that?
SEGAL: Well, I think primarily there is a kind of model now that developing countries can look at and say, oh yes, it is, in fact, possible to have economic growth and a closed internet, right? Because we had basically been arguing that the two went together. That you needed to have openness to have rapid economic growth. And the Chinese have managed rapid economic growth over the last three decades with a very close, and closely controlled, internet. You know, to go back to other famous quotes that aren’t true, you know, President Clinton basically said that, you know, efforts to control the internet would be—in China—would be like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. It turns out that the Chinese are very good at nailing Jell-O to the wall.
So I think there’s a model version, so that everybody sees that, yes, in fact, you can control. And that we see lots of developing countries adopting that model. And then longer-term—
VAITHEESWARNAN: And the Chinese are helping them.
SEGAL: And the Chinese are helping them.
VAITHEESWARNAN: Including with the equipment, yeah.
SEGAL: So longer-term, we now see that the Chinese want to own, shape, develop those next generation of technologies. So we’ve seen it in the contest, you know, most recently over 5G. But we see it in artificial intelligence, quantum, and all other places where not only, as you said, are the Chinese going to be on the ground—so if you’re building out your infrastructure, and you’re thinking about digital access and how open that internet should be, you know, are you going to turn to the Huawei engineer or are you going to turn to somebody from the U.S.? Also, those technologies and the data is going to, you know, feed into this Chinese model that is very attractive to many developing countries.
VAITHEESWARNAN: Have we seen the Chinese use—move into the realm of the Russian information manipulation? There’s always been some degree of—you know, crude techniques, like the so-called fifty-cent army or the commentaries online, and online blog posts and so on. But something more sophisticated and with intent, the way Russians have been doing it.
SEGAL: Yeah. So as you said, fifty-centers tend to just be cheerleaders. So they tend to kind of engage bad comments with just like isn’t China great comments. We have seen what I would call—or, what Laura was calling—information manipulation on issues that the Chinese consider internal, right? So with—certainly with Taiwan, we have seen over the last year and a half, and we will continue to see around the election, stories that have been planted that make the DPP look negative, some doxxing. So, taking personal information of politicians, putting it on the web. Harassment of activists. We saw that in Hong Kong. And that will continue around issues like Xinjiang and Tibet as well.
VAITHEESWARNAN: But they consider these territories to be internal.
SEGAL: Exactly. I haven’t seen it—we’ve seen it internal. I think we’ve seen other types of influence in other democracies, but primarily through money, individuals, straight up propaganda—so news stories. We haven’t seen so far the use of online trolls, although they have certainly been watching and learning. I think because they have different interests. I think the Russians tend to succeed in a world where we can’t tell the reality from the truth and everything is burning. The Chinese don’t want that world. The Chinese want a world where there are some institutions still in play, institutions that they are a part of and that they, you know, shape in their own ways, and other institutions they want to build.
VAITHEESWARNAN: What do you see- yeah, please jump in.
KALATHIL: Yeah, just to build on that a little bit. I do think, though, that not just the Chinese government, but other authoritarian regimes are looking at how Russia was so successful, not just in the context of the U.S. but around the world in manipulating the information environment. And two things. In both exploiting the weaknesses of democracies and using what have often been considered to be the key strengths of democracies—discourse, debate, vigorous, public sort of going at it. Using that. So—and also then creating distrust. And while I agree that perhaps Beijing is not so interested in creating a world that’s on fire, I think it’s learning from those techniques and understanding that actually democracies have these weaknesses—again, predicated on our fundamental, long-standing belief that these would be our strengthens and they couldn’t really be manipulated.
VAITHEESWARNAN: So what are a couple of ways you see that advancing? Are you seeing them using Confucius Institutes? Or what are the means in which you see some of that manipulation from China?
KALATHIL: Well, they’re—that’s a whole, long conversation to be had outside of the tech realm. In the tech realm, though, what’s quite interesting is that while Russia was primarily—while the Kremlin was primarily able to manipulate the dominant Western tech platforms to kind of influence Western societies, China’s actually creating its homegrown platforms. And so there you have the potential to not just apply the Chinese internet censorship model that Adam just described, but where they may have an opportunity—the Chinese Communist Party—may have an opportunity to try out some of these techniques on the platforms, using techniques borrowed from Russia and others, because they actually have influence over these platforms, these homegrown Chinese platforms.
And no matter what those companies say, there is always a way in which the CCP is able to influence those platforms, and blackmail, or use whatever degree of non-rule-of-law-based pressure it can to extract information, data, and cause them to act in certain ways.
SEGAL: And we have seen, I think, some operations directed at Chinese speakers through WeChat in Australia, Canada, and the U.S., where information has been pushed—
VAITHEESWARNAN: I mean, at this point, though, I guess the one proviso I would add is that by and large China is wildly successful. And very innovative platforms, like WeChat, have been successful mostly with Chinese speakers. It’s not something that’s been widely adopted by non-Chinese speakers, for example. They tried in Europe with a campaign with Lionel Messi. They tried to splash out. And they did not make advances against WhatsApp or Facebook.
KALATHIL: But that’s not even the biggest Chinese platforms. I mean, one of the biggest platforms that’s currently prevalent in the U.S. is TikTok, which is hugely, you know, popular with youth. That’s now—that’s owned by a Chinese company. It has multiple other parent companies, multiple other platforms in local languages. In India, for instance, in other countries in Asia. So it’s no longer just a Chinese language specific bounded phenomenon through WeChat and other well-known platforms.
VAITHEESWARNAN: Laura, you wanted to jump in?
ROSENBERGER: Yeah. Well, I was going to mostly make the point that Adam made on WeChat, which I do think is an important space to watch. But I would also just note that we do know that Beijing does appear to have the capabilities to do some of the more Russian-style information operations. They have conducted a number of those on Taiwan, which as you note from Beijing’s perspective is of course an internal issue. But they—I mean, if you look at some of the—some of the campaigns that they’ve conducted there, they’re very much Russian-style active measures, right out of the playbook.
So I think that, you know, watch that space, is what I would say, in terms of testing their capabilities. I completely agree that their long-term goals are very different. You know, the CCP is trying to shape a world that is in favor of its interests. That means not destroying institutions, as Adam said. But I do think that it means shaping a narrative. And I think Beijing is learning how to use a variety of tools, including in the online space, to—similar to what Moscow has done, manipulate the conversation. Again, it’s in very different ways. It’s much more subtle, which in some ways may make it much more insidious because it’s harder to see, in some ways. And it’s much more a sort of building over time shaping of perspectives. But I do think that that is important.
And I would also just not discount the fact that the use of WeChat and others so far have really only been able to reach the Chinese-speaking audiences. A number of democracies have significant Chinese diaspora communities. And the fact that these communities are being preyed upon by the CPP should be of concern to democracies.
VAITHEESWARNAN: So let’s pick up on that concern and maybe move the conversation forward to possible solutions, or at least responses. What are governments that are concerned about this—be they in advanced economies, Europe, the U.S., but also let’s say in Africa, for example, where China has made a big push in various ways—what are countries that might be concerned about these forms of manipulation—what are some reasonable policies or tools that you would recommend, or at least that we’re seeing? Someone want to kick off? Laura, you want to?
ROSENBERGER: Sure. Yeah, I’m happy to.
So I think there’s a couple of things. One is, I think, simply awareness is really important. I mean, as we’ve noted earlier in the conversation we’ve moved from the idea of technology as an inherent good for democracy to now talking about technology as a threat to democracy. And I think Shanthi’s exactly right, that it doesn’t have to be so. And, frankly, my own view is technology is neutral.
VAITHEESWARNAN: Well, it’s a double-edged sword, right? It goes—
ROSENBERGER: You can also look at it that way, yeah. I think—I think the key is for both governments, for civil society, and for tech companies to have a much more robust conversation about how we maximize the upsides of technology for democracy, and how we minimize the downsides. We need to do a much better job about understanding vulnerabilities on the front end so that we can either patch those or develop mitigation measures. We need to understand from a national security perspective how authoritarians may be able to weaponize these technologies and be prepared to deal with that. So I think that there is a lot of connectivity that needs to be built there in terms of, you know, better—you know, more robust conversation on the R&D front, better understanding of societal implications, and a much better understanding of how we—how we mitigate these things.
VAITHEESWARNAN: Shanthi, what do you think about those proposals? How would you look at it?
KALATHIL: I mean, I think if we could get it together to get all that put into place, that would be great. (Laughter.) From my perspective, I typically look at the nongovernmental side of things. And this is where I think it’s really important to focus some attention, because a lot of what we’re seeing here is the manipulation of open societies through technology and other means by determined authoritarian powers. And that manipulation takes place in the open space of democracies, in the soft underbelly. And that’s not a place where government policy can really directly reach so easily. And maybe it might not be appropriate for government policy to reach into those places. It’s really up to those open societies and civil society within that space to response.
VAITHEESWARNAN: So what’s an example of what should be done?
KALATHIL: I think, you know, in light of some of the recent revelations and news about Huawei, many universities within the United States and other places are taking a second look at some of their partnerships with Chinese entities, for instance. And at least one university, MIT, seems to have gone further and is now thinking about instituting project by project reviews, so that if there’s coordination with certain state actors those projects would be examined on a number of criteria, including some that Laura just mentioned, and also incorporating some kind of human rights and democracy criteria to look at whether, for instance, a partnership with an entity based in an authoritarian regime is not inadvertently enabling surveillance and control and authoritarian practices.
Those reviews have not been taking place so far, I don’t think. But any move by universities and other organizations in that space to voluntarily adopt these sorts of measures will go a long way, because we’re starting from basically nothing at the moment.
VAITHEESWARNAN: So, Adam, we’ve heard a couple of observations about the context, about the need for awareness of this issue, and some of the civil society responses. You’ve talked a little bit about—previously about the role of regulation in government. Can you tell us what are your thoughts on that? What is the role, perhaps, of a new model of governance?
SEGAL: Yeah, I mean, we’re at a point now where it looks very likely we’re going to have multiple regulatory environments across liberal democracies about content moderation, right? So from my five years ago when the Council did its taskforce on U.S. policy towards cyberspace, of about protecting a free and open internet, and I think we had—saw some of these tensions between, you know, for example, takedowns of Nazi material in France and Germany versus a more open internet in the United States but with, you know, the Australian rule, and the British white paper that came out, new German rules. We are—you know, we are very clearly moving to a world where I think the companies are going to face massive regulatory complexity, even across liberal democracies.
VAITHEESWARNAN: Do you believe Mark Zuckerberg when he says he wants to be regulated?
SEGAL: (Laughs.) I think, you know, part of the suggest that Zuckerberg made was for an independent committee, right, to help with the take-down decisions which, you know, in many ways would help Zuckerberg and help Facebook, take some of these decisions out of their hands, right so they don’t seem to be biased one way or the other. But it does—you know, it’s not a crazy idea in the sense you do have to get, I think, some wide agreement between the liberal democracies about where we want to be, vis-à-vis China or Russia, right?
I was in China right after the elections. And, you know, as part of a track one-point-five, right? So U.S. government officials and Chinese government officials all pretending not to be government officials. And each side gave an update of where we stood in our kind of thinking about cyberspace. And, you know, the U.S. side talked about the interferences in the elections, and the worry about information operations. And the Chinese had a big smile on their face. And they’re like: Yeah, we’ve been telling you this forever, right? Let’s think about how we can control rumors on the web, and how do we control information. And the U.S. side was, like, no, no, no, that’s not what we meant. (Laughter.) Right?
But we have gotten pretty close to what they—what they meant. And so I think we need to think about—at least among likeminded, as we say—about what are the common rules and norms we can identify so we can have some set of principles that we are willing to put in a line in the sand, and also convince countries like India, and Brazil, and other multiethnic democracies that this is the model they want, not the Chinese model.
VAITHEESWARNAN: Laura, you mentioned briefly the U.K. white paper. I know you had a quick look at it. It’s brand-new. Can you give us your quick take, for those of us that haven’t had the chance in the audience to consider it?
ROSENBERGER: Yeah. I mean, I think the context that Adam put it into in terms of another step towards content moderation or content regulation is certainly the way I see it. It’s a—it’s a pretty robust approach. And—
VAITHEESWARNAN: This is the U.K. proposal?
ROSENBERGER: The U.K. white paper, yeah. Now, to be clear, the U.K. white paper is a conversation starter. There’s a three-month process. It’s not a formal proposal. I think it’s really important that we recognize that as such. That being said, it is definitely putting down a marker that this is the direction that at least this U.K. government—
VAITHEESWARNAN: As long as it lasts. We’ll see how long—
ROSENBERGER: We’ll see how long it lasts—is thinking—is thinking that it wants to go. Essentially, the sort of meat of it is to set up this independent regulatory body that they’re—my read of it is, is trying to play a little cute by half, saying it’s not government, it’s independent. And therefore, it’s not government regulation of content, but it’s an independent authority governing content, or something. I don’t—it’s a distinction, for me, without a difference. I share Adam’s concern about this tendency towards the regulation—government regulation of content.
From my own perspective, I actually believe that looking at this as a content problem is exactly the wrong way of addressing this. You know, in most instances, if we look at is as a source problem—you know, we have deliberate manipulators of information, right? Actors that for nefarious purposes are trying to manipulate or corrupt the information space. And then we have distribution channels that are designed to speed that content through the internet and put it to the top of people’s feeds in one way or another. And we’ve built, you know, echo chambers where—
VAITHEESWARNAN: And we’ve seen recent exposés how YouTube monetizes and took advantage of accelerants on extreme content.
ROSENBERGER: Right. Yes, yes, yes. I mean, the algorithms are built precisely for that purpose.
I believe that if we focus on the source and the distribution aspects of the problem, we will be, A, much more effective at actually addressing the underlying aspects and then, B, we don’t get into the challenge to free speech, which is deeply concerning to me. My sort of bottom-line view on how we content with these issues is that if we’re trying to protect democracy, let’s not hurt democracy in the process, because as Adam rightly pointed out, we’re just doing Beijing and Moscow’s work for them, if that’s where we go.
VAITHEESWARNAN: So that’s a good note to stop on, a provocation even. I’m going to turn to the audience for your questions. Just to remind you, again, this is on the record. Wait for the microphone, please. And of course, identify yourself and your affiliation.
Let’s see a show of hand. I see a hand up here in the front. We’ll come here, and then we’ll go to the back row second. Please make it question, sir, not a long speech.
Q: Sure. I’m Ronald Tiersky from Amherst College which is, of course, a liberal arts college.
And so this is a little bit a liberal arts question. We’ve been talking about technology, and people, and the attempts of governments to control people. When I talk about totalitarianism, things like that, in the end I would get to what I think deep down is the—let’s call it the nature of human nature. And I would say, in the long run human beings will want to be free. What do you think about that?
VAITHEESWARNAN: A cleverly worded statement, really. But—(laughter)—but I’ll let that one stand. But a warning to the rest of the audience, let’s not do that again. Any response.
ROSENBERGER: Well, I mean, I am—I am sort of not somebody who studies human nature in terms of my professional pursuits. So I feel like I’m a little bit out of my—out of my zone on this. But just from my own personal view, I do think that that is true, although I think, you know, freedom at what cost, I think is where people tend to come down, right? So I think if we look at China, actually this is a really interesting way of asking this question. Do most citizens of the PRC—you know, are they free enough, right? Do they—do they—number one, do they sort of know what freedoms they don’t have? And two, you know, given their—the economic trajectory of China, does that feel enough for them? And I don’t know the sort of absolute answer to that question. But I think certainly the Chinese Communist Party thinks it’s trying to maybe present a different model to what freedom is.
SEGAL: Yeah, I had the same thought as Laura. I think the Chinese have been very good at basically saying, look, the alternative is not—you know, we’re not going to get automatically to Singapore, although that’s our goal. The alternative is the Arab Spring, right? That’s what is going to happen. And they’ve been very successful, I think, in selling that message to the vast majority of the Chinese population, who believes, you know, tomorrow is going to be better than today, economically at least. If that ceases to be true, then you—I think you get a different conversation inside of China.
But I think right now what we know from—you know, when you give Chinese users VPNs and, you know, the experiments that have happen, where you provide anti-circumvention technology, they don’t rush to Human Rights Watch, right, and download the reports. They may go to, you know, other funny cats they couldn’t see before, but basically they do what they have done before. There is a small, you know, group of people that are interested, but until that social contract on economic growth and stability breaks down, then I—then I don’t see a reframing of that discussion.
VAITHEESWARNAN: A quick point, Shanthi?
KALATHIL: So, maybe unsurprisingly given my affiliation, of course I believe that people want to be free. I think that’s just an innate human desire. But I do think that due to the long history of information manipulation within authoritarian regimes—including, most prominently China, and Adam has talked about that history—people’s views have been shaped by that in ways that we don’t even understand.
And just to give you one example, there’s an academic at Stanford who’s done research on how historical records in Chinese journals have been quietly excised from Chinese databases over the last several years. So that if you were a Chinese scholar trying to study your own country’s history, you’re not able to access that history anymore. Politically inconvenient truths are being simply taken out of the academic record. And as a result, they’re dropping out of the narrative of that country’s history. And not only domestic Chinese scholars, but people outside of China can’t understand that now.
So those are ways in which China’s manipulation and control of information, the Chinese government I should say, is deeply and profoundly affecting the way that Chinese citizens themselves view their own history and view their understanding of concepts like freedom and so on. And, you know, the other point is I think none of us can speak with any certainty as to real attitudes about these questions within China or other authoritarian regimes, because there is never yet been a fully accurate polling system or way to assess public opinion that’s not subject to government control in China or anywhere else. And so it’s very difficult to weigh in on that with any degree of certainty.
VAITHEESWARNAN: An excellent recent book by a journalistic college on some of these topics was The Republic of Amnesia, which talks a little bit about how the younger generation really has very little idea of Tiananmen or some of the other facts of recent Chinese history, to your point.
Let’s go to the back row, as promised, and then we’ll come back across to this side. Again, a short question, sir.
Q: Yes. My name is Alex Yergin.
My question is, with the growing movement towards and discussion around privacy regulation throughout liberal democracies, and really throughout the world, how does this kind of play into what we’re discussing here today?
VAITHEESWARNAN: Someone want to take that?
KALATHIL: Well, I’ll just briefly say, I think we’ve been talking a lot about the supply coming from authoritarian regimes of disinformation and propaganda and so on. But I do think that what we’ve seen is also a—you know, you don’t have these problems with disinformation manifest themselves in the way that they have without these deep underlying tensions within democracies that have emerged. And, I mean, one of the reasons the Russian government was so successful is because it was able to exploit deep weaknesses in polarized societies—U.S. and other places.
So those are connected to technology, but not—you know, in a variety of ways. I don’t know that you could lay all of that at technology’s feet. But I think certainly the—you know, the decline of gatekeepers in technology, the lack of mediation, the lack of moderation. You have these cycles towards tremendous, you know, instantaneous transmission of opinion and information. And it’s brought us to a point where I think those weaknesses within democratic societies can be very easily exacerbated by the speed of information now. And technology has played a role in that.
SEGAL: I mean, I think clearly they rhyme, but they don’t necessarily—are exactly the same, in the sense that as we have learned about a lot of the Russian operations, we learn that, oh, that the companies hold this data they then, you know, sell to the advertisers, which allows them to do microtargeting, that perhaps not every user truly understood. I mean, they understood, yeah, I was on this website, and then a day later I saw the same ad again. But they didn’t understand how intently they could slice and dice the microdata, and also A-B test, and all of these other things to basically—to test a message.
And so I think to the extent that American users now have a better sense of that, that means that they are now more open to the argument about, oh yes, we need basically privacy legislation, which we didn’t have before, which allows me to understand who has that data, who can then use it after I agree to that Can I take with me when I go to some other thing? So I think it feeds into it. I don’t think it necessarily protects American democracy in a way from a lot of these manipulations but drives this other debate because we’re worried about these vulnerabilities.
VAITHEESWARNAN: I would add one small point to that. Europe has clearly led on GDPR and some related initiatives. I think the U.K. initiative now underway, and a different aspect of regulation—content regulation—has been mentioned. France, before its elections, took much more aggressive steps, most recent elections, to avoid disinformation campaigns than the U.S. has taken, for example. So we may well see some models of regulation, privacy, and related emerging from Europe that may not emerge from the U.S. And the reasons why can be a topic for another day. Europe doesn’t have a lot of internet companies to defend regulatory capture. Europe is perhaps on the frontlines with Russia, and has seen information manipulation for many, many years in its elections, long before we did. But let’s take that for another time. But I’d just put that point out there too.
Let’s come to this side, as promised. Maybe the lady in the front row.
Q: Yes. My name is Raghida Dergham. I’m founder and executive chairman of Beirut Institute.
To your point about the Arab Spring, technology was accused of having played a manipulative—well, a negative role altogether because it helped those who infiltrated the Arab Spring, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, it helped them to get to where they were. Do you think this is an unfair accusation, because it’s a very common impression in that part of the world? Or do you think technology did not know its limits, and did not know how to really read other societies because it’s used to be Western, if you will?
SEGAL: So I was trying to frame the Chinese perspective and the argument. I’m not a particular expert on the Arab Spring. You know, my sense, again, with, I think, the view that we all have is that the technology itself—I don’t like neutral but can be used for good or bad. And in many cases, it’s not the technology, it’s the other social and political structures in place. And so, you know, what happened with the Arab Spring is a mass mobilization without mass organizations, or other groups that could then funnel the political demands into governing. That is my China-expert watching of the Arab Spring. (Laughter.)
VAITHEESWARNAN: Great. Let’s go to the back row. There we go, the gentleman there. Then I’ll cross over again.
Q: Thank you very much. Gianni Riotta with Princeton University.
And I served in the European Group against Disinformation. And we are still working with the Horizon 2020 against disinformation, fake news, and blah, blah, blah. And eventually somebody always raises the hand and says this all comes to a crisis of trust. We have to rebuild trust. And my answer is always, I’m a former journalist. What do you know about trust and rebuilding trust? So when people ask, how do we rebuild trust, what am I supposed to say? Thank you. (Laughter.)
ROSENBERGER: Well, I guess—I’m not sure I have the answer to what to say to that. But I do agree that trust is really important. I think one of the major challenges in dealing with—combatting disinformation or information manipulation is that particularly from the sort of Russian model of the approach here, if undermining the idea that there is a knowable truth is part of the goal, then as we respond it’s really important that we not actually buy into the idea—or, essentially spread the idea that people can’t trust information, broadly speaking. I think it’s really hard. We have to very carefully thread a needle on this. And it requires nuanced messaging. I realize I’m setting a high bar here.
But, you know, let me give a specific example on this. There’s been a lot of conversations in—especially in the technology space around these issues of deep fakes, which essentially are AI-enabled and created manipulated video and audio content that is more or less undetectable to the human eye and ear. Essentially, you know, taking disinformation off of the page and making it, you know, into video form. As human beings we’re sort of trained that we can believe what we see, right? And if somehow we suddenly can’t believe what we see, or we think we can’t believe what we see, then that degrades truth and trust in information in an entirely new way.
And so I’m actually worried about not just the advent of that technology, but if somehow people come to believe, though conversation about information operations that nothing can be trusted online, then we’ve actually, again, sort of done the work of those actors who simply want to create the idea that there is no truth. I’m also back to sort of the microtargeting points that Adam was raising. As we look at sort of next iteration of various technologies and potential platforms, trying to sort of spin out some future scenarios, through sort of emotionally manipulating content that’s highly targeted to an individual level, you can begin to essentially create individual truth for people.
VAITHEESWARNAN: And Google’s already doing it, right? A Google search done by all of us on a particular term would not reveal exactly the same results for all of us. And yet, people do consider a truth, in lazy sort of layman’s terms.
ROSENBERGER: Sure. I think Google might have a different interpretation or a different answer on what they do or don’t do. (Laughter.) I’m not going to get into that here. But what I would say is, yes, I mean, I think that we are—
VAITHEESWARNAN: Personalize the truth for you. (Laughs.)
ROSENBERGER: I am very worried about a potential where personalized truths is sort of the model. And in a—that has a very degrading effect on democracy. If we’re not even all starting from the same, you know, point—if our departure points are so radically different, you know, what does that mean for the ability to have a robust democratic debate? So that really only further feeds into you point about why we have to restore trust. But I guess it’s a slightly different iteration in the sense that in dealing with these problems we also have to bear in mind that trust in institutions is really critical to democracies. And so we need to be careful about not further undermining that truth and that trust.
KALATHIL: Can I just add a quick point?
VAITHEESWARNAN: A quick point and then we’ll come to this gentleman here.
KALATHIL: I mean, just to that point, I think whenever we talk about solutions to the disinformation crisis broadly people always bring up media literacy, and teaching people to be critical thinkers, and be skeptical of what you read. And you have to be really careful, because, first of all, we don’t really know what we know about media literacy. I don’t think there’s this vast wealth of literature on how to do it effectively. And second, what do we know is that you have to be careful not to exacerbate the very trends that Laura has talked about here, because you don’t want to build up a wide-spread skepticism to everything that would feed into this sort of lack of an agreement on truth or, you know—
VAITHEESWARNAN: But we can encourage critical thinking, though, right?
SEGAL: Yeah, but the most recent surveys show that it was older people that are more likely to spread disinformation, not younger people. So when say teach critical thinking we often say, oh, you know, we’ll get all these school kids. But, you know, it’s grandma and grandpa we got to teach some critical thinking to. (Laughter.)
VAITHEESWARNAN: Yes, here. I promised a question here. Then we’ll move to the back.
Q: Whitney Bower, Noble Rock Advisors.
My question gets to your reference earlier to if we’re going to start to address these issues, maybe we should go to the source. And I’m curious if you could unpack that a little bit, because I understand that that might be an easier way to consolidate some of our efforts but seems very challenging to identify and implement.
ROSENBERGER: So, yes. I am mostly speaking of this in terms of when we’re—when we’re talking about authoritarian nation-state actors or potentially sort of mercenary black-market forces that are operating on their behalf, right? It gets a little more complicated if we’re talking about domestic actors who are using some of these tools and techniques. So I’m just going to park that. And being a national security person, I get to focus on the bad guys outside of our borders.
But—you know, so for me if we want to talk about, for instance, the challenge of Russian information operations, you know, the reality is that most of the content that has been identified from the Internet Research Agency, from the GRU, Russian military intelligence, that were running these campaigns online was actually identified through either cybersecurity firms or information from law enforcement and the intelligence community that was able to pinpoint the actors involved technical signatures. It wasn’t by seeing that this Black Lives Matter group maybe was manipulating information in a certain different way that made it different from other Black Lives Matter groups, right. So—because that’s actually a lot of what they were doing.
If you looked—if you start at the content point and you saw, for instance, this page Blacktivist, which was one of the most active of the fake Black Lives Matter groups that the Internet Research Agency created, you would see that there was a little bit of a difference in tone and messaging, but you wouldn’t really be able to tell on its face of content that this wasn’t a legitimate activist group. In fact, many legitimate activists thought this was a legitimate activist group. A number of them raised questions. Something felt a little off. But nobody could pinpoint it.
So the reason, though, that I think that’s a challenge at this moment—and it gets me to one of my favorite solutions, which again is on this theme of closing gaps between government and the technology companies—I’m convinced that at least when we’re talking about overseas actors sort of adversaries that there’s three parties that essentially need to be able to share data and information in order to pinpoint the problem. One is the intelligence community and law enforcement, which has particular insight into bad actors and signatures that may be related to those activities. Two is the tech platforms, which are going to have unique insights into what is actually happening on their platforms. And for a variety of reasons at present the intelligence community and law enforcement can’t see into those platforms. In some cases they don’t have authorities to do so. I’m not even sure I’d want them to have the authorities to do so in some instances. So you’ve got the tech platforms there.
And then you have the research community, which is doing a ton of work on both understanding patterns and trends on the forensic side. I’ve put forward a number of proposals for sharing mechanisms—institutionalized sharing mechanisms that would include privacy protections, protections for classified information—where you could essentially bring these different puzzle pieces together and have a collaborative ability to identify the sources of these—of these activities, because there are patterns and signatures involved that I think would be really important to be able to do that.
SEGAL: See, I thought you were going to go full-bore national security, because—(laughter)—because Cyber Command said they conducted operations in the runup to the midterm elections.
ROSENBERGER: On the day of the midterms.
SEGAL: On the day of the midterms. So we don’t know exactly what those operations were. They seem to have been maybe text messages to the operators in Russia saying: We see you. Don’t do that. Or some type of momentary day-long disruption of their computers, sitting in the IRA building, to get online to conduct the operations. So, you know, you have to wonder how valuable or useful that is the day of the election, when we’re worried about, you know, preparations all through beforehand. But the official, now, DOD strategy is what they’re calling forward defense, or defense forward, or persistent engagement, which suggests, as Laura said, that we will be taking the battle to the operators before they can do the manipulation.
VAITHEESWARNAN: There’s a lady near the back—
ROSENBERGER: I would endorse, by the way, that full-bore approach. I would just move the day-of operations to knock them offline a few months earlier and maybe do it permanently. But, yeah.
Q: Maryum Saifee, CFR international affairs fellow. Formerly with the State Department.
I have a quick comment and a question. On the Arab Spring, I was actually posted in Cairo when it happened, the uprising. In January 28, Mubarak shut the cellphones and the internet off. And I think that actually led more people to come into the streets, which is just an observation.
My question: Right now on the Hill you have executives like from Google and Facebook that are testifying on the role of their platforms in fueling white—fueling hate crimes, white supremacy, with New Zealand and Charlottesville. And we’ve seen the weaponizing of WhatsApp in India and elsewhere, in Burma. So my question to you—I mean, sitting as sort of—if you were sitting as a bureaucrat or a policymaker, what policy would you recommend to sort of strike that balance between content moderation and freedom of speech?
VAITHEESWARNAN: Thank you for the question. Yes, what—who wants to weigh in? (Laughter.) Come one, we’re solutions-oriented here. We’re not just here to pontificate about the problems.
ROSENBERGER: I mean, just where I come at this personally is I’m a pretty strong First Amendment believer, that, you know, even if somebody is saying something that I think—that I think is completely factually wrong, that I think is absolutely detestable, I believe they have a right to say it. And I would rather be able to challenge it in the open than drive it underground.
VAITHEESWARNAN: Do the other two of you agree with that assessment or that point of view?
KALATHIL: Well, let me—let me just say—I mean, I also am a big First Amendment believer. And I’ve often—I mean, having been involved in various effort to promote internet freedom and certain core internet principles over the years, the principle that Adam alluded to earlier of intermediary liability protection essentially undergirded much of the efforts around trying to advance internet freedom during the—well, the last two decades, let’s say. But I think what we failed to really scrutinize, and I think it bears further scrutiny—I know this isn’t really a policy recommendation—but we don’t really know why types of content are surfacing the way they do on the platforms. And that’s different from content moderation.
So there is a role for the platforms to either self-analyze, or perhaps be nudged to self-analyze those algorithms that are surfacing the kind of content that we’re talking about here. That type of transparency around the algorithms I know is sensitive to the companies because they consider it to be proprietary. But if we’re talking about real threats to democracy, that’s an area where I think there is room to explore that further, and to get a little bit more traction.
VAITHEESWARNAN: Well, they’ve shown utterly incapable or unwilling to self-govern or self-analyze, right? I think that is not a controversial statement.
Q: It’s very controversial.
VAITHEESWARNAN: Is it? OK. So may I ask who wishes to take issue, please?
Q: My name is—
VAITHEESWARNAN: Let’s get a microphone to you. So let’s make this correctly. (Laughter.) Yes, give us an example of properly self-governing—
Q: Extraordinarily controversial.
VAITHEESWARNAN: Tell us how they’re self-governed.
Q: I’ll tell you. I was seven years at Google. And I work for Albright Stonebridge now.
There’s something called the Global Network Initiative. Have you ever heard of it, sir?
VAITHEESWARNAN: Yes, I have.
Q: OK. That is an attempt by the major companies—
VAITHEESWARNAN: Is it effective? I asked for effective examples.
Q: It is not fully effective, but what multinational organization is? Is it an attempt by companies to do something in this case about free expression and privacy? Yes, it is. Are there other attempts?
VAITHEESWARNAN: Let’s put your point—
Q: The Global Forum on Internet Terrorism, or whatever you guys called it, Eliot (sp). There are a number of these things out there. To just go like that and say the companies have done nothing is simply untrue.
VAITHEESWARNAN: No. I said effective self-governance, sir. But your point is taken. We’ve given you the floor. Let me ask my experts. Any thoughts on effective self-governance? What would be the way forward, to take on board the gentleman’s point?
KALATHIL: I mean, I agree that the GNI, the Global Network Initiative, when it first was conceived, was a tremendous effort to bring together the stakeholders of civil society, academia, and businesses. It was prompted because the technology companies had run into a difficult situation in China, where Yahoo had handed information over to the authorities. And thus, there was a combination of sort of government pressure behind the scenes saying you have to do something about this, and the companies stepped up and they did. The types of phenomena that we’re talking about now with disinformation I think go beyond what the original GNI agreement was set out to address. And that’s where I think we have real issues. Like, we really do have to grapple. I, for one, am a huge fan of the multi-stakeholder model that was pioneered by the GNI. But I do think we have to think more creatively about how to bring that model to bear on these issues, which are not quite exactly the same space.
SEGAL: And I think, look, there is clearly an overlap between some regulatory solutions and the call for transparency, right? So if we’re not going to take the content down, then I should be really clear about where that content came from, right? Who put it on there, and for the advertising act and the transparency, am I interacting with a real person or am I interacting with a bot? You know, those things will do—which all the companies have all suggested and there some legislative support for. I think, you know, we have had a mis-match of the international organizations, right, because they were all built to address other problems, which in many cases was the threat from outside and not as much as the threat from what we would see from domestic actors.
VAITHEESWARNAN: We’re almost out of time. A lightning round. One specific proposal you’d put on the table, from each of you, to improve the situation. Let’s start with you, Adam.
SEGAL: Damnit. (Laughter.) I already used mine. I used mine—basically, you know, I think the transparency on the ads act and the more transparency on who I’m actually interacting with on these platforms.
ROSENBERGER: I already used mine too, but it’s this closing the gap between government and the tech companies and building specific mechanisms to do that. And then, you know, that includes not only the data-sharing piece but that also includes on the threat assessment piece, you know, having risk assessments on the front end in a—in a much different way.
KALATHIL: I think I used mine too, but I will build on the—
VAITHEESWARNAN: You’re underlining your brilliant point, yes.
KALATHIL: You know, I mean, I do think that we have to get a lot more creative, and quickly, with the types of multi-stakeholder mechanisms that we have to address these problems. What we have is not sufficient. And unilateral action by government or by business is not necessarily going to solve our problems. And so we do have to kind of think in a more collective way about how to—how to tackle this. Because I think the underlying issue to all of this is we thought that technology would solve our democratic problems and would push the world towards democracy. We can’t make those assumptions, which means we have to proactively try to address this issue.
VAITHEESWARNAN: Right. That’s actually a good point to end on. The lunch is about to begin outside. You’ll return back to this room at 1:00 for the next session. Please join me in thanking our wonderful panelists for their contributions. (Applause.) Thank you.
GIACOMO: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Symposium on the Future of Democracy. This session is entitled “Can Democracy Be Saved?" So we will be responsible for whether you leave here depressed or optimistic. (Laughter.)
I’m Carol Giacomo, a member of the New York Times Editorial Board and I’ll be presiding over today’s session. My panelists are Adriana LeBas, Tom Carothers, and Josh Kurlantzick.
So I’m going to ask the three panelists to first start out very shortly, very quickly, and succinctly, making their main pointed on this subject and then we’ll engage in discussion.
KURLANTZICK: OK. Well, thanks everyone for joining and for sticking around for the last session. I hope we can offer you some suggestions.
I’m going to say two things, one of which is probably actually not that optimistic and then I’m going to talk about one success story last year. And I also want to say that I think there have been a lot of questions about China, so I’m happy to get into China in the question period, but I feel like it’s too much to get into all of these things right now.
First of all, I want to say one thing about just the current democratic regression, is that I think it’s important to understand that there’s been a fair amount of research about this, that there is actually a point where, in a number of countries, where if you reach a sort of stage of democratic regression that it’s very hard to get back from. And we’re seeing this in a number of states. And I want to go through just a couple of points of why that is, why it’s hard to, once you’ve sort of crossed that Rubicon, to come back. And then I’m going to talk just very briefly about Malaysia.
And one of the reasons why once you’ve sort of crossed that Rubicon it’s hard to get back is, A, we’ve seen in a number of places where populist or sort of populist-elected autocrats have taken control or have won elections and taken control that they have undermined trust in institutions and in the media in a way that, even if there is—if they exit the scene in the future, that it’s very hard to sort of rebuild trust in those institutions, that media, and you can actually have further populists or further people who muddy the waters in the future.
So in Italy, you had Silvio Berlusconi, although he finally did leave the scene or he sort of left the scene, you now have sort of a legacy of chaos and non-fact-based discourse in many ways and a new generation of populists coming to the—who have come to the fore and are running the country.
In other places, for example like in Thailand, which is a place that I know best, you had populists come to the fore, undermine the rule of law and constitutional institutions, while also being elected over and over and over and over in the 2000s and even into 2011. And you now are at a situation where it’s very hard to retrench and get back the things that existed before then. Trust in the media has been destroyed, institutions have been completely subverted, the whole idea of fact-based discourse or even discourse between actors in society has essentially collapsed and actors who want to even push the country forward, they don’t really have any ground to stand on.
Also, in a place like Thailand and other places where we’ve seen already democratic regression happen to a point that, to me, almost it’s hard to get back, the institutions that would have existed to sort of bring democracy back from the ashes or at least have some degree of basis to stand from—the judiciary—has been so politicized that absent, you know, a complete leveling and restarting, it would be hard to build again.
The election process, unlike, say, in a place like Malaysia, which I’m going to talk about now, has been so corrupted that you’ve gone from having sort of, like, elections that, while not completely free or fair, are utterly shambolic. And one of the things that happened in Malaysia, which I’m going to get to, is, although the system had existed as kind of a hybrid democracy or hybrid authoritarian system, had it not gotten so far that elections had gone beyond the pale and they were able to hold a free-enough election to oust the autocratic government.
So, sorry for that downer. I know this hasn’t always been an upbeat day. I do want to say two minutes about Malaysia.
So in a year last year that I think Freedom House called one of the worst years for democracy in the last fifteen years and amidst a fair amount of research suggesting that actually the global democratic regression actually has gone back almost twenty decades, not the mid-2000s as many people have thought, one interesting example last year was Malaysia.
So Malaysia had been run by essentially the same coalition since it gained independence from Britain. It didn’t seem to have that much chance of moving forward, of shedding an autocratic and increasingly corrupt regime that existed for the last few years. And yet in May of 2018, Malaysia held elections in which that government was defeated. And after a very, very brief sort of interregnum where it seemed like maybe there might be some funny business, the prime minister—the former prime minister stepped down and a new government was formed and there has been quite—I mean, we can talk, if people want to talk about it, of there has been—it’s not a hundred percent better, but there has been a real resuscitation of many institutions. There’s been a thorough, real rebuilding of the judiciary. There has been accountability for people who are in the previous the government. Civil society, which was already strong enough that it hadn’t been destroyed, has bloomed again. The media has gone from being really—you know, it wasn’t the North Korean media, but from a state-like media to being really a fount of real discourse.
And so I think one of the things, it would be interesting to look at Malaysia—or there are a few other examples that I’d be interested to get into—is, what happened there that has been so contrary to the trend of not just last year, but really the last fifteen years or some would say going back to even the early ’90s.
I think I’ll leave it there and then we can come back.
GIACOMO: All right. So we have in Malaysia somewhat of a positive example.
Tom, can you talk about—I mean, what conditions are necessary to try to rebuild a country like Malaysia or Turkey or whatever? And does the United States still have a role?
CAROTHERS: Yeah. I want to get to the U.S. role, but let me start by highlighting something that’s come up in some of the panels, but hasn’t really been fully fleshed out, which is we’re living in an age, it’s not just democratic recession, and in fact I think that’s not a good frame for what’s happening in global politics, we’re living in an age of a massive increase in largescale citizen protests against their governments.
Over the last five to seven years, if you just do a simple chart of large scale citizen mobilizations that basically are antigovernmental, there’s just a tremendous surge going on in the world. These are occurring in democracies, sometimes against a specific party or ruler, like in South Korea. Sometimes they’re occurring in democracies against the whole system, like in Romania where anticorruption protests are just a pox on all your houses. They’re happening in what Dan Slater called earlier electoral authoritarian regimes, like Ethiopia or Armenia where we saw a big burst of protests in the last couple of years. And they’re happening in autocracies. We’ve been reading about Algeria the last few days, Sudan. So all around the world in all different kinds of regimes, we’re seeing these very largescale citizen mobilizations against powerholders.
When you look at the motivations of these protesters, you see a couple of things. One is that one of the primary drivers is public anger about corruption. My son, Christopher Carothers, and I published an article last year where we brought attention to a simple, but startling fact: 10 percent of governments in the world in the last five years have had their terms cut short because of public anger over corruption that erupted into the street and drove the rulers out of power. That’s a high mortality rate.
So it’s corruption has become a primary driver of political change, but you also have economic injustice, indignity, and sometimes just pure repression. So we’re living in an age of activated citizens that are angry against a whole series of types of regimes. And, you know, it could well be that in some alternative planet there’s a conference going on called “Will Autocracy Survive?" And they’re sitting around, they’re saying, God, look what’s happening in Malaysia, this is terrible. Oh, my gosh, Armenia, we thought it was one of ours. Ethiopia was our best developmental state in Africa. Algeria, who would have thought? This is terrible. We’ve got to have more conferences. (Laughter.) And there’s a doppelganger of Rita Hauser who sponsors these, who, you know—and they’re sitting, you know, scratching their heads saying, what’s going on? So we need to get some perspective.
All powerholders are struggling to make empowered, educated, angry citizens happy. And so we have to be careful in thinking that this is a problem of democracy. It’s a problem of politics in an age of empowered, networked citizens. So I want to start with that.
Let me just get to the U.S. role, then we’ll reflect on this. Now, the U.S. role—when I was reflecting on the topic of, you know, what to do about democracy, I thought somebody ought to at least pose the question and say, can the United States still be part of a solution of repairing democracy in the world? The fact that we have to pose that question is, in some ways, a sad testament to where we’ve come to, but it’s a reality. Because if I talk about the U.S. role in promoting democracy in the world, any of you with at least just a small measure of skepticism, which you should have, would ask three questions: How in the world can we be out supporting democracy when look at the track record? Look what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq when we tried to do this, what a mess. Please, I don’t want to do that anymore. Secondly, who are we to tell the world look at our own system? Oh, my gosh, we have no credibility going out there. And third, look at the president we have. He’s busy cozying up to this dictator or that dictator. So we’ve got to just check out of this business. That’s wrong, OK?
Now, it’s not an ideal starting point, I’ll acknowledge that. (Laughter.) If you were choosing where to start from, I wouldn’t take those three conditions. But let’s look at each of them just very briefly.
First, Iraq and Afghanistan are not typical examples of U.S. democracy support. The U.S. has been engaged in over a hundred countries around the world, whether it’s helping Slovak civic activists or people in Bolivia in the indigenous movement in different ways, in Mongolia, and so forth, and focusing in on two most exceptional cases and treating them as the pattern is a serious analytic mistake.
Secondly, the U.S. as a democracy is a mess, so we can’t have anything to contribute abroad—that’s the wrong way of thinking about democracy support. Democracy support is not about exporting your system. It’s about helping other countries empower themselves, learn lessons from others, figure out their own answers to the problem. So if you come to them and say, you know, getting a parliament or a Congress to work well is hard, we’re struggling, let’s work together on this, let’s have a comparative conference and talk about what have we learned about this and what have other countries, where are some positive examples, you’re still perfectly credible as long as you’re willing to admit your shortcomings, focus on comparative knowledge, and use your weaknesses as strengths in that regard and say this is tough, we know it’s hard for these reasons, too, so there’s no reason you can’t do it if you’re troubled.
And third, yes, the president is not democracy-promoter-in-chief, but he’s not the only part of the U.S. government. He is the only significant person in the U.S. government, whom I know of, who doesn’t believe in this, basically that the United States should in some way embody and try to advance democracy.
Today, the U.S. government is spending as much on democracy assistance programming as it was in 2015 and ’16 under Obama. There has been no decrease in U.S. democracy assistance around the world. Why? Because Congress is fully behind this. Congress is turning back a budget that the administration presents to them and says, no, we’re going to keep doing this. Today, hundreds and thousands of Americans are going out and trying to work on a cooperative basis with people in other countries. So we’re still doing it, despite the diplomatic efforts of the president in certain ways. But those aren’t all of the United States, the U.S. government, and U.S. society.
So the United States still does have a role to play. It needs to up its game and, getting back to the civic activism, take that seriously, work more on issues like state capture, crony capitalism, corruption, which are really motivating people, focus on those kinds of issues, focus on the more comparative angle on this where Dan Slater, again, mentioned that Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, these are not, quote, “Asian" democracies, there are very well-functioning democracies in some ways, partnering more with other democracies to show that we can work together with non-Western partners on this issue and working with civic activists in new ways, getting out of our old NGO models and focusing on the new kind of leaderless movements and doing more there.
So there’s lots to do, a lot of potential, but the world is a much more dynamic and complex place than the simple framing of it’s a democratic recession and we’ve got to get out of this business because we’re no longer qualified.
GIACOMO: I just want to push back on you a little bit there. I totally agree with you that there are other—you know, Congress has been funding these programs and often speaking out, perhaps not enough. But when the president has the—has the bully pulpit and he is the, you know, the leader of the country, the extent at which—to which he embraces authoritarians and doesn’t speak out on behalf of these values that this country has long espoused, isn’t it hard for the others to really have—they don’t have the same clout?
CAROTHERS: Yeah. Look, it’s devastating. He shouldn’t be doing that. It’s a disgrace and it’s terrible. But, you know, a Brazilian friend of mine in November last year, right when it was, you know, Bolsonaro was gaining steam and it was clear that he was going to be elected, said, actually, we want to come learn from the United States because we’ve been impressed in the last two years how institutions like the New York Times or the courts, other civic groups, and others have been able to—so we see a lot of positive lessons, we actually want to come now and learn from the United States because we feel we may be entering a similar period. And so, yes, the president is doing all the wrong things on this issue, but he’s not the whole country. And others around the world are seeing that institutions can stand up to a leader like that, that, you know, democracy is a business about institutions and norms and checks and balances and so forth.
So I’m not saying it’s a pretty story, but I’m saying it’s not just a one-sided story.
GIACOMO: OK. Adriana?
LEBAS: Yeah. So I first want to sort of, I guess, dispute the title of the panel. So, you know, I think from my standpoint I’m an Africanist and there’s tremendous variation across the continent, over fifty countries. But for me, I think that the question we should be posing is, first of all, can the democracy that exists be saved? But also, can we assist in any way in the deepening of democracy? Because certainly in Africa, we’re not talking about well-functioning democracies that are sort of rolling back. There has been some erosion in the standards of democracy that exist. But we also have a large number of low-intensity or illiberal democracies. And then we have a number of also what could be termed electoral authoritarian regimes.
And I think when we’re talking about foreign policy levers, we have to talk about both democratic deepening as well as protecting what’s already there. So I certainly think that both of those tasks are things that we can do. And I am glad that Tom made the case for continual U.S. relevance, because I also believe in that.
I do think that we need to be creative about three different issues, though. And, you know, I think that our current foreign policy, not just in the United States, but also our European allies, has maybe not either addressed these or has taken the wrong tack on them.
So, first of all, elections, how can we improve election quality and especially citizen belief in their elections to actually deliver outcomes that are consistent with their preferences? And I think that for a few years now, there has very much been a focus on electoral integrity and a large amount of money is going towards tech solutions, incorporating biometrics, these kinds of very sophisticated way of improving the technical quality of elections.
But I will say as someone who’s spent some time in Nigeria during election periods, these kinds of tech solutions are very easily on the ground sort of circumvented. And so, you know, there is this question of whether it actually improves the quality of the count, the quality of voting. And I think the recent—the recent results out of the Democratic Republic of Congo where there was, again, a large investment in these technical platforms, and yet we saw a result that was rigged. An opposition candidate did win, but it wasn’t the one that actually won.
So, you know, I think that there’s that, but then there’s also the question of citizen trust in elections. And once again, Kenya 2017, one of the most expensive elections on the African continent, it worked out to—I’ve seen figures of around $25 per capita. And yet, Kenyans do not trust their elections or their electoral commission any more than it did before—than they did before the 2017 elections. So that’s sort of first issue.
Second issue: The quality of intermediary institutions, the quality of political parties, and other pressure groups. You know, I think that we can talk about some creative ways of building those up. But certainly, we have a crisis of representation in sub-Saharan Africa that is really about the ability of citizens to aggregate their interests together and to sort of hold their governments accountable.
And, you know, I think the same kinds of crises that we see in the industrial economies in terms of the decline of trade unions, we could also talk about the decline of particular vehicles of representation that exist in Sub-Saharan Africa.
And then third, this, I think, is the most important elephant in the room that we’re not talking about enough, which is the rule of law. And we certainly are talking about the crisis posed by transnational criminal organizations, transnational terrorist organizations. We’ve seen the collapse of the rule of law across the Sahel, for instance, and in the Horn of Africa. These things can directly damage democracies. The fall of democracy in Mali was a lot about the rise of these kinds of actors.
But we’re not talking about the more generic sort of less dramatic erosion of the rule of law within countries and just basic security for citizens and basic policing and all of the rest. And my concern about this is not just because it goes to the issue of institutional effectiveness within these low-quality democracies, but it also creates space for the rise of nonstate actors who could be providing citizens with security, but could also turn predatory and may not have democratic tendencies or may have an interest in keeping democracy and government weak.
So I think we need to be very creative in thinking about how to build up African states and states in other parts of the developing world in order to allow them to deliver services and to function well enough to make democracy work for citizens.
GIACOMO: All right, so let’s talk about specifics. How do we do it better? What’s most urgent? How do you prevent rule of law from eroding? How do—I mean, trust is a very ineffable thing. And so, how do you build trust in a government or in a system?
Josh, you want to start with that?
KURLANTZICK: Well, I have a couple of things. I mean, a few things that—one would be to encourage countries to adopt media regulations that are fair. We actually used to have that in the United States thirty years ago, thirty-one, thirty-two years ago, but we have abolished that. And I think that has been problematic for some of our media discourse.
Britain has it, some other countries have it, some Southeast Asian countries have it.
GIACOMO: What do you mean by media regulations?
KURLANTZICK: A fairness doctrine would be—or an equivalent of that, something that allows for, when broadcasters are on the air, they have to present, especially during election time, they have to present multiple sides of an—multiple political parties.
In Southeast Asia, anticorruption commissions, especially empowered ones, have played an important role. In Indonesia, the president, who is up for a second term in a few days, he hasn’t done a great job of empowering the anticorruption commission, but he’s done a pretty good job. And in a country like Indonesia, that’s a really important—an important actor for pursuing graft and also for sending the message against impunity.
I think not only in the U.S. but other countries where gerrymandering is a problem, we have to address that. That was a problem in Malaysia. They managed to actually overcome the gerrymandering in that election, but for decades it distorted Malaysian elections.
I want to mention one other thing which is relevant that we haven’t brought up. I think that it’s important in situations in which someone is elected, genuinely elected, but doesn’t necessarily conform to upholding the rule of law or protecting democratic institutions and norms, that those who are opposed to his/her election don’t then default to sort of antidemocratic or undemocratic means of hoping to oust them. That has happened actually fairly significantly in Southeast Asia. You saw it in Venezuela in the earlier days of Chavez’s rule, and still there was some sympathy for that.
I mean, I don’t want to draw this too far, but I think the idea that a sole figure, a former FBI director, is going to solve all the problems that have been created by sort of an elected politician in the United States, who some might think is undermining norms and institutions, is sort of an extension of that idea that your problems could be solved by sort of an immediate intervention.
And I think that certainly in Thailand, for example, that was a huge problem. People who are opposed to figures who were undermining the rule of law, but were genuinely elected, they defaulted to an undemocratic means of removing that elected leader, which has now plunged the country into a further cycle of deteriorating democracy. So I wanted to make that point, too.
CAROTHERS: Well, look citizens are going to trust their government if it’s relatively representative of their interests, it’s at least somewhat honest and at least somewhat competent.
Now, representativity has been hard for the democracy community because there was a big focus in the ’80s and ’90s on political pluralism, elections, party development, and so forth that was good, that was important. But many governments that are quite pluralistic are not very representative. A good case in point is the South African government. South Africa is a democracy and has quite a bit of freedom. It has genuine elections. Yet because of state capture and a group of people who have sort of occupied the system and made corrupt dealing with important businesspeople and built into the parts of the ANC corrupted patterns of behavior, it’s become an unrepresentative elected political party. And so we got so focused and we had so much in our mind, a spectrum from an unfree country to a free country, that that was the direct line we wanted to move along, you could have a country that was very free, but very unrepresentative because political elites had captured the system and working in crony capitalistic or other corrupt ways with that, with the business sector, and other interests.
And so we’ve got to really focus more on broadening out thoughts about representativity and helping other governments and our own do better on that front. So that’s one of the key concepts where I think looking back on it we overestimated the fact of pluralism and thought that would cure, you’d just kick out the scoundrels if they behaved in bad ways, but they dug themselves in, developed opaque patterns, traded power back and forth, and we ended up with elected, but not very representative governments.
LEBAS: So I think there is good news from the standpoint of Sub-Saharan Africa. You know, the support for democracy remains really robust. So over 80 percent of Africans still believe that democracy is the best system. But this crisis of trust in institutions goes pretty deep. And I think that one of the reasons for that is just the enormous gap between the ordinary citizens and the political class. And historically, the way that you bridge that gap is you build rooted parties that go all the way down to the grassroots, and so citizens feel like they have these vehicles or these channels through which they can communicate with the political class.
And I think that one of the crises of democracy right now is the role of money in elections, not just here in the United States, but also in Africa. You know, African politicians are now hiring U.S. public relations firms and electoral advisers. And there is also an increased role of sort of vote-buying in a whole bunch of these elections. And I think the real challenges that we see to democratic trust come from vote-buying and the use of violence during elections and both of those I see as substitutes for rooted parties. So if you don’t have strong rooted party organizations, then, you know, you can get by with buying elections and sort of sending your thugs to capture ballot boxes and all of the rest.
So I think that we need to sort of figure out a way of building stronger parties. And I think that maybe sounds very early twentieth century, but I do think that that’s the kind of channel that we’ll see. And I think the place where we’re most likely to see those emerge is in cities. And, you know, this is—we see this incredible expansion of urbanization all over the developing world.
And I think the other reason that I’m hopeful about cities is these have generally served as sort of laboratories for democratic governance in Africa and other parts of the developing world. So these are governments that tend to be captured by opposition parties in sort of party-dominant states. And, you know, that might be one way of sort of beginning to build these kinds of parties, build them at the local level within individual cities, and then maybe try to nationalize them from there.
GIACOMO: All right. I’m going to ask two more questions and then go to the members.
Nobody has mentioned Turkey, Hungary, Poland—members of NATO, either members of the EU or, in Turkey’s case, an aspirant to the EU. Those bodies, part of the raison d’être was we’ll bring all these countries in and it will help them, it will help them strengthen democracy and, you know, we’ll all go forward into a happier future. Clearly, that hasn’t happened in that—in those three cases, Turkey in particular is just going off the rails.
What happened? And does that prove, you know, does that suggest that those mechanisms are not really useful for encouraging democracy?
Tom, why don’t—why don’t you start with that?
CAROTHERS: OK. Well, different things happened in each of those three countries and it’s important to see that. So in Turkey, first of all, it was not economic decline that triggered an angry public response and embrace of an illiberal leader. Turkey was doing fantastically well economically precisely during the years of the AKP’s rise and Erdoğan’s consolidation of power. So there, you have a fundamentally divided society between two conceptions of what a modern Turkey should be: a secular, somewhat more pluralist one and a more Islamist-oriented one. And those two visions have been confronting each other and one of them’s been winning and winning in a way that crowds out the other and doesn’t want to tolerate it and has a skilled leader who’s a remarkable political entrepreneur, who’s been able to mobilize the base, use it, and so forth.
Hungary is very different. Hungary’s democratic decline was triggered by economic crisis. The 2008, ‘9 financial crisis hit Hungary very hard. A lot of Hungarians had loans in Swiss francs and other foreign currencies, they became devalued, the loan is 30 percent, their payment skyrocketed. The socialist party that was running the country acknowledged they had been not doing a very good job of it. And Orbán came into power on a wave of the country’s falling apart, I’m going to save it, we need a second revolution to push these old leftists off the stage. And because of the way the unusual Hungarian electoral law was, he got 50 to 51 percent of the vote back in the late 2000s, but got 67 percent of the parliament. It’s the only European country in modern history that’s had one party with more than 66 percent of the parliament.
Just do a little thought experiment. Imagine one of the two U.S. parties had a 67 percent majority in both the House and the Senate. I wonder what would happen politically in this country; I don’t think it would be very pretty if they could do whatever they could—modify the Constitution, add some interesting provisions to the Constitution, they could do all kinds of things. Well, he did. So he came on the back of economic crisis, had an unusual electoral situation that vaulted him to the ability to fiddle with the fundamental rules, took full advantage of that, and moved the country in a different direction. A very different case than Turkey.
And then Poland, again, remarkable economic success. Poland was the one country in Europe that wasn’t really hit by the 2008-9 financial crisis. The banking sector wasn’t very exposed to it. Yet they’ve slipped into this illiberal, conservative, populist rule. So there’s the puzzle there of how it happened that the right in Poland, the center-right, split into a hard-right and a more moderate right. It’s kind of a long story, but a different story there having more to do with cultural change, sociocultural change, Poland’s feeling of being out of sorts with itself and kind of deep cultural divisions within the society between the sociocultural conservative sort of faction and one that’s more liberal and cosmopolitan. A different story than the other two.
So each of them is a different story and we have to be careful not just to say, oh, my gosh, illiberals are on the rise here, here, and here. Each one has a different trajectory and different reasons for coming to power.
GIACOMO: Right. But I’m trying to get at solutions. I mean, does bringing people, bringing countries into NATO, bringing them into the EU have a, you know, a positive effect when it comes to democracy or not?
CAROTHERS: Look, if Orbán weren’t in the European Union, then it would probably look more like Azerbaijan. So, you know, it’s good that Hungary is in the EU because at least he knows he’s going to get some pushback, as he had, not as much as the EU could have, should have done or from the European party formations. So it’s good that he’s in the EU. It wasn’t a vaccination that prevented it, but it has helped constrain it.
LEBAS: So, I mean, one of the narratives presented earlier today for the rise of sort of populism in Europe is this kind of chafing against membership in the EU. And I think that when we look at Africa, the effect of regional organizations has actually been the opposite. It’s sort of advanced democracy or at least policed certain red lines.
So, you know, if we look at the people’s-led movement in Burkina Faso in 2014, the regional organization in West Africa basically pushed back against attempts by the incumbent to hold onto power. We saw a similar defense by regional organizations around the Gambian elections recently. Going back earlier, you know, Zimbabwe hasn’t turned out well, but there were at several points in time the regional organization in Southern African, again, pushing that government towards a more acceptable stance on the treatment of opposition.
So, I mean, I think that these regional organizations can be sort of bulwarks if they’re—if they have enough members who really believe in democratic norms.
GIACOMO: Josh, did you want to say something quickly?
KURLANTZICK: Just briefly. I mean, I think in a region like Southeast Asia where essentially the regional organization is quite weak, ASEAN is quite weak and has little to no interest in human rights and democracy, you can see sort of something with the value of the EU in which essentially the ASEAN pays no attention to human rights and democracy.
But I did want to also add to that one thing Tom said about sort of the difference between the president and sort of people working democracy policy from on the ground who, you know, have the same commitments in the past. There are places like in Southeast Asia where that sort of high-level rhetoric by the president, particularly in a region where China is probably more assertive than anywhere else in the world I think does matter. That doesn’t mean that—more—that doesn’t mean that the people on the ground aren’t doing the same good work, you know, at—actually, NDI was thrown out of Cambodia—but in Cambodia or other places. But that the president’s rhetoric has a significant, significant weight in places like Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, et cetera, where at the same time there’s a real counterforce that doesn’t exist in a lot of other parts of the world.
GIACOMO: OK. Members, I’m going to err on the side of picking women as long as you raise your hands.
Right here in the second row.
Q: Hi. Wendy Luers from the Foundation for Civil Society.
Tom, this is for you. Democracy funding, as we know over these years, have been used by different administrations in different ways. The most egregious recently was the use of the funding of some Cayman Island thing in Cuba where we were using sort of a false Twitter and other—you know very well about these. And you as having taught at CEU, which is now in Vienna, tell us more about why Orbán has been reelected and what is the—what is the view of the citizenry in Hungary or in Poland, in any of these places, in reverting back to something more representational. Thank you.
CAROTHERS: Yeah. Orbán has had a good ten-year ride for three big reasons. First, because of his parliamentary supermajority, he’s been able to manipulate the system, especially media ownership and media control, that he’s created an information environment that’s very favorable to him.
Second, he’s been the beneficiary of having taken the reins of the country right at the moment of financial crisis and enjoyed the ten-year recovery, which is not his own doing, all of Europe has been recovering slowly. In fact, Hungary has been recovering a little more slowly than Slovakia and some of the other countries. But he gets the credit from the population of, gee, that’s been a pretty good ten years compared to what came beforehand.
And third, he did catch a cultural moment in Hungary with a sense of sociocultural change that was especially triggered by the wave of migrants who arrived in Hungary several years ago. He was able to seize on that, just as the president in this country has made a lot of the immigration issue, but he made even more of it there and the country was startled by the arrival of a lot of people from Syria and other parts to the south and he grabbed that and made it a big issue.
So the information environment, the economic situation, and the sociocultural moment, particularly because of migrants.
Q: And democracy funding?
CAROTHERS: Well, that’s a big question, Wendy. (Laughter.) But I would—I would focus—and you’re right, the Cuba case was an example of a small amount of funding that was being used in a way that was very pointed politically. And when democracy funding is being—is used covertly for what really looks like, in a sense, quote, "regime change" where you’re really targeting a specific person or group of people in power and saying we want you out, that doesn’t build a consensus for such funding.
But U.S. funding, just like Swedish funding and Japanese funding in this area and Canadian and Australian and others, there is a lot of such funding that gains legitimacy by being open. It’s supportive of actors, it works cooperatively with governments when possible and when not it works openly with civic actors who have real legitimacy in the countries and so forth. So we see some exceptions on democracy funding that’s done badly.
But the world, you know, there’s a great deal of democracy funding by lots of actors that’s appreciated and quite effective in many parts of the world.
GIACOMO: Other questions.
In the back, please?
Q: Maryum Saifee, CFR international affairs fellow.
So in Foreign Affairs, Stacey Abrams made the case on how identity politics can actually strengthen democracy. And she talked about the increasing, you know, the increasing diversity within our electorate here in the United States, but also issues around voter suppression. So my question is sort of your thoughts on her argument and ways, the mechanics, the machinery, gerrymandering suppression this country, some solutions.
CAROTHERS: I’ll let you. That’s a good question.
LEBAS: Yeah. So I’m glad someone brought up identity politics. You know, I think that when we talk about the developing world, often there’s this fear of sort of identity politics or communal differences in plural societies creating a very inhospitable landscape for democracy. And I think that there are a couple of reasons that we should be optimistic.
Reason number one is that kind of diversity is actually becoming more diverse. So people are moving into cities and we’re seeing marriages across ethnic lines now and we’re seeing the rise of new kinds of identity in urban spaces. And so I think, you know, that is a reason to be very optimistic about our future. I think that it’s an increasingly urban future and for that reason it’s an increasingly less divided future on some sort of cleavage lines.
The second reason that I think that identity politics is not as scary in the developing world as we think is that I sort of am one of these believers in the idea that conflict is actually this sort of crucible for democracy and that we are more likely to get sort of democratic societies that share sort of agreement on norms, on institutions and have trust if they’ve gone through the process of sort of fighting over those institutions and those norms and those identities.
And so, you know, I think that polarization can be scary in the moment, but it can also forge these kinds of compromises that are central to what democracy is. And so we can all point to democracies that seem very ethnically divided, very ethnicized, very dangerous right now, but if we take a longer-term perspective, you know, maybe that’s just what the birth pains of democracy actually look like.
On the gerrymandering and all of the rest, I don’t have solutions in the American setting and I don’t have solutions in the developing world setting either. Enormous kinds of problems of differential representation, certain constituencies being more represented than others, and the power of redistricting, I think we’re only beginning to understand this now outside the American context. As Americans, we’ve known this for a long time. But I think that authoritarians across the developing world have learned that lesson and been using it without a lot of pushback from U.S. government actors.
The other sort of technical barrier, I think, to the deepening of democracy that I would flag that concerns me a great deal is the rise of sort of candidate nomination fees and the role of money now inside internal African party primaries. And this, I think, is the major threat to democracy for instance in Nigeria right now.
GIACOMO: Josh, did you have something?
KURLANTZICK: Yeah, I was just going to add one minor point, which is that actually, I mean, the scale of gerrymandering and redistricting obviously has become much worse in the U.S., at least dating to 2010, because of the use of more sophisticated computer modeling. And that’s obviously one of the issues that’s before the Supreme Court now is how to judge the standard.
I was just going to mention that we’re now only catching up with that and a lot of developing countries now have the accessibility that, for example, North Carolina in the case and Maryland that’s being challenged at the court now—now that leaders in developing countries have—in some countries that choose to use it have that level of technology. You’re going to see all sort of things similar to, like, the maps that are in North Carolina, Maryland, et cetera and it’s going to be very problematic.
CAROTHERS: Can I say a word about voter suppression?
GIACOMO: Yeah, sure.
CAROTHERS: It’s an interesting thing. As far as I know, I’ve looked around a little bit, comparative work, the United States is the only established democracy that has a major party that, to some extent, is dedicated to voter suppression. So that raises an interesting comparative question: Why is that? Why are we the only ones that are fighting, you know, two-hundred-plus years after establishing a democratic public, we’re fighting over basic electoral rules? It’s kind of an interesting puzzle.
I think there are three reasons. First, we’re the only major democracy that has a fundamental debate about the role of the state. You know, we have people in the Congress who don’t really think there ought to be taxes, that we really shouldn’t have a modern state. You know, we have a fundamental debate in the United States about the role of the state, that, you know, the German center-right is the left of the Democratic Party in terms of its role of the state in society. So the United States is still having a fundamental role in the state and that filters down to election administration and a skepticism of about how much central control to have over election administration process, how secure is it, and sort of queasiness about that.
But the two more important reasons are we’re the only established democracy that is approaching a sociocultural tipping point of the established racial majority becoming a minority. So, you know, Canada and Australia are going to get there if they keep up the immigration, but they’re doing—the United States is further along than any other OECD democracy.
And so you’re reaching, you know, an uncertain racial majority becoming minority and voter suppression is a, you know, a kind of a tactic to deal with that.
Third, we’re locking into a two-party system because of the first pass, the post-voting system we have. There are not many two-party, fixed two-party systems in established democracies. Most are parliamentary democracies. The U.K. is an exception and a couple of others. When you have that, you can’t have another party spring up and offer an alternative. If we had a multiparty system, the Republican Party would probably split, as would the Democratic Party, into two. And so what happens is one of our major parties is sort of locked in, it can’t really become, it’s sort of moved to the right in these ways, it’s sort of stuck there, leaving the center there, which we can’t fill.
And so you have a complex set of factors that have led to this puzzle of why a mature democracy like the United States would experience a major party whose goal is antidemocratic in this way in terms of suppressing votes.
GIACOMO: Well, that’s encouraging. (Laughter.)
There’s a woman in this row, third, fourth row.
Q: Hi. I’m Sarah Repucci. I’m with Freedom House.
I’m going to throw you guys a question that I get all the time, which is, when we think about democracy being saved, we think about the success stories that have happened recently, Malaysia, Armenia, Ecuador, Angola, I’m wondering if there is—if you see a trend there at all, it you see anything that links those or if they—I mean, of course they are very different cases, but is there something that is binding them together at all that might be tipping us in the direction of a change in the trajectory globally?
GIACOMO: Who wants to start this?
KURLANTZICK: I don’t see one common—hi, Sarah—I don’t see one common thread.
Q: Hi, Josh.
KURLANTZICK: I mean, I think one of the things—some of the things you can draw from Malaysia are, like I said, the election process had not proceeded to be completely shambolic, gerrymandering had not gotten so bad that it was unable to be overcome given the combination of the already-existing opposition party made an alliance with a previous prime minister who was able to bring in some—Mahathir Mohamad, who is now the prime minister, was able to bring in some more voters and sort of overcome the seawalls of the gerrymandering. And that there—Malaysian opposition demonstrated a pretty significant willingness to compromise, which I think is actually pretty unusual in a lot of states given that their party was the largest, their leader had been put in jail. Actually, he had been put in jail before by the guy behind Mahathir Mohamad. And they were willing to make an alliance with him in order to oust the government. So they were pretty pragmatic, which you don’t see in a lot of elections.
And a third thing in Malaysia is that, although Malaysia had been a hybrid state or veering closer to outright authoritarianism under Najib, civil society had been constrained, but it was still quite vibrant and there were several rounds of large public, as you know, anticorruption protests and a continual hammering on this theme in the public that catalyzed the election. And then there was a sort of catalytic event before the election, which you can’t get everywhere, but it came out that the prime minister probably—the former prime minister allegedly, you know, stole, like, seven hundred million dollars or more.
And so those combinations of things offer the chance that you don’t have always, a sort of one-time opportunity of all these things coalesced: pragmatism, a character who could unite both the key opposition actors and people who were probably skeptical of the government, but weren’t ready to defect before, a civil society that hadn’t been completely eradicated, and then sort of thrown into their laps the perfect opportunity to exploit the rising fueling anger over corruption at exactly the right time.
So I don’t know enough about Ecuador to say whether that can be replicated—was similar, but I think Malaysia enjoyed a perfect storm.
GIACOMO: Anybody else? Tom?
CAROTHERS: Yeah. Actually, there’s—that’s a good basis, I think, for the comparative look because there are—you don’t want to push it too much, but there are some common characteristics. One is they’ve all been in countries that maintain at least a certain amount of electoral seriousness, even if they’re electoral authoritarians, but elections are real. And Armenia was a semi-authoritarian state, but elections still had some meaning. Same with Ecuador, even at its worst moments under the left-of-center or leftists populists of recent years. And true in the other cases.
So first, elections that are still genuine, despite the restrictions on the elections. Second, just the fatigue factor of people overstaying their welcome and not realizing the accumulating anger of the public about corruption, the arrogance of power, and so forth. All of these cases—Armenia, Malaysia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, elsewhere, the Gambia—were cases where people had really—didn’t realize how far down the road they had gotten in terms of the public accumulated fatigue.
And then third, fairly talented leadership that emerged kind of surprisingly—Moreno in Ecuador—you know, a leader from the very party of Correa, but who came in and said, you know, we can do better, and a talented leader who had some convictions. In Armenia, a talented leader who rose up with the street protests and so forth.
And you look and you see in each of these cases usually one or two leader figures who captured this moment of fatigue and electoral openness to create a process of change.
GIACOMO: Adriana, do you want to add to that?
LEBAS: Yeah. I generally agree with what Tom has just said. I mean, it’s the combination of sort of fatigue. It’s just really hard to hold a sort of party-based authoritarian regime together in the long haul, right? And so it’s going to be harder and harder to keep that level of elite cohesion, particularly when we’re seeing this mobilization from below, which is something Tom mentioned earlier.
I mean, I think we are seeing a sort of explosion of citizen politics. You know, when I look at sort of good-news stories from Africa, you know, I think that the protests that have emerged around term limits and other kinds of constitutional provisions, this is really what gives me some hope. We still have citizens who live, in some places, in straight-up authoritarian regimes, right? DRC, straight-up authoritarian regime. It’s not that the citizens think the term limit is going to give them democracy, but they know that it’s a first sort of step and they have to claw back each inch of institutional space. And I think that that is what sort of keeps me in the game.
You know, I think there is an incredible vibrancy at the grassroots. And the trouble is how to aggregate that up and connect it to sort of political elites and connect it to electoral politics. Because certainly protest culture is vibrant, it’s just, how do you institutionalize protest culture?
CAROTHERS: Didn’t you write a book called From Protests to Parties? (Laughter.) You were just waiting to mention that.
LEBAS: I did.
GIACOMO: A little plug here.
OK, more questions?
Over here, the gentlemen on the end.
Q: Thank you. Mark Hannah, Eurasia Group Foundation.
Pew Global Attitudes Project put out a poll. One of their survey questions was asking about American ideas about democracy. And they found that largely in South American countries and African countries there’s a lot more support for these ideas than in European countries. And what Bruce Stokes of the project sort of generalized was that countries that have more experience with Western-style democracy have a lower opinion of it than countries that have less experience. Can you make sense of that for us?
GIACOMO: Who wants to take a crack?
LEBAS: So I’ll start just because I think that this issue of sort of youth—this is my attempt to put sort of youth onto the table.
I mean, I’m sort of there with you that certainly your sort of experience of democracy is going to shape what you expect. But I think in a lot of these countries, what we see is abstract support for democracy, but very low evaluation of the democracy they actually have. Right? So people are able to differentiate.
And I think just your democratic experience, I mean, 70 percent of the African population is below the age of thirty. And so, you know, what kind of experience do people actually have of anything?
So, you know, one of the arguments out there is, well, if you remember authoritarian rule, then, you know, you’re going to remember why democracy is so important. Or there’s the contrary argument, if you remember authoritarian rule, you might be sort of nostalgic for it.
But I think that we’re now moving in the developing world towards a sort of entire generation of people who have lived in these illiberal democracies and only have an experience of flawed democracy or flawed competition. And I think that, you know, the big puzzle is, how long can that gap between your actual evaluation of your own democracy and your abstract support for democracy, is that sustainable over time? And I don’t know.
CAROTHERS: I have a different way of putting it. That same idea, but it’s just that I think in countries that have had less experience with democracy, people still feel more democracy would be the solution to the corruption, the incompetence and so forth—more representative, more responsive, et cetera. So they say if we just had more democracy, we could get there. Those countries that have experienced relatively full democracy for several generations feel like they’ve already tried that and they’re frustrated, so they don’t think—so their estimation of the value of democracy is lower in that sense. So it’s potential versus reality.
GIACOMO: More questions?
Q: I wanted—Massimo Tommasoli from International IDEA.
I wanted to get back to one of the elephants in the room that Adriana and Tom mentioned, which is the quality of intermediary institutions. Clearly, political parties are crucial for democracy, but they are the weakest link, to quote Tom’s book. So what are the concrete recommendations that you may provide on building stronger parties and what you just said about Africa and—well, that applies also to Europe and the other countries?
GIACOMO: Who wants to start?
LEBAS: I mean, I’ll take a stab. I did write a book about it. (Chuckles.) So I think, you know, that, as I suggested, there’s a lot of vibrancy at the grassroots. There’s also a lot of money that goes to civil society assistance from the United States and other donors. I don’t see those two as connected right now.
So I think that a lot of the civil society assistance that is there goes to a set of actors who I think are doing very valuable work, a lot of human rights documentation, a lot of the sort of monitoring of corruption and all of the rest is done by these kinds of civil society organizations that we’re supporting. But I don’t think that we’re thinking about associations as building blocks of parties. And we’re also not thinking of grassroots associationalism as, to use Tocqueville’s term, the great schools of democracy.
And so, you know, I think that maybe rethinking the kinds of organizations that we target or pay attention to and sort of looking at little block-level associations—I work in Lagos a huge amount now and we’ve been working in partnership with these marketplace associations, which are sort of these—in the absence of the state, they govern the marketplaces and enforce corruption and arrange services and all of the rest. I would think, if I were a party building, that would be a really powerful source of organizational capital.
And I think making sure that those networks are sort of maybe the basis of a rooted, accountable, internally democratic party, that’s something that we don’t really think about at all. And yet, the politicians on the ground know that these are fantastic vehicles for organizing votes and they generally tend to buy them.
So, you know, how can we sort of make sure that that organizational capital is something that is supported and, you know, supported for democracy?
CAROTHERS: Yeah, I think that’s a great answer. You also have to keep—it’s party systems that manage to renovate tend to be party systems that the barriers to entry aren’t too bad. So, you know, we saw the example earlier that was mentioned of Germany where the Social Democratic Party has been in a kind of secular decline for a while, but the Green Party, a sort of rebel party, which was able to enter the system because the parliamentary threshold is too high in Germany and the financing system is very coherent and you’re not shut out of financing, even if you’re a new party, the Green Party has come along and is rebuilding the center-left in Germany. So that’s good.
Slovakia, we see the recent electoral results there, which are very positive in liberal democratic terms. It’s a system where it’s fairly easy for parties to get started and get into the system.
The party systems that have collapsed are those where the barriers to entry are high, like Italy in the 1990s when the Christian Democratic Party and the Communist Party collapsed in a wave of scandal. Because the two parties had a lock on the system, didn’t allow any other parties to enter, sort of had the rules set up in a way that was very hard to exit or enter the party scene. Then you get party collapse over time.
So just like any sort of organic system, there has to be—the barriers to entry have to be kept at a reasonable, you know, at a reasonable level so that there can be entry of new actors that challenge the old ones. And when you look at U.S. parties, because we’re locked into the two-party system because of our rules, it’s only through reform of the parties that we can get any party reform. And we know how difficult that is.
GIACOMO: So I think we’ve come to the end of our time.
Thank you all for being here. Please help me in thanking the panelists. (Applause.)