Episode: Yascha Mounk & Weakening of Democracy Movement
TEASER: I think what we need to do we mean to construct to an inclusive patriotism that treats minorities as equals and emphasizes what unites us across racial and religious lines rather than what separates us. Part of that has to be a real civic patriotism. I think we have to recognize how important the task of turning children into citizens is. We can’t just sneer about American history; we can’t just sneer about the constitution; we can’t just sneer about American symbols. We need to defend them. We need to explain them. We need to say why, with all of its flaws, there is something special about the United States that we want to defend.
INTRO: “Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
Our second president, John Adams wrote those words in a letter in 1814.
Ronald Reagan pointed to a similar idea when he quoted a Scottish philosopher back in 1964.
He said, “A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government.”
In 2017, American democracy seems to be in danger. With Donald Trump in power, our government faces a tipping point.
Our guest on this episode is a renowned political theorist and a lecturer at Harvard University. He’s here today to talk about a growing movement that believes our democracy is weakening.
Please welcome Yascha Mounk to the Uprising Podcast. Yascha, let’s start with a broad question. With everything going on in society, in politics, how do you feel about the world right now?
YASCHA: I’m very worried about the world. One obvious thing to worry about is Donald Trump and the fact that the President of the United States is somebody who has no respect for the most basic democratic rules and norms. He’s copying the playbook of populist very closely. Who has some setbacks. He has, thankfully, experienced some real resistance. He’s not quite as unpopular and quite as unsucessful as some like to think. So I am still very concerned with the future of politics.
SCOTT: But, you believe the problem of politics go beyond Donald Trump. In recent articles, you said democracy itself and our attitudes towards it are weakening. What signs are there that a movement is underway?
YASCHA: There are a few simple ways of thinking about that. One is to see if most citizens think it’s important to live in a democracy. Another is to see if they are open to authoritarian alternatives to democracy. And there is a third to look at if there are political actors who really don’t accept the basic rules of the game. We looked at a set of opinion surveys from the World Value Survey which was the most ambitious attempt to engage public opinion on democracy and the word. What we found really was quite striking. Only two thirds of the people born in the 1930s say it is really crucial to live in a democracy. Crucial. 10/10. Once you get to younger people–to millennials, less than a third say it’s essential to live in a democracy. It’s a very rapid decline. Much higher number of people say that you know what democracy doesn’t actually work really well. Even when you look at alternatives to democracy like army rule, that number went up. It’s small. The minority think that. Thank God. But, it’s a number that went up quite a bit. It use to be one in 16 americans who said army rule is a good system of government and now it is one in 6.
SCOTT: It seems a lot of this disillusionment in democracy is happening within the younger population. Why is this movement mainly happening within the millennial generation?
YACHA: I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that we are learning this political moment that people don’t necessarily believe in democracy out of idealism. Because it is delivered for people historically. It is made by people who are affluent. It’s given them peace and so on. The United States for example from 1945 to 1960, the living standard for the average American doubled. From 1960 to 1985, it doubled again. Since then it has essentially been stagnant. Young people have borne the brunt of that stagnation. It use to be that only about 10% of Americans by the age of 30 earned less than their parents had. Now, half of Americans age 30 earn less than their parents have at the same age. The promise of America hasn’t really been fulfilled. It’s not surprising that young people are saying I am not really getting anything out of this political system. Let’s try something new. Coupled with the second important development, which is that older Americans and everyone around the world have some experience with what it means to live under or to fight under in totalitarian regimes They understand what fascism meant. They grew up in a time when Communism was a live threat to sovereignty. Young Americans are less attached to democracy because they don’t really understand what the alternatives look like.
SCOTT: But, is this something new? In 1968/ 69 it felt like our western society was coming apart at the seams. But it rebounded and thrived again. How is today’s movement different from earlier ones?
YASCHA: One way it is very different is that it has very, very different electoral results. The 60s felt like there were social divisions. But the divides were not as nearly as deep as they are now. For example, when first asked people if they trusted politicians to do the right thing most of the time a couple of years after Watergate, actually a majority of Americans said yeah! The majority of politicians do the right thing. I think we can trust them. Now it is a really small minority of Americans that think that. There’s deep disenchantment and part of that is deeper election results. Perhaps you had some figures like Trump over American history like in the 60s. But you never had a president of the United States that attacked the media in the extreme way Trump does. He seems to not have a grasp on public policy. I think when you look at the voting behavior of voters and who have real power in our society, this moment looks very different from the 1960s.
SCOTT: I want to go back to the distrust of politicians. It goes way beyond distrusting Trump. People are not trusting anyone in congress or even the justices in the Supreme Court. It seems like a movement on its own. Why is there such a growing distrust?
YASCHA: More Americans trust a second hand car salesman than trust congressman. Lice is more popular than congress. That shows a very deep mistrust for them. There are a few reasons for that. One is that people are like I don’t know if I really like politicians or completely trust them but I guess they are alright. Now they are saying, you know what? I have no reason to trust them. I have no reason to trust that they are doing the right thing because I see no improvements in my life. I think they also feel more and more separated from politicians. As policies become more and more technical as we require more and more vision, they feel more and more out of the loop on the more important political decisions. The third reasons is just as important and it is a little paradoxical. I think the more transparency we’ve had, the more mistrust we had a result. For example, when you had the Wikileaks revelations, I was actually astounded how little was truly scandalous or embarrassing. Certainly, there were a few scandals. Overall, it showed a political system that was surprising clean. But that is not how it is perceived. They say these secret documents were released. Even when you have these form of transparencies and reveal that the system is in certain ways are less messed up than one might think, people still think there are bad things going on. All of those email revelations, hacks, leaks drive a real mistrust of politicians and politics even when what they maintain isn’t all that shocking.
SCOTT: You mention hacking and leaking. In 1968/69, we didn’t have this type of technology. How do you think technology is playing a role in this movement and weakening our democracy?
YASCHA: There’s been lots of times in history when people felt that technology was in fact weakening the political system or allowing extreme voices to arise. From the fascist who used the radio to start political movements. But, I think there is something different technology about this political moment. Essentially, since the invention of the printing press, we’ve had a system of one too many communication. What I mean by that is that a set of people who have a lot of control over what gets said. This could be a publishing house in the Renaissance or it could be CNN or NPR in the early 90s. In order to have your voice heard, you had to have access to these networks. What happened was the rise of the internet which democratized the method of communications. Suddenly, for very little money, I could register a domain called yaschamounk.com and everybody could come and read the information I put on there. But, then you had the rise of social media. It democratized one too many form of communication. Suddenly if you’re on a United airlines flight and you are being re-accommodated in a brutal fashion and somebody takes a video, and even if the guy only has 50 followers on Twitter, 10% of them say you know what that’s a really striking video, I’m going to retweet that, and then 10% of their followers say you know what’s that’s shocking, I’m going to retweet that. Within in an hour, millions of people can see that. The result of these two changes has been to undermine the powers of gatekeepers at the center of our society. The technological gap between government and population has shrunk. That’s a good thing in many societies, especially in totalitarian societies. It had some good effects in our society, but it also has had some bad effects. It allowed for hateful voices to have a greater voice. It’s made it easier for fake news to spread. This is the world we live in. There are no longer gatekeepers who control what is acceptable in our political discourse.
SCOTT: What I find so interesting is that you were talking about the weakening of our democracy even before Trump became president. Now that he is in office, how is he a further threat to our democracy? Or, how does it affect our new generation, authority figures and established brands?
YASHA: In terms of the attitudes that we measure, the jury is still out. We don’t have any new data. I wonder whether it may have the slightest impact that now that young people have seen what it looks like to have a president with undemocratic attitudes, they might recommit themselves to a defense of a democratic system. At the same time, you have someone who is undermining political operations that we desperately need for democracy to survive. I am very worried about the damage that he is going to do over the next three years. I am worried about his ability to undermine our elections. I am worried about his ability to quell freedom of speech in some important aspects. I am worried about him destroying the safeguards we have against deeply corrupt government. When you look, for example, the way in which Donald Trump has completely refused to disclose his potential conflicts of interests and he has taken government actions that would make him a lot of money, it is difficult to see how we get back to the kinds of standards of government accountability that Barack Obama took very seriously.
SCOTT: On top of all these negative of effects of this movement, the weakening of democracy affects minorities and their rights most closely. This was best seen in the events in Charlottesville, VA. You are from Germany and you are Jewish. What was it like to see the violence that erupted on the University of Virginia campus?
YASCHA: People often say that Germany has dealt with its past so well. My experience as a teenager growing up in Germany with the Neo-Nazi marches, calmed me down a little bit. In some ways I was less shocked by Charlottesville than a lot of americans because I come from a country that has regular neo-nazi marches. I think I was a little less surprised to see what a democratic society might have that. I don’t think the people that marched in Charlottesville represent more than a tiny fraction of Americans. I think we do ourselves a disfavor if we hide from it by making it seem as though they are most people. What was shocking was the unwillingness of the president of the United States to condemn those groups specifically. That is something that is incredibly upsetting and enraging. I don’t think that means Donald Trump has a real sympathy for the Neo-Nazis by the way. I just think that he was unwilling to disown anybody he sees as a supporter of his course. But, I don’t think they are a majority in the United States. I think it would be a mistake to read it that way.
SCOTT: Another staple moment in this movement is Trump’s reaction to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. He’s taking to Twitter to voice his outrage and VP Pence is even walking out of the stadium. No president has reacted to a form of peaceful protest like this before. What is the impact of this on our society and our democracy? What movements can we expect coming out of this?
YASCHA: I think it is one the clean and horrifying break with democratic rules and norms. The president is calling for private organizations to punish athletes for emphasizing free speech. That is a clear violation of the very, very important principle that people should be allowed to express their political views even if they are unpopular. The executive is suppose to protect rather than undermine. I want to add an important thing here. I think there has been broad and confused debate about free speech for the past year. A lot of bad people have invoked free speech over the past year in order to recuse horrifying actions. We are not taking seriously enough our own tendency to shut people up when we don’t agree with them. To me, this is an incident where we should stand up to the president’s outrageous attacks on NFL players but we also need to recognize this is a broader more robust understanding of freedom of speech than it applies where we might be a little less comfortable as well.
SCOTT: You mentioned Trump forcing private companies to punish these players. So, what role should companies play in this movement as our democracy weakens? Should they stick their heads in the sand or stand for their stakeholders?
YASHA: The instinct of companies is to be uncontroversial and to accommodate themselves to power. I was a managing consultant at a firm that prides itself on working on strategy. I learned to my surprise and horror is that what they mean by strategy is the next three years and not the next three months. They are very tempted to not criticize Donald Trump too much, to not get in the crosshairs of an executive. But, I think companies have self interest if they are a little bit more reflective about the future of the country. Companies have been successful because we’ve had checks and balances. We had a system in which the popularity of a president doesn’t make or break a company. I think the kind of things that the president is doing is undermining those things. American companies and American economy is going to suffer greatly. That gives companies a real self interest in standing up to Donald Trump. I would also argue that it is their moral duty.
SCOTT: With this movement well underway, where do you see it going from here? What are the possible outcomes?
YASHA: I think the outcome is open. I think there is an optimistic scenario in which Americans recognize to what degree democracy is danger and to what degree how much damage Trump presidency is doing to America and the world. And if they rise up–as your podcast suggests–and oppose the president in a really robust way. Get him out of office in 2020 and never make that mistake again. I also think there is more pessimistic scenarios. The most extreme would be Trump undermining the ability to jolt him from power and undermining our free and fair elections. That is a scary possibility. I think most likely what will happen is what I call the Roman scenario. In the Roman republic, you have this populist leader that breaks with democratic norms and insights divisions in the populations. He does great damage to the institution and then he is defeated eventually. Politics return to look pretty normal for ten to twenty years, but the underlying structural problems, the stagnation of living standards and lack of common identity aren’t solved. Time and time again you get similar kinds of populist. Over the next 30 or 40 years, we slowly lose what it means to have a free republic. That’s what worries me most. I say this to all the listeners of this podcast, who are politically active, we need a lot of stamina. We need to question and opposing government today and the abuses of government but it’s also a matter forcefully and carefully arguing for the kind of political action that renew our democracy for the coming decades. We should be into this fight for the long haul.
SCOTT: Then what do we need to do exactly to start a counter-movement that reinforces the ideals of democracy?
YASCHA: I think there is a movement now to oppose violations of democracy and I think that is a good start. I think one of the things that we should do beyond that is remember that we have to be for something than against something. There’s a real question of what will bind us together as Americans. On the far right, there is white nationalism. To be American, it means to be white. They say we do have a common identity and it is rooted in that ethnicity and exclude everybody else. That is a really powerful ideology. We have to find a way to win against it. Our instinct has been to abandon the field of a nation. To say that our country is problematic, our country has a problematic history, nationalism is dangerous. It can easily turn xenophobic. It can turn intolerant, so let’s think about the sins of our nations and frame everything in terms of the riots and the interest of minority groups. I think that’s a mistake as well. It allowed the right to conquer this really potent force of nationalism and got Donald Trump elected.I think what we need to do we mean to construct to an inclusive patriotism that sees minorities as equals and emphasizes what unites us across racial and religious lines rather than what separates us. Part of that has to be a real civic patriotism. I think we have to recognize how important the task of turning children into citizens is. We can’t just sneer about American history; we can’t just sneer about the constitution; we can’t just sneer about American symbols. We need to defend them. We need to explain them. We need to say why, with all of its flaws, there is something special about the United States that we want to defend.
SCOTT: This is all such great and powerful information. Where can listeners go to get more information about you and this movement?
YASCHA: Please subscribe to my podcast, which is called The Good Fight, you can find it on Panoply which is Slate’s podcast network. Please look out for my weekly column in Slate as well also called The Good Fight. Finally I just finished a book that I am really proud of, it’s called The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save it. It’s not out yet but you can go to Amazon and preorder it.
SCOTT: Great thank you so much Yascha.
YASCHA: Thank you.