Democracy Works is taking a few weeks off for the summer. While we do, we are going to share some older episodes you might have missed, along with a few from other podcasts we think you’ll enjoy. First up is our democracy summer reading list, which we recorded last summer but holds up well today. Since we recored this, we’ve been lucky to have a few of the authors on the show — David Frum, Salena Zito, and E.J. Dionne.
Finally, if you enjoy Democracy Works, consider checking out The Politics Guys. This podcast is hosted by a bi-partisan groups of academics and other experts who provide a weekly rundown of the biggest news and events in American politics and interview experts from a variety of fields. Check it out at politicsguys.com.
Is the United States really a democracy? What will the EU look like in 50 years? What should 2020 candidates be doing to demonstrate civility? Those are just a few of the questions we received from Democracy Works listeners around the country and around the world. We close our third season by answering some of your questions about democracy and the topics we’ve covered on the show.
We’ll be on summer break for the next few weeks. New episodes resume August 12. In the meantime, we’ll be rebroadcasting some of our older episodes you might have missed and sharing episodes from other podcasts we think you’ll enjoy.
Much like our conversation with Patricia Roberts-Miller on demagoguery last week, neoliberalism is one of those fuzzy words that can mean something different to everyone. Wendy Brown is one of the world’s leading scholars on neoliberalism and argue that a generation of neoliberal worldview among political, business, and intellectual leaders led to the populism we’re seeing throughout the world today. But is it mutually exclusive to democracy? Not necessarily.
Wendy joins us this week to help make sense of what neoliberalism is, and where things stand today. We were lucky enough to get an advance copy of her book, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, which will be released in July. It’s a follow up to her 2015 book, Undoing the Demos, and you’ll hear her talk about how her thinking has changed since then.
Wendy is the Class of 1936 First Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches political theory. You might also recognize her from Astra Taylor’s documentary, What Is Democracy? If you enjoy this episode, we recommend checking out the Political Theory Review podcast, produced by Jeffrey Church at the University of Houston.
What do you see as the relationship between neoliberalism and democracy?
Do you think it’s possible for two to coexist?
What do you see as the future of neoliberalism? Will Millennials and Generation Z move in a different direction?
[5:45] How do you define neoliberalism and how is it related to democracy?
North Americans are a little bewildered by the term, and we don’t have it as part of our everyday lexicon although I think it’s finally beginning to seep in. But having said that, I also want to suggest that we understand it at a social and political level and not just an economic level. We recognize it as the undoing of the Keynesian welfare state and the substitution of free market policies, low taxes, everyone’s responsible for themselves and getting rid of all the social supports except for a bare minimum safety net, but I want to add that it’s also a whole from of governing reason.
[7:45] How does neoliberalism relate to authoritarianism?
One of the things I felt compelled to understand with our hard right turn in the West over the last several years with Trump and Bolsonaro and Brexit and so forth was the connection of that to neoliberalism. One thing you can say is rising inequality and open borders produces rage about being at the bottom end of that inequality and also about immigrants, but there was something else on the horizon that I had never noticed, which is that the neoliberal scheme was not just to substitute markets for social policy.
It was also to substitute traditional moral values for understandings of social justice and institutions of social justice. And so part of what we’re experiencing now is what I call the kind of scorpion tail of neoliberalism — the lashing out against the inequality and the continued insistence that traditional morality, moral values, and traditions more generally from white supremacy to patriarchal families, religion in the public sphere, that those are more appropriate governors of human conduct than any state-mandated practices of equality or inclusion.
[11:04] How did neoliberal ideas make their way from academics to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher?
First, there was a very serious economic crisis often called a crisis of profitability in the 70s that was also often seen as a crisis of the welfare state. Too much taxation, unions that were too strong, corporations that were too large and lazy, and a real problem of stagflation. It was a moment where you could strike with a new set of ideas. At the same time, neoliberalism had already been experimented with extensively in Latin America. The IMF was already solidly neoliberal, so bringing it up to the north wasn’t so difficult once Reagan and Thatcher were in power.
[14:37] What will Millennials and Gen Z make of neoliberalism?
Millennials and Generation Z are living in a kind of schizophrenic subjectivity that comes from the rejection of capitalism and the sluggish, dinosaur-like pace of parliamentary or constitutional democracy that is now so deeply corrupted by neoliberal money and corporate power. One of the things I see coming from these generations is the rejection of those two things as the necessary coordinates of the political and economic future, and I think all the hope rests there.
[17:46] Is there a way for neoliberalism and democracy to coexist?
Why I’m impatient with a neoliberal conception of democracy as a way to redress either the gross inequality or the serious existential dangers that we face now is that it’s basically saying, “Go join something, go feel like you’re part of something,” but let the major powers that shape our lives run through markets that presumably run through no hands at all. We rather desperately need to get our hands on those powers.
[20:37] Is it possible to move past the neoliberal worldview given that it’s been dominant over the past generation?
Yes. The Keynesian system lasted for fifty years. No one thought it could be taken apart and everyone thought it was here to stay. The question for the neoliberals was always to try to figure out how to keep it from getting worse and how to prevent this straight on drive toward complete socialism, and keep some markets in the picture. So, one generation is not a lot of time. The second thing I want to say is that we are obviously in a very serious political crisis where there’s an impatience with the current system and a belief that it’s not serving people or the planet. not just the left and right edges, but left and right mainstreams now um, the impatience with the- with the current system, and the belief that it’s not serving people, or the planet, is very strong.
When you think of the word “demagogue,” what comes to mind? Probably someone like Hitler or another bombastic leader, right? Patricia Roberts-Miller is a rhetoric scholar and has spent years tracing the term and its uses. She joins us this week to explain a new way of thinking about demagoguery and how that view relates to democracy. She also explains what she’s learned from what she describes as years of “crawling around the Internet with extremists.”
Patricia is a Professor of Rhetoric and Writing and Director of the University Writing Center at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of two new books on demagoguery. Demagoguery and Democracy is a short book in the style of On Tyranny that covers the basics of her argument in about 100 small ages. Rhetoric and Demagoguery is a longer, more academic book for those looking for more on the rhetorical roots of demagoguery and its relationship to democratic deliberation.
After listening to Patricia, do you feel better equipped to notice demagoguery in media you consume, or even in your own language and writing?
What do you see as the relationship between demagoguery and democracy?
Do you see parallels between the increase of demagoguery and the decline of civility we discussed with Timothy Shaffer?
Can you think of a time when you’ve tried to appreciate the other side’s point of view in a conversation or something you read? Did doing so change your perspective?
[5:18] How do you define demagoguery and why is it bad for democracy?
It’s useful to think about it as reducing all political issues or even all issues to questions of identity. And specifically in-group versus out-group. And it’s oriented toward providing a lot of certainty and reducing nuance. When you have a culture that is reasoning about everything in that way, you can’t actually explore multiple solutions. What I have to say about demagoguery in politics is pretty similar to what people will say about how a business should come up with a good business plan or how people should make decisions about health. It’s just better decision making.
[7:04] How does the media landscape influence the culture of demagoguery you describe?
We’re in an economy of attention and what matters most is w- whether you are doing things that get viewers and get likes, and get clicks and shares, and all that. It’s extremely difficult to do a good argument on Twitter, one that takes into consideration the nuance of a situation, what other people have said, represents the opposition fairly.
[10:44] Why is demagoguery so often associated with political leaders?
Because demagoguery is about reducing politics to identity. And so if you’re thinking about politics in terms of identity you’re going to be looking for a person on whom you can blame bad politics. And it better not be you. Right? So I think that’s one reason that we really like that notion the demagogue who is the source of all of our problems. And often when you have a culture of demagoguery, at some point somebody will come up.
[13:14] What are some strategies people can use to identify demagoguery?
We assume that demagoguery is going to be vehement, and we assume it’s going to be aggressive. And so we have a tendency to make that judgment on the basis of affect. The affect of the person speaking, but also our own. Do we feel threatened? And if we don’t feel threatened then we’re not likely to think of it as demagoguery. So I think, but what that means is that you don’t recognize the demagoguery on behalf of your in-group. People have to perspective shift and imagine how would we feel about this if we were in the other group? Would we feel threatened by it under those circumstances? How would we feel if exactly that same argument was made about our group? Um, how would we make, how would we feel about that kind of argument? Would we assess it as a rational argument if it was made on the part of the opposition?
[16:16] Is there ever a time when it’s not worth trying to understand the other person or side’s point of view?
One of the things you always have to figure out about anyone you’re interacting with is whether they are open to change and persuasion. One of the problems with conspiracy theories is by definition they’re not. They have a way of discounting any kind evidence that doesn’t conform to their beliefs. Often, the people don’t believe in climate change have an almost 19th century notion about a scientist is, and what science is. So if a mechanical engineer tells them that climate change is a hoax they’re like, “There’s a scientist who doesn’t believe in it.” Without understanding that a mechanical engineer is not actually an expert on either of those areas.Sometimes I get really interesting insights into people’s beliefs from doing that. And sometimes it’s sort of like kicking over a rock and just going, “Ew.”
[21:50 ] Do you think we’ll be able to move beyond the “us vs. them” rhetoric to a more deliberative model?
I’m really worried, but I’m hopeful that at least Facebook is starting to take this really seriously, and try to think through some better strategies that they have. What we actually need to emphasize is understanding other points of view. Instead of just relying on the facts I’ve been given by my in-group, to see what the facts are on other sides. And to see, especially why they reject the facts.
In his book Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World, James Miller encapsulates 2500 years of democracy history into about 250 pages — making the case that “people power” will always need to be at the heart of any successful democracy.
James is a professor of politics and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research. in New York City. He is the author of Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947–1977, and Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago. He was recommended to us by Astra Taylor, and you’ll hear some similarities between how James and Astra view democracy and our role within it.
Starting next week, we’ll be expanding our focus to look at the state of democracy around the world, starting with Hungary. We’ve talked in broad strokes about how democracy is on the decline outside the United States and are excited to dive into what’s happening in a few specific countries.
What do you make of the notion that democracy is “people power?”
Based on the definition James provides, is the United States a democracy?
What are the origins of democracy?
Where do the ideas of democracy comes from?
What can affect democracy or democratic processes?
[4:50] In your book you talk about the ideal of democracy survives. What that ideal is and where it comes from?
The term democracy comes from ancient Greek and it’s not just cuddly abstract power. It really connotes people who have weapons in their hands and you have to respond to them. A literal translation of the word democracy in the English would be “people power.”
[8:34] What can history tell us about trying to marry this the ideal of democracy with what what it ends up being in practice?
It’s very misleading to try to draw direct lessons from history because so much in politics is situational. It depends on the context, on the culture, on the level of development of the people or a group that’s trying to become self governing. In the modern period the democracy is an idea and as an ideology, it’s inherently unstable because there’s a core ambiguity about to what extent it can be realized in practice and there’s a further ambiguity and that it’s proven to be a very powerful legitimating mechanism as an ideologies, and you end up with regimes that talk about democracy but don’t for a nanosecond really mean it and the cases of communist countries like North Korea and China are to most Americans self-evident.
[14:22] Where did the French get their ideas about democracy?
They obtained some ideas from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who grows out of a modern Republican tradition and ends up backing into a kind of support for democracy. There is an American version of democracy that does appear in the course of the 19th century and it develops on a different path than democracy in Europe and yet in the United States think we invented democracy. So the one of the more weird facets of the story of modern democracy is America preening itself on being the birthplace of modern democracy, which is false and being a place where the great protector of democracy which we’ve used repeatedly in the 20th and 21st century as a rationale for imposing by gunfire democratic ideals on foreign countries.
[18:40] Can you talk a little bit about what the people’s party and the people’s constitution in Rhode Island look like?
At the time of the Revolution after the Declaration of Independence most of the states, the colonies, drafted their own constitutions, but during this whole ferment Rhode Island basically just ratified as Colonial Charter and kept it in. A convention was declared and there’s a draft of the new Constitution which of course by the rules of the state legislature in Rhode Island was illegal. It ends up a short of the Civil War.
[22:11] In the 20th century, public opinion polls enter the picture. How did they impact perceptions of democracy?
The conception that allows that to happen is the notion that democracy is ruled by public opinion, and this is proposed as a definition of modern democracy by Woodrow Wilson in writings before he became president of the United States. This nascent science of the monitoring of public opinion takes root in the United States. First of all in commercial applications through market research, but very quickly spreads to politics and emerges as a kind of practices in the 20s and into the 1930s. Finally, in the 1936 presidential campaign for the first time you have newspapers and magazines printing public opinion polls on who supports the different presidential candidates for the first time in history. Is that public opinion polling? It’s a two-way street. You can find out what people think they want and then you can try to manipulate it and you can manipulate it in part by the questions you ask.
[27:29] Knowing what you do about democracy’s history, where do things go from here?
The vitality of democracy in a modern setting, in effect, depends on the continued irruption into the public sphere of the voices of ordinary citizens and that this eruption of voices will often be unruly and may even create chaos. That’s the nature of democratic revolts. I have no sympathy for people who keep denouncing what they call populism which to me just means it’s people power that they don’t like. It’s a group of people who are advocating policies they disagree with.
Democracy and inequality have been at odds for as long as democracy as has existed. As the gap between rich and poor widens, so too does trust in political institutions and faith in democracy itself.
Chris Witko, associate director of Penn State’s School of Public Policy and author of The New Economic Populism: How States Respond to Economic Inequality, argues that states can step in to address economic inequality while the federal government is embattled in political polarization.
Witko argues that democracy and capitalism will never fully be reconciled, but lessening economic inequality will go a long way toward strengthening democracy.
What is the relationship between democracy and economic inequality?
Whose responsibility is it to address inequality?
What policies should be taken in order to reduce inequality?
Do you think that individual states are doing enough to reduce inequality?
Do you think that multiple states adopting politics like minimum wage increases will spur federal action?
[6:02] Why are income inequality and democracy closely linked?
We are going to have some inequality in a capitalist system, but when we are in a democratic capitalist system that assumes some level of equality, there is a concern when you have extreme levels of extreme inequality.
[6:53] Talking about problems of Democracy in United States, do you agree with the statement that we can’t start to fix what is wrong with democracy until we address the issue of inequality?
Yes. When you see the extremes of wealth and inequality, you see that wealthy people can use their money for politics, so that generates an unequal political influence.
[7:50] Whose job to fix the problem of inequality?
In the United States we tend to think that the public is not concerned about inequality and that’s relatively true in comparison with Europe, but according to survey data, the public is really concerned about inequality and they want the government to do something to fix it.
[10:15] If public opinion really does supports action on inequality, why isn’t it moving forward?
The polarization is preventing anything getting done, and when you have big interests and the wealthy has gib influence in politics, that makes it really hard to get any chance of getting any egalitarian policy in Washington DC.
[13:09] How can we use the tools of democracy to fight inequality?
We do have in the states that we don’t have in Washington DC is direct democracy, in which desires from majority are expressed, but sometimes terrible policies can restrict rights from minorities.
[14:30] If a state want to take action either in minimum wage or thru the earning income tax, it is a tipping point to take action at the federal level?
Yes. We have seen it in the past. A lot os states has a higher income wage than the federal minimum wage an at this point it is natural that there’s not an opposition at the federal level because a lot of businesses are already adjusted to that level of income wage.
[15:17] What is the Earned Income tax Credit? How that it be a solution for that states that are looking to solve inequalities?
It’s a tax credit that comes back to workers who don’t earn a lot of money so you can actually end up getting cash back from the government when you file your tax return. That’s something that started at the federal level and then has proliferated down to the states and now the states are doing more to expand their earned income tax credits. It’s another policy tool that you can use in a more conservative area where maybe you don’t want to increase taxes on the wealthy, but you want to bring up the incomes of lower income workers.
[16:49] Can you talk about how populism fits into this inequality conversation?
The public is concerned about inequality and a lot of the policies that would actually address inequality or that we’ve used in the past to reduce inequality are actually really popular with the public. Minimum wage increases and tax increases on Millionaires and billionaires are very popular with the public. There are policies that a majority of the people want and we’re not really getting them in Washington DC due to the political dynamics there, but some of the states are actually doing this.
[17:44] What are those points in history that let large-scale changes, like the New Deal, to move forward?
What happened during the New Deal is a unique set of circumstances, you had a massive congressional majority of Democrats, Franklin Roosevelt’s terrible economy and people were ready for action, but we don’t want to have another Great Depression. With those political conditions we really did see the federal government pioneering new policies to address problems and we’re not seeing that because you have the the influence of the wealthy and politics in Washington DC, which is similar in some states but not as great in other states, so the states have more room for action and you have the mass of polarization in Washington DC which prevents anything from getting done.
[19:54] Can people try to do in their own way to make progress on some of these issues?
Voter turnout is really important to the types of policy. We need to do more to mobilize lower income voters, so any supporting organizations to make that happen is a good idea.
[20:59] Is there any type of ideal that we should be looking for?
No. I don’t think we can specify a mathematical point at which we’re good and within 2 percentage of points of this it’s bad, and that’s part of the danger of this situation. You never know when things have gotten too extreme. I don’t think many Americans would support everybody earning the same income or pure equality and that’s not going to happen, but just avoiding extremes of inequalities.
[23:11] How things like the Affordable Care Act and some of the other kind of more drastic proposals like Medicare for All are a factor?
The Affordable Care Act is interesting because it is one of the few real major egalitarians policies that we’ve seen enacted. There are some problems with how the ACA was designed. We’re seeing a similar logic where liberal states expanded medicaid right away, but even some of the more conservative states have done so through the particularly, through the initiative, but in some some cases not even through the initiative.
[24:36] Do you think that we can really do anything to move forward on addressing inequality without talking about the current state of campaign finance and the influence of money in politics?
Yes. Stricter campaign finance laws would probably be a good thing. The problem is right now the Supreme Court and a lot of state courts are really against regulating money in politics. The other thing we can do is to just try to increase money from other voices into the system.
We’ll be back with new episodes starting next week. This week’s episode comes to you from our friends at Trump on Earth, a podcast that’s taking a closer look at all the changes coming out of Washington on the environment — from what’s happening at the EPA to how our public lands will fare under the Trump administration.
This episode features an interview with sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild about her book Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, which chronicles her time with conservatives in Louisiana. Hochschild found people there who had become sick from industrial pollution or lost their homes due to an industrial catastrophe yet were resentful of the federal government.
As we’ve previously discussed, there are a lot of books about democracy filling book store and library shelves right now. Norman Eisen could have written a book in the vein of Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky’s How Democracies Die or David Frum’s Trumpocracy, but chose to go in a different direction.
In The Last Palace, he tells the story of the Petschek Palace, where he lived while serving as U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic. The palace and its residents sought to defend liberal democracy throughout both world wars and the Cold War. The book, which one review calls a “love letter to liberal democracy,” also shows the ways in which ambassadors do the hard work of democracy abroad.
Eisen describes the cycles of democracy that occurred as public support waxed and waned over the years. He says that we are now an inflection point that will determine support for liberal democracy moving forward. Ever the optimist, he’s confident that democracy will come through this seemingly dark period to triumph once again.
Eisen is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings and chair of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington. Prior to becoming ambassador, he advised the Obama administration on ethics — a job that earned him the unofficial title “ethics czar.”
What impact do you think corruption has on democracy?
Where do you see democracy being harmed by corruption around the world?
There have been claims that corruption is harming democracy here at home. Do you agree?
During the interview, Norman Eisen spoke to the ability of democracies to be strong and fight back against corruption. Do you think the United States is in a good position to be able to fight back against efforts to undermine our democracy both at home and abroad?
What do you make of the large number of vacant ambassadorships currently in America?
[5:20] What made you want to tell the story that you tell in your book The Last Palace?
Eisen: There were multiple objectives in wanting to tell this story. Before even arriving, I heard so many stories about the residence itself. I continued to collect such stories while I was there, and I thought these would be something people would like to hear. However, I also thought there was a larger story about democracy itself in this place over the last hundred years. I wanted to tell that story as well. So the book is really a story of five people, an amazing house, and the history of transatlantic democracy itself.
[6:00] There is a quote on the back of the book of a love letter to liberal democracy. Was that your intention with this book?
Eisen: I didn’t realize the story of democracy that would come out of the research of past ambassadors and the unique residence. By the time I finished the book, yes, I intended it to be a love letter.
[7:40] In your book you take about the ebb and flow of democracy over time. Where do you think we are at right now?
Eisen: We’re at an inflection point. There have been three great surges of democracy in the past century. One was the post-WWI boom that included the founding of the League of Nations. The second was after WWII when the modern security structure of NATO was established securing Western Europe. The third was the post-cold war era. We had hopes after this third boom of greater growth of democracy into Eastern Europe and maybe Russia itself. However, unlike following WWII, we didn’t create anything like the Marshal plan to ensure growth of democracy into these new territories. Also, the United States looked away. One of the key stories of this century is when the United States looks away, trouble brews. That is where we are now with Putins rule and his partner Donald Trump.
[10:02] Your book tells the stories of ambassadors who have lived in the Petscheck Palace. What lessons can we take from their stories?
Eisen: One story is that democracy has endured in the face of much greater challenges than we face today. However, another important takeaway is that we can’t assume this will happen on its own. Over the last hundred years, it makes all the difference when the friends of democracy fight for democracy. We need to continue to fight that good fight if we want democracy to succeed.
[11:40] Has our ability to fight for democracy become weaker than that of past generations?
Eisen: In the initial days of the Trumps administration, those same tools of social media which he utilized to win office served as a vehicle to bring people together. Hopefully, these tools will lead to greater oversight of the president with the new Congress. Our polarization is no worse now than it was following the Civil War.
[14:00] We currently have many ambassador positions that are not filled. What impact does that have on the role of promoting democracy that ambassadors do?
Eisen: The fact that this administration has failed to at least nominate people for some of the most important ambassadorships does lead to a democracy deficit. It is incredibly important to have some sort of head executive, confirmed by the Senate, who can work on the behalf of our values and democracy in a foreign capital city. They are there to speak up for our Wilsonian post 1918 idea of western values. Having an ambassador established in a foreign nation enables us to work with civil organizations to promote all of the core tenants of a democratic society.
[16:00] What is the relationship you see between authoritarianism and corruption? How does that impact democracy?
Eisen: It is a problem that authoritarians, including our own president, always see it as part of their initiative to get control of the public’s purse. We’ve seen this through world leaders such as with Mr. Putin who some have said has become the worlds riches man through corruption. We’ve also seen this with President Trump who has tried to benefit himself and his family. That is a sign of autocracy.
We are heading the first ever case in which a judge has found a cause of action for accepting forbidden government cash benefits relating to the president. This has helped established a climate in the public where people are now keeping an eye on these issues. Another key part of this effort to control corruption is the Muller investigation. We are now awaiting his report as to whether the president obstructed justice or not. I think the rule of law system is working as it should.
[19:30] In your book, you show how you’re more optimistic while your mother is more pessimistic. Do you think democracy works better when both points of view are represented?
Eisen: Perhaps if we had been a bit more pessimistic following the Cold War we would have put in place some sort of Marshal Plan for Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time we have to be aware of the profound difficulties we’ve overcome. It all fits in together. I try to lay out this balance in the book.
[22:00] Can you expand further on the dangers posed to democracy by corruption?
Eisen: Corruption in a democracy infringes upon the voting freedoms as well as others that are critical in a democracy. You can see this playing out here in the form of campaign contributions. The special interests have more money to spread around than average people. They spend more on elections, they get people elected, then they call in favors of those they helped get elected. This is legal corruption.
In the effort to understand the people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, a style of reporting has emerged that Chris Hayes recently described as “Trump pastoral.” You might not know the phrase, but, but you’ve probably read a piece or two like this in the past few years:
A reporter from a national media outlet based in a big city visits a small town in a rural community and spends a little bit of time there trying to understand the people who live there and why they are attracted to Trump. That sounds great in theory, but the life of an urban media professional and a small town working-class person can be pretty different, which makes it difficult to build the trust needed for a true window into emotions and motivations.
We traveled to Pittsburgh to talk with Salena about how she gets to know people and what everyone can learn about trying to understand those who live different lives than we do. The lessons she’s learned apply far beyond journalism. We also talked about the coalitions that Salena and co-author Brad Todd argue helped Donald Trump become president, and whether they will remain in tact moving forward.
This is the first episode of two that will look at what’s going on in “Middle America.” Next week, you’ll hear from Lara Putnam, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who offers a different take.
Many of the voters Salena interviewed said that the 2016 election was about something more than Donald Trump. What were those bigger ideas?
Did Trump create the new coalition Salena describes, or was he in the right place at the right time?
What does the new coalition Salena describes say about the future of political parties in the U.S.?
Think about a time when you went outside of your comfort zone to attend an event or have a conversation. How did you feel and what did you learn?
Will Trump be re-elected in 2020?
4:40: What motivated you to write this book?
Salena: We wanted to look and see if the Trump victory was a fluke or an example of a more significant change within the country. I went out to the five Great Lake states that voted for Obama twice then switched to vote for Trump. We wanted to get beyond the media stereotype of what a trump voter was. What we found is that these voters we much more complicated and diverse.
6:04: How did you get people to trust you enough to be willing to open up to you and explain their voting decision?
Salena: This is where my geography and upbringing helped me greatly. I live in Pittsburg. With this more Midwest background, I was able to connect with these people better than say someone who came to them from New York or Washington.
7:13: Did you have anyone skeptical of you and asking if you were part of the “fake news”?
Salena: The shocking thing I found was that democrats have the same misgivings about the news media as republicans do. They also have the same sentiments about larger institutions as republicans. I think this new populism is a healthy pushback to all things big across media and business.
8:08: Have you kept in touch with those you interviewed?
Salena: Yes, we have. Also, no one has changed their position on who they supported from 2016. An interesting development we saw was how these people reacted to the media’s coverage of events in the administration thus far. Specifically, I’m referring to Trumps tweets. What we hear from these people is that they’re sick of the cookie cutter politicians statements. While Trumps comments aren’t clean and crafted, they are more representative of how normal people actually speak. This is something that those we spoke with could identify with. I think sometimes my peers have a hard time understanding this largely because of geography. They aren’t from these types of places.
10:35: You sort of exist in both words by interviewing these people in middle America while also appears on CNN panels as part of the media cloud. Do you see yourself as sort of an ambassador for middle America?
Salena: I want to help people understand that just because someone consumes things different than you do doesn’t make them your enemy. They just have a different life. We don’t allow people to coexist.
12:25: Fox News was mentioned many times in your book. Is that something that came up a lot in your interviews?
Salena: There was a cross section of what these voters watched as far as news. However, most of these people get their news from their local stations.
14:30: We talk a lot about a split happening between classical liberalism and populism. How do people you speak with see the recent electoral developments in middle America?
Salena: I think those in this coalition see it as still the idea of classical liberalism that we’ve always see in American democracy. This is the first time we’ve seen a new major coalition form probably since the new deal amongst democrats. I think that coalition broke apart in 2012. This happened in part because of the push from the left of ideas like multi culturalism and the idea of global citizenship. People on the coasts simply missed this realignment.
16:52: What do you think these new coalitions look like?
Salena: The new coalition within the republican part has a lot of the old new deal democrats. This means that things like entitlement reform aren’t happening in this generation. The suburban voter is still in the republican tent. However, what matters here is where your suburb is.
18:22: Those who study democracy have been looking at Trump as a new sort of autocrat. Do the voters see him that way?
Salena: They don’t see that at all. While people in the press take him literally, the people I spoke with simply don’t. While they take him seriously, they don’t take him literally.
21:11: You’ve been able to get to a deeper level of dialogue with these people by cutting under the rhetoric at the national level. What is your advice to those who wish to do the same?
Salena: Challenge yourself by exposing yourself to something or a situation that you aren’t familiar with and that you don’t know. First, step back and just be an observer. Then watch how people interact with each other. This gives you a better understanding of people and who they actually are. This will help prevent a snap judgment about them.
24:10: Do you think that anyone you spoke with would vote for a democrat?
Salena: As the party exists right now, no. They would have to make some fundamental changes. The thing about this coalition is that they simply don’t feel welcomed by the current democrat party.
If you’ve been to a book store or the library lately, then you’ve probably seen at least a few books on democracy on the shelves. The 2016 presidential election spurred a lot of conversation about the current state of our democracy and where things go from here. These books are not what most people would call beach reading, but they are important to understanding what’s happening in the U.S. and around the world right now.
We know you probably don’t have time to read all of them. Hopefully this episode will help you choose one or two to tackle. Here’s the rundown of the books we discuss:
Thank you to everyone who supported us on the first season of Democracy Works. Season two will begin in mid-August with a look at Confederate monuments and public memory on the anniversary of last summer’s riots in Charlottesville.
Daniel Ziblatt has done a lot of interviews since the release of How Democracies Die, the bestselling book he co-wrote with Steven Levitsky. But we asked him a question he’d never gotten before — about a line toward the end of the book when he refers to democracy as “grinding work.”
The idea that democracy isn’t easy is a central theme of this podcast. As How Democracies Die illustrates, it’s much easier to succumb to the power of an autocratic leader than it is to stand up and protect the institutions that serve as the guardrails of democracy. Ziblatt, a professor of government at Harvard, talks about how the book came about and the impact it’s had since it was released earlier this year.
This episode also starts a new feature on the podcast, where we end with a lightning round featuring our Mood of the Nation Poll questions. The poll is open-ended and allows Americans to respond in their own words to questions related to American politics. Some questions vary based on what’s going in the world, but we always ask these four:
What makes you angry?
What makes you proud?
What makes you worry?
What gives you hope?
We were very fortunate to speak with Daniel and encourage everyone to pick up a copy of How Democracies Die.
[5:40] How did this book come about?
Steve and I, we teach together, we’ve taught lots of courses together, graduate courses on democracies and crisis, democratic breakdown and democratization around the world, I work on Europe and he works on Latin America. We haven’t primarily focused on the United States in our work, but during the course of the 2015-2016 campaign season, really the republican nomination process, we kept running into each other and talking about the tenor of the political rhetoric.
[7:02)] Where does Donald Trump fit into all of us? Did this process of democratic erosion that you describe in the book, did it start before Trump? Or was he kind of a symptom of it?
In many ways I think that there’s a tendency to focus on Donald Trump, the spectacle of Trump and the latest offensive Tweet and whatever people respond to, but really one of the points of our book is to say that these dynamics long preceded President Trump.
[8:14)] What role do you see parties playing in this process of democratic decline?
Parties are really at the center of the story for us. One of the lessons from the book is that throughout American history there’s been around, at least in the 20th century period for which we have opinion poll data, there’s been around 30% of the American electorate that supports demagogic type of politicians.
[11:10] Can you talk a little bit more about what role you see the assault on the press playing?
In one of the chapters in our book, we lay out the strategies authoritarian inclined politicians have used around the world, and this is, again, drawing in lessons from other countries, and once in office, elected authoritarians often, we kind of have a sports metaphor; they try to capture the referees of the the court system, sideline the opposition, and go after the free press.
[13:39] One of the counter arguments to all this is that Trump is all bluster but no action and people on the left are ringing their hands over nothing. What would you say to that?
In our book we have this what we call an authoritarian litmus test, which is a set of indicators, which are questioning the legitimacy of the media, questioning elections, threatening violence or condoning violence; these are all things that candidate Trump rhetorically embraced before the election.
[18:04] You also say in the book that democracy is “grinding work” which ties back to the whole theme of this podcast, Democracy Works, so can you talk about what that phrase means to you?
It’s important to have big goals and big vision in politics, but it’s also about behaving in responsible ways. It’s a distinction between process and policy. At the end of the day, one has to remain committed to the process and forge alliances with people they may disagree with. That’s hard work and it’s grinding work.